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

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Clodagh O'Brien A Question and Answer Session with the author of "Mission Improbable"

March 1 to March 31
A Question and Answer Session with
Clodagh O'Brien
author of "Mission Improbable"

If you are interested in participating in ISSM3 (which may be extended until April 7 as their are lot of things still to happen) then please e mail me

Not lot long ago I read a very interesting short story by Clodagh O'Brien (Dublin) called "Mission Improbable".  Here is part of what I said about it:  "Today I read a story by Clodagh O'Brien, Dublin, "Mission Improbable ,  which has one of the most shocking never saw it coming in a million years surprise endings I have ever read.   Imagine a short story produced by Saki and H.P. Lovecraft  with a bit of help from Philip Jose Farmer and you can get sort of the idea for the feel of this story."  (You can read it here and you will thank me if you do.)

Author Data

Clodagh O'Brien writes short stories, poetry and is working on the rickety bones of a novel. Her work has appeared in wordlegsthefirstcutBare Hands Poetry, The Blue Staircase and Other Short Stories anthology, Paragram 'Connections' anthology and is forthcoming in and The Poetry Bus amongst others. A number of her short stories have been turned into podcasts which you can listen to on In 2002 she won the Daily Telegraph ‘Young Science Writer of the Year Award' Earlier this year she was longlisted for the Doire Press 2nd Annual Fiction Chapbook Competition and has also been longlisted for the 2012 Over the Edge New Writer of the Year and  Spoken Ink‘s audio story competition in 2011. After years of wandering the globe she has returned to her roots and resides in Dublin.
There are links to more of her work on her webpage.

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?  

This is a tough first question Mel but I will try my best to be succinct!

From a contemporary perspective there are a lot of great short story writers out there but I have three favourites at the moment.

Claire Keegan is a great short story writer. Delicate and elegant she brings you into stories with ease. I recently finished her ‘Walk the Blue Fields’ which is a collection about Ireland wrestling with its past and how that fits into their future. Setting plays a huge role in her stories, most often rural Ireland which under her guidance always features as an important and interesting character.

Kevin Barry’s ‘There Are Little Kingdoms’ is another great collection. He is a writer that assaults you with his words and likes to dwell in the underbelly of people, life and society. His stories drag you in by the feet, swing you around and then propel you away. Great stuff!

A short story writer I only came across last year is Laura Hird. Her collection ‘Nail and other Stories’ are unforgiving. A bit like Barry she drags you in by the feet. One of her stories that stayed with me a long time afterwards was ‘Of Cats and Women’ which is about a woman stalking her ex. It is unforgiving and violent in the level of jealousy and hatred coursing through this woman’s body. I will definitely be keeping an eye out for her next one.

In regards to the three best ever they would be Roald Dahl, Raymond Carver & Angela Carter.

I recently finished Angela Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chambers’ which brought me from one surreal fairytale and legend inspired story to another. She had a magical touch with an ability to twist and bend words to her will. I wish she was still around.

I have always loved Roald Dahl and grew up on his books as a child. I still love and read them. His ability to have a wonderful twist at the end of a story is superior to any other writer I have yet read. His ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ stories managed to alarm, delight and scare the crap out of me on many occasions.

I have not read enough of Raymond Carver yet, but those I have read are startling. He uses easy and crisp language to paint a scene and a situation, which is so expertly done you don’t realise what he’s done until you read it again. I particularly love his story ‘Bath’ about a child getting knocked over on his birthday and the parents waiting for him to wake up.

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.

Irish short stories and fiction do have a lot of references to alcohol and a huge part of that is it plays a large role in our culture. Due to the weather (which is pretty grey and rainy as most visitors to Ireland can attest to) a lot of our time is spent indoors, typically in environments such as restaurants or pubs where alcohol is flowing. Those environments are also very social and Irish people are sociable people with a tradition of traditional music and storytelling which features a huge amount in these venues and still does to a lesser extent. Alcohol abuse is an issue in Irish society and there is some shift in public policy to try and highlight that, but we have quite a way to go.      

3.  Declan Kiberd has said the dominant theme of modern Irish literature is that of the weak or missing father?  Do you agree with this?  

