March 1 to April 28
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?
I enjoy reading the fiction of George Saunders, Roberto Bolano, and Lydia Davis. Kevin Barry is pretty good too. I’m reading Deborah Levy’s collection Black Vodka at the moment and that’s sitting pretty well with me: her prose is excellent. Apart from that I usually read stuff in places like TheNew Yorker, The Paris Review, The Stinging Fly and online. Long Story, Short is a great site for slightly longer fiction that I read regularly, the editor there is excellent, and the standard of writing is consistently high.
Not too sure if I’m qualified to give an opinion on the ‘best ever’ short story writers, but I’m pretty sure that Raymond Carver, Franz Kafka, and Ernest Hemingway are up among them somewhere. I’ve yet to read Chekhov, but various essays and book blurbs tell me that he’s ‘the best’, I should probably make it my business to get around to him.
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?
Alcohol does play a pretty big role in Irish culture: but I have no idea what that means, to be honest. It plays a big role in other cultures and fictions, also. But I struggle to think of any story anywhere that presents alcohol in a positive light.
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?
Maybe? I don’t know. I don’t have much interest in Irish literature, so it’s hard for me to answer that. But sure, there is a strong tradition of weak fatherhood in the Irish family, particularly between fathers and sons. But that’s been changing for a while now. It probably does show up as a ‘dominant theme’: I just don’t read enough Irish fiction to know that it does.
4. What are some of the biggest challenges facing neophyte writers as they try to get their work noticed by editors and publishers?
If the work is good enough it will be noticed eventually, I guess? I’m not too sure. I don’t send stuff out too often and, right now, I’m not interested in publishing a book, not even remotely. So it’s hard to answer what the biggest challenges are because I’m not participating in them. And when I am sending stuff out, I’m not too hassled if it’s rejected: life’s too short for that.
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.
Cannon-forming is a western idea, so what’s regarded as great is always going to be influenced by critics of the old colonial order (Europe, the United States etc.) -- I guess that that’s being redressed lately. But of course the weather plays a role in the art that’s produced in specific locations. I’m not thinking of ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ or whatever: just that I believe people are essentially products of their environments, so that inevitably shows up in their art. The majority of the weather here is quite dull and oppressive, just like the fiction.
7. A character in an Ali Smith short story, says in a conversation on the merits of short stories versus novels "" the short story a goddess and nymph and is the novel an old whore?" Does this make a bit of sense to you?
That makes so much sense I feel like weeping. If short fiction is the nymph and the novel the old whore, then poetry must be the mistress kept in a secret apartment, somewhere in Vienna or Budapest or Sarajevo, just before the First World War. The apartment consists of small, well-decorated rooms that are constantly in a state of flux: shifting, reconfiguring and vanishing. The mistress is a real beauty, and she has to be, of course, a brunette. Her lingerie is so precise in its fabric that it appears to be almost non-existent. Whenever you show up, you find that you too are also wearing no clothes. It’s perfect.
8. Who do you regard as the first modern Irish short story writer?
James Joyce. Dubliners.
9. Why have the Irish produced such a disproportionate to their population number of great writers?
I have absolutely no idea as to why, or even if that implied assertion is true. I was reading an interview in a national newspaper recently with a film-director cum novelist. He said something along the lines of whenever he turned over a stone in Ireland as a boy there was Beckett or Joyce or Yeats staring back up at him, that that can’t be escaped. According to him their work informs the entire make-up of the land and its people. That is the biggest pile that I have ever read in my life. They don’t teach Joyce and Beckett in our schools, what they do is exploit their iconography to the end of forming some sort of national identity. (They teach Yeats, but it’s all the early fiddly-dee stuff, not the late, great work.) I came to Joyce and Beckett in my early twenties, of my own accord – the vast majority of people here don’t, and never will. My family for instance wouldn’t have a notion about who they were and what their work is about, and I understand that’s pretty much the norm. Never buy into the whole “oh Beckett’s in the water, that’s why so many great writers are here” because that is patently absurd. It’s an accident. Then there’s the whole romance about Ireland, which begs the question: are any of our many, many writers actually any good? Or is something else at work?
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."
No, I don’t believe in Fairies. But it’s not ‘a silly question’: in fact it’s very valid. The quote above is obviously taken out of context so I don’t know if Kiberd addresses this himself, but with regard to Beckett it’s important to differentiate between ‘fairy’ and ‘fairy-man’. A ‘fairy-man’ isn’t a fairy: they were men who claimed that they could divine if somebody was possessed by fairies or changelings or what have you. They would define symptoms and offer a course of action to resolve ‘the problem’. The prescription was usually to burn the ‘possessed’ person (read: woman) at the stake or in the oven. The last recorded Witch burning in Europe happened in Ireland, in 1895. Bridget Cleary’s husband grew suspicious of her independent viewpoints and continental tastes in fashion, so he decided his wife had been kidnapped by fairies and replaced by a changeling. The ‘fairy-man’ he consulted with on this matter wholeheartedly agreed, and they resolved to put her in the oven. She was twenty-six. I’m not a huge fan of ‘fairy-men’. But yes, fairies are (or were) very real things to people here.
