I first became acquainted with Ruth Quinlan as I was reading and posting on all of the short stories in Abandoned Darlings. This book is a great collection of short stories and poems by recent graduates of the National University of Ireland at Galway MA in creative writing program. She answered a lot of questions for me and made the process run much smoother than it otherwise would have. I also greatly admired her short story, "Crossing the Dunes". I asked her if she would write a post for ISSM3 talking about some of the short stories used in the classes at NUI Galway in the MA program which she kindly agreed to do.
Ruth Quinlan is from Tralee, County Kerry. She worked in IT before taking a break in 2011 to try and scratch the writing itch and she has just completed the MA in Writing at NUI Galway. She was shortlisted for the 2012 Cúirt New Writing fiction prize and long listed for the Over the Edge New Writer of the Year competition. Her work has been published by Emerge Literary Journal,Thresholds, SIN, Scissors and Spackle and as part of the current Irish Independent Hennessy New Irish Writing series. She has also recently contributed towards two group anthologies, Abandoned Darlings (fiction) and Wayword Tuesdays (poetry). She blogs here.
"MA Short Stories Blog
Pushing Outside the Comfort Zone"
by Ruth Quinlan
by Ruth Quinlan
One of the greatest gifts someone can give you is to insist that you read something you wouldn’t normally select yourself. Many of us are guilty of snuggling back into the well-worn pages of our favourites when we want a bit of literary comforting. However, when I did the MA in Writing in the
National University of Galway last year, I had no choice but to read novels and short stories that I would never have picked up. And in the end, I was glad that that choice was taken away. I was amazed at what I had been neglecting in all my years of reading. In the paragraphs below, I have elaborated on just three of the short stories that particularly struck me during the MA.
The first is ‘A Real Doll’ by A.M. Homes. This is a writer who is not afraid to lift the floorboards of everyday life and show you the roaches scurrying underneath. It is the story of a teenage boy’s erotic obsession with his younger sister’s Barbie doll. Published in 1990, it is the final short story in The Safety of Objects. This collection shows that the banal objects with which we surround ourselves are sometimes very far from safe and can instead lead us down dark paths.
Homes takes the innocent role-play of childhood and escalates it into a story of lust-fuelled obsession, laced with dark humour. She explores the seamier facets of our sexual urges: the paradoxical connection between pleasure and pain, the conflicting dualism of man’s sexual evaluation of women, and the concept of women as man’s possession. What is so disconcerting, yet intriguing, about this story is that all of the above is done by taking a mass-produced, familiar object like Barbie and showing what can happen once our secret fantasies are let loose.
‘A Real Doll’ should be read to catch a glimpse of what roils beneath the bland, homogeneous surfaces of American suburbia. Read it if you never want to look at a Barbie doll in quite the same way.
The second story is ‘The Lumber Room’ by Saki (H.H. Munro). On first reading, this seems a rather old-fashioned, almost simplistic tale and some rather archaic words like ‘veriest’ could tend to discourage the modern reader. However, this short story is worth the extra effort. Within just a few sentences, Munro resurrects an entire era, suffusing the tale of a young boy’s exploration of a forbidden room with the atmosphere of Edwardian England. The mystery and adventure of the Empire’s colonies are evoked through descriptions of what the child finds in the lumber room – the Indian hanging and a carved, sandalwood box. These are juxtaposed with mundane, inherently English objects – the teapot fashioned like a china duck and the hump-necked brass bull figures.
Munro often took malicious glee in skewering the hypocrisies and pretentions of his social peers and he does this expertly through the character of the pompous aunt. He ridicules the warped reward and punishment logic she uses in her attempts to control the children. No matter how hard she tries, she cannot restrain the boy from following his own natural impulses to explore. This was a common theme for Munro – that nature will always win out, breaking free from the social and moral restrictions we try and impose upon it.
The shape of the story is also beautifully polished, starting at the breakfast table and ending at the same table at tea-time. It has come full circle within less than twenty-four hours. Something essential has changed for the boy by the end of the piece, yet nothing is rushed or forced; the action of the story is gently measured in keeping with the slower pace of life at the time.
The third story is ‘The Lottery’ by Shirley Jackson. This story provides a master-class in how tension can be built, even within the confines of a short piece. The initial pace of the story is slow and relaxed and Jackson uses this device to create a sense of complacency in the reader. She gives us just enough information so that we can picture the season (it is summer), the place (a small, rural village) and an approximate indication of time (modern, indicated by references to tractors, banks, and post offices). The only slightly jarring note at the start is the fact that the young boys are gathering stones in their pockets. However, this is easily dismissed as irrelevant. The setting is idyllically pastoral, which makes what happens later so much more jarring. Jackson highlights the fact that bad things can happen anywhere, even in the most beautiful of surroundings.
Much is made of the trappings associated with the lottery ritual. For example, we are told every detail of the black box used to contain the slips of paper – its history, its appearance, where it is kept throughout the year. We learn that the lottery is of great social importance to these people, that it is done for the benefit of the whole village. Yet, we do not know what the lottery is.
The camaraderie and affection between the villagers is shown through their familiar chatter as they gather in the square. Mrs. Hutchinson, one of the main characters in the piece, is introduced rushing into the gathering, declaring that she had forgotten what day it was. Again, this puts the reader at ease. Surely, this ritual must be a mere nod to tradition if someone has forgotten completely about it? However, Mrs. Hutchinson is swiftly transformed into a yelling shrew once she realises that she is at risk. Our sense of dread is immediately heightened as we see a woman desperately casting about, seeking an escape from her fate. But still, we are not told what the lottery is.And then Jackson unleashes the truth upon us; we learn why the children were filling their pockets with pebbles. The same people that teased each other about dirty dishes are prepared to conduct human sacrifice, using the oldest of sacrificial weapons – stones. I dare anyone who has not read this story to do so without a sharp intake of breath at the end.
I offer Ruth Quinlan my great thanks for sharing this with us. If these three writers, Saki is an old friend of The Reading Life, I have read "The Lottery" and happily A. M. Homes is a new to me writer I look forward to reading.