March 1 to March 31
Question and Answer Session with Robert Higgins
author of "Fall" and "Cooper"
Late last year I read and posted on all of the short stories in Abandoned Darlings, edited by Maya Cannon (2012), an anthology of short stories and poetry by the MA in writing class at National University of Ireland at Galway. Among my very favorite stories in the collection were two works by Robert Higgins, "Fall" and Cooper". Here is part of what I said about the work of Higgins in my post on his work:
"Robert Higgins seems to me a writer of extreme talent who was able to create two very well developed worlds in his stories in the collection. Both deal with young people in very difficult situations, situations made worse by drinking. Declan Kiberd in his great book, Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation, says one of the core themes of Irish literature is the consequences of the weakness or absence of the father in modern Irish society and both of Higgins' stories directly face this issue without blinking."
Author Data (from Abandoned Darlings)
Robert Higgins is from Granard, County Longford, Ireland and moved to Galway after completing his secondary education. He has long had a passion for writing and 2011 decided he wanted to devote himself fully to writing and began the MA in writing program at National University of Ireland at Galway.
You can learn more about Robert Higgins on his blog
My post on his work is here
"Fall" deals directly with the issue of the consequences to the lives of children brought about by a weak father. In this story there are two central characters, a young man, mid-teens I guess and his father. The man's wife died not to long ago and the man never recovered. Heavy use of alcohol plays a big part in this story, just like it does in "Copper". One day the boy comes home and sees his father has blood on his head. Of course the boy says "what happened" and the man tells him he thinks maybe he had a stroke and he fell over. Alarmed the boy drags him to the doctor. I will not spoil this deeply moving story for first time readers but it will for sure make you think, especially if there is any history of drinking as a way of coping with grief in your past or family.
Of his two stories, if I had to pick a favorite, it would be "Cooper". This story is told in the first person by a young woman who is in a relationship with the worse kind of man, a thief, a drunk, a drug user who abuses her and puts his friends above her. She left her mother's home to live with him and she has not seen her mother in a year. Chicken and his mate make their money by going into vacant houses and buildings and stealing all the copper wiring so they can sell it. Higgins does a great job of letting us be there for the robbery. There is a lot of plot action in this wonderful story. The girl reunites with her mother and she does something big at the end and we are left hoping for the best for her. There is a great feeling of sadness hanging over this poignant story.
I was very happy Robert Higgins has agreed to do a Question and Answer Session for Irish Short Story Month Year III. He has also sent me a short story which I will publish shortly.
Q. 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?
A. My favourite contemporary short story writers would probably be Junot Diaz and Kevin Barry. I enjoy Diaz for the rhythm of his prose and how he combines literary and urban sensibility. Kevin Barry’s stories are just fantastically entertaining and beautifully written. I don’t think I’m well read enough at this point to say who the best ever are, but some older short story writers I admire would be James Joyce, Raymond Carver and Denis Johnson.
Q. 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?
A. I think that alcohol plays a greater role in Irish stories as it is so prevalent in our society. I often don’t realise that I’ve written a story that comments on alcohol until someone else says it to me when they have read it. It really permeates most aspects of Irish life so it’s kind of natural that it is found in its stories.
Q. When did you start writing?
A. I started writing seriously the week that I turned nineteen. I had always thought about it and entertained the idea and just decided to make a start on it. I was able to get into a routine of hitting a certain number of words a day and kept with it. I always wrote a little bit but it’s since then that I’ve been writing with a view to completing my pieces and publication.
Q. 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.
A. I’m not quite sure. We have a lot more time sitting inside, that’s for sure. I spent three months living in California and I barely wrote at all because I was enjoying the weather so much so there might be something to that. Dreary weather might also breed a reflective mind state that helps with the writing. I couldn’t say for sure.
Q. Who do you regard as the first modern Irish short story writer?
A. Joyce seems to have set the template that a great number of writers seem to have followed with the idea of epiphany in their stories. I suppose he could be considered the first modern Irish short story writer in that respect.
