Interview on Reading Lives

May 2, 2013

(Interview published on http://rereadinglives.blogspot.ie/2013/04/jamie-oconnell-question-and-answer.html on 27 April 2013. Interview by Mel U)

As this is irish Short Story Month year III, please tell us who some short story writers you find yourself often returning to are? Do you have anything like a favorite short story? Who are some contemporary short story writers you admire?

The problem with my saying I have a favourite collection or short story is often the last story or book that I read that I truly enjoyed is the only one that comes to mind. In the last year, I’ve read single stories and collections by a number of Irish writers: Eilís Ní Dhuibhne, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Mary Costello, Mary Morrissy, Kevin Barry, Colin Barrett, amongst many others. There are many great things I can say about each of them. It’s wonderful that the Irish short story is a flourishing at present.

One of my favourite short stories that I’ve read in recent years would be ‘Andy Warhol’ by Keith Ridgway. The psychology of the protagonist on a destructive cycle, the sort of ‘non-feeling’ that occurs when someone is truly damaged, is masterfully handled. As Proust said (I paraphrase), ‘we don’t read books, we read ourselves’; there is something about this story that connects with that same destructive element within myself. I also loved the risk of ‘Andy Warhol’ in terms of setting and theme. Quite often I’ve read short story collections that are incredibly accomplished but don’t feel new, in the sense that the subject matter has been well covered by others.

At the second I’m reading (and thoroughly enjoying) Alan McMonagle’s collection Psychotic Episodes (Arlen House, 2013), a series of wonderfully quirky, humorous and unsettling stories. The author’s view of the world is so utterly unique. As Proust says, an artist allows the reader/observer to ‘have new eyes’. It’s a great read.

I recently read Strumpet City by James Plunkett (the 2013 Dublin One City One Book Selection). It presents a culture whose very life blood seems to be whiskey. Drinking seems much more a factor in Irish literature than Indian, Japanese or even American. There are rude sayings like “God Created Whiskey to keep the Irish from ruling the world” and “Without Guinness the birth rate in Ireland would be near zero”. What do you think are some of the causes of this or is it just a myth?. It seems to me from my reading of Irish short stories that few important conversations or events happen without drinking.


Alcohol’s presence in literature is tied into the fact that well-adjusted protagonists make for poor fiction. There aren’t many books about people making good decisions and living happily. Protagonists who are in a state of turmoil are the lifeblood of writers, and these people often abuse many things, be it alcohol, drugs, sex, their families etc. as they try to escape their own minds.

Declan Kiberd has said the dominant theme of modern Irish literature is that of the weak or missing father? Do you think he is right?

Ernest Hemmingway said that the best training for a writer is an ‘unhappy childhood’. It’s unsurprising, if that is the case, that then these unhappy childhoods (generally a direct result of poor parenting) would then dominate a writer’s work. I would agree with Declan Kiberd; however, I would go further to say it is a large part of fiction generally. At the end of the day, as I said in question two, there is not much to say about well-adjusted children or adults. A poor parent and their mal-adjusted offspring are fertile ground for the imagination.

Just to add – if you mean by your question the ‘missing father’ vs ‘missing mother’, that modern Irish literature focuses on the father, I’m not sure I would agree quite as strongly. The collections I’ve read by contemporary Irish female short story writers are not dominated by ideas of the missing father, not from the viewpoint of the child anyhow. Generally themes of infidelity, motherhood and mortality are more significant issues. Maybe it is more the case for male authors (my work does reference the missing or weak father figure). Maybe it’s just a manifestation of our Oedipal tendencies.

Who are some contemporary poets you admire? If you could hear three dead poets read their work who would you pick?

To be honest, I read a comparatively small amount of poetry when compared to fiction. In terms of Irish poets, one of my favourite would be Rita Ann Higgins. Her wry humour mixed with a striking social commentary is energizing to both read and to listen to. International poets: I would also be a fan of the work of Ilya Kaminsky and Brian Turner.

The main dead poet I would love to hear read is Philip Larkin. I know he’s a rather unimaginative choice. In school, I found his work to be rather jaded but the older I get the more I find them insightful and deceptively simple. I dip into his collected works on a regular basis. Often an event will happen in my life and a line from one of his poems will spontaneously spring to mind.

Otherwise, close runners up would be Elizabeth Bishop and John Keats.

A while ago i read and posted on a long biography of Hart Crane, author of the Bridge-few read it but many know of his life style as one of the first Gay poets living out a life of rough trade and wealthy older benefactors-he lived a very chaotic life and died young from suicide by jumping off a cruise ship. His father invented Life Saver Candy and wanted Hart to go in the Candy business with him-so if he Hart had done this and died at 75 rich living in ohio fat bald and married would he still be even much thought about let alone read? One of the most referenced poets is Arthur Rimbaud who likewise had a short and chaotic life. Does a poet need or naturally tend to a chaotic life? (I know this is long, please just respond to it as you will.)

