Tag Archives: short story writers

Readings at the Cork International Short Story Festival

When you come to literary festivals, you come to experience something new; to witness the short story form in all its brilliance and to come out the other side, having felt or learned something which you can’t quite put your finger on. You expect to be pulled into the stories, carried along and jolted out of the other side having changed inexplicably (as described perfectly by Valerie Trueblood in her interview). And this change is all thanks to a few minutes of pure indulgence; the chance to listen and be entertained by a moment… a snippet of an event or glimpse of a life. Thankfully, this has been made possible by the variety, excellence and dedication that is at the heart of the Cork International Short Story Festival.

As an audience we have journeyed along the surreal and brutally comical path of Michal Ajvaz’s The End of the Garden, tracking the internal struggles of a man faced with lewd and violent monitor lizards, musings on the misfortune of philosophy, books written by demons and unlikely journeys through a series of bizarre events. We have sympathised and worried throughout Siobhan Fallon’s Inside the Break; an emotive account of the struggles of a serviceman’s wife left at home, musing over how to deal with her husband’s suspected affair in the light of his heroic role as a serviceman.

We have travelled across oceans and through time to view the cold realities of modern Beijing through the piercing honesty of Yuyan Li; to the beautiful yet unpredictable Canadian wilderness (Deborah Wills) and the devastatingly contradictory yet colourful streets of Vancouver City (Michael Christie). We’ve experienced what it’s like to be reckless, daredevil teenagers and considered the plight of lice (Alexander McLeod) and we’ve lived as a lonely old lady finding solace in inanimate objects (Ethel Rohan).

We’ve chuckled along with the caustic thoughts of Suzanne Rivecca’s struggling counsellor intern and laughed loudly with emerging writers P. G. Connor (winner of the 2011 Sean O’Faolain Award) and Mary Costello (The Stinging Fly). But we’ve also watched with awe as international bestselling Irish authors  Edna O’Brien and Colm Tobin share their talent on stage.

Every story has emanated surprise, intimacy, honesty and energy. In turn, the stories have beguiled, taunted, teased, shocked and comforted. But, most importantly, they have entertained. Throughout the festival, there’s been a huge sense of satisfaction, a sense of relief that the short story can still find a place where it is respected, applauded and celebrated. In short, the Cork International Short Story Festival has proved that the art of short story writing is alive and well.

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Excerpt from The Double Life by Deborah Willis

In one of my lives, I’m a writer. This means, essentially, that I contemplate the human experience while wearing my pajamas. The writer in me constantly reads and writes and thinks about stories. This writer––let’s call her Deborah Willis––has spent whole, pleasant days worrying over commas. She prefers to be alone. If the telephone rings while she’s working, she stares at it, horrified, and refuses to answer. Her shoulders are hunched from bending over a notebook, her eyes strained from the computer screen, and she recently developed carpal tunnel in her wrists. Who says the writing life isn’t strenuous? It can lead to, among other disorders, self-obsession and a Vitamin-D deficiency.

Fortunately, there’s another me, and she gets out more. She works in a bookstore, which means that she’s always on her feet, carrying books up and down stairs, putting them on and taking them off shelves. She can recommend children’s books, Canadian fiction, and foreign-language titles. She makes change, deals with till-tape, runs debit cards though machines, sends special orders, and receives magazines. For her, books are to be displayed, alphabetized, and sold. This is an exaggeration, of course––books are not only products. In fact, her work has made her love them more. But she has been a bookseller for almost five years, which is long enough for the job to become an identity. She wears it like a second skin. Her name is Debbie, and she would be happy to help you.

The bookstore where I work, Munro’s Books in Victoria, BC, used to be a bank. It is grand, spooky, beautiful, and almost as untidy as my apartment. It’s an old building with character, part of what guidebooks accurately call Victoria’s “historic and picturesque” downtown. It has marble countertops, art on the walls, dark wood shelves, creaky floorboards, and a reputation for being haunted. My favorite part of the store is the part customers never see: the basement, which is made up of a series of steel-and-concrete vaults.

