Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction and Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel and post Colonial Asian Fiction, Yiddish Literature, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality historical novels are some of my Literary Interests

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Alice Walsh - A Question and Answer Session

March 1 to March 31
A Special Reading Life Event

I first read the work of Alice Walsh during Irish Short Story Month Year II.   I read her wonderful short story "Samhain" and said I hope to read more of her work soon.  In December I read her story about the lives of young adults in a small waterfront town, "Downaround".   For this year's Irish Short Story Month, I was happy to be able to post on her amazing story, "Cut Me Down Like an Old Oak Tree".   I am very honored that she has consented to do a Q and A for my event.   

Bio Data

Alice Walsh was born in London in 1984 to Irish parents and grew up in Waterford in the South East of Ireland, she now lives and works in Dublin. Her short story Samhain and flash fiction piece The Mountain Had Always Been There have previously been published in the Winter '10 and Winter '11 issues of wordlegs. Her short story Cut You Down Like An Old Oak Tree was short listed for the International Fish Publishing Short Story Contest 2011/2012, while last year she made the long-list for the Over the Edge New Writer of the Year 2011 Award. Her short stories Downaround and What We Talk About When We Don't Talk About Love feature in the wordlegs presents: 30 Under 30 ebook. She is currently working on her first novel.   She is also the editor of The Bohemyth - A Literary Journal.   (I have posted on several short stories from this journal and follow it closely.)

1. Who are some of the contemporary short story writers you admire? If you had to say, who do you regard as the three best ever short story writers?

Contemporary short story writers I admire - Claire Keegan. Kevin Barry. EM Reapy. Jon McGregor. I recently re-read MJ Hyland's short story Rag Love - it's a masterclass in the short story format. A must read.

I don't know about the top three but the best ever short story writer would have to be James Joyce and the most perfect short story - The Dead. I was recently in the house where Joyce set The Dead - 15 Ushers Island on the quays in Dublin - it's a fantastic place full of old ghosts. The owner wants to restore it to how it was in 1904. They have some really exciting projects happening there, they host a The Dead dinner party and they're going to be printing handmade copies of The Dead from the house. Next year will mark the 100th anniversary of the first time Dubliners was published so it's all very exciting.  

2.  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?

I don't know how an outsider should take this, that's up to them. I assume a non-drinker might find it strange but alcohol is an integral big part of Irish life for most people, in that sense it is normalised. When you're in something and part of something it can be hard to see it from outside it. What does it say about Irish culture? I could say it is connected to our colonial past, the need for escape from oppression from various institutions in the past - the church and state, and perhaps now more so from financial burdens, the weather too... but maybe we just like having the craic. We're good at it. It's not all doom and gloom.

3. 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 and how does this, if it does, reveal itself in your work? It seems present in several of your stories, especially those in Hard to Say.

I think it is certainly a theme in Irish literature but I'm not sure it is the dominant one. You have to remember for every weak or missing father there is probably an over bearing Irish Mammy present! But on a more philosophical level perhaps the weak or missing father represents the consistent failure of authority and the ineffectual governments of Ireland. I have to say I find this theme strongly present in American Literature too - Huckleberry Finn for example, his father Pap is a drunk. Again, in On the Road Dean Moriarty is searching for his hobo father. The myth critic Fiedler reckoned America was by definition fatherless, having fled the fatherland and rejected all forms of authority. Perhaps Ireland having rejected the colonial ruler and other forms of authority -  has found itself somewhat fatherless in this respect also. 

4.  What is the most exciting part of your experience in starting the literary journal Bohemyth?

I really enjoy connecting with other writers and having the opportunity to encourage them in their work especially if they're young or just starting out. It's a buzz to tell people you're going to publish their story. It's especially exciting when it's the writer's first time getting published, it means a lot to them. I also really enjoy finding pieces of writing that work really well together and with the photos that we place them alongside. It feels like there is some creative force at work matching it all up - I love to see a theme emerging, that's when you know you've got a winning issue.

5.  How do you view Aosdána?  Is it a great aid to the arts in Ireland or does it perpetuate closed elitism?

I don't know that much about it, probably because it's exclusive and elitist as you say. I guess if I was a part of it I'd think it's great!

6.  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.

I think the weather certainly shapes who we are and our literature as a result. The Irish winter would get to you - dark and grey and damp and cold and miserable - we need to find the light some how, and we do - in our minds like some kind of weird mental aurora borealis sparking luminosity in our souls. 

7. A character in an Ali Smith short story, asks in a conversation on the merits of short stories versus novels ""Is the short story a goddess and nymph and is the novel an old whore?"    Does this make a bit of sense to you?

You have to consider that the novel as an art came to prominence in the 18th century, a time when people had few other sources of entertainment to rival their attention - in stark contrast with today. I find there are often long boring tracts of writing in novels, short stories get to the point. The rise of Internet usage has resulted in shortened concentration spans. There are so many great novels being written and there always will be but I really think the short story is coming into its own in the 21st century, mainly because of digital publishing and I think that is a very exciting prospect for both readers and writers. 

8.   Who do you regard as the first modern Irish short story writer?   

Joyce. Dubliners. It's a perfect collection. I particularly love the story Eveline. It's very moving. I love how her voice invades the third person narrative. I find his use of ellipsis in that story powerful. Sometimes a story is more defined by what is left out rather than what is included. It's hard to believe it was first published nearly a hundred years ago, it still seems so fresh in it's style. 