I guessing that you are essentially asking, does a writer need to live a chaotic life? It is an inherent part of the creative individual? My answer to that is that every writer is unique. Some writers require order and routine in order to be creative – for example, Murakami writes in his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk about Running that he lives a very ordered healthy life, neither drinking nor smoking, while exercising daily. On the other hand, there are countless examples of other writers (like the poet you mention) who live chaotic lives.

I guess there are many reasons as to why this is. I can only theorize that thinking is an incredible tool – and writers think a lot. But every strength is a weakness. People, writers included, don’t always accept they have the choice to control their thoughts, to train their minds like they would a muscle, and because of this their lives are chaotic and dictated by impulse.

As for myself, my life in my early twenties definitely fell into the ‘chaotic’ category. However, in recent years I’ve found I am drawn to the organized life and am most productive when in that space. Though there are still moments of chaos, where I ‘act the maggot’ so to speak, their regularity is decreasing rapidly. I imagine by the time I’m in my mid-thirties I aim to have an ordered life not unlike Murakami’s. However, the chaotic years in my life have been a rich source of inspiration for me. I don’t regret any of the life experience they gave me.

Tell us about your educational background?

I’ve a BA in English Literature and History of Art (University College Cork) and an MA in Creative Writing (University College Dublin). To undertake the MA in Creative Writing was without question, the best decision I have made as a writer.

What are some of your favorite movies? What was the last movie you saw, the last novel you read? Do you watch much TV or have favorite programs? Do you miss American TV?

My favourite films: Amelie, Cleo 5-7, The Snapper, Airplane, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Network, All About Eve, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, The Tree of Life

Last film: A documentary on Catherine the Great

I don’t own a television; instead I stream the few show I enjoy. I love documentaries, especially historical biographies. However, I also love popular culture, notably South Park, Game of Thrones and True Blood. I tend to watch a full series in one sitting, until it’s about 3am and I am hallucinating from fatigue.

Why have the Irish produced such a disproportional to their population number of great writers? Or is this a myth?

I think that is true. Though unfortunately, many of those great writers did much of their great writing outside of Ireland. Joyce, Beckett and Wilde all wrote abroad, while McGahern and Edna O’Brien both faced opposition from our homeland. So I’m not sure we can say many of the classic ‘great writers’ were being nurtured by a particularly supportive Irish society.

On the other hand, I think one of the reasons we have great writers in Ireland is that part of our heritage going back into the oral tradition, where we gave storytellers a high measure of respect. Being able to tell an anecdote well, be it down the local pub or in a more formal setting has always been valued.

Strangely, despite being a deeply social society, wrapped up in storytelling, there are huge ‘unspeakable’ areas. Much of the great Irish writing has come from shining a light on these dark areas, be it abuse, alcoholism, poverty, or sexuality.

(This may seem like a silly question but I pose it anyway-do you believe in Fairies?-this quote from Declain Kiberd sort of explains why I am asking this:

” One 1916 veteran recalled, in old age, his youthful conviction that the rebellion would “put an end to the rule of the fairies in Ireland”. In this it was notably unsuccessful: during the 1920s, a young student named Samuel Beckett reported seeing a fairy-man in the New Square of Trinity College Dublin; and two decades later a Galway woman, when asked by an American anthropologist whether she really believed in the “little people”, replied with terse sophistication: “I do not, sir – but they’re there.”

Yes, I do believe in fairies. There is a hidden magic that runs through life that we can never explain rationally but at certain moments we feel it. Some call it God, angels, fairies, whatever. But it doesn’t matter what form it takes. I believe it’s there.

Of course, I could be mad. It could be true that there is no more to life than just our physical world. Maybe our egos are frantically searching for something to counteract the fear we experience when we think about our mortality.

Tell us a bit about literary life in Cork? is it all just waiting for the big festival? does the festival somehow create more interest in writing among people growing up in Cork?

Cork is a fantastic city for writers with events throughout the year that focus on different writing forms: The Spring Festival (poetry), the Frank O’Connor Festival (short stories), World Book Festival (all forms of literature), not to mention the weekly Ó Bhéal poetry evening, along with numerous other independent launches and readings. I think it’s a wonderful city to be in as a young writer. Though I no longer live in Cork, I love going back and reconnecting with writers and arts administrators I met there who are making significant contributions to Ireland’s culture.

