March 1 to March 31
A Question and Answer Session
I first became acquainted with the work of Brian Kirk when I read his very well done short story, "The Shawl" in Long Story Short. Brian Kirk's story "The Shawl" represents to me one of the most basic reasons I have continued Irish Short Story Month for three years and hope to continue it many more. It is a great feeling to me to read a story by a new to me writer who seems just at the start of his writing career and hope I will be able to watch her or him develop into a major writer. I have learned enough about the life and business world of Irish writers to know that it takes more than just talent. You have to find people willing to read your work and at some point pay you for it. This is far from easy, I know. (My post on "The Shawl" is here-it contains a link to the story.)
I liked "The Shawl" so much the next day I read and posted on a very different short story by Brian Kirk, "New Amsterdam". I would not have done this had I totally liked his first story. (My post on it contain a link to the story.
Brian Kirk was shortlisted for Hennessy Awards for fiction in 2008 and 2011. He won the inaugural Writing Spirit Award in 2009 with his story Perpetuity. In 2010 and 2011 he was a featured reader at The Lonely Voice platform for new short story writers at the Irish Writers’ Centre. He is currently seeking a publisher for his first novel and is completing work on debut poetry and short story collections. He was chosen to be part of the Poetry Ireland Introductions Series 2013. His poems and stories have appeared in Sharp Stick, Driven Nails published by The Stinging Fly Press, the Sunday Tribune, Crannóg, The Stony Thursday Book, Revival, Abridged, Southword, Boyne Berries, Wordlegs, Burning Bush 2, WortMosaik, Can Can, Shot Glass Journal, Bare Hands Poetry, The First Cut and various anthologies.
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?
Contemporary there are many: Tobias Wolff, Hanif Kureshi, Annie Proulx, Richard Ford, Claire Keegan, Kevin Barry – I could go on and on. As to the three best ever, that’s difficult. I’d have to say Joyce, because of his pivotal role in creating a modern short story. Chekhov also, and maybe Raymond Carver.
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. What does this say about Irish culture?
I think it reflects the society, which is what literature does. It’s still very rare in Ireland to have any kind of “event” without alcohol being involved. It brings tons of social problems with it of course, and it must be a pain in the ass to be a non-drinker in Ireland.
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?
He’s right to an extent. Certainly in the past it was a kind of Irish story trope, as was the redoubtable Irish Mammy. All this is changing, however, as society changes and roles between the genders are blurred. But even in Ulysses we had Stephen’s father Simon – the quintessential waster and weak man. In my stories this idea still comes through to a degree. In my story That Day I tell the story from a boy’s perspective of how his father becomes weak (in every sense) following an illness, and how this undermines the boy’s sense of himself and the world.
4. Can you tell us a bit about your educational and professional background?
I went to secondary school at the Christian Brothers in Swords, just north of Dublin city. I went to college, Marketing, for about 3 weeks after school but quit and got a clerical job in the Civil Service. I quit that after about three and half years and moved to London where I did various office jobs and studied English Literature at night at Birkbeck College, University of London. I moved back to Dublin in the 90s, got married and worked at various crappy jobs before I took a job with Dublin City Council. From 2006 I started to work a three day week and I devote the rest of my time to writing.
5. How do you view Aosdána? Is it a great aid to the arts in Ireland or does it perpetuate closed elitism?
I don’t really have an opinion about Aosdána, but I have the impression the Arts Council would be better off funding new writers – there are plenty of us out there.
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. Imagine Ireland with a tropical no stress climate, would it still have produced so much great literature?
This is very hard to answer. Certainly the output of the colder climes is amazing, but perhaps only because I’m not as familiar with a lot of the work from other continents. But there are writers like Marquez, Bolano, and Hemingway and Conrad who created great literature set in tropical climates.
7. A character in an Ali Smith short story, asks in a conversation on the merits of short stories versus novels ""Is the short story a goddess and nymph and is the novel an old whore?" Does this make a bit of sense to you?
I can understand this only in the sense that the story has a cleaner identity – you can almost hold it in your hand and study it and wonder at it, as a writer as much as a reader. Whereas the novel – and I know this to my detriment – can demand all of your attention all the time, to such a degree that it loses all sense of unity, becomes blurred even, or meaningless in the way an everyday word becomes absurd through constant repetition. A novel can be like an old whore, in that it can be ugly but alluring and it always demands that you pay and pay again.
8. Who do you regard as the first modern Irish short story writer?
It has to be Joyce – Dubliners.
9. Why have the Irish produced such a disproportionate to their population number of great writers?
It’s very hard to say. There are probably more Irish people writing per head of population than any other race in the world. It is an attractive occupation in some ways, but you have to be prepared for the hard slog if you are serious about your work. I can understand why people might dabble, but I can’t explain why we have so many committed and talented writers. Perhaps we are masochists.
10. "New Amsterdam", a great short story, deals with both the 9/11/2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Holocaust-why did you make this connection or can you just talk a bit about what you see as the connection between these two events.
This story began at a workshop I attended run by Dermot Bolger, the poet, playwright and novelist. Around that time I was reading quite a bit about the war in Europe and I was, like most people, still very much affected by what happened on 9/11. The link between New York (New Amsterdam) in 2001 Amsterdam at the time of the occupation came to me from the start. The parallels seemed undeniable. The lack of understanding of what was transpiring among the ordinary people and the fear which spread and fed on itself etc.
