Irish Short Story Month Year III
March 1 to March 31
A Special Event
Today I am very happy and honored that Eileen Casey, author of Snow Shoes, has agreed to answer a few questions. Everyone who has read Snow Shoes, including me for sure, has loved it. (My post on it is here.)
Eileen Casey is an Irish writer. Originally from the Midlands (Co. Offaly), she has lived in South Dublin County since the late 1970’s. She is a fiction writer, poet and journalist. Her many awards include a Katherine Kavanagh Fellowship (Poetry) and a Sunday Independent, Hennessy Literary Award (Fiction).
A debut short story collection ‘Snow Shoes’ was published by Arlen House, 2012. She holds a B.A. in Humanities (Hons.) from Dublin City University and completed an M.Phil in Creative Writing at Trinity College, Dublin in 2011 where she was awarded distinction.
Her debut poetry collection Drinking the Colour Blue was published by New Island in 2008. Collaborative works with Visual Artist Emma Barone are Reading Hieroglyphs in Unexpected Places (2010) and From Bone to Blossom (2011) with an introduction by Grace Wells.
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? The best woman?
I have quite a store of writers I admire, my list is long and lengthening. I like Deirdre Madden,
Geraldine Mills, Nuala Ni Chonchuair, Kevin Barry, William Trevor (a big favourite of mine),Valerie Sirr, Madeleine D'arcy, Vivienne McDade, Dermot Bolger,James Martyn Joyce...it's a long list. And Enda 0'Brien of course. A wonderful writer. I'm currently reading her memoir, it's gripping and beautifully written. I heard her read at the Cork International Short Story Festival, it was memorable. Long may she continue to write. She has such discipline and stamina.
The three best short story writers ever?! that's a hard one. I might say three today and a different three tomorrow. But...William Trevor, John McGahern, Elizabeth Strout.
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.
The Irish psyche is steeped in alcohol for sure. One of my own stories in 'Snow Shoes' 'That Woman' is about a woman in the throes of alcoholism. The story is told from a 'split personality' perspective. Most Irish fiction is doused in drink, it's very much a part of our culture.
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?
I admire Declan Kiberd very much and I would trust his judgement. He is a wonderful, articulate speaker. He came to Tallaght some years ago and enthralled us with his wonderful delivery. The weak or missing father as a theme in Irish literature is a recurring one. It surfaces as a theme in my own work (both poetry and fiction). I'm from the generation where the man of the house was often 'absent' even while present.
4. When did you begin writing?
I feel it was inevitable from the beginning that I would one day write. I come from a very colourful street in a small town in the Midlands. Living in that street was like being in a soap opera. Everybody knew each other so stories were always beginning and ending. It was a street full of commotions, quiet ones and not so quiet ones. I remember playing in the street one day and the windows of a near by house were blown out because one of the children of the house had thrown batteries into the fire. I read a book everyday while I was growing up but I didn't start writing in earnest until I was in my early thirties.
5. One of the stories in your collection is about a Korean comfort woman captured by the Japanese in Korean in 1941 and taken to the Philippines and placed in a military brothel. How did you come to write this very moving story? I live in the Philippines and there are still a few women alive here who were used as sex slaves by the Japanese during WWII and prior to reading your story I did not know the Japanese imported Korean women to work in their military brothels in the Philippines.
5.I came across the story of Soon-Ae-Kang in a Sunday newspaper supplement back in 2000. She was still alive then, living out her days in a house of shelter. I was very moved by her story, her wasted childhood. It still can bring the tears. Writing stories like that can be difficult. I didn't want to be in any way sentimental. My daughter was the same age in 2000 as Soon-Ae-Kang was (eleven years old) when she became a comfort woman. I began researching the backdrop to Soon-Ae-Kang's story and from those facts, the story came.
6. I sometimes wonder why such a disproportionate amount of the regarded as great literature of the world 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.
Weather is hugely important in Ireland. As a matter of fact, all things meteorology is my husband's interest. I have weather forecasts morning, noon and night. It was the lexicon I grew up with also and I realised that characters talking about the weather could tell me lots about their relationship. There could well be a collection someday entitled 'What do we talk about when we talk about the weather'! John McGahern said that the events of a story follow on from how the 'light falls'.
7. You sometimes teach creative writing to adult learners. What do you find the biggest rewards and challenges in this?
I love facilitating creative writing classes. It's always intriguing to see the dark horses. Most people who come along to the classes have talent but it's the ones with discipline AND talent who generally succeed in getting work published. I feel stirrings of the 'old magic' whenever I experience first hand the excitement of that wonderful dam burst of imagination that new writers bring to the table. There's nothing like it.
