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 17, 2013

Our long love affair with the short story By Eileen Casey

March 1 to March 31
A Reading Life Special Guest post 

"Our long love affair with the short story"  

Eileen Casey

Eileen Casey, author of Snow Shoes, has very kindly allowed me to share with my readers an address she gave at The Cork International Short Story Festival, considered the most prestigious short story event anywhere.  

Author Data

Eileen Casey is an Irish writer. Originally from the Midlands (Co. Offaly), she’s lived in South Dublin County for since the late 1970’s. She is a fiction writer, poet and journalist. Her many awards include a Katherine Kavanagh Fellowship (Poetry) and a Sunday Independent, Hennessy Literary Award (Fiction).

A debut short story collection ‘Snow Shoes’ was published by Arlen House, 2012.  She holds a B.A. in Humanities (Hons.) from DCU and completed an M.Phil in Creative Writing at Trinity College, Dublin in 2011 where she was awarded distinction.  

Her debut poetry collection Drinking the Colour Blue was published by New Island in 2008.  Collaborative works with Visual Artist Emma Barone  are Reading Hieroglyphs in Unexpected Places (2010) and From Bone to Blossom (2011) with an introduction by Grace Wells. has an excellent article in which Casey talks about the stories in Snow Shoes as well as a wide range of other topics.

There is more information on Snow Shoes on the webpage of her American distributor Syracuse University Press

"Our long love affair with the short story"    

          By Eileen Casey

The Cork International Short Story Festival, 2011

On 17th September, 2011 in the Metropole Hotel, Cork, Edna 0’Brien read from ‘Saints and Sinners’, her 21st work of fiction.  She received the standing ovation she truly deserved. Such an enthusiastic response to her work was not solely in recognition of her contribution to world literature over a career that spans half a century; neither was it entirely attributable to the fact that, given she is enjoying her eighty-first year, she read beautifully and without missing a beat, for the bones of forty minutes or so.  0’Brien brought the rapt audience to their feet because she is purely and simply a master story teller.  Her work is multi-layered, nuanced, her themes hugely important and her use of language unerringly evocative.  As it happened, the acclaim was justified because the next evening on the same stage in the Metropole, 0’Brien received the Frank 0’Connor International Short Story Award, a prize which carries the biggest monetary recognition in literature for a short story collection, €35,000.  It was good to see an Irish writer win the prize and indeed there were two Irish writers on the short-list this year.  Colm Tóibin, who has achieved enormous success worldwide, was nominated for his collection, ‘The Empty Family.’ 

     Ireland has long been associated with the short form, a history that has its origin in an oral, anecdotal tradition.  By 1960, the year before Edna 0’Brien published ‘The Country Girls,’ there was a consensus that the Irish short story was on a par with its Russian and American counterparts. The Irish literary short story, from as far back as George Moore’s ‘The Untilled Field,’ (1903), continues to serve as an influential model for so many writers, worldwide.  However, the remaining four short-listed writers for the 2011 Frank 0’Conner Award, are a reflection of the international range of the award with writers such as YiYun Li (Beijing born and a previous winner), Valerie Trueblood (USA), Alexander MacLeod (Ontario) and Suzanne Rivecca (currently living in Rome and San Francisco, CA). Other writers featured on the festival programme, not in competition, included British authors Helen Dunmore and Clare Wigfall.  There was also the opportunity to enjoy literature in translation with Michael Ajvaz from the Czech Republic.

