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

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Mary Costello Q and A Session with the author of The China Factory

March 1 to March 31
A Reading Life Special Event
Mary Costello

The China Factory

I am very honored that Mary Costello, author of a very highly regarded collection of short stories, The China Factory (my post on it is here) has agreed to do a Question and Answer Session for Irish Short Story Month Year III.  

"This is a writer unafraid of the graveside, or the bedside, of filling the space of the story to the brim. Large events happen in small lives – people die, for a start, they fall in and out of love, they have children and affairs. The slow leaking of love out of a relationship is described in particular and terrible banality, as Costello's characters move about their ordinary rooms. There is a kind of immaculate suburban sadness in many of these tales."  from Anne Enright's review of The China Factory.

Author Data

Mary Costello, originally from Galway, lives in Dublin. Her early stories were published in New Irish Writing and she was short listed for a Hennessy Award.
Her first book, a collection of short stories entitledThe China Factory, was published in 2012 by Stinging Fly Press. The collection was nominated for theGuardian First Book Award (UK) and short listed for the Irish Book Awards. Her stories have been broadcast by BBC and RTE (Ireland) radio

  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?

My all-time favourite is Alice Munro. She has been a constant and is my single greatest influence. I also love James Salter- he has only written two collections but there’s a beautiful still luminosity to his stories. William Trevor, obviously, and John McGahern are favourites. The best three, mmm. Right now I’d have to say: Munro, Trevor, Salter. Because they are my favourites. This can change- though Munro’s position never does. If JM Coetzee were to write stories I think he’d be her only challenger. 

As regards contemporary writers I have always loved the Americans and still do, though in recent years I’ve felt the little tug of Europe. I love Judith Hermann’s collection ‘The Summer House, Later’ and the Swiss writer Peter Stamm’s stories. Our own Claire Keegan, too.  
One of the most memorable collections I read in recent years was Don Delillo’s ‘The Angel Esmeraldo’.

  1. 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?

I don’t know. I don’t necessarily identify with that, nor do I see it in my own stories. What springs to mind immediately are the fathers in John McGahern’s and Edna O’Brien’s stories and novels, and those characters are sometimes harsh dominant fathers, which in a sense equates to missing fathers. And Joyce, of course. In terms of contemporary writers I’m not as cognisant of the weak or missing father theme. I think, as in all relationships in literature the father-child dynamic appears in many Irish literary works but I’m not certain it has a particularly dominant place

  1. When did you start writing?

I started writing when I was 22. I’d studied English in college but had never felt any impulse to write until then. I was working as a teacher and suddenly woke up to this urge. I wrote sporadically for years while working fulltime. Stories were and are probably the most necessary form for me, the most essential. I am working on a novel now but cannot ever imagine not writing short stories.

  1. How do you view Aosdána? Is it a great aid to the arts in Ireland or does it perpetuate closed elitism?
I think it’s very important. I’m not a member so I cannot say whether it perpetuates elitism. I think it provides a vital lifeline for so many artists – in all disciplines. The cnuas (annual grant) is a very modest sum but takes the pressure off, pays the rent, ensures economic survival for many. So many writers especially are forced to teach in order to eke out a living, and this takes a toll on their own writing, both in term of time and energy. Being elected to Aosdána must be a relief for anyone lucky enough to achieve it.

  1. Who do you regard as the first modern Irish short story writer?
James Joyce.

  1. Why have the Irish produced such a disproportionate to their population number of great writers?
That’s certainly the perception. The reason that’s often posited is that we have a strong oral tradition and this is true.  I think, in addition to that, we are primarily an introverted race. A reflective people too. We do have a reputation for song and music and drinking and while that kind of extroversion bursts out it is far rarer than and not at all as prevalent as our reputation implies. Mostly, I think, we look inwards; we get our energy from within. The landscape and climate, not to mention our history, our losses – the land and the language – may even influence this disposition.

  1. (Ok this may seem like a silly question but I pose it anyway-do you believe in Fairies?-this quote from Declan 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 do not, sir – but they’re there. Yeats saw them on the strand at Rosses Point in Sligo. I’ve searched along that very strand but alas... I think Yeats’ receptivity to such forces was more refined and his mystical perceptions of a far great acuity than mine. As a child I heard stories from my parents’ and grandparents’ generations about people being led astray at night by fairies in fields, and washer women at wells, and white horses pulling hearses in the dead of night. And the sound of stone walls falling and the death-knock at the door. So maybe they’re there, the fairies, the spirits, the jinn. Maybe they’re still there in the collective imagination, but fading.

  1. How important is the Famine to the modern Irish psyche?
It’s bound to matter. It’s the greatest collective wound to your psyche. We’re not that many generations away from it, really. My grandmother was born early in the 20th C. She must have known people who lived through it- her own grandparents for instance. So I think: I knew her and she knew them. That’s a direct link. My mother’s childhood home was used as a famine hospital in the late 1840s before her family acquired it. Hundreds of people died there. Corpses were buried on the grounds. Local families starved on the roadside, eating grass. These scenes were repeated in parishes all over the west, all over the country. Such a wound inflicted on a nation must lodge in the collective memory, must surely be embedded in our genetic blueprint. Maybe the pain is still manifesting itself in ways we are barely conscious of.  Artists, writers, musicians perhaps sublimate it and represent it in artistic forms. They go deep and bring it to consciousness.
  1. 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’m cautious about attaching the word ‘pure’ to anyone or anything. But yes, the latter rather than the former is the view I’d hold. There should be no obligation on any artist to perform or play a role in any society. Theirs should not be prescriptive. That would be a form of censorship, control. Whatever creative impulse is innate in the poet needs to be free to emerge organically, of its own volition. Eliot, Rilke, Yeats, Ted Hughes... all the great poets were at the bidding of the writing, of the Muse. Not of the society. I think they were attuned and alert to forces below and beyond the external reality – again perhaps to the workings of the collective unconscious – and they paid heed to these and drew out important poetry, important art, for the rest of us. In that sense they serve society but they do so on their own terms. No artist should do the bidding of anyone or be charged with any social role or required to comment on anything.

  1. Do you prefer e-reading or traditional books?
I don’t have an e-book. I often write in the margins of my books, annotate them with comments and things that strike me. The more I like a book, the more written upon it is. Some, I’ve ruined! But I do like to revisit them, sometimes years later, and reread that marginalia ... and I am returned to the experience of first reading them and re-feel their intensity. I wouldn’t like to be without this.

  1. If you could time travel for 30 days (and be rich and safe) where would you go and why?
I would travel back to 1960’s New York City. I am entirely in thrall to that place and that time. In all likelihood I have imbued it with an aura and a quality and a romanticism that is probably in great need of correction. But still, I want to wear the clothes, be a 60’s girl in a summer dress, hear the music streaming down from windows to the sidewalk, hang out in parks, diners, cinemas, watch the meals rotating on the last of the Automats. Feel the buzz and excitement of a fast moving society, in flux, in change. Track the skyscrapers rising from gaps in the street. You see, I have it bad.

  1. Best Literary Festival you have so far attended?
There are so many festivals, great ones, every year in Ireland. Seeing JM Coetzee at Listowel Writers’ Week in Co. Kerry in 2006 was a high point. Galway’s Cúirt Festival is always a joy. Yes, Cúirt.

End of Q and A

My great thanks to Mary Costello for taking the time to respond to my Q and A.

You can learn more about her work on the webpage of her publisher, The Stinging Fly has a very good article on The China Factory placement on the long list for The Guardian First Book Award.

I look forward to reading much more by Mary Costello in the years to come.

Mel u

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