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 Star, 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
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?
My introduction to the short story was at school where we read Frank O’Connor, Michael Mc Laverty, William Trevor and Mary Lavin. I loved the genre from my first experience of it. John McGahern was a big influence on me when I started out and to this day I would look back on his work as one of the greats. Joyce’s The Dead is a masterpiece.
I love the American writers and the large canvas across which they can sweep their imaginative brush. I remember the excitement of discovering Annie Proulx and the wild and dysfunctional world she drew me into as in Brokeback Mountain or Jhumpa Lahiri with her exquisite stories in Interpreter of Maladies. Also Amy Bloom and Alice Munroe
My friend Preston Hood introduced me to Donald Ray Pollack and his debut collection Knockemstiff which is a shockingly direct collection of linked stories about this small town in Ohio. I recently read Burning Bright by another American writer, Ron Rash, who was the 2010 winner of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and it is easy to see why. Each story is a beautifully wrought piece and there isn’t one flat note in the whole book. Our own Kevin Barry’s most recent collection Dark Lies the Island is a tour-de-force for it’s darkly humorous storytelling. Two of the stories especially, ‘A Cruelty’ and ‘Ernestine and Kit’ are brilliant for their subversive themes.
2. 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 is certainly a theme that comes into my own work, poetry especially because that is my personal history. My father had to emigrate from Ireland to London with my two brothers when I was three and he died when I was nine. So I have very few memories of him. I explore this in my first collection, Unearthing your Own, and a number of poems in my collection, An Urgency of Stars, deals with this, especially in the titles: ‘Naming the Houses’ and ‘Reading my Father’s Hand’. After my mother died I was given a collection of his letters which he had sent home to her every week from his digs in London. It was through these letters that I was able to get some sense of his loneliness and isolation from his family and the price he had to pay in order to provide for us.
‘where he names what it felt to be held up against/ the wall with a knife blade of loneliness at his throat/ and fight back with nothing/ but the brown neck of a bottle’
3. When did you start writing?
I started writing at a very young age but never thought I could be a writer. To me they were two very different things. I never gave it any priority until about 15 years ago when I was at a crossroads as to which path to choose. I chose the one least traveled by me and that has made all the difference.
4. How do you view Aosdána? Is it a great aid to the arts in Ireland or does it perpetuate closed elitism?
One of the most difficult things about being a writer is the constant lack of money. To be able to purchase a body of time to write and to be free from financial worries is a great thing and those who have been elected onto Aosdána are extremely fortunate to have that worry removed.
5. 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.
What else can you do when the rain is beating off the roof and the grey clouds sit on your shoulder but pull your chair to the foot of the fire, make the tea and tell stories to the cat or the sods of turf or anyone else who will listen? The oral tradition has been very strong in Ireland. We come from a long line of story tellers, seanchaí. It is our way of brightening up the day.
6. How did you come to write the wonderful story "Butcher Bird" about Hypatia a late 4th century AD female Neoplatonist and mathematician. She was of Greek descent and lived in Alexandria Egypt? How did this idea enter your consciousness? It would make the basis for a great movie.
Happenstance. I was visiting a school in Connemara and as part of that visit they showed me their library. A book about philosophers fell off one of the shelves and opened at a page about her. I asked the teacher to photocopy it for me and used it as the basis for a poem. I continued to research her and while in Cambridge Mass, I found a book in the Harvard Bookshop called Hapatia of Alexandria that gave me the appropriate information to write the story
7 Are you a poet who also writes short stories or the reverse? Does one form matter more than another to you?
The short story form is my favourite genre. My first poetry publication by Bradshaw Books came about as a result of me winning their competition. I had planned to get back to the short story but they asked me for my second collection, Toil the Dark Harvest so my return to fiction was delayed for another few years until Arlen House approached me to publish my winning stories.
I love the way, as Richard Ford says, the short story wants to give us something big but wants to do it in very little time and space. It is as tight as poetry and is probably one of the most difficult tricks to pull off. I am currently working on my third collection called Hellkite which is to be published by Arlen House towards the end of 2013.
8 (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 like to think that there is a whole world out there that we know nothing about and to believe in the impossible and the unpredictable. My mother came from that tradition; the other world was very close to her and her sisters and brothers. So we were reared on stories about fairies and banshees.
She read the tea leaves, she saw the future in her dreams; she foresaw the end of the Second World War. When she was growing up they had no running water in their house. When they had washed the dishes in the basin they threw the dirty water out the door, but before they threw it, they first shouted out Uisce Salach. Translated from the Irish this means ‘dirty water’. They were warning the fairies to get out of the way or they would get a drenching.
She also believed that they took babies away and left changelings in their place as well as the other world being accessible on the night of Halloween. These stories live on in my psyche.
9 The literary productivity of Galway is incredible. What is there about Galway's social climate that produces this?
Galway is a vibrant city with a University and an Institute of Technology. People who come to the city, want to stay; rarely move away. Many cultures settle here and there is a great mix of ideas and nationalities. It is on the edge of the Atlantic where Columbus stopped on his way to the Americas. We are all on voyages of discovery. New blood brings new ideas, a fresh way of looking at the world. People become outward-looking and absorb new experiences. Then they want to make sense of all they see and hear. So they write.
10. Do you prefer e-reading or traditional books?
I prefer traditional books, but read ebooks which I mostly download them from SF public library, mainly because of the convenience.
I am a Luddite. I prefer the traditional book that I can hold in my hand and let slide to the floor when I drop of to sleep.
11. Your stories are in part about loneliness. "Dead Match" is about a man far from home, "Waiting for the Fall” is about an old widow who never really got used to being without his wife, his memories he cannot share with his daughters, at his core a story about loneliness. Is there something about the Irish experience and history (I am asking this as total outsider) that makes so many of the stories about isolation and loneliness?
I don’t think it is specific to the Irish. I think it is a universal theme that is the human dilemma of never knowing any person fully. Because no matter how much we think we connect with another human being we never can get inside their heads or their hearts and confirm that we see, what we think we see.
12. If you could time travel for 30 days (and be rich and safe) where would you go and why?
I would take off across America, avoid the big cities and explore towns and places that don’t make the headlines.
13 In teaching in Connecticut did you find any marked differences in the students there to Irish students in creative writing classes?
I was aware of America from a very early age because many of my relations had emigrated there. Because a huge percentage of Americans don’t leave their own land, they are not always aware of the rest of the world. Many of them didn’t know anything about Ireland so it was important for me to explain my provenance. So much of my time can be spent outlining the geography, history and literary traditions of the place to give them a sense of it.
They would also have been exposed to creative writing in high school and write on a regular basis which would be a different scenario here. I would say they are more confident have a greater sense of themselves and what they want to be.
End of Q and A
A Guest Post by Valerie Sirr on Lick of the Lizard by Geraldine Mills
My post on her The Weight of Feathers
My post on two of her short stories.
I offer my greatest thanks to Geraldine Mills for taking the time to give such very informative, honest, and interesting responses to my questions.
Ms. Mills has another short story collection coming out this year and I am really looking forward to reading it.