March 1 to March 31
Q & A Session with Aileen Armstrong
Author of "Today"
Your participation in ISSM3 is very welcome. I will probably extend the event until April 7 as there are a number of exciting things in the works.
Yesterday I posted on a very interesting story by Aileen Armstrong. (You can read my post here.) Doire Press will shortly be publishing her debut collection of short stories, all set in Galway and I am very much looking forward to reading it. She has kindly agreed to a question and answer session in observation of Irish Short Story Month.
Aileen Armstrong lives in Galway. In 2009, she graduated from the M.A. in Writing programme at NUIG, and in 2010, she was awarded a literature bursary from the Arts Council of Ireland. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in the Stinging Fly, Three Times Daily, Cuadrivio, Some Blind Alleys, and Galway Stories. A collection of her short fiction is forthcoming from Doire Press in 2013.
Q & A with Aileen Armstrong
Here are just some, in no particular order and off the top of my head: Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Lorrie Moore, Jennifer Egan, Daniyal Mueenuddin, Kevin Barry, Joshua Ferris, Junot Diaz, Roxane Gay, Anne Enright, Maile Meloy. The three best ever short story writers – this seems like an impossible question to answer. I hardly feel qualified to guess. What is ‘best’? Most important? Most influential? Joyce, Carver, Munro? I’d have a different answer for you tomorrow.
I have read lots of Indian and American short stories in addition to Irish, and alcohol plays a much bigger part in the Irish stories. How should an outsider take this and what does it say about Irish culture?
Irish people drink a lot, and alcohol is still accepted and expected at almost any occasion you can think of. Social historians could tell you more about the reasons why this is, and about the problems it continues to cause. That said, this is 2013 and not everybody drinks all the time anymore. Life has gotten a bit more boring here – in a good way. People are thinking of their health these days! Not to mention their finances. So it might be nice to see these newer, duller aspects of Irish life reflected in our country’s artistic output. And to answer your question: I think that outsiders should query the representation of alcohol in contemporary Irish literature, as you have.
When did you start writing?
I would have been young. I always kept diaries and wrote letters. I kept correspondences with family and friends, just about anybody I met at all. People still wrote letters when I was growing up. It was lovely. I wrote dire novels in copybooks – of course I didn't really know about the word 'novel', then. Stories. I would have called them stories, but I would have never shown them to anyone.
How do you view Aosdána? Is it a great aid to the arts in Ireland or does it perpetuate closed elitism?
I am sure it is a great aid to its members. I know very little about how Aosdána benefits the wider artistic community. Or about how it as an organisation engages with that community – ‘at a grassroots level’, as they say. Or whether it is supposed to at all. Its workings are mysterious to me. Perhaps that answers the question.
I sometimes wonder why such a disproportionate amount of literature of the world, that is regarded as great, is written in the colder temperate zones rather than in the tropics. How big a factor do you think the Irish weather is in shaping the literary output of its writers? I cannot imagine The Brothers Karamazov being written on a tropical island, for example.
Well, climate-wise, Ireland is no Russia. It doesn’t often get too cold or too hot anywhere in Ireland. Damp and chilly is kind of the default setting. Damp and warmish in the summer. Actually it is a very beautiful climate, a very wistful one. The weather seems to provoke in us a state of wistful astonishment. I live in Galway, and certainly you would be astonished by the rain here. John Banville writes about it brilliantly, the weather. Jack Yeats painted it: something always being lost, something always about to happen.
Does the character of the "stage Irishman" live on still in the heavy drinking, violent, on the dole characters one finds in many contemporary Irish novels?
Yes. And not just in novels, but in screenplays, teleplays… I think audiences have grown tired of this character.
Who do you regard as the first modern Irish short story writer?
For me, it has to be Joyce. It's all there in Dubliners.
Where is the best place in Galway and Dublin to get a real Irish breakfast? Fish and Chips and Irish Stew?
I am not the right person to ask about Dublin fare. But for Galway, I’m going to change things up a bit and suggest you go to Ard Bia early on a Saturday morning and try the Hippy Fry. It’s vegetarian, but you won’t miss the meat, I promise. I recently had a decent beef and Guinness stew in Oslo in
Do you prefer e-reading or traditional books?
Traditional. I work in IT but I am actually quite the Luddite. I feel 175% more intelligent after reading the printed word than I do words onscreen. I need the time delay. I think most people do, actually – but this isn’t a popular view.
How important is it for a writer to have a network of support for their work?
It’s very important to have a safe space in which to try and fail. That said, I think it's worth quoting Zadie Smith on this subject: “Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won't make your writing any better than it is.”
I think what she means is that a network of support isn’t necessarily just a load of people on Twitter telling each other how brilliant they are. Of course this can be part of it, but the most important thing is really just people talking things through and recommending reads to each other. Talking about how to fix this problem, or about why you love this book or that writer.
The Aran Islands - must see authentic experience or just for the tourists?
They're lovely. Everyone should go.
There are fewer outlets in the print media for book reviews, many newspapers world wide no longer have the Sunday supplements in which books were once reviewed. Does this leave a gap into which book bloggers could or should step?
feel free to respond as you wish
Yes, absolutely, why not? I will say, though, that I think the blogger-review has really come into its own with TV shows, the ones that blog episode-by-episode. Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Homeland…The blogs that cover all those big-budget shows – I adore those. The reader input/commentary is considered rather than obnoxious. And of course lots of people feel that those shows are taking the place of novels.
The literary productivity of Galway is incredible. What is there about Galway's social climate that produces this?
I think you could go more general and say that the artistic productivity of Galway is incredible – but yes, it’s interesting, isn’t it? It just feels like a very safe place in which to dabble. Nobody is going to judge you if you aren’t an immediate genius in your chosen field.
People are just interested in your attempt. And the city is small enough to make connections, but big enough to feel sort of cosmopolitan and ‘anything goes’.
Do you have any superstitions that revolve around your writing?
Not really. I have a part-time day job, so I work in the mornings and I write when my toddler naps in the afternoons. Everyone says that writing comes best in the morning, and of course this is true – but a consultation with the Muse first thing is not really an option for me right now. I have to take what I can get. I'm too zoned out in the evenings to write – I just want to eat dinner and watch an episode of something. So it's not really a superstition, but I find that everything rests on whether or not the baby naps. If she doesn't nap well, that’s my writing day gone. And even when she does nap, I might only get a half-hour or less of productivity. That might translate into a couple of serviceable sentences, or a decision about perspective or something.
If all of this sounds like a complaint, it isn’t. I’ve always been a procrastinator painstakingly slow worker and compartmentalising my time has actually helped me to deal with this. But that daytime nap is sacred. And in fact I can be heard casting little spells and incantations over the baby as I put her down. You want to sleeeeep now.....I don't know what I'm going to do when she stops napping in the daytime. Drug her, maybe.
End of Q and A
My thanks to Aileen for taking the time to provide us with such interesting answers. I will be posting on her book latter in the year, I hope.