8. Who do you see as the first modern Irish short story writers?
George Moore comes to mind when I think of early writings. Sean 0'Faolain is there also and Liam 0'Flaherty.
9. why have the Irish produced such a disproportional to their population number of great writers?
The Irish are natural story tellers. We are writing in our heads most of the time and we are great talkers. However, we always hold enough back so our inner lives are very fertile too. I think it's out of what we withhold from each other that the stories come.
10. ( 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."
I certainly DO believe in fairies. I have fairies all over my house and in my garden. Some of these fairies are invisible to the human eye but they are there. On a physical level, I have a lovely collection of Margaret Tarrant Fairies and of course, Lady Cottington's Pressed Fairy Book is part of my fairy book collection. I have a store of fairy dolls and if I like someone I give the doll as a gift. The fairy doll is then a guardian angel for the recipient, a protecting influence.
11. Do you like the Stories of an Irish R. M.? either the stories or the TV show? are the stories of Edith Somerville and Martin Ross mocking or celebrating Irish heritage?
I grew up in a Georgian town in the Midlands where there was a great diversity of social stratas. As a result I was able to identify with the Irish R.M.stories. I feel the stories are so successful because Somerville and Ross understood the dynamics of class and religion. My family came from a working class/catholic background and I knew as a young child that those from the better off prostestant community were 'different' in lots of ways. We met them in the shops that they owned. Our mothers spoke differently to them than when they spoke to each other and that often, what was said to their faces in public
was often contradicted behind closed doors.
12 How important are the famines to the modern Irish psyche?
The famines have played their part in shaping irish literature. The decline in population and the exodus from the land in search of brighter prospects is an enduring theme. Joseph 0'Connor's 'Star of the Sea' is a tour de force, following the destinies of characters leaving a barren land in search of fortune and adventure. It's a harrowing tale but stories such as this also reveal the stoicism and resilience of human nature.
13. Does the character of the "stage Irishman" live on still in the heavy drinking, violent, on the dole characters on finds in many contemporary Irish novels?
The 'stage Irishman' as depicted by Dion Boucicualt has passed into lore regarding the stereotypical Irishman. There's more than a grain of truth here. I grew up in a street where dole and drink went hand in hand and I still see this kind of culture in contemporary life.
14. 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 , assuming you agree, has shaped Irish literature?
Yeats statement is interesting and yes, there's a lot of truth in it. Our sense of self-esteem as a people can be epitomised in Joyce's 'Dubliners' where the characters are gripped by paralyses, unable to move forward. Joyce saw this as a 'conditioning' process, our ties to church and state. These ties aren't as strong now but it will take a couple of more generations to effect change. I think our multicultural society is a positive step in the right direction. We are more outward looking.
15. 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 think an artist writers out of contemporary culture. The personal and the universal/global are connected and the artist recognizes this. There's a difference between 'naval gazing' and 'gazing'.
16. Do you think Irish Travelers should be granted the status of a distinct ethnic group and be given special rights to make up for past mistreatment? are the Travelers to the Irish what the Irish were once to the English? I became interested in this question partially through reading the short stories of Desmond Hogan.
On the question of the Travelling Community. When I came to Tallaght, South Dublin in the late 1970's, there was a lot of travellers, living in a way which made it difficult for others, i.e. littering, roaming animals etc. Nowadays, the travelling community are well looked after in terms of housing/education (if they chose to go into this avenue). I often feel like going to the Council and saying 'I want to be treated like the travelling community' because I sometimes think so many allowances are made for them in order to accommodate their lifestyle. I grew up in the Midlands and there were settled travellers in my street. They were among the nicest people I've ever met and they were able to keep animals/take off on trips around the country BUT they also respected us settled people and lived peacefully alongside us.
17. Where is the best place in Dublin to get Fish and Chips or Irish Stew?
. Burdock's will provide real fish and chips. I'm not so sure about the stew!
18. What is your favorite Dublin book store?
I like 'Chapters' bookstore in Parnell Street. It's the kind of place where you can buy old books, new books, expensive books, cheap books.....lovely stationary, it's the whole package.
19. Do you see yourself primarily as a poet or short story writer?
I see myself as a writer. Sometimes I want to write poetry, other times fiction and other times prose. I would really like to try writing a novel. I feel it's the great adventure in writing terms. It's a huge undertaking. I regret not starting the novel when I began writing all those years ago. I feel I might be overly critical of my work now and I have visions of myself beginning and beginning, over and over instead of just jumping in and making a leap of faith as well.
Writing.ie has an excellent article in which Casey talks about the stories in Snow Shoes as well as a wide range of other topics.
There is more information on Snow Shoes on the webpage of her American distributor Syracuse University Press
Eileen Casey has also written an excellent essay on the short story which she has graciously allowed me to post. Look for it soon.