Q. Why have the Irish produced such a disproportionate to their population number of great writers?
A. It’s a bit of mystery. I suppose the rich heritage pulls in the newer generations who are hoping to be part of the lineage. I don’t know who got the ball rolling but it certainly is very interesting to look at the number of great writers such a small island has produced.
Q. (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."
A. I wouldn’t say I believe in fairies, however, in my early teens, the spot where we would all hang out was one of the fairy forts in the local area so there might be something to it!
Q. How important are the famines to the modern Irish psyche?
A. I think the famine still continues to have an effect on the modern Irish psyche. It seems to me that it was around the time of the famine that religion took its central role in Irish identity. We still haven’t shaken that completely. It also brought up the issue of emigration which is again one of the most important issues in Ireland today since the economic recession.
Q. 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?
A. It does to some degree, but I think that it’s a stick used to beat some writers. Sometimes you want to write about a drunken eejit or someone who is a bit of a fool without getting accused of reverting to the “stage Irish” thing. I do think we are moving away from it all the time with the literature being produced.
Q. 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?
A. They have a freedom and lack of constraints that those working in the media couldn’t dream of. They can comment freely and have the skills to do so. I think that’s very important to have people in any society.
Q. Where is the best place in Galway and Dublin to get a real Irish breakfast? Fish and Chips and Irish Stew?
A. There are a fair few for places for the breakfast, I used to go to Garvey’s on Eyre Square in the summer the odd time. McDonagh’s down by the Spanish Arch is hands down for the fish and chips anyway. I only go for the homemade stew myself.
Q. The literary productivity of Galway is incredible. What is there about Galway's social climate that produces this?
A. There is a great vibrancy about the place. It seems to have a very high artist to person ratio. I think being around people who write is a great motivator and can really help you keep focused on your work. I suppose the feeling of community helps breed the work.
Q. Do you prefer e-reading or traditional books?
A. I much prefer traditional books. I was given a Kindle for Christmas two years ago and I only made through one or two books on it. E-reading can be handy and there is less waiting to get books but I really enjoy being able to physically hold a book and also swap books back and forth with my friends.
Q. If you could time travel for 30 days (and be rich and safe) where would you go and why?
A. I would love to travel either Asia or South America as they are two parts of the world that I’m quite unfamiliar with. I’m looking at possible destinations for next year so one of these might be on the cards. I just have to figure out the money and the safety issues first.
Q. The Aran Islands - must see authentic experience or just for the tourists?
A. I would recommend it .I haven’t been there in a few years, but I had a great time when I was out there. I was meant to go over last summer with a few of my friends but we ended up missing the ferry and had to camp in Connemara instead. I’m eager to go back when I get the time.
Q. Best Literary Festival you have so far attended?
A. I always enjoy the Cúirt literary festival in Galway a great deal. They always seem to attract a very high standard of writers and events. It is well worth checking out.
Q. Flash Fiction - how driven is the popularity of this form by social media like Twitter and its word limits?
A. I think that has something to do with it. I think since the internet has taken such a prominent role in our lives, we don’t have the attention span that we once did. I feel that’s why short stories seem to be more popular these days also. I think that flash fiction is an extension of that. .
Q. Best place to hear traditional music in Galway or Dublin? Best book store, best literary tourist experience, best "real people's" restaurant?
A. The Crane Bar in Galway is great for traditional music. Charlie Byre’s would be my favourite book shop. For best tourist experience I would recommend just going out to Connemara for a wander. My student budget didn’t allow me to sample too much of Galway’s cuisine so I’ll just say McDonagh’s which is affordable and good quality.
I offer my great thanks to Robert Higgins for taking the time to complete the questions, for his very insightful answers and for sending me a short story (coming soon). I hope to follow his writing career and for sure would be happy to follow up with him during ISSM4 next March (God willing).