The story came quite naturally, but I worked on it a good bit with help from fellow writers, Colm Keegan and Tony Higgins. I was also reading a biography of Van Morrison I remember at that time and from that I stole the whole post-war blues vibe (Morrison’s father apparently brought home rare blues and jazz records from the US where he worked and this is where Van’s fascination began). I think I had a cameo from Van in a Woodstock cabin in an early version which luckily got cut. Editing is the most important part of writing.
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?
I think it plays a part. There is part of me that just wants to be modern and deny all the history (even the recent stuff) – we Irish can’t escape our pasts no matter what. But there are times when it’s good to visit these sites – places that are very, very old. It’s like looking at the stars, it gives you a sense of perspective, it puts you in your place in the best of ways, helps you to escape the self, which is what you need if you want to be a writer. I recommend The Burren in Co. Clare – you get a true sense of a past that goes way back there.
12. How important are the famines to the modern Irish psyche?
Hugely important. We all studied the Famine at school and it became a bit like the Irish Language in that it lost it’s meaning for a lot of us. In recent times some books and poetry and art in Ireland have really brought the colossal impact back into focus. Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea would have highlighted the Famine to many around the world. When you consider that over 1 million died in the late 1840s and that more than that again left the country you get a sense of what we have lost. But there began the diaspora; from such a terrible loss we have gained so much also, the idea of Irishness and an Irish people spread all over the world – and this before we even ruled ourselves.
13. 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?
I think it can do and probably does, but not so much in the violence or heavy drinking of characters. I think sentimentality is the true failing of the “stage Irishman” as espoused by Hollywood and certain writers of the “ah shur what harm” variety.
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 too, assuming you agree, has shaped Irish literature?
I think he’s right, that a nation’s literature will reflect that nation and therefore an empire will have victorious heroes and a colonies country will have brave failures as their heroes. I think Yeats was writing at a certain time, however, and he also had one eye on his project – the creation of a Literary Movement – and he needed to define that movement and in Ireland sometimes the best definition or description we can come up with is “not English”.
I think literature – like all art – has changed in the last century. Since the First World War the canvas has become smaller, the focus not on the national or the heroic or their opposites, but on the individual in society. Take Kafka as an example, his stories reflect the absurd experience of one man amid the swell of bureaucracy. The sense of place is less important in the Modern world. Also, modern British and American poets often write out of a sense moral outrage at the injustices their own country has perpetrated – Wilfred Owen, Allen Ginsberg etc.
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 don’t think they’re going to change the world, but I do think they can change the way people feel, albeit temporarily. A well written poem can give so much to a reader in terms of making manifest an alternative to the humdrum world and the accepted way of seeing the world. Good poetry has the same effect as putting on infra red goggles at night – you see things you wouldn’t ordinarily see.
16. Best literary tourist experience in Dublin?
There’s a lot going on these days. The recession ironically seems to have provoked a reaction in creativity. There are loads of new journals, print and web, and many regular readings. The best are The Brownbread Mixtape sessions upstairs in the Stag’s Head off Dame Street on the last Wednesday of every month. Then there’s Nighthawks at the Cobalt, Monday Echo at International and the Ash Sessions in Ranelagh. There are also regular readings at the Irish Writers Centre and then of course you have the Abbey Theatre, the Gate Theatre, the Project Arts Theatre, Axis Theatre Ballymun, Smock Alley Theatre –
17. Best places in Dublin, near Trinity College, to get Fish and Chips, Irish Stew, or a traditional breakfast?
For fish and chips Burdocks at Christchurch.
18. Do you ever imagine as you walk about Dublin the great writers who might have stood where you do? How does this, if it does, shape your writing or ambitions?
I used to do – nowadays I just try to write as much as possible.
19. E Readers-the harbingers of a great new era in reading or the sign of a coming collapse of the quality of literature and reading?
I think E Readers are a good thing – there are so many distractions these days, and anything that promotes or facilitates reading can only be good. Having said that I still prefer actual books, but I do read from screens an awful lot from necessity – and it doesn’t bother me. It’s the quality of the work that matters. I have published some of my stories at Ether Books which is new venture whereby stories can be downloaded to iphone, ipod or ipad. Currently they are preparing an app for android.
20. How important is social media in the development of the career of writers?
Very. At a time when publishers are taking on less new writers you have to have an online presence if you want to attract readers – and let’s face it every writer needs readers.
21. OK let us close out on this note-what is your reaction these lines from a famous Irish poet?
I was born to the stink of whiskey and failure
And the scattered corpse of the real.
This is my childhood and country:
The cynical knowing smile
Plastered onto ignorance
Ideals untarnished and deadly
Because never translated to action
The sick glorification of failure.
Our white marble statues were draped in purple
The bars of the prison were born in our eyes
And if reality ever existed
It was a rotten tooth
That couldn't be removed. Michael O'Loughlin
I like this very much. I did a poetry workshop with Michael a few years back and learned a great deal without really noticing until later. He is not afraid to speak his mind and be direct in his work. This piece reflects a change in Irish Society that occurred in the 70s and 80s when a new generation openly distanced themselves from the old “values”. In recent times he wrote a series of poems purporting to be by a Latvian poet in exile Mikelis Norgelis, which allowed him to comment (via his alter ego) on Irish society with the clear eye of an outsider. The poems in the sequence are excellent and I enjoyed the wicked sense of humour also – it’s great to see that in poetry sometimes.
My great thanks for Brian Kirk for taking the time to provide such interesting and well thought out responses to my questions.
You can learn more about Brian Kirk and his work on his very well done webpage