Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Aiden O'Reilly - A Question and Answer Session with the author of Greetings, Hero

Today I am very proud to be able to share with my readers a Q and A session with Aiden O'Reilly.  His debut collection of short stories, Greetings, Hero is receiving very good reviews.  I recently read and posted on his prize winning story, "To the Trade" (there is a link to the story in my post).  I will soon be doing a major post on his collection.

Greetings, Hero  was launched in London on Sept 1st, and given a Dublin launch in Hodges Figgis on Nov 12th with guest speaker Kevin Barry. 

If anything on my blog is of lasting value, it is my Q and A sessions.   They afford me the opportunity to ask people who know more than I do questions on topics that interest me. Some of the nearly 100 writers I have interviewed will one day be very famous writers, others will stay "hobby authors". In fact a number of the writers I have featured are beginning to take their place on the world stage. There are many factors other than literary talent that make one writer become famous and another give up or write in total obscurity.  I am hoping a picture of 21th century literary culture can be drawn from the Q and A Sessions.  

Author Bio

Aiden O’Reilly lived for nine years in Eastern Europe and is now based mainly in Dublin. He studied mathematics and did research into a quantum mechanical dynamical system. He has worked variously as a mathematics lecturer, translator, building-site worker, and property magazine editor. His work has appeared in The Stinging Fly, The Prairie Schooner, The Irish Times, and The Dublin Review. In November 2008 he won the biannual McLaverty Prize for short stories. 
He received an Arts Council bursary for 2012.
His short fiction collection "Greetings Hero" was published by Honest Publishing in September 2014.

1.  "It is the habit of approaching works of art in order to interpret them that sustains the fancy that there really is such a thing as the content of a work of art" - from  "Against Interpetation" by Susan Sontag

As a writer, how do you feel when people Interpet your work, attribute meaning to it?, see things in it you never thought about?  
Who is your ideal reader?  

Right up until the first reviews I had very little experience of people’s reactions to my work. I have had helpful feedback in an informal writing group, but that was generally about the prose and plot mechanics, not a holistic interpretation.Actually one friend did ask me, after reading one of my pieces, “Why do you wanna write a story about that?”  
However one of the first public reactions to my work, from writer and Colin Wilson specialist Geoff Ward, described it thusGreetings, Hero presents a rather pessimistic view of life and existence, often portraying wasted rather than realised, or even partially realised, human potential.
This kind of reaction is more interesting to me than an analysis of prose style and structure. Some of my stories are finely balanced, presenting a situation or moment of decisionbut not nudging the reader into taking sides. Some of them were written some time ago, and since that time I have in effect taken sides on the dilemma presented.
Getting back to what Sontag says, it’s a good point (though I haven’t read her essay). But actually my own fiction, or at least some of it, does indeed have a core idea driving it.People are welcome to interpret my stories, I don’t dismiss it as a pointless activity. My ideal reader is someone who is trying to make sense things - someone maybe in their early twenties, maybe any age, who is still absorbing fiction anddipping into it as a kind of toolbox for living, someone who has not yet decided what the answers are.

2.  It seems more and more writers have MAs in creative writing, some PhDs.  Education is a great thing but is there a negative side to this, will it produce in few years a literary culture where lacking this degree will make it hard to get published?. Is it homogenizing writing styles? Will the day of the amateur writer who comes from nowhere and changes everything be over because of this?  Does it give you pause to know the University of Iowa M A in writing scholarships for students from outside the USA, were for years funded by the C. I. A? 

