The Irish Quarter: A Celebration of the Irish Short Story
A Guest Post by Valerie Sirr on the
debut collection of short stories by Geraldine Mills including
an interview with the author
Lick the Lizard by Geraldine Mills
I am very happy today to be able to present a guest post by Valerie Sirr on Geraldine Mills.
A native of Galway, Ireland Geraldine is a poet and short story writer with four collections of poetry and two of short fiction. Arlen House has published her short fiction collections, Lick of the Lizard (2005) and The Weight of Feathers(2007) which are available internationally from Syracuse University Press and taught at the University of Connecticut and Eastern Connecticut State University. Her poetry collections include Unearthing your Own(2001) and Toil the Dark Harvest (2004) which were published by Bradshaw Books, Cork. An Urgency of Stars,published by Arlen House, 2010 was awarded a Patrick and Katherine Kavanagh Fellowship. Arlen House was also the publisher of The Other Side of Longing, a collaboration with U.S. poet Lisa C.Taylor which was the Gerson Reading choice for the University of Connecticut April 2010
Guest Post by Valerie Sirr
Review of Lick of the Lizard by Geraldine Mills
Geraldine Mills’ debut collection of short stories, ‘Lick of the Lizard’, published by Arlen House in 2005 contains her Hennessy Award winning title story as well as other prize-winning stories. Geraldine is a poet too and her love of words permeates the stories and is evident in their titles, for example, ‘Word-Eater’, ‘Gift of Mouth’ and ‘Make my Bed and Light the Light’ - a fragment of a song lyric.
‘Lick of the Lizard’ is an honest story about jealousy in a mother-daughter relationship when a mother is confronted with the signs of aging while her daughter is glowing with youthful beauty. An ex lover of the mother remarks on her daughter: ‘Her skin’s like yours was’, further provoking the green-eyed monster. The idea of skin and its aging and shedding is used to powerful and subtle effect in this beautifully realised story that demonstrates this writer’s narrative skills.
‘Make my Bed and Light the Light’, is a story about poverty and hardship that, filtered through the consciousness of a distressed young girl, allows you to see the world from her shaky perspective, almost as if she is a fragile bird like the ones her unfeeling aunt - and guardian since the death of the girl’s mother - has such affection for. ‘Where’s your colour, girl?..Did your mother wash it clear out of you, make you a standard canary with no song?’ The child’s life is so strange and dysfunctional that the reader shares a sense of instability that ends in a nightmarishly tragic image.
In ‘Walking Toby’, the protagonist’s world is similarly shaken. The story begins: ‘Late at night the snakes come, slithering their way into my mind, spitting their cowardice and despair onto me until I want to scream out.’ Here we have another jarred reality – the reality of a cancer ward and its inhabitants, where the unfortunate sufferers are divorced from the comforts, physical and psychological, of their pre-cancer lives. There is an image in this story of a woman walking the stand that holds her drip and ‘fix’ of drugs down a clinical hospital corridor that is a sad objective correlative for how the woman longs for the companion she is now deprived of.
‘Word Eater’ reads like an allegory about the life of a writer or poet or psychotherapist – someone empathic who attempts to transform pain into something productive. It describes a faith healer of some kind, a ‘sin eater’ who is visited by pilgrims from all over the world who come to her to be ‘witnessed’ as they pour out their tales of woe. Words, paper, the smell of ink (which enrages the healer’s sibling), syllables, ‘rosaries of regret’ , ‘diphthongs, dactyls, those sweet iambs of love, the caesura of a bitter word’ empty into this story until the healer, full up with them, ‘turns them, reshapes them’ , and with the sensibility of an artist pours them onto the page.
Symbols of words, stories and books occur again in ‘Gift of Mouth’ where a lonely woman in a troubled marriage is transposed into an exotic culture where she hears similarly troubled women: ‘The women were still talking, they were talking ‘, trying to make sense of their stories and finding themselves drawn to the ‘doctor’ . Women from high-rise apartments and from caves in the Barranco go to this man out of curiosity or with ailments or anxiety. This man is a sort of witch-doctor who seems to be able to read into their unconscious minds and reconnect them with their lives as if they were fictional characters who had lost their stories.
‘Meal of small buttons’ begins like a realist story but we meet an odd pair of inseparable ‘sisters’ in Dublin who seem ethereal and from another era in the delicacy of their habits and language. It begins to read like a magical tale especially in the way in which one sister suddenly disappears over a cliff and in the description of their childhood home where the ’leaning kitchen wall was held up by a tree trunk that their father took home from his saw mills’ and a vivid passage where the dead sister is quickly and enchantingly replaced.
Marital discord and the threat of violence seep through the wall of one house into the dream home of another in ‘Osmosis’: a story of marital disappointment and strife. The dream couple ‘tiptoed round our own squall for fear it erupted into a full scale storm’ like next door, but in the end their relationship seems about to ‘tumble down the quagmire of next door’.
There is plenty of scathing, black humour in ‘Dry Bones Time’, an edgy and occasionally uncomfortable story about a lascivious maiden aunt. The artful mise-en-scène of an Irish wedding-day including aging relatives ‘hauled out for the day to show the others’ side that ‘anything you can do I can do better’ is cuttingly accurate and highly entertaining.