9.  Why have the Irish produced such a disproportionate to their population number of great writers?

I don't know, but I think it's wonderful and I think knowing so many great writers from my own generation that it looks set to continue this way. I feel very privileged to live in Dublin the UNESCO city of literature where the ghosts of our writers - Joyce, Yeats, Wilde - are  to be found on every street corner.

10.   (Ok this may seem like a silly question but I pose it anyway-do you believe in Fairies?-this quote from Declan 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."

I believe in forces we cannot see or know but only feel. When I write I believe it comes from someplace else, something else - I'm just the go between. Maybe that's the faeries working.

11.  Do you think the very large amount of remains from neolithic periods (the highest in the world) in Ireland has shaped in the literature and psyche of the country?


12.  How important are the famines to the modern Irish psyche?

Interesting question and one I pose in one of the short stories in the collection I am working on, but maybe not in the way you might expect. You'll have to wait to read the story to see how that plays out. I think if you subscribe to Carl Jung's ideas concerning the collective unconscious, which I do - then you have to see that the trauma and loss suffered by the Irish people during the potato famines in the mid 19th century cannot but have had a profound on the psychology of the people. Like all trauma to the psyche it is not possible to separate our identity from that experience, it has been shaped by it. 

13.  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?

I'm not sure I fully understand the question. I would argue that there are no winners in war and ask for whom did these victorious American heroes achieve independence? For the Native Americans? I think not. If the point is that Ireland has only suffered defeats and we're some kind of victim nation then I refute that too - Ireland was the first of the colonized countries to gain independence and in doing so paved the way for the rest of the colonized nations in the British Empire to gain independence - such as India and Pakistan. I don't know if the popular poetry at the time Yeats was talking about remembered only defeats and defeated persons, I haven't read it. I think he certainly celebrated the revolutionaries of his time in his poetry. There has been a vein of misery throughout Irish literature I don't dispute that (I think there is in most literature), but I also think you will see that element of Irish literature might change somewhat in coming years.

14.  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 don't know. I think that the rise of social media in the 21st century has meant that a lot of narrow interest areas, be it poetry or a particular kind of politics have become a little more insular because that is the nature of social media and the internet - for example if you are on Twitter and you follow lots of poets, Twitter will suggest more poets for you to follow based on this. Similarly, if you buy a book about, I don't know say philosophy on Amazon then Amazon will keep suggest more philosophy books to you. It's self-perpetuating. Interests are narrowed and there is an element of exclusivity. The problem with this is that there is perhaps less opportunity for people removed from these interests to get involved in or be exposed to interests other than their own established ones than in times past when other mediums such as the radio were king. But I still there is scope to spread the word about these things across all interests. Perhaps Facebook and Twitter can allow poets reach people they might not have opportunity to in the past. I must add that on the positive side of things social media tools play an excellent role in fostering links and developing communities of people with similar interests and socialisation in the true sense of the word (other than on the internet) is still alive and well and will always act as an agent for cross pollination of interests among people.

15.  Do you prefer e-reading or traditional books?

Traditional books, mainly because I like to underline that which impresses me and scribble notes in the margins. I think they look pretty sitting on my book shelf too. I like the tactile quality of them. They feel like they have their own little souls. I really like ebooks too though - I've had stories published in ebooks by wordlegs. They're really handy for commuting. I've been re-reading Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar on the Kindle App on my phone recently. They're an exciting advancement for publishing.

16.  What do you see as the biggest changes taking place in the work place for Librarians?

Well in Ireland - the fact that there is no work place for most of them. Older generations are retiring and not being replaced. It's all so stagnant. The government is not investing in this area (like most things) because of austerity. They nearly closed all the libraries during the economic depression in the 1980s. It's myopic - studies have shown libraries are most important during times of economic hardship. Libraries play a huge role in creating a sense of community which is desperately needed right now. There is so much more that could be done if there was funding available but unfortunately due to the failure of successive governments the country keeps throwing money into a black hole rather than investing in the people.  

17.  If you could time travel for 30 days (and be rich and safe) where would you go and why?

Yes, yes, yes - I'd go to late 1940s early 1950s America and go on the road with Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, we would start off in New York City and drive clean across to San Fran, stopping in all kinds of crazy towns, getting kicks, dancing to jazz. The whole thing would boom! 

18.  John Synge - is he the second most important 20th century Irish writer?

I'm not very familiar with Synge. Yeats thought so though - he wrote part of his poem To A Child Dancing In The Wind about him -

Being young you have not known
The fool’s triumph, nor yet
Love lost as soon as won,
Nor the best labourer dead
And all the sheaves to bind.

For Yeats Synge was 'the best labourer dead' with his work left uncompleted. It's a beautiful image.

19..  How important in shaping the literature of Ireland is its proximity to the sea?

I think it's very important. I grew up beside the sea. If I don't know what direction the sea is in I feel lost.

20.  Best place to hear traditional music in Galway or Dublin? Best book store, (how do the book stores here compare to City Lights) best literary tourist experience, best "real people's" restaurant?

Best book store in Dublin... I would have to say The Gutter Book Shop in Cow's Lane, Temple Bar. 

End of Guest Post

My great thanks to Alice Walsh for honoring me with this Q and A.   I look forward to reading more of her work in the future.

I highly recommend the journal she edits, The Bohemyth - A Literary Journal.  In addition to very high quality short fiction it also publishes stunning photographs, very interesting art work and poetry.  

Mel u

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