When Munro’s was a Royal Bank––during that era before banks were housed in huge, anonymous buildings––these vaults must have held receipts, checks, and safety deposit boxes. Now, they’re where we keep the overstock. It’s like something Lewis Carroll might have imagined, if Alice had fallen down a rabbit hole and into a booklover’s fantasy. Vaults with heavy metal doors open onto to other vaults, and each one is filled with books. There is something romantic and wonderful and completely backwards about this: finance replaced with literature, scurrying bankers replaced with scurrying booksellers, the sterility of numbers replaced with the unruliness of words.

I fell into this job in the same way I’ve always fallen in love––by accident. I needed some income to pay the rent during my last year of university, so I dropped off a resume and spoke to the owner, Mr. Munro. I believe he hired me partly because he found my resume amusing (my list of accomplishments included scooping ice cream at a shop called ‘Wonderlicks,’ and getting fired from a barista job because I didn’t take the ‘coffee art’ seriously enough).

On my first day, I was given the keys to the store, taught the combination to the safe, and told to call Mr. Munro by his first name. It turns out that Jim is an exceptionally kind, trusting, and generous man. To be hired by him is to be immediately welcomed into his family. He runs an independent, old-fashioned business, the kind of place that big-box stores and the Internet can never replace, but often do. It’s the kind of place where employees stay for decades. One clerk even identifies himself as “Steve from Munro’s,” as though the store were his hometown.

I don’t mean to make it sound like a museum piece, since Munro’s is a profitable business. I also don’t mean to romanticize the work. A job is a job, after all, and anyone who has worked in retail during the Christmas season knows that customer service can be its own particular hell. And though it’s one of the best jobs I can imagine, a bookstore can terrify a writer. The sheer number of books makes me feel nervous and unnecessary. Classics, mysteries, romances, essays, histories, poetry––they arrive in box after box of hardbacks, trade papers, and mass markets. Then, a year or so later, many are returned unsold to publishers, to be remaindered or pulped. This is the stuff of writers’ nightmares. When faced with it in reality, it’s hard for me to convince myself that the world needs another book, especially mine. Why bother? I often think as I put labels on the newest page-turner about a vampire shopaholic, or the latest novel hailed as “a triumph, full of wry wisdom.” These are the moments when the bookseller in me is in conflict with the writer. Why do you get up in the morning? she asks. What’s the point?

You can read the rest of the essay “The Double Life” on Deborah’s website. Deborah will be interviewed tomorrow (Thursday, 15th September) at 4pm, in The Ballroom, Metropole Hotel, Cork, and will follow with a reading later in the evening at 7.30pm in the same venue.

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An interview with Peter Murphy

Unfortunately, I can’t make it through to the festival until tomorrow and so I’m missing the first evening’s events. However, I did get chance to catch up with one of the writers who will be reading tonight – Peter Murphy – for a short Q&A session before the festival began. Here’s what Peter had to say…
How does writing a novel compare to writing a short story?

They’re similar in terms of intensity, but the novel requires more stamina. A short story is a song. A novel’s an album.

What different techniques or mindset do you need to employ and how do you make the switch?

Short stories are unforgiving. There isn’t much scope for divergence. The novel comes with a different set of demands:  story engineering, modulations of tone and tempo, resolution.

When you start writing – what’s the starting point? Is it a theme, a plot, a character name – or does it change each time?

For me it’s usually a title or an opening line or maybe a fragment of the narrative voice. Character and story tend to grow from that. And there’s usually some sort of innate mystery or riddle that resists explanation.

Music is an integral part of your life – how does your music background influence your writing?

Mostly mood. A lot of times I’ll write a scene or a story because I’m attempting to replicate the feelings or images inspired by a piece of music. Throughout the writing of my second book I was listening to a couple of Doors songs, ‘Summer’s Almost Gone’ and ‘Yes the River Knows’, and also Springsteen’s Darkness On the Edge of Town album. And I was recording with the Revelator Orchestra throughout, so a lot of the music we came up with looped back into the writing.