A friend in the states who is a professor of English literature at CUA cut out that article by Eric Bennett and posted it to me here in Dublin. From that you can guess he’s a bit older, or he would have checked and found that it’s online.
The mention of the CIA in the subheadline made me think it might be some sort of conspiracy theory, but it’s actually a well-researched very reasonable article. 
There are all sorts of forces which are eroding the vitality of writing and fiction and making it modest in scope. As Bennett puts it: ‘reduced intellectual engagement and a narrow definition of what is considered literary’. He talks about writing that gets you seeing and tasting and touching but never gets you thinking. I think these trends have happened in Ireland and the UK too, where the influence of writing MAs is less. So I reckon something other than Iowa (and the CIA) is to blame.
Personally I love the idea of writers emerging from outside what you might call the main track of Eng lit / journalism. Itgets my interest if I hear a writer has worked in the post office or manual labour, or as a scientist or philosopher.

3.   Where can we find you online? and Facebook

4. Besides reading and writing, what are some of your hobbies or interests. ?

Cycling, playing go, walking along deserted roads or to places people don’t normally walk toI walked out of London a long time ago, and recently I heard Will Self has the same habit.

5.   how and when did you begin to write? 

I read the notebooks of Dylan Thomas in the local library.They were published in book form, but with scored lines and edits retained. They had long rambling poems with short lines.Dylan used to write them every single day. I thought to myself, My god, he was writing such good stuff at fifteena whole year younger than me”.

6.  How impacted is your creativity by the cycles of the seasons?

The cold and damp bothers me now. I used to be invulnerable. Itend to agree with Heraclitus, that the dry soul is the wisest and best.  

7.   Who are some of your favorite contemporary short story writers, poets or novelists?  What classic writers do you find your self drawn to reread.  If a neophyte writer in your primary focus were to ask you who to read, what might you suggest?

I love Philip O Ceallaigh’s work, and Mike McCormack’s stories. Adam Marek’s stories are always fascinating. I was impressed more recently with Jennifer Egan’s prose, both the stories and her novel A Visit from the Goon Squad, it really took me by surpriseI’ve always admired the depth of Joyce Carol Oates’ vision and the range of her skills. I’m beginning to read Michel Faber now.
As regards the classic, I read William Blake’s poetry again and again. I’m also starting Hermann Hesse’s Glass Bead Gameagain. It’s been a while since I read Dostoyevsky and I’m going to get around to reading him again. He’s one of only a few writers of whom I can say I’ve read most of their work.I’ve read a lot of Joyce Carol Oates, but I still don’t think I’ve reached the half way mark.
To the neophyte writer, I’d say read Goethe. He’s a massive cultural icon but nobody seems to read him much in English.

8.   Frank  O'Connor in The Lonely Voice:  A Study of the Short Story said short stories seem to be about marginalized people, the lonely, those with little voice in society.   Do you think he is on to something illuminating about the format?  Why is there so much loneliness in the short story?

Interesting question, I have to agree there are more marginalised and lonely people in short stories. I suppose a whole novel about the powerless is harder to sustain. Chekov in one of his stories has a character say that the peasants in the olden days used to be happy and have a great dignity to them. Now they had become poor and deprived citizens. In other words, you are not marginalized until you become life could be otherwise.
Yes, short stories are certainly a great tool for shining a light into the life of someone who is chiefly defined (or self-defined) by what they are not, or have not achieved.
If little happens in a person’s life, it’s a bigger challenge to make a novel out of it.

9.  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 itswriters.?   I cannot imagine The Brothers Karamazov being written on tropical island, for example. 

Maybe it’s simply because the wealthier, more powerful countries are better at drawing attention to their writers and providing the conditions for them to write and be read. Back in ancient times the greatest writers were – naturally enough – in Greece and Rome. You say you can’t imagine The Brothers Karamazov being written on a tropical island. But think of the Southern Gothic genre for example, with Carson McCullers and William Faulkner, and the grotesque / spooky / magical realist elements to that style. And then think that this stuff was written in a subtropical zone of brilliant sunshine and wide open spaces.
So I’m not convinced that the Irish weather has any direct influence, attractive as it may be to speculate about the capricious changes of wind, precious moments of sunshine amongdays of gloom, and relate these to supposed characteristics ofthe Irish soul.