I’m not sure if it is a dominant theme, but it is definitely a theme. I think the perception of family is changing so much in Ireland from step-siblings to one parent families to same sex families to adoptive families that the theme of ‘family’ is evolving. I do feel that a lot of books rely on a missing or flawed parent to drive a story which is getting a bit tired. What is wrong with two parents being together in a story? Does one of them always have to be an alcoholic, an abuser or not around to make a good plot/story?

4.  When did you start writing?

I think I have always written. Poems and short stories mainly as a child and could always found with my nose in a book. I worked as a science journalist in London for a number of years and on returning to Ireland found the new role I took on was making me pretty miserable. So I decided to take a year off and take the plunge. That was three years ago and I’m still going albeit with a part-time job now as writing as of yet is not paying the bills!

5.   You probably have more scientific training and experience than the vast majority of writers do-how has or has this impacted your writings.

I have always been fascinated by science, or maybe more so how things work. I studied biology at University and while I loved learning, realised there wasn’t much future for me in it research-wise. I’m not the type to spend hours with pipettes and Bunsen burners!

However a lot of that interest and learning bleeds into my writing. The novel I am currently rewriting is based on a transplant and I tend to view things from a logical point of view. I love reading fantasy but struggle to write it. I just find that my mind just won’t bend that way and so often write stark and ‘real’ perspectives rather than a dream-like or fantastical point of view. My first published short story which you featured on this blog ‘Mission Improbable’ is rooted in science, but I wrote it with an intentional vagueness from the start to ensure there was a twist at the end. I might have been channelling some of Roald Dahl while writing that one!    

6..  Why have the Irish produced such a disproportional to their population number of great writers?

Ireland is rooted in art. A huge amount of Irish people are creative and encouraged to be in their homes. Music plays a huge role in our culture which leads to song-writing to poetry to fiction and so on. I have often wondered how such a small population can produce such a great array of writers and am still not sure of the answer. We have a troubled past which may cast a shadow that we cannot or don’t want to shrug off. In addition Ireland is full of interesting and unique characters in a sweeping landscape unmatched by anywhere else. Perhaps there is also a culture of support for writers here. I have found that when admitting you are writing a book there will be three others that are doing the same things in a single room.  

7.   (This may seem like a silly question but I pose it anyway-do you believe in Fairies?-this quote from Declain 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 think it’s a great question! I remember seeing a documentary about the young girls that took the photographs of the fairies - Cottingley Fairies - at the end of their garden and it creating a sensation. Only years later did the girls admit they were fakes. In a way I wish they had just been left for people to make up their own minds as to their autenticity, we all need a little magic in the world.

It might sound crazy but despite my science background I wouldn’t dismiss fairies totally out of hand. I think that believing in ‘fairies’ is as legitimate as believing in spirits or Gods. The little people are a great legend for Ireland and we do capitalise on it. While I haven’t seen any pots of the gold at the end of rainbows, I have an aunt who is sure she heard the wailing of a banshee the night a neighbour died, and to this day nobody can convince her otherwise. 

8.   You have travelled quite a bit, what finally drew you back to Ireland? 

I grew up in Saudi Arabia so was used to a somewhat nomadic life. From an early age travelling was in my blood. As there was a recession in Ireland it was tough for my parents to find work so we moved around a lot. Then when the time came for me to start my life I decided that England was the best option. Since then I have spent a lot of time backpacking around different continents and loved every minute of it. But for me and a lot of Irish people there was a draw back to the emerald isle. My family had finally moved back to Ireland and I felt a need to settle down. To be honest it was an experiment to see if it would stick, but 9 years later I’m still here and don’t see myself moving again. 

9.  How important are the famines to the modern Irish psyche?  

The famine is a scar in our history. It is always there, but fading. It was a stark time that is remembered and spoken of often; in the media, in art, in public commentary. There are a number of amazing sculptures around the country marking the people that died in the Famine. I don’t think we should forget these tragedies, without memory they are too easily repeated.

10.  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 and short stories?

He definitely lives on but to be honest there are a lot of hard drinking, violent and welfare people still in existence in Ireland. They have evolved into different types of characters that are less stereotypical, but the nugget of that ‘stage Irishman’ still exists. 