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?
Wow. That’s an odd question. I have no idea I’m afraid. I don’t even know what ‘Neolithic’ means to be honest. Is that, like, stones stuck in the ground like erect phalluses? We’ve got plenty of those. I outlined the first three sections of a novella once. It was going to be called Penis, a novella. I wanted to do it because the novella is the only literary form with major issues regarding its size: the novel is all ‘big and proud’ and short stories and poems are plucky, deceptively ‘small’ and more than happy about it. But the novella is just so insecure about its dimensions: even the greatest novellas are read (and sold) as novels -- The Great Gatsby, The Old Man and the Sea, etc. -- I mean, that’s gotta hurt. (I think that I also have a bet on with Noel O’Regan that I’ll get a book called Penis, a novella published.) Perhaps the Neolithic remains played a role in the penis book? I don’t know.
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?
Poets have no social role in Ireland. I was at a reading recently and an audience member asked the poet who was reading something like ‘how are the poets going to save Ireland from the crisis that it’s in?’ I’m a non-violent person basically, but I felt like slapping that man across the face and telling him to wake up. But the term ‘pure artists’ jars with me: nothing is pure, everything is compromised.
17. The narrator of your great short story in 30 Under 30, "Marcus" is a prostitute who is working on a PhD specializing in Troubadour poets of the 12th century. Her thesis centers on the battles in which the poets were involved. I suggested in my post on "Marcus" that she might be self-deluded in her motivations for being a sex-worker. Do you agree? Is she meant as a satirical figure?
She is definitely unreliable; I think that’s clear enough in the story. But her motive for being unreliable and misleading is calculated and aimed toward a very deliberate end, so ‘deluded’ she certainly is not. She is definitely not a satirical figure. Of course, none of this is clear in the story: there is a framing element that was present in the first draft which I removed before I submitted it. Some clues do remain in the text: who is she speaking to? Why is she divulging all of those (very specific) details about herself? Why does she speak about Marcus’s day-to-day habits? And tellingly, why speak about the last time she saw him? Why did he disappear, for instance? (Noel O’Regan, again, had all of this twigged when he asked me about it.) As for her motives in the sex-trade, well, when a small city like Cork has a relatively big University, one does hear stories …
18. As poetry editor of wordlegs.com, what do you look for in works submitted to you.
Originality, clarity, daring, dynamism: work that avoids cliché at all costs. Cliché smothers poetry and sends me to sleep, so anything but that basically.
19. Do you prefer e-reading or traditional books?
Traditional books. I’m a bibliophile (surprise, surprise) and obsessively acquire them. Reading is a compulsion that I haven’t been able to shake since childhood. I do also own a Kindle: it’s good (awful for poetry, by the bye: in terms of line-breaks and the poem’s ‘presence’ on the page). But I am slightly ashamed to admit that the Kindle is where I conduct my “trashiest” reading: pulpy-crime novels, literary fiction, and what have you.
20 If you could time travel for 30 days (and be rich and safe) where would you go and why?
Nowhere. I’d probably destroy the time-space continuum and arrive back as a snail or a shoelace or something horrible like that … but if I had to? Ahh, fuck it: Paris, 1920s. For drinks with Hemingway and Owen Wilson (of course: he’s too affable to resist). I’d take my potential metamorphosis into a badger or an ostrich on the chin then, like a champ.
21. John Synge - is he the second most important 20th century Irish writer?
I have no idea: mainly due to a lack of academic understanding and a complete lack of interest. But I’d imagine he’d fit in somewhere in the top twenty, maybe?
22. The Aran Islands - must see authentic experience or just for the tourists?
I’ve never been. I would love to go, though. (That probably means it’s a tourist trap.)
23. Best Literary Festival you have so far attended?
All of the Soundeye festivals that I have attended have been really good. The recent Spring Poetry Festival in Cork was great too. Crikey: the Shore Writers’ festival up in Sligo, the Short Story festivals in Cork each September ... too many to mention.
24 Flash Fiction - how driven is the popularity of this form by social media like Twitter and its word limits?
Is Flash Fiction that popular? I can’t connect with it. Never had that ‘oh-my-word’ feeling reading it that I get with poetry, short fiction, novels, essays, and witty status updates on Facebook.
Mel emailed me asking about Penis, a novella here's what I told him:
The novella Penis, a novella centers around the penis of a famous homosexual novelist, who is in fact a closeted heterosexual. One of the chapters is an extended interior monologue of a prostitute who has him engaged in fellatio. Another character is a trans type with whom the novelist has an affair (one chapter opens: "Mary has a penis.") Basically the whole thing had no plot, just heightened (hopefully) prose to carry the variety of sexualities depicted in the book. It's a mess basically. But not too far away from "Marcus" in terms of tone and theme. It will never be written, it is too crazy to pursue. Although the 'fellatio-interior-monologue' thing might work as a short story.
Cal Doyle was born in Cork in 1983. His poetry has appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, most recently in Southword and The Galway Review. His short story "Marcus" appeared in 30 under 30 published by Doire press. He is the poetry editor at wordlegs.com
I thank Cal Doyle for taking the time to provide us with these very interesting responses.