There are more surreal moments in the real trauma of woman who is aware she is being betrayed by her own sister in ‘World of Trees’. She identifies strongly with a TV story of an amnesic woman who lost sense of time and ‘the niceties of language’ and lived in a forest. She imagines the woman ‘burrow into the ground, roll up her body like a squirrel and wait til the earth turned...’
This elemental quality, the power of the unconscious, the power of language and the failure of language, permeate and pull the reader under the surface of the narratives. Some of the stories are traditional, realist stories often with a touch of the surreal, and others are like folktales or parables. It’s as if the writer keeps one foot on the ground while delving into something deeper, more essential. I look forward to seeing how these talents develop in other works by Geraldine Mills.
Interview by Valerie Sirr
The cover on ‘Lick of the Lizard’ is a striking painting by artist Joan Hogan. It reminds me of Turner’s semi-abstract late paintings. Did you choose it to echo something about your work?
Joan’s Work is striking and I am very privileged to have a friend who is such a stunning artist. You are right in seeing the influence of Turner in the work as she has been influenced by the great English master. I have admired Joan’s work for many years and worked with her and her daughter on an exhibition called Triúr in 2004 which was very successful. Though her paintings are semi-abstract they are full of images for me and that is what excites me about her work.
I first used her artwork on the cover of my second poetry collection Toil the Dark Harvest ( Bradshaw Books 2003) because it symbolises the constant change within the world around us and the turmoil within the human spirit. I am drawn to the energos within her work as it demands us to go beyond the ordinary and calls us to be witness to something new and different. I feel the painting used here as a cover image draws the reader into a different world which I hope my stories do too.
I enjoyed the mix of realist stories like ‘Lick of the Lizard’ and ‘Osmosis’ along with stories like ‘Word-Eater‘ and ‘Gift of Mouth’ which though they have realist elements read like parable and folktale. Which kind of story do you tend to write now or do you like to mix both approaches?
As you know stories have their beginnings in the most diverse places. They come out of an image, a snatch of conversation, something that happens on the way to the forum. Word-Eater came out of the practice of playing with words. A lovely woman gave me a plaque with the advice to be careful with the words we used because one day we may have to eat them. I started doodling with what it would be like to eat words and the simple game produced an unusual character that fuelled the story. It explores the need for people to unload their burdens onto someone who can carry their misery but will not gossip because they cannot speak. But she has to put it somewhere for her own sanity so she puts it down on paper.
Gift of Mouth was based on a dream I had. It kept tugging at my sleeve and in order to get it off my back I wrote it down. It’s great when stories are given like that. I certainly like to mix both approaches and I go with the characters that come in search of me rather than the other way around.
Were you reading any particular authors at the time of writing ‘Lick of the Lizard’ that influenced you?
The stories that make up that collection were written within a time frame of at least 10 years. I read a lot of poetry as it helps me to find the hard, definite word, for both genres so there would have been a lot of poetry collections read at that time too. I would have been also reading Ian McEwan, Kasuo Ishiguro, Alice Munro, Flannery O’ Connor and John Mc Gahern would have been my mainstay. I am sure I assimilated some of their styles along the way. I remember The Irish Times ran a series of short stories in the paper from international writers around that time so I cut them out and read and reread them. I still have them somewhere. My introduction to Jhumpa Lahiri came from the publication (in the IT) of her story A Real Durwan just after she won the Pulitzer Prize for Interpreter of Maladies. I would have also been reading anthologies of short stories, in particular, the Picador Book of Short Stories edited by Tobias Wolff. We cannot but be influenced at a subliminal level by what we read.
End of Guest Post
My greatest thanks to Geraldine and Valerie for this great post. I will shortly post on The Weight of Feathers, the second wonderful short story collection by Mills.
You can learn more about Mills and her work from her very interesting blog. There are good articles on poetry, short stories and art on her webpage and I read all of her posts.
I have posted on two of Valerie's stories, "Man Eater" and "Mirage", both of which are excellent works art and can be read online in links in my posts. I will be posting on all of her available short stories.
Here is the official biography of Valerie Sirr
Valerie Sirr is a writer from Dublin. She began writing after graduating with her Diploma in Advanced Computer Programming from Trinity College, Dublin. She became interested in psychology and studied at University College, Dublin, for her B.A. hons. Psychology degree, going on to study at London’s Institute of Psychiatry. She holds an M. Phil in Creative Writing from Trinity College, Dublin, and has published and broadcast many short stories both in Ireland and Britain with stories currently under consideration in the US. She received the Hennessy New Irish Writer Award and the Hennessy Award for Emerging Fiction and was awarded two Arts Council of Ireland literature bursaries. She also won the William Allingham, Elizabeth Newsom and Nora Fahy short story awards. Her radio play was shortlisted for RTE radio’s PJ O Connor award. She teaches creative writing and literature appreciation, part-time, and has facilitated writing workshops for Dublin Simon Community and other groups in the community. She is in the process of looking for a publisher for her collection of short stories.
You can read some of Valarie's short works of fiction on her webpage. I admire writers with the self-confidence and generosity to make some of their work available to the reading public.
I will post on Geraldine's second collection of short stories very soon.
Again I thanks Geraldine and Valerie for being a part of the Irish Quarter.