11.  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

That’s an interesting point and I wasn’t aware of that similarity with the Philippines. Irish literature does tend to favour the unvictorious or down on their luck character. Perhaps it is more about redemption than the failure. I think Ireland is a melancholy place with a penchant for indulging in the failings and wrongs rather than pulling back and seeing how many victories and rights there actually are.  

12.  Tell us a bit about your years living in Saudi Arabia.

As a child I just adapted, but what I muse on most now is the segregation. We lived in compounds with high walls and were always kept separate from the general population. Our school was a huge oasis in the middle of the desert that we had to be ready at 6am to be picked up for. You can’t get much further than that! However, it was a great place to learn and was full of people from all nationalities so I heard about and had knowledge of different cultures from an early age, which I don’t think would have happened in Ireland.

From a sensory perspective I recall the heat, so hot that you had to hop so the soles of your feet wouldn’t burn. It was a privileged experience and one I still haven’t really explored properly in my writing, something I need to rectify. 

13.  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 think poets are hugely important to contemporary Ireland. What I have seen more of in the past few years is spoken poets; artists with a political or social agenda that speak frankly on issues that interest them. Poets just like songwriters are social commentators and can and should respond to what is going on in the world around them. I hope that the days of poetry being a misunderstood form recited to small crows in small rooms being very much in the past. 

14.  "To creative artists may have fallen the task of explaining what no historian has fully illuminated – the reason why the English came to regard the Irish as inferior and barbarous, on the one hand, and, on the other, poetic and magical."-is this right?  Kiberd, Declan (2009-05-04). Inventing Ireland (p. 646).

I would agree with that. I guess historians are just that, there to report on historical fact and while there is some flexibility as a historical commentator it always has to be backed up with some snippet of proof. Creative artists on the other hand have free reign and can presume, contemplate and draw conclusions. I think to some degree Irish people still have an inkling of this perspective from people in other countries in the fact that we are full of creative people and folklore while at the same time drinking too much. 
15. how hard was it to make the transition from scientific writing too creative?

When I decided scientific writing wasn’t for me I had a gap of a few years when I worked in marketing and PR, which gave me a good detachment. So when I started writing creatively I had enough distance to be able to start again.

Saying that I had difficulty allowing myself to stray away from the line of fact – ‘that would never happen’ needed to become ‘but you can make it happen’. The creative license when writing was definitely a steep learning curve which harks back to the mindset I was in while writing science.

Overall I found the hardest thing was finding my style with creative writing, a thing I still struggle with sometimes.

16. Does living in Dublin knowing the many great writers who lived there once walked where you walk inspire your writing?

It inspires and stunts. There are so many great writers from here both living and dead that sometimes it makes me wonder how I will ever compete! I am proud to come from such a distinguished legacy though and W.B Yeats has always inspired me. His poem 'He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven' is one of the first I ever learnt and it sill makes me well up when I read it. 

I think the best thing about living in Dublin is that it is a wonderful environment to write in and there are many ways to express yourself; from open mics to writing workshops to literary competitions. If you want to immerse yourself in literature it is as easy as stepping off the bus.

17.  Do you prefer e reading or traditional books?

Traditional books, although I do read a lot of short stories online. I love the feel and smell of a new book. My favourite thing to do is lie in bed with a great book and a cup of hot chocolate. It just isn’t the same with a digital device.
18.  When you are outside Ireland, besides friends and family, what do you miss the most?   what are you glad to be away from?

I miss the warmth of people. I know a lot of people probably say that, but there is a warmth to Irish people. You can be in a queue, on a bus, waiting to see a doctor, posting a letter etc and someone will either speak to you or smile at you. Of course this isn’t everyone, but the majority. That and the landscape. It has breathtaking landscape from mountains to endless beaches to dense forests, which is all the more beautiful on a sunny day even though they are few and far between. Tea is another thing. For some reason the tea here tastes as if it was born here.

I would be glad to be away from the weather (no surprises there!). I swear I get SAD syndrome in winter, which is currently lasting for nearly 4 months. I also would be glad to be away from the lack of action. People constantly moan about the recession and the austerity measures, which in most cases are driving the most vulnerable further out to the margins of society, but we do nothing about it.   
19.  If you could time travel for 30 days (and be rich and safe) where would you go and why?