     The  Frank 0’Connor Award for a collection of short stories was introduced seven years ago. This corner of the world has much to celebrate in this regard, claiming a literary school of writers which include William Trevor, Elizabeth Bowen, Daniel Corkery and Sean 0’Faolain, among others.  0’Connor, in earlier times however, had been a writer, ‘Whose star had been obscured by clouds.’ The brochure introduction by Patrick Cotter, Festival Director, explains that part of the festival’s initial aim when it was inaugurated eleven years ago, was to remove those clouds.  Among other things, Frank 0’Connor was blacklisted by De Valera’s government for his condemnation of Irish neutrality and for leading a private life at odds with Catholic Church morality.  Yet, despite being regarded as a bête noir, 0’Connor, in his own lifetime, was treated as a hero of the short story form in America.  He was a writer able to create from his own unhappy personal experiences, a storehouse shared by Edna 0’Brien who is quoted as saying, “Unhappy houses are a very good incubation for stories.”  One of 0’Connor’s more famous collections ‘Guests of the Nation,’ is also the title of one of the stories contained in it.  Set during the War of Independence, it has at its source, 0’Connor’s own service in combat during that same war. Exile and isolation are themes 0’Brien and 0’Connor share also.  In the opening story in ‘Saints and Sinners,’ one of the characters says,”Exile is in the mind and there is no cure for that.”  In 0’Connor’s story Lost Fatherlands (‘A Set of Variations’), empathy exists between a runaway monk and a publican because of their shared experience of exile.  0’Connor’s collected essays in the anthology ‘The Lonely Voice,’ have been influential in moulding writers such as Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff, Raymond Carver and many others. 

     This year, I had the pleasure of reading at the festival as part of the programme.  I shared the platform with P.J. 0’Connor, winner of the 2011 Sean 0’Faoilain Short Story Prize.  0’Connor won with a story called The Haggard and he held the room in the palm of his hand, so wonderfully entertaining the story and its delivery. The judge of this really prestigious competition, Ian Wild, proclaimed the story as being witty and in the vein of Flann 0’Brien, high praise indeed. Also given prominent platforms were new writers from The Stinging Fly Press, The recent Faber anthology and there was a special showcase this year of stories from the Francis McManus Award read by actors who really know how to deliver a story. This in itself proved very useful for the aspiring story writer.  It brings to mind the importance of pacing and explains how masters such as John McGahern spent whole mornings arranging and then re-arranging a sentence.  Such attention to craft can be picked up by the ‘ear’.

    A festival which  focuses entirely on the short story and which enjoys such huge attendances (a full house for most of the events) shows a strong endorsement of the form and the realisation of how alive and well it is. From such a small (in terms of size) word ‘field’, writers have sown and reaped very successful careers. The mastery of the form in the case of Irish writer Claire Keegan places her as a direct successor to John McGahern.  Faber published her winning Davy Byrne Memorial Award work Foster, as a stand alone story, an accolade most writers can only dream about. I had the privilege of being in one of Claire Keegan’s writing groups in Tallaght over twenty years ago when she was just starting out, although even then she was making an impression with her work.  She was dedicated and highly disciplined, two of the traits a writer really must possess in order to bring the work to its best.   Annie Proulx’s short story Brokeback Mountain (published in her collection ‘Close Range, Wyoming Stories’), transferred seamlessly to the big screen, proving the resilient nature of the short form.

     My own list of favourite writers is constantly lengthening. The last collection I read was ‘Elizabeth Strout,’ by Olive Kitteridge.  I found it stunning and memorable.  Before that, I read Kevin Barry’s ‘There are Little Kingdoms.’  Joyce’s ‘Dubliners’ is a treat I would never tire of and I am always altered in some way by it.  ‘The Collected Stories’ of Dylan Thomas is still hugely enjoyable to me as is Richard Brautigan’s ‘Revenge of the Lawn.’  Brautigan’s stories are really short, sometimes just a paragraph.  It could be said he was writing flash fiction before the term was coined.  I would always want to read William Trevor and of course, I’m open to recommendations.  Having access to really well put together forums, workshops, discussion panels and readings as developed by The Cork International Short Story Festival, ensures a feast of new work alongside the more established. Together with all the short-listed collections at the festival, ‘My Mistress’s Sparrow Is Dead,’ edited by Jeffrey Eugenides and containing stories ranging from Chekhov to Munro seems a good bet for the winter nights ahead.