However, as a writer of short stories, the Frank O’Connor Festival is a personal favourite. The Munster Literature Centre fly in some of the best international talent and it’s very inspiring to be exposed to such diverse voices and cultures. The festival is incredibly welcoming and democratic in its approach. I have always enjoyed attending its events.

It seems more and more writers have MAs in creative writing, as you do from UCD, some with PhDs. Education is a great thing but is there a negative side to this, will it produce in few years a literary culture where lacking this degree will make it hard to get published. Will the day of the amateur writer without any formal literary training be a thing of the past soon, if it is not already so? Often I see reviews, especially of American short story writers saying the writers work is standard University of Iowa writing-I don’t know what this means but it sounds like writers are being forced into standards acceptable to professors of creative writing. You feel, based on what I have read, that Irish poetry has been degraded in quality or maybe better said innovation by its domination by conservative academics, is the proliferation of Ma and PhDs in creative writing only going to make this worse and cause a general stagnation?

I would disagree that a writer without formal training cannot get published. The acclaimed Kevin Barry (I believe) has not undertaken an MA/MFA in Creative Writing. Some people have a natural talent as storytellers and true talent always finds a home.

However, I am an MA graduate and I did find the course incredibly useful. I’m a believer that writing is a craft like any other and, like a cabinet maker who may well have the flare for design but still need to learn how to use a measuring tape, so a writer can benefit from learning good editorial skills.

As for MA courses inhibiting innovation, on this I disagree. None of the so called ‘rules of writing’ are set in stone and good writers know when break them. Often if work lacks freshness, seems to follow a mode, it’s not because a young writer is adhering to any formal set of rules, it’s more likely that they haven’t found their own voice yet.

What is your reaction to these lines from Susan Cahill about the beauty of Ireland-”There is a hopelessness that a glut of natural beauty can create when there is a cultural and intellectual morass”. Is the beauty of Ireland is two edged comes from nowhere and changes everything be over because of this?

All I have read about Ireland and all the images I have seen on the net present a country of amazing beauty. How much does this saturation in natural beauty impact the writing of the country Does it inspire and defeat at the same time?

I guess this is a question for academics. My theory on landscape is that an author is always a painter and not a photographer. They should never be trying to recreate what they see, rather using landscape as a tool to add an effect to the overall story. So what it looks like in real life is irrelevant, be it beautiful or hideous. What matters is the internal world of the protagonist and how that affects their view of a landscape.

William Butler Yeats said in “The Literary Movement”– ““The popular
poetry of England celebrates her victories, but the popular poetry of Ireland remembers only defeats and defeated persons”. I see a similarity of this to the heroes of the Philippines. American heroes were all victors, they won wars and achieved independence. The national heroes of the Philippines were almost all ultimately failures, most executed by the Spanish or American rulers. How do you think the fact Yeats is alluding too, assuming you agree, has shaped Irish literature. It is interesting to me that the American short story writers most admired by Irish writers, like Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty and Katherine Anne Porter all came from the American south, the only part of American to be crushed in a war. Does defeat bring wisdom more than victory?

Those who can to suffer well are generally the wisest. Both defeat and victory bring differing types of suffering, though the type of suffering defeat brings generally can’t be ignored. So it is more likely that those suffering defeat will gain wisdom, though it’s not necessarily guaranteed. A person can always avoid suffering, and lose out on the resulting wisdom, by making excuses and not taking responsibility for their life.

Do you think poets have a social role to play in contemporary Ireland or are they pure artists writing for themselves and a few peers. I sometimes think poets can be seen as like the canaries in the coal mines of society, they feel the dangers first. Are poets kind of like your early warning signals?

I think all contemporary culture gives indications of where we are as a society, including poetry. I’m not sure if one form is a better indicator than any other. For example, I believe that Talafornia is probably more of a ‘warning canary’, in terms of contemporary Irish society than present day poetry.

“To creative artists may have fallen the task of explaining what no historian has fully illuminated – the reason why the English came to regard the Irish as inferior and barbarous, on the one hand, and, on the other, poetic and magical.”-is this right? Kiberd, Declan (2009-05-04). Inventing Ireland (p. 646). It is interesting to me in that not to long ago many white Americans viewed African Americans as very skilled at music and dancing but otherwise inferior and barbaric.

I think all of these descriptions of Irish/African Americans are ways of making those subdued social groups as the ‘other’, not quite human. By dehumanizing the enemy, the ruling classes were giving themselves the right to behave inhumanely

Tell us a bit about your non-literary work experience please.

I have no non-literary work experience. My entire life, as long as I’ve been consciously aware of it, has been focused on books, writing and literature. Even the moments where I get frustrated because I feel I’m being distracted from my ‘non-literary work’, these moments always come back, becoming the subject of later work.