Wow that’s a hard one. Part of me wants to say the future as it would be unchartered and nothing could prepare you but on the other hand returning to the time of the space race would allow me to witness an amazing time in our history.
20.  Can you tell us a bit about your work experiences outside of the literary world?

I have worked in the area of marketing and PR for the past 7 years for a number of charities. It can be rewarding, but also frustrating. When I lived in London I wrote for and worked in the advertising department of New Scientist, which I absolutely loved, but couldn’t make the transition into being a full-time journalist there so left to work for a large publishing house as a journalist.

I have been very lucky in my roles outside the literary world in that they have provided me with experience, friends and knowledge I wouldn’t have got otherwise. 

21.  Have you attended creative writing work shops and if you have share your experiences a bit please. Have you taught them?

Two years ago I did a 6 month novel writing course with Stinging Fly, which is an independent publisher in Ireland. Until then I had only done courses that were a few weeks or a day here and there and never got much from them, probably because I wasn’t really ready to fully commit. This course changed everything. The teacher was hugely insightful and gave constructive and helpful feedback that allowed you to think and grow as a writer. In addition I met some great writers, two of which are getting published this year so I’m hoping that the adage of good things coming in threes applies to me!

22.   Best Literary Festival you have so far attended?

Listowel Writers Festival. It’s a 3 day event in Kerry in summer and is packed with all types of writers from poets to screenwriters. The atmosphere is great and there are literary events every night along with the chance to take part in an open mics. In addition they get great writers to come and speak such as Colm Toibin., Alice Sebold and Simon Armitage. I couldn’t recommend it enough.   

23.   Flash Fiction-how driven is the popularity of this form by social media like Twitter and its word limits?

I like flash fiction and tend to write short-short stories anyway from 1, 500 to 3,000 words, so am a fan of less is more. However I do think social media has made people less patient and the web as an entity tends to be more suited to images rather than words. I think videos that combine images and poetry along with spoken word videos are very effective in creating a new audience and it is something writers should be doing more of. I am currently trying to organise one of my poems to be filmed in Dublin as it centres around O’Connell Bridge but it is taking time.

However I think the key and lesson to be learned from the growth of flash fiction is that if your story - be it a novel, short story, poem etc. - doesn’t grab someone in the first two lines than perhaps it’s your structure or writing that’s the issue. 

24. How important in shaping the literature of Ireland is its proximity to the sea?  

Hugely important. As an island adrift from central Europe we are isolated geographically which has a great influence on the Irish psyche. The sea plays a huge role in literature, a muse to many Irish writers from its physicality to its power. I find there is nothing more inspirational than going for a walk along the sea front and always find it amazing what images and thoughts rise to the surface. I recently got a sea inspired poem published in Poetry Bus magazine called ‘The Monolith of Sandymount’ if you want to check it out.

25.    Best literary tourist experience in Dublin?

There is a literary walk around Dublin that goes from Temple Bar, which I have hard great things about! I have yet to take the plunge…

26.  Quick Picks
a.  Cats or Dogs? Dogs, cats are too selfish!
b.  BBC or RTE? BBC without a shadow of a doubt
c.  dining out at breakfast, lunch or dinner? Lunch
d.  Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights Wuthering Heights
e.  city with the biggest literary ego in Ireland? Dublin
31.  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 
And everywhere 
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

A powerful poem. You can literally smell and see his images. I particularly love ‘The bars of a prison were born in our eyes’. I assume it is referring to the occupation of Ireland by the British, which is still raw for many despite the time passed. There is a hangover of failure from that time due to not securing all of Ireland in the 1916 agreement and Northern Ireland is still owned and ruled by Britain. I believe Northern Ireland was sacrificed as a compromise with a view to later negotiation, but perhaps it is our failed legacy.

End of Q and A

I give me great thanks to Clodagh O'Brien for taking the time to give such well thought out and interesting responses to my questions.  I hope to read more of her work in the future and perhaps catch up with her with another Q and A  Session during ISSM4 March 2014, should I be so lucky as to be able to conduct it again.

Mel u

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