10.   Many cultures are permeated with references to seemingly supernatural creatures, some kind some manavolent.  Do you feel any sense of these entities in the world you look out on in your daily life or in your writings?  Do you sense a continuity between the natural and supernatural worlds.  Is a belief in the supernatural just escapism and wishful thinking?  Is the believe in occult systems the refuge of the powerless?

For me the world is bizarre and unfinished and baffling enough without any need of supernatural elements to spice it up.Realism is maybe not enough to understand the world. And if you think things through rigorously, if there is a supernatural realm and you find out the rules that govern it, then it becomes just an extra part of the ordinary world. Each decision at any moment of the day is an intrusion of what is beyond the natural. The concepts we use to make sense of the world were created by the imagination of others.
No, I’m not attracted to occult systems. They were in vogue in the early 20th century. Maybe they reappear in modern form asconspiracy theories and cults, and as political extremism.

11.   These are loaded question coming from me, but with the decline of print reviews, are book blogs becoming more important?  Professional critics have denigrated book bloggers as reviewers without credentials,book bloggers have replied professional reviewers just don't like bloggers doing for free what they ask money for doing? Reviewers do it for money, bloggers for love.  What is your reaction to this?  Do you join book tours or send bulk mailings out asking for reviews?  

I’m a big fan of book review websites, particularly those that have built up a reputation for being independent. I read them and rely on them far more than on print reviews. Part of the reason is simply that it’s harder to access print reviews online, you might have to pay etc. I guess print reviews still have more prestige, though I can’t say I’ve noticed a higher standard of professionalism. A lot of print reviews are by writers themselves, and not by the professional reviewers you mention. The independence of the reviewer is to me more important than the expertise or the reputation of the publication. Yes, I sent out emails to six or seven of my favourite review sites, letting them know I have a book out. I have reviews at Quadrapheme and at Bookmunch.

12.  When you write, do you picture an audience or do you just write?  

No audience. Just a disembodied listener who might interrupt every so often and say ‘that doesn’t make sense’.

13.  What are the last three novels you read?  Last three movies?  do you have any favoriteTV shows?  Are there literary works you find reverberate in your mind in happy or in dark times?

Last 3 novels were Banville’s Book of Evidence (for the second time), Mysteries by Knut Hamsun, and Miss Garnet’s Angel
by Salley Vickers. That last was one I bought at the Cork short story festival. But actually most of the books I’ve been reading recently have been short story collections. 
I don’t have a television. The licence man used to come by every year, and then he gave up and I never saw him again.

14.  Amazon - as a reader I like it a lot-  but is it a monster slowly taking down small publishers and independent book stores, controlling what books succeed? Is it bad for authors?

Very few things in the world are black and white. Every change brings both benefits and drawbacks, and there are always going to be those who fear change. But one thing is clear: the concentration of such power by a single organisation is bad, particularly in the arts.

15.Are you open to  e mail, Facebook or Twitter, contact with your readers or do you fear stalkers or don't want to be bothered?

Back six or seven or nine years ago I used to post my stories on my website, because there was nowhere to publish them. (Many were too long for magazines.)  My email address was on the page. Nobody ever contacted me, though the stories werethere for years. Aliens now, I worry about them, and zombies,there could be a zombie around the next corner. But I haven’t worried about stalkers.
Update some weeks later: At a literary event a month after the book launch a guy approached me in the pub and said he was impressed by my writing and looked forward to reading the book. This puzzled me. He explained he’d read the online stuff. I was still puzzled - I had never thought of people reading them.

16.  Have you attended creative writing workshops and if you have share your experiences a bit please.  

They are great, particularly if you begin one with few expectations. It’s surprising what you might learn, a new appreciation for a type of fiction you don’t normally read, or simply to realise the vast range of reasons why people write and what they hope to achieve. They don’t always make you a better writer, but it won’t kill you to try one.