    Where do short stories come from? This question is often asked of writers of the form.  Unfortunately, they are not found under heads of cabbages.  Most writers agree that short stories are concerned with one single event held over a specific timeframe within which change, of some degree, changes the lives of the characters in the story but also the perspective of the reader.  Joyce maintained that short stories presented moments of heightened perception or epiphanies.  At a recent seminar in Trinity College, Dublin, facilitated by American writer Richard Ford, he articulated what lay at the heart of the short story and what it is that holds it together. “Short stories by nature are daring little instruments and almost always represent commensurate daring in their makers.  Short stories want to give us something big but want to do it in precious little time and space.” Writing in ‘Handbook of Short Stories,’ (Writers Digest), Joyce Carol Oates talks about people beginning to write and being buoyed up by energy, “The sense that they have something unique to say and that only they can say it.  This energy, this mysterious conviction, is the basis of all art.”   Writing in the same handbook, Marilyn Granbeck addresses the often pondered question, “Why do today’s magazines publish so many short stories that have no plot or structure?” Grenbeck makes the observation that in the hands of a skilled writer, “The framework of the story is as invisible as the bones of the beauty contestant.  Just as that girl’s total physical appearance is made possible by her skeletal system, a story is often good because of its hidden structure.  The experienced writer may disguise the bones so effectively the reader doesn’t see them sticking out as separate pieces.  The bones of the story can be so well hidden, the reader may think they are not there at all”.  Richard Ford agrees. Of structure he says: “A novel with a defective structure, a wrong opening movement, a dead end or a fractured end part, can still be a novel and may on balance be good.  But if a short story suffers these aesthetic flaws, it risks being nothing at all.’

     It appears that the best way to get under the skin of the form is to read short stories and learn through the process, writing them from the type of energy Joyce Carol Oates describes so well. There’s a quote from 0’Connor in the festival brochure which seems to encapsulate the whole point of having buoyant energy, a quote taken from 0’Connor’s thoughts about what constitutes ‘ A real European capital.’

     Speaking to the BBC in 1961 0’Connor said; “I have a feeling that, at one time, Cork, for a short time at least, during the reign of Cormac McCarthy, was a real European capital.  It has ceased to be that and the problem now is how it’s going to create a life for itself, a life in which a man can live completely from the cradle to the grave; that I think is a problem not only for Cork, but for the whole of Western European Civilisation. Life has to start flowing back into smaller places.  Metropolis ended with Hiroshima.  People have got to start living a much less specialized form of life, a much more community form of life and my feeling about this city is…either people make a success of it or Western Europe is finished.”

     Because of the sponsorship of Cork City Council and all the various activities of the Munster Literature Centre, a life without limits is possible.  In the words of  Festival Director Patrick Cotter, such sponsorship ensures “That men and women can develop to their fullest creative and intellectual extent; so that they are never obliged to leave their home city to fulfill themselves.’

     Sincere thanks to Patrick Cotter, The Munster Literature Centre and The Hennessy Literary Award for giving me the opportunity to read on such an international platform. I returned home rejuvenated and with a renewed sense of purpose.

Eileen Casey’s collection of short stories, Snow Shoes, was published by Arlen House in 2012.

    End of Guest Post

There is a great deal to be learned about the short story and Irish literature from this very insightful article and I give my great thanks to Eileen Casey for her allowing me to share this with my readers during Irish Short Story Month.

In May she will be attending an event related to the short story held in Copenhagen and she will be sharing that experience with us.

I give my complete endorsement to Snow Shoes.  Here are my closing words on the collection from my post.

Snow Shoes by Eileen Casey has 13 stories in all.   Each one is very much worth reading, beautifully written and explicated with a deep artistic sensibility.   You can feel the author's deep compassion for the trials and burdens of ordinary lives and extraordinary ones.   I find her work profoundly emphatic.  

I endorse these stories for any and all lovers of the form.  Several of the stories are about long term marriages and I think anyone in such a situation will find themselves reflecting on the state of their own relationship.   Her ability to write so movingly about a Korean comfort woman shows she can go outside the scope of her immediate world to project herself into psyches foreign to her immediate environment and shows the range of her imaginative power

Mel u

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