You said in an interview that John the Revelator wasn’t the book that you meant to write. When you’re writing fiction, do you instinctively know whether the piece is going to be a novel or a short story – or do you come away surprised?

I usually know before I begin. Although sometimes I’ll write what I think is a short story, only to find it wants to integrate itself into a longer narrative. The book’s the boss.

How do your characters manifest themselves? Does this differ depending on whether they’re contained within a novel or a short story?

Short stories are more about capturing a protagonist at a moment of great change. The event defines the character. With a novel, you live with them for a few years, watch them evolve.

Your career shows that you thrive on variety – so what can fans expect next?

I finished the second novel about a month ago, so I’m going to read and make notes and let the bucket fill up for a bit before deciding what next. Regarding variety, I love Stanley Kubrick. Every film was completely different, but each one defined its genre – noir films, war films, period dramas, black comedies, sci-fi and supernatural yarns.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

Only that I’m very much looking forward to the festival.

Peter Murphy will be reading tonight, Wednesday, 14th September with Órfhlaith Foyle at 9pm in The Ballroom, Metropole Hotel, Cork

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An interview with Michael Christie

What is it as a reader, and a writer, that attracts you to the short story?

I make little distinction between my reading life and my writing life in terms of what attracts me. The joys and sorrows I unearth when reading a great story are the very same that I try to cram into my own. The attractive part is that the short story can create very unique effects in relation to other literary forms. There is something about a short story that feels like it’s already ending, even halfway through the first sentence. Though there have been a multitude of brilliant TV series recently (i.e. HBO’s The Wire), I much prefer the form of a feature film to this kind of protracted, episodic unspooling. I love to know that the film I’m watching is going to end, that here and now, no matter what, it will be settled (this may be why I usually avoid sequels). I loathe the idea of a narrative going forever, as long as the series is renewed and there is advertiser interest, etc. I also grow tired when I feel like I’m being narratively hooked and strung along, which is how I often feel reading novels. With short stories this is never the case. You are constantly worried that you may get too little, but never that you will get too much.

Your collections is described as “darkly comic and intoxicating stories, gleefully free of moral judgment…” – How do you maintain a non-judgemental, comic stance when dealing with such tricky characters and situations? Are there any other writers that you think do this particularly well?

I really love fiction where it feels like an alternate moral system is at work. Chekov is perhaps the greatest example of this. The way he can rattle off a complete inventory of a person’s faults, while simultaneously conveying a genuine love for them, is what renders his fiction so heart-wrenching. Underneath it all he seems to be whispering, “Yes, these people are terrible, you are terrible, I am also terrible, but isn’t it beautiful nonetheless, don’t we all deserve at least some forgiveness…” I think all great writing forgives.

In a more contemporary vein, writers like Denis Johnson, Alice Munro, George Saunders, Edward P. Jones and Miranda July, who style-wise all hugely differ, but share in this same lack of judgment. And as far as comedy goes, as soon as you start describing people with any accuracy, things get funny quick. Often the trick is dialling this back to a point where it’s not distracting or cruel. “Love your characters” is a writing-program cliche, but it really is true.

What benefits and challenges did you come across when writing your series of linked short stories? Was this pattern intentional from the start?

I had a loose idea that I wanted to write a linked collection from the beginning. I’ve long admired books like Joyce’s Dubliners or Edward P. Jones’ Lost in the City (a solid-gold masterpiece, in my opinion) that take a city as their central character. My book, The Beggar’s Garden, is very much about Vancouver, where I lived for many years. I think a linked collection can tackle a modern city in a way a novel can’t. Narratives are suggested in the spaces between the stories, and life seems to teem outside the margins–more lives than could ever be described or known. Collections of this kind emulate our fractured and disjointed existences, which remain so even with us packed together in such tight quarters (like in a book!). The challenge specific to this approach is the same as a non-linked collection: write good stories. And what a challenge that is.

