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

Louise Phillips A Question and Answer Session With the Author of Red Ribbons

March 1 to March 31
Q & A Session with
Louise Phillips

If you would like to participate in ISSM3, which will probably be extended to April 7, please contact me

I first became acquainted with the work of Louise Phillips when I recently read an posted on two of her very intriguing short stories. (My post is here.)  I am very happy and honored that she has agreed to do a Q and A Session for Irish Short Story Month Year III.  I think her writing career is one that should give hope an inspiration to lots of people so I will begin with her author bio.

Author Bio (from her webpage)

Louise Phillips returned to writing after a 20 year gap spent raising her family, managing a successful family business, and working in banking. Quickly selected by Dermot Bolger as an emerging talent, Louise went on to win the 2009 Jonathan Swift Award and in 2011 she was a winner in the Irish Writers’ Centre Lonely Voice Platform, as well as being short-listed for Bridport UK Prize, the Molly Keane Memorial Award, and the RTÉ Guide/Penguin Short Story Competition. In 2012 Louise was awarded an Arts bursary for literature from South County Dublin Arts. Louise's psychological crime novel, Red Ribbons, is published by Hachette Books Ireland, and has been shortlisted for the Best Irish Crime Novel of the Year 2012. Her second novel, The Doll's House, will be published in 2013. Other publishing credits include many literary journals and anthologies, including New Island's County Lines.

Q & A Session with Louise Phillips

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?

In the contemporary arena, I could probably ream off over a dozen, as there are so many amazing writers out there, but keeping things even, I would say,

Kevin Barry, Philip O Ceallaigh, and Ethel Rohan.

As for best ever short story writers, Frank O’Connor, would be top of the list, but I might be biased as he was the first short story writer I read as a young girl. William Trevor has to be in there too, and finally 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. How should an outsider take this and what does it say about Irish culture.   Drinking plays a big part in several of your stories.

It plays a bigger part, because it is a bigger part of us, and by that I mean, you would find it near on impossible to talk to an Irish person who hasn’t been affected by alcohol in some negative way. As writers we soak in the world around us and much and all as we would prefer for it to be otherwise, for generations we have used alcohol as a crutch, and still do. It has become part of our international identity - how many people saw President Obama drink a pint of Guinness on his visit to Ireland?

I hope things are changing – right now every sport events has alcohol advertisements hitting you in the face. There is talk of changing this, and that’s a beginning.  

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?

Again this goes down to culture, but thankfully this has moved on a great deal with the changing role of men in Irish society.
The first pram my father ever pushed had his grandchild in it. That is not to criticise him, as he behaved within social norms, but as I said, thankfully that has moved on.
There is still more work to be done, especially around teenage pregnancies and absent fathers, but in Hello, I think the story says more about the harm inflicted on the vulnerable in society by elements with an excess of power and control.   

4. Your bio says you stopped writing for 20 years to pursue a career and business interest. Tell us a bit about what motivated you to write, with great success, after a long time away from it.

It wasn’t so much pursuing a career in banking, but rather working to pay the bills! We had three young children, my husband was starting his own business, and things were tough in Ireland in the eighties and nighties. If I hadn’t been working outside the home, we wouldn’t have been able to provide for our family.

I always knew I would go back to writing, and it took courage to go to my first creative writing class after a twenty year gap. But I did, and that first night, a light glowed inside me with such force, that I knew I would never stop writing again. There have been many positives about taking that first step back, and I hope in a small way, it will encourage others, who for one reason or another had to pull back from something they loved, to do the same.

5. Your bio say you worked in banking for a long time, based on what I read on the Irish webpages and in blogs, bankers are not real popular in Ireland right now-is that fair? Is the fall of the Celtic Tiger the fault of greedy hyper rich bankers and brokers? Is this accurate, nuts or somewhere in between?

One could write a whole blog post on this, but suffice to say, bankers are not popular right now, and for very good reason. People are hurting, and hurting hard, and perhaps we’re still too close to it to draw a clear perspective. I've a feeling that when all the dust settles, we will recognise much of the harm done, was caused by greed and placing our truth blindly in others.

6.   How did your work come to the attention of Dermot Bolger

My first creative writing class was facilitated by Eileen Casey, whom you’ve featured on this site. At the end of the 10 week course, Eileen told me that Dermot Bolger had become Writer in Residence for South County Dublin and that he was accepting submissions for workshops in Dublin for emerging talent in the county. So I wrote a short story called The Fall of Snow, and sent it in.

I was over the moon when Dermot made contact and asked me to be part of the group. He was immensely supportive, and I cannot thank him enough. For me, both Eileen and Dermot were there at the very beginning, and that was an invaluable support.