In his book “The Snapper” Roddy Doyle has the father of the family say, as if it were something commonly seen as true, “The Irish are the niggers of Europe and Dubliners are the niggers of Ireland”. There is a lot of self loathing expressed in Irish literary works from Joyce on down to Doyle. Is this just a family fight where one might say something terrible about a father, mother or brother or wife and kill an outsider who says the same thing or is it really how people feel? I do not see this level of self hate in other literatures. There is nothing like it, for example, in the literature of the Philippines. Talk a bit about how you feel or think about this.

I think this question might tie in with your earlier question about why there are proportionately so many writers from Ireland. Writers have a tendency to be neurotic. Self hatred mixed with moments of ‘eureka’ is part of the course.

Besides Frank O’Connor, who are some of the great Cork writers?

Seán Ó Faoláin would be the other great Cork writer. Though I think one of the best present day short story writers in Cork is Madeleine D’Arcy. The poetry of Thomas McCarthy is brilliant; I love attending his readings. There are some great emerging writers from Cork that I truly enjoy – Jennifer Matthews (a great poem about the Phelps family from the USA, published in The Stinging Fly), Noel O’Regan (short stories short-listed in some major competitions) and Kathy D’Arcy (currently writing fiction after receiving a large Artist’s Bursary from the Arts Council).

Please make up a question and then answer it.

What’s you’re favourite quote?

This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one… the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.
George Bernard Shaw

Irish government aid to writers-how essential is it? is it a way of getting writers to sort of be quiet about social conditions in Ireland? Besides giving you money to write and me to blog about Irish literature what are some ways in the harsh times of today in Ireland that perhaps things could be changed. If the government were to cut aid to zero (in fact it seems to me Irish writers are very blessed even now with generous support) how big an impact would this have in ten years. Would those really committed keep writing? your reaction to this joke I saw on an Irish literary webpage-two men meet in a pub, one tells the other, “I am a poet”-the other says “I am on the dole too”? -OK if too rude or just stupid ignore that!-

I guess I can’t speak for other writers, but I know money or no money, I’ve always kept writing and will continue to do so. Funding has never been a factor in deciding what it is I write. I write what comes to me spontaneously in moments of inspiration. If I felt I was being pressurized to write in a certain way by those with positions in authority, I’d move country.

Rilke described this ‘must’ within artists to create, something I experience endlessly, be it a vocation or some strange sort of addiction. An interviewer once asked Enda O’Brien what would she be doing if she wasn’t a writer and she replied she’d ‘be in a mad house’. It’s not a question of getting an easy ride. It’s a question of honouring the creative impulse within.

I want to get much more into contemporary Irish poetry, I have read nearly nothing beyond Yeats, where do I start? who are five essential modern poets? Who are five poets who have moved beyond the tradition of academic poetry in Ireland? are wild performance poets simply letting the poem speak through them or are they posers, putting on a show?

I hate to name five poets when I could list a number of Irish poets that I enjoy. However, if we are talking about five living Irish poets I would suggest to someone who has never read Irish poetry before:

Seamus Heaney, Thomas McCarthy, Rita Ann Higgins, Paul Durcan, Paul Muldoon

I think performance poets are a wonderful counterpoint to classic poetry. All art is artifice disguised as truth – all art is just ‘putting on a show – but what makes art great is when it fools the observer into thinking the work is truth. When a performance poet creates this ‘ring of truth’, combining word and action, it is just as valid as all other art forms.

Quick Pick Questions
a. tablets or laptops? Laptop – Writers need a keyboard
b. dogs or cats Both and neither. I’ve a love/hate relationship with pets.
c. best way for you personally to relax when stressed? Long distance running up the Lee Valley on a warm May day. Utter heaven.
d. favorite meal to eat out-breakfast, lunch or dinner? Sunday brunch. Eggs Royale and a Mimosa
e. RTE or BBC I don’t own a TV
f. Yeats or Whitman Whitman
g. Starbucks, McDonalds, KFC-great for a quick break or American corruption? They serve a function. Nothing nicer than being hungry in a country with a foreign language and discovering a McDonalds, where you can point at a menu and call out a number.
h. night or day Day – I’m a morning person
i Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights? Wuthering Heights
j-best way to experience a new poem-hear the author read it or read it in a quiet undisturbed place? Author reading
k. favorite singer? Maria Callas
l. Opera, country music, Irish, rock or does it depend on what kind of mood you are in? Opera
m. Auden or Eliot? Depends

End

I offer my great thanks to Jamie O’Connell for taking the time to provide us with such interesting carefully considered answers.

Mel u