Readers like to imagine that the stories they read are about themselves or the author – to what extent did you base your stories around your own experiences and the people you know?

This one is always tough. In Canada, Margaret Atwood is kind of culturally ubiquotous, and even from a young age I remember her chastising interviewers for drawing inferences between her own life and the lives of her characters (I recently watched a National Film Board of Canada documentary where this happened the entire time!)

To me, it seems almost narcissistic to insist that your imagination is greater than, and separate from, ‘you’. I believe the ‘you’ in your work is inescapable. We imagine in the language we’ve learned, through the lens of our personality, with only the tools of what we already know. What we write does speak about us, but the real problem is the kind of inferences we draw from this. Of course if you write about rape you are not a rapist. But isn’t it true that a certain sort of person writes about rape? Still a good, kind person, certainly, but probably someone who is thinking about the interplay of sex and power and male oppression.

Fiction is exciting because it exists somewhere between autobiography and pure imagination. Really, I think we just need to enjoy this mystery, rather than try to solve it. So in my case: I worked at a homeless shelter in Canada’s most impoverished neighbourhood for six years, and my book features drug dealers and users, thieves and people from all walks of society. Some of the book I could never have imagined, and some of it I did. I leave it to the reader to do the math.

Were you expecting such a huge response for your debut collection – and how has the reaction affected you as a writer?

It has been both surreal and wonderful. I would’ve been equally thrilled with much, much less of a response. Actually, the Beggar’s Garden was just longlisted for the Giller Prize, and to be on a list–any kind of list!–with someone like Michael Ondaatje is such an honour that it’s borderline absurd. I’m not sure how it’s all affected me so far. I suppose I feel slightly more confident as I begin my next project, which may or may not be a good thing. We’ll see.

To write a damn good short story, what fundamental elements are required? And what would you say are the most common errors that people make, that let their stories down?

I often find myself comparing writing to music. Very simply put, the short story must, as a song must, carry the listener/reader’s attention and offer them pleasure. That’s it. A story doesn’t necessarily need all the old English 101 elements (character, setting, theme, plot, climax etc.), much the same way a song doesn’t need every instrument (often just a solitary voice can be enough), but what is there must be working on many levels, that is key. For a voice to successfully carry an accapella song, there must be an interesting tension between the performance, the lyrics, the vocal tone and the recording technique. For a writer, the most essential skill to develop is an ear for whether something interesting is actually happening in your work. This is the skill that beginning writers often don’t have yet. But it comes with practice.

What’s next for you and your writing career?

I’m working on a novel now. Not because of any agent or publisher pressure, rather because it’s the next story I feel moved to tell. I’ve managed to arrange some time to write in the coming months, so that’s what I’ll be doing, happily. Working on my book, watching snow pile on my windowsill.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

No, thanks. I feel I’ve already written too much…

Michael Christie will be interviewed on Thursday, 15th September at 4pm in The Ballroom, Metropole Hotel, Cork, and will read later in the evening at @ 7.30pm in the same venue.

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An interview with Suzanne Rivecca

Your first book has received much attention, including being in the final list for several awards – how has this influenced you as a writer?

I was surprised by the attention the book received from awards committees and such. When the book first came out in summer 2010, the reviews were generally respectable but there were a lot of remarks along the lines of “This is self-involved and self-indulgent and repetitive, all these minute examinations of lady-problems” and a lot of presumptive comments about how every character was basically me—this from people who have never met me and know nothing about my biography beyond the snippet on the book jacket—and that this somehow rendered the book illegitimate as art.