7. Can you tell us a bit about your forthcoming novel Doll's House, please?

It’s about murder, childhood, regression, hypnosis, the subconscious, and conscious mind, psychotic behaviour, and talking dolls!  The principle themes are love and the lack of it, how childhood/our past, rightly or wrongly, forms who we are, and also the principle of truth and what happens to trust when truth gets distorted. The tag line is, ‘what if you can’t trust anyone, least of all yourself.’ The idea of talking dolls, which occurs when the principle character regresses to childhood and her subconscious mind endeavours to protect her, is that the narrative becomes unreliable, and therefore neither the reader, nor the main protagonist, is ever certain of the TRUTH.   

8.  In your story "Role Play" is it essential to the story that the man is very rich, is the woman a mistress, a prostitute or his wife. Why is he flushed from drinking? Does he need alcohol for this experience?

On one level this story comes back to power, and the abuse of it. But it’s multi-layered. I wanted it to be any number of things at the one time. It could be a rich man and his mistress. It could be a husband and wife, or partners carrying out some sexual ritual. It could be that both are complicit, and, or, that each in their own way needs the other. But there is a desperation to it that reflects how complex we are. Maybe next time I’ll put them in a seedy hotel without alcohol, but even if they were, the desperation would exist.

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

We like to tell stories. It’s in our DNA. I have absolutely no doubt about that. I can’t give any other reason beyond that. Thankfully our creativity is another part of who we are as a people.
10. (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 believe there are many things we cannot quantify, and I quite enjoy the idea that there may be fairies. Even if they don’t exist, I can’t help but remember with fondness the stories I was told, or read, when I was a lot younger. There is a magic attached to the notion, and it’s one I wouldn’t be quick to dismiss. We all need a little magic!

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?

We are who we are to a lessor or greater extent because of whom and what has gone before us. I think it is complex, and evolution has played its role. We can examine our reasons for many things, but there is something in our core, heart, soul, call it whatever you may, that stretches beyond the here and now, and you have to respect that, and to some extent be in awe of it.

12. When you write, do you picture somehow a potential audience or do you just write? Do you see yourself as writing Noir?

No, I don’t think about a potential audience, the writing is difficult enough! I don’t mean to sound flippant either. Writing is a private space, it has to be. You go inside yourself, dig deep, and if you’re very lucky, others will see a part of their humanity within it, if that makes sense.

As for writing Noir - YES, YES, and YES. After The Doll’s House, my next novel will be Noir, so watch this space!!

13.  Do you feel Aosdana is the best use of the Irish governments limited funds to promote the arts or do you think the money could be better spent in another way?

I certainly think it is important to recognise and support those who have contributed a large body of creative work. I also recognise the work of groups like the Irish Writers Centre, local libraries, and others who work tirelessly to support and promote emerging artists, and who do an enormous amount of work on a voluntary basis.

To be perfectly honest, I don’t know a great deal about Aosdana’s funding.

14. 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?   

The stage Irishman still exists, there is no denying that, but I think we have moved on, and I’m hopeful that we will continue to do so. We have a much more diverse and dynamic population now due to immigration. It’s a wonderfully exciting time in our cultural history. I’ve a feeling that contemporary Irish writing is readying itself for this change. There will be interesting times ahead!

15. 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

‘And a terrible beauty is born’ quoting William Butler Yeats - it kind of says it all. There is a terrible beauty in defeat, and it is often much more complex than victory, and as Beckett said, ‘Fail again, fail better…’ Maybe the Irish love the lament of failure and defeat, maybe it too is in our psyche. We’ve come from generations of people who have been trodden upon, and we’ve risen from the ashes, often saying we don’t take each other/life too seriously, when really we do, and then some. It couldn’t but influence our literature.  

16.   I am a total outsider to the Irish literary world-can you tell me a bit about how one obtains an
Arts bursary for literature, who makes the decisions, of course the process seems fair and rational to those who receive them and arbitrary and unfair to those who don’t (Louise-just explain this process a bit for outsiders and what it entails please)

I received my arts bursary from South County Dublin Arts. Many of the local government authorities throughout Ireland promote the arts, and have a window each year for applications under literature, music, drama etc. If you wish to apply for a bursary, you need to check out the guidelines with each of the individual bodies, as they can vary from council to council. In principle, you give them a brief bio of your work and achievements to date, an outline of the proposed work, the costs associated with the works, broken down over individual headings, and a sample of the proposed work if available. People tend to apply within the geographical area in which they live, but there are other bursaries outside of local government ones which are not area specific.

17. 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 everyone involved in the creative arts plays a social role either intentionally or otherwise.