17. Not long ago I was sent several very hostile messages from Irish writers demanding to know why I had posted on the works of other writers and not them.  Some suggested I had been influenced  by some sort of shadowy group to ignore their work. I was informed there is a small elite group who decides who gets reviewed, published or receives grants and it was also  suggested they had sent me negative feedback on writers I should ignore. What is mentally behind this?  Is there anything like a Literary Mafia within your area.?

Well, if I choose not to answer this one it could be because I’m afraid of the Literary Mafia, No, there is no such circle of influence I am aware of. I’m actually amazed you got messages like that. Did they sign their names? Maybe they know something I don’t know. I got an Arts Council bursary in 2012– maybe I’m in the mafia and don’t know it? And a week ago the Irish Times reviewed my book. How did I arrange for that to happen?

18.  Quick Pick Questions

A.  tablets or laptops or smart phones?
Smart phones

B.  E readers or traditional books?

C.  American Fast Food- love it, hate it, or once and a while?
Once in a while.

D.  Cats or dogs?

E.  best city to inspire a writer- Paris, London, Dublin, or?  

F.  Walt Whitman or Willam Butler Yeats?   

G.  Roberto Bolano or Gabriel Cruz Marquez ?

K.  Winter or SummerDay or Night?
Summer nights

I.  Would you rather witness opening night for Waiting for Godot, King Lear, Playboy of the Western World or Ubo Roi?
King Lear

19,How important is it to you to have readers?  Does it matter. ?

I’ve got used to not having readers. At this stage I wouldn’t know what to say to a reader of my work.

20.  Is the notion that someone is a writer of "Women's" literature just one step above calling their work chic lit?  Statistics show that women read much more fiction then men, why is this so?  Is it patronizing to refer to a work as a great work of literature by a woman, a gay, a person of color as no one ever seems to say War and Peace is a great white men's work?

Yes, “women’s literature” sounds bizarre and potentially demeaning to me. The more so because you don’t hear of ‘men’s’ literature. I am surprised to see that some bookshops have a separate section for ‘women’s literature’.
As regards women reading more than men, I can well believe it. I don’t think there’s any innate reason for this, that it means women are more attuned to language or anything like that.
Yes, it is patronising to refer to a work as a great novel by a woman etc. but seriously, does anybody actually do that?  

21.If you found out that a favorite writer of yours was grossly bigoted would you lose interest in them?

Interesting question. I might not lose interest, but I think Iwould read their work in a different way. I tend to go for writers who have something driving them, some world-view they are trying to convey through their writing, or something biting them. I used to read the likes of Hemingway, Hesse, Camus, and with such writers their work evolves but keeps coming back to tackle the same issues, the same search for truth or expressionOn the other hand if the author of a cold war thriller turned out to be a notorious misogynistic homophobe it probably wouldn’t bother me much. I probably wouldn’t be reading that kind of book in the first place.

22. Is the large number of pedagological professionals involved in literary reviewing a limiting thing, with the reviewers stuck at the intellectual, cultural and emotional level of their pupils? Does the need to "teach" literature force interpretations and paraphrasing as the standard modes to view literature? Or worst yet, political interpretations based on biographical data?

The strange thing about literature as an academic subject is that the object of study is not the same as what the writerwas concerned with. If you study philosophy or physics, you are following the same thought processes as Kant or Landau. But the problems that the writer wished to tackle or portrayin his/her writing, these might not be addressed at all in an academic study. For example the writer might be confronting a crisis of lack of faith, or trying to make sense of sudden change, or just trying to drag people down to his/her own pessimistic view.
However I didn’t study English lit at college, so I’m not too familiar with how it’s done. I have tried the odd time to tackle books on critical theory, and it’s fascinating stuff in small doses. 


I offer my great thanks to Aiden O'Reilly for his very interesting carefully considered responses. I hope to be able to follow his writings in the coming years.  

Mel u

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