Initially, there seemed to be a condescending critical consensus that amounted to this sentiment: “She’s a good writer; I can’t wait to see what she produces once she matures.”  There was something really Freudian about it, like my book was the equivalent of a clitoral orgasm and everyone was just holding their breath for me to come up with a mature vaginal one (sorry, Mom and Dad).  And that made me angry, I have to admit; I felt like the book was being dismissed or trivialized because it was about girls and women–not selfless, martyred, long-suffering Oprah’s Book Club girls and women, but fierce, neurotic, single-minded, obsessive girls and women–and people couldn’t see the universality in it; they got tripped up by the perceived inaccessibility of the gendered lens. So several months after publication, when the book started getting attention via these awards lists, it was a genuine shock.  And the best part was attending these awards ceremonies and talking face-to-face with people who told me how much the book meant to them.

The juxtaposition of initial dismissal with this later, sudden outpouring of support and validation was very emotional and meaningful for me. It reminded me how alone I was when I wrote these stories, the raw purity of intention that informed them, the blood and guts I poured into them, how hard I had to fight to get them on the page and how proud I was of my refusal to compromise in terms of their content and message.  And now that I’m working on a new book, I do feel pressure, like I need to recapture that uncorrupted, writing-for-myself mentality that informed the first book.  I feel kind of like Emma, the protagonist in my title story, who doesn’t know who she is unless she’s fighting, who finds it hard to live meaningfully without a goading catalyst, a reliable adversary, something to react against.

But the truth is I’m not just writing for myself anymore. I know that there are expectations now, and that makes me feel a little twice-removed from the intuitive, visceral aspect of the writing process. It’s a nice problem to have, but it’s distracting to know that there are actually things at stake now. I do struggle with that on a daily basis—locating that old urgency, the old life-or-death incentive.

Some of your writing influences are evident in your work – such as Jim Shepard – but what short stories/short story writers inspire you the most?

Mary McCarthy is my favorite short-story writer, as well as one of the most underrated practitioners of that genre.  She’s primarily known today as a memoirist and a novelist, but in my opinion her short stories— particularly those in her debut book, “The Company She Keeps”—are the finest examples we have of her vision, her scathing intelligence and her unsparing psychological acuity.

When I discovered “The Company She Keeps,” I felt a huge gush of validation and recognition. I guess it would be called a “linked” collection in today’s parlance, since each story features the same protagonist, but one of the things I like about it is that the stories are utterly stand-alone, unapologetically independent of one another, and yet together they create this riveting portrait of a human being.  I could relate to McCarthy’s themes—her Catholic, Irish-American Midwestern upbringing, her struggle to invent an artistic and autonomous self without forsaking or denying the influence of her origins, her acknowledgment of the brittleness and emotional detachment that is sometimes a byproduct of political and artistic self-actualization, especially for women—but what I took most from these stories is her utter refusal to let her fictional alter ego, Margaret Sargent, off the hook.  There is nothing remotely self-serving about these stories. They are a brutal, relentless, witty, insightful excavation of a soul in transition, and they spare no one:  not the reader, not the protagonist, and not the writer.

Consciously or unconsciously, I think I intended “Death is Not an Option” as a contemporary answer to “The Company She Keeps.”  I was especially aware of channeling McCarthy in my story “Look Ma, I’m Breathing,” which is about a woman being stalked by a deranged landlord; I was careful not to make it a straightforward narrative of victimization, but a psychological study of a character forced to reckon with own tendency to self-mythologize and court the role of stoic martyr.  The final story in “The Company She Keeps,” which is called “Ghostly Father, I Confess,” ends with a devastating moment of jagged self-awareness that definitely inspired my portrayal of Isabel in “Look, Ma,”  of Kath in my story “Very Special Victims,” and of the narrator in “Consummation.”   McCarthy’s protagonist, Margaret, is sitting in the office of an insipid psychoanalyst, not really taking it seriously, but as she sits there she realizes she’s never developed a language to explain and make sense of her troubled background. She’s struggling to find a balance between acknowledging the damage that was done and trivializing it as a cliche.