18. Do you think Irish Travellers should be granted the status of a distinct ethnic group and be given special rights to make up for past mistreatment? Are the Travellers to the Irish what the Irish were once to the English? I became interested in this question partially through reading the short stories of Desmond Hogan.

I haven’t read Desmond Hogan short stories, but I will mark him down as one to read. I tend to think when you formalise a status, or create legislation to make things right, if is often only effective if there is a very real truth pushing it. Do I think Irish Travellers are a distinct ethnic group? The answer is yes.

19.  My brother and I will be making our first ever trip to Dublin in May so I have some trip questions?
I like food a lot but normally I eat a very austere diet for health reasons-in Ireland I will be indulging a bit so I have some food questions.

a. best fish and chips near trinity university?
Burdocks – it’s in Christchurch.

b. Temple Bar-way over priced for tourists like me only?
You must pay a visit to The Queen of Tarts in Cows lane, and while there call into The Gutter Bookshop and ask for Bob Johnson, tell him Louise Phillips sent you!

c. best old fashioned like they ate in 1900 Irish restaurant
d. best splurge place- for Irish food-
e. best Irish stew?
Will come back to you on ‘c-e’ – let me know when you’re arriving, and I’ll seek out the answers from people who eat out more than I do!!!

20.   Death, natural and otherwise is a central factor in your stories and it seems to me to play a bigger factor in the Irish short story than other cultures-can you talk about this a bit please?

Gosh, we are a bit obsessed with death, the rituals around it, and the prospect of it, both to ourselves and to our loved ones. Perhaps it goes back to paganism; perhaps it’s the Hell and Heaven of Catholic doctrine; perhaps it’s because it’s the last unanswered question, or maybe we simply tend to include darker themes in our literature. You’ve got me thinking???

21. When you are outside of Ireland besides friends and family what do you miss the most? What are you glad to be away from?

I miss everything. I miss the darn awful weather, the luscious green of our landscape, the familiar, the streets, friends, family, and the sense of home.

Despite missing it, I’m glad to be away from the darn awful weather!!!

22. If you were to be given the option of living anywhere besides Ireland where would you live?

It would probably be France or a Mediterranean island. It would have to be someplace peaceful, with a strong connection to nature, and within easy access to a city/town filled with humanity!

23. If you could time travel for 30 days (and be rich and safe) where would you go and why?

Oh everywhere and anywhere – but 30 days is too short. I’d need at least a year, and I would plan my travels out with the hope of many surprises along the way. And by that I mean, arriving somewhere, and deciding that here may be more interesting than there

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

I have attended a number of creative writing workshops, some with The Irish Writers’ Centre, some with a company called Inkwell, and other locally organised events. I’ve found them a positive experience, and I’ve always come away with more than I arrived with.

They are an important space to find other writers and like-minded souls. Writing is so solitary. They are also a good place to find your voice, not because other opinions/voices are more valuable than your own, but because when you listen to others, you question yourself, and over time you learn what works best for YOU.

25. Flash Fiction-how driven is the popularity of this form by social media like Twitter and its word limits? Do you see twitter as somehow leading to playwrights keeping conversations shorter than in years past?

I think Twitter has a place, and perhaps it will influence the condensing of words. However, condensing words on the page, as would be the case with flash fiction, is not a bad thing. One of the principle difficulties of the short story is writing within the limits of a smaller number of pages/words. Within a very tight place, you need to create character, setting, atmosphere, theme, emotion and a million other things besides - the shorter the form, often the bigger the challenge. A writer learns from working within this medium. They learn what’s important, and what’s unnecessary  

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

Hugely - We see it. We smell it. We listen to it.  And if we’re brave enough, we work or swim within it! It’s wild. It’s cold. It’s vast. We feel both large and small compared to it. It is always close. Our ancestors travelled it for a better life. It brought some of us home. It has our history. We can’t deny it.

28. Quick Pick Questions

a. John Synge or Beckett-? Beckett
b. dogs or cats? Dogs
c.  best city to inspire a writer-London or Dublin? Dublin
d.  favorite meal to eat out-breakfast, lunch or dinner? Dinner
e. RTE or BBC? RTE

29. 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

It’s a great poem – possibly it’s more reflective of an older time, although we still have some chains to free ourselves of. I think we’ve moved on from the sick glorification of failure, and see a little more hope.

End of Q and A

I give my great thanks to Louise for sharing her thoughts with us and I hope we will see more of her on The Reading Life soon.

Mel u

1 comment:

Ethel Rohan said...

Inspirational interview, Louise, and thanks for the very generous mention. I'm beyond honored.