Here’s the quote:

“You could not treat your life history as though it were an inferior novel and dismiss it with a snubbing phrase. It had after all been like that. Her peculiar tragedy (if she had one) was that her temperament was unable to assimilate her experience; the raw drama of those early years was a kind of daily affront to her skeptical, prosaic intelligence.”

In  few sentences, she encapsulates one of the central dilemmas of living a self-aware life, of being a whole person and not a catalogue of symptoms, a poster child, or an impervious caricature.

Short stories are often overlooked as a genre – what do you think is the cause, could this attitude be changed and, if so, how?

In the U.S. at least, pre-radio and pre-TV, stories were a serialized form of entertainment, meant to be enjoyed and savored one at a time. The readers waited, in suspense, for the next installment in the paper. Part of the enjoyment was in the episodic nature of the genre. Nowadays there’s so few mainstream print outlets left that regularly publish short fiction; it’s no longer integrated into populist culture the way it once was.

There are no mass-market short story collections (with notable exceptions like Stephen King’s); stories are seen as this rarefied and somewhat inaccessible medium, too “arty” for the general public, closer to poetry than to novels. They’re a lot more about language and style than novels are; plot isn’t necessarily their driving force. People always complain that nothing happens in them, or that nothing is resolved, and that the endings are too ambiguous and oblique. There’s this perception that no one reads them except other literary writers.  Plus, they’re the preferred medium for MFA students to work in, because they’re so much more manageable to workshop than a full-length novel. So that adds another layer of self-referential insulation to the genre.

There are a lot of contradictions inherent in the way stories are regarded, though: on the one hand they’re seen as less accessible and more artsy and experimental; on the other hand, a story collection is seen as training wheels for a novel—stories are what you write when you’re first finding your voice, but when you’re a fully realized artist with a unified vision, you come out with a novel.

Personally I think it takes an entirely different skill set to write a novel than it does to write a story collection. As for changing the cultural tendency to devalue short stories, I’m not sure what that would take. I guess it would help if people developed the patience to accept and value ambivalence and ambiguity, not only in art but in life, and if they stopped regarding art as an oracle that’s supposed to provide answers and morals. There’s still a Puritanism in U.S. culture that dictates that art has to be “useful” in some way, instructive or inspiring in a very moralistic, triumph-of-the-human-spirit way. And stories very rarely give that kind of warm & fuzzy inspiration. The inspiration they provide–for me, anyway–is more rigorous and challenging. A good story discomfits you, forces you to question things, to turn the lens on yourself. It leaves you with an unsettled feeling that’s almost indescribable. And in contemporary culture, there’s a reluctance to sit with that kind of unnameable sensation.

Thanks to internet communication, festivals such as this and the more sociable role of a writer, readers now understand the dedication that goes into writing. Describe your writing process – your routines, your thinking and your aims.

I’ve written since I was a child, and my motivation to do so  has always been unexamined and utterly instinctive; I just wrote because I felt inherently compelled to. I think this has informed the way I write today.  I’m not one of those methodical, ultra-disciplined writers who treat it like a day job and carve out 8 hours of uninterrupted writing time in their studies, chipping away until they meet their daily word count. I often wish I was one of those writers, but I’m not. I was conditioned from an early age to treat writing as an almost illicit, secret thing, a place I went in my head that was sacred and private, completely divorced from mundane routine and the obligations of the real world. So I have a hard time structuring my writing time in a dutiful, conventional manner. And I always feel so artificial and fraudulent when I allude to it as if it’s a chore–“Gotta go write now, see you later!”

There’s a certain feeling I get when I need to write, and I try to follow that gut feeling. If I don’t write for a few days, it finds me. And I need a very wide breadth when I’m working, which can be hard for non-writers to understand. Writing is not sociable for me, and it’s never going to be a casual topic of conversation; I need a lot of interpersonal space around it in order to feel intimately connected to what I’m working on. I need to feel that there’s no collective ownership of it; what I’m working on must belong entirely and solely to me. I’m not a natural teacher; nor am I a natural entertainer. I’m never going to be like Gary Shteyngart or Billy Collins, a cultural ambassador for a solitary art, delighting crowds with the power of my personality. I’m an introvert, and I’ve discovered that the integrity of my writing depends on my continued cultivation of my introversion.  I think that in order to be an artist, I need to feel like a bit of an outsider. The two just go together for me.

What’s next for you?

Right now, I’m working on a historical novel. It’s about Walt Whitman and the three months he spent working as a journalist in New Orleans in 1848, when he was 29. I’m trying to capture the time in his life when he was forced to a crisis point, forced to wrestle with who he was and what he believed, the incubation period before he emerged as a full-fledged artist with a distinctive vision of the world. The novel essentially tries to portray a budding artist’s baptism by fire.

Suzanne Rivecca will be interviewed on Thursday, 15 September at 5pm, in the The Ballroom, Metropole Hotel, Cork, and will follow with a reading at 9pm in the same venue.

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The Past: a story by Michal Ajvaz

The Past

I’m sitting at the Slavia, people-watching. In one corner I recognize the pointed bird-like profile of the man who one stormy night, Malay dagger in hand, chased me past locked compartments along empty corridors of the Orient Express. I recall his long night-shirt flashing intermittently with the lightning, the curtains fluttering through the open windows and whipping me in the face. How long ago was it? Five years, maybe ten. What was our quarrel about anyway? Something to do with rubies buried in a snow-drift in the woods, I think, or whether linguistic signs are motivated. That woman over there, thoughtfully combing her wavy red locks, their quivering ends sparkling in the low, October-afternoon sun, lived with me for seven years in a squalid house built on concrete stilts in the middle of a rotting lake surrounded on all sides by a jungle, a house with empty rooms and white walls covered with eerie maps of mould, a house where the sound of dripping water never ceased and where we whiled away the evenings on the terrace, gazing out at the water’s cold surface and the darkening jungle, listening to the screeching of the beasts, and talking of the life we would live once we were back in Europe. The man arguing with the waiter at the bar is a friend from my days in Freiburg in Breisgau, the one I collaborated with on Grundstrukturen der Wirklichkeit, a thousand-page tome we were certain would turn philosophy on its ear and rank as the most important contribution to the field since Aristotle (as it happened, the sole copy of the manuscript was ingested by a crocodile under circumstances I can’t quite recall). I see a few more faces familiar from various catacombs, Buddhist monasteries, and a night spent on the narrow, eightieth-story ledge of a skyscraper above a sleeping city; I see faces I have knows in the throes of ecstasy, eyes I have met at the bottom of the sea staring out ominously through a diving suit. But now we pretend not to know one another: we don’t say hello; we do our best to avoid one another’s eyes, though we each try to steal a glance at the other when we think the other isn’t looking.

Sometimes – quite often, actually – I get into ticklish situations. Once I asked a friend to come to the Slavia after a meeting she’d had with some television people. She appeared in the glass door with a man of about forty-five with short hair brushed down over his forehead. Czech-intellectual style. He looked familiar, but I couldn’t quite place him. They spotted my table, and my friend introduced him. “I want you to meet M. He’s with Kratky Film.” Suddenly it came to me: he was a man I’d spent a whole day fighting to the death. We were in a ghost city in a marble square dotted with fountains. It was terribly, numbingly hot; the sun beat mercilessly on our heads. The only sound in the empty square came from the jets of water in the fountains and the blows of our heavy swords and their echoes as the ricocheted off the palatial facades and monotonous rows of Corinthian columns. I could tell he recognized me too. We gave each other wry smiles, shook each other’s limp hands, and mumbled a word or two. How awful these showdowns with ghosts of an unbridled past” We tried not to let it show, but carrying on a conversation proved a greater torture than battling it out on the sun-scorched marble. Instead of talking directly, we went through our friend, resorting to the most complex devices to avoid addressing each other and keep out eyes from meeting, but every once in a while I stole a glance at him and behind the lost, purple face caught a glimpse of the hard samurai features silhouetted against the white colonnade. He had worn a pointed gold helmet somewhat like a large radish in form. It shone in the sun, its malevolent lustre burning my weary eyes.

The miserable conversation centred on a dachshund cartoon he was working on. The samurai/script writer started rummaging in his briefcase for his script, but because I made him nervous he had trouble finding it and kept pulling out crumpled sheets of paper, piling them on the table with trembling hands that swept them onto the floor. And to top it all off what should fall out of the briefcase but the gold radish helmet, ringing with so pure and provocative a tone that the entire room fell silent and looked over at it, rocking gently before the paralyzed script writer to the tune of “L’important, c’est la rose,” which a bloated cavalier with a red waistcoat and a dreamy smile was playing on the piano. (Why is it we constantly drag around with us in our handbags and briefcases the weapons of our nocturnal wars, crystals of solidified poison in boxes lined with scarlet velvet, the head of the Gorgon Medusa, a tongue ripped from a dragon’s maw, the mummy of a homunculus, compromising correspondence in Sumerian? Why is it that we drag around the terrifying innards of the past, fearing them as we do, smelling the pus they exude, and knowing full well that in a bar, a café, or a friend’s flat moira the inexorable will spill them out on the table?)

Translated by Michael Henry Heim and originally published on Michal’s blog.

Michal Ajvaz will be reading on Friday, 16th September with Siobhan Fallon  at 7.30pm in The Ballroom, Metropole Hotel, Cork

 

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Short Story Collections by Peter Murphy


Short story collections occupy the status of fetish objects in my house. I still get the chills when I thumb through the yarns collected in Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions anthology of new wave 60s sci-fi writers, or the postwar masters in the Richard Ford-edited Granta Book of the American Short Story. I could go on. I will go on… Flannery O’Connor’s ‘The River’, Bierce’s ‘Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge’, Poe’s ‘Telltale Heart’, Gibson’s ‘Burning Chrome’, Schultz’s ‘The Comet’, Borges’ ‘Death & the Compass’. The diamond hard yarns collected in Mark Richard’s The Ice At the Bottom of the World or TC Boyle’s After the Plague or Mike McCormack’s Getting It In the Head. Just this summer, in an Enniscorthy charity shop, I discovered a mind-boggling 1985 collection called In the Field of Fire, a compendium of sci-fi and fantasy tales set against the background of the Vietnam War. Genre heaven.

Three of this writer’s holy texts, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, take the form of short stories threaded into a longer narrative arc. These are modest-sized books, but the economy, the richness, the pure protein-per-paragraph factor, inspires obsessive re-reading.  I love this story-within-a-story construction. I used it in my first novel John the Revelator and developed it further in the one I’ve just completed. To date the only stand-alone short story I’ve published is ‘The Blacklight Ballroom’ for Joseph O’Connor’s collection The News From Dublin (Faber), a Depression allegory set in the near-future, featuring a cameo from a Hank Williams hologram. It’s short even by short story standards, weighing in at something like 1200 words, but it taught me some brutal lessons about compression and economy. A great short story demands the sleight-of-hand skills of a card sharp. At ten or twenty pages, there’s no room for error. No bum notes. No spare words. The form demands painful levels of discipline and self-scrutiny.

I believe the epic novel and the short story/novelette/novella have much in common in terms of scale and ambition. But the middle-ground is more treacherous: middle-brow, middle-class, mid-length, stodgy 375-page novels bogged down with flabby prose and trudging storylines. I’d rather spend ten pages on Mars, or in Hanoi, or inside Edgar’s premature burial shroud. Give us maximalism or minimalism, extreme compression or outrageous digression, but keep us safe from from literary spam.

– Peter Murphy

Peter Murphy will be reading on Wednesday, 14th September with Órfhlaith Foyle at 9pm in The Ballroom, Metropole Hotel, Cork

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