March 1 to March 31
A Q & A Session with
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Today I am happy to be able to present a Q and A Session with Paula McGrath and I thank her for taking the time to respond to my questions in a very interesting and thoughtful fashion.
You can read it here.
You can learn more about the author and her work on her very interesting blog.
Author supplied Bio
Bio: I am a currently a student on the MFA at University College, Dublin. Publications recent and forthcoming can be found in mslexia, ROPES Galway, Necessary Fiction, Eclectica, The Ofi Press, Dublin Review of Books (drb), and The Toucan Online.
I tweet @ViewReView1.
My post on "Auslanders" is here.
Question and Answer Session with Paula McGrath
William Trevor, Edna O'Brien and Alice Munro are the royalty of contemporary short story writing as far as I'm concerned, the old guard. Of the next generation, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne and Claire Keegan are two of the best.
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. What does this say about Irish culture and society?
Alcohol has been enjoyed since the stone age, across cultures, and I'm not about to knock it, but I think there are more interesting things to do and to write about than drinking. The Ireland of Behan, Donleavy, and Kavanagh sounds like a miserable place, a dark country, but one that I don't feel particularly connected to. I wonder if Hemingway/Carver/Bukowski have not glorified drinking on far grander a scale. An awful lot of young, male, American writers seem to feel the need to cut their teeth on whiskey then write about it. I can only read so much about passing out and throwing up; I commend you on getting through so much of it!
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? How does this figure in your writings?
My father emigrated in the fifties to Sudbury, Ontario, where he mined uranium for four years until he had saved enough money to come home and buy a farm. The collection I'm working on, of which Auslanders is the first story, ends with a story about this. Certainly I can see where Kiberd is coming from (though modern Irish literature means something different than it did at the time Inventing Ireland was written), but I don't see the weak or missing father as a theme in my own writing.
4. When did you start writing?
I became serious in fits and starts, though like most writers I always wrote. My first two terrible novels were written about 12 years ago. The third one, Peter Peter, came out a lot like I hoped it would (about three years ago), so I think of this as my real starting point.
5. Tell us a bit, please about your educational background and your non-writing work experiences?
I'm the product of a midlands convent boarding school, then Trinity College, Dublin, where I indulged myself in four years of English (language and literature). Women didn't feature much on the syllabus, so a few years later I did an MA in Women's Studies, and a thesis on Edna O'Brien.
As to my work experiences, the current issue of mslexia features my story about tending bar in a shack in an oil field in Long Beach, one of my more unusual jobs. I worked the usual gamut of bookstore and fast-food jobs, did stints as publishing intern, tour guide, bad waitress, and taught in various capacities. Since 1996 I've taught, and still teach, yoga. I'm currently teaching undergraduate creative writing at University College Dublin.
6. A character in an Ali Smith short story, asks in a conversation on the merits of short stories versus novels ""Is the short story a goddess and nymph and is the novel an old whore?" Does this make a bit of sense to you?
A bit... Is she suggesting that the novel has been around the block a bit, plunged into the underbelly and the mundane, clad in scraps of dirty lace and layers of slap, while the short story is pure white and crowned with laurel? I can see that. There is a purity in purpose, and a simplicity, to even the most complex short story, and everything else is pared away. The novel can let it all hang out. There is a modern idea that the novel shouldn't contain a single extraneous word either, and while I like the challenge of writing this type of novel too, I don't fully subscribe; I like Tom Jones, rambling off in various directions, but always coming back to the centre when it needs to. My novel Peter Peter is a bit like this; like Tom Jones, it tends to the episodic, rendering it somewhat unconventional for contemporary publishing (though I'm investigating alternative publication routes, figuring that in these days of blogging and e-publishing the episodic novel is sure to find a place).
7. Who do you regard as the first modern Irish short story writer?
8. Why have the Irish produced such a disproportional to their population number of great writers?
Perhaps success, because it creates a conducive environment, breeds success.
9. (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."
If Samuel Beckett says they're there, then they're there. In general, I think it's better to believe, in everything, because then there's a story in it.
10. 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?
I think other cultures, at least nowadays, are more connected to their past through the remains of their dead (Mexico and the Philippines come to mind).
11. When you write, do you picture somehow a potential audience or do you just write?
Sometimes I wonder if it's fit for my mother to read.... But that's after the event; I just write.
12. 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?
It's only 'stage' if it's a crude conglomeration of stereotypical characteristics. There are drunken, violent characters in many literatures, including Irish.
13. 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
Most Irish writers write in English, the language of the colonizer, and this has had its effect: on syntax, and perhaps on ingenuity. Yeats was writing before the Republic, and while colonialism casts a long shadow - and much has been written about the post-colonial psyche and resultant literature - his assertion feels somewhat dated.
13. Who are some of the short story writers taught at University College Dublin in the MFA program in writing?
Chekhov, Maupassant, Joyce, Barthelme, Munro, Carver, Claire Keegan, Julian Barnes, Roddy Doyle, Jhumpa Lahiri, Kevin Barry.
14. 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 art is created first out of and for oneself, that it must come from a poetic impulse rather than a preconceived agenda. The transformation into social commentary results from the combination of the artist's own experiences, and his or her skill and maturity as an artist. I think it's often most successful when done through humour, as in Eilis Ni Dhuibhne's The Literary Lunch, or much of Roddy Doyle's work (assuming that by 'poet' you mean writer?)
15. "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 think it's for English historians and artists to figure this one out. I don't know any contemporary Irish writers who feel excessively inferior or barbarous or poetic and magical.
16. Do you think Irish Travelers should be granted the status of a distinct ethnic group and be given special rights to make up for past mistreatment? are the Travelers 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.
As I understand it, members of the Traveller Community have their status recognised in the Equal Status Act. Gavin Corbett's This Is The Way, published this year and on my t.b.r. list, sounds like a good read for those interested in Traveller culture.
17. Does being an Irish writer give you additional status or cache when submitting work out of the country?
Hmm. I'd prefer to think I'm judged on the work itself.
18. Why did you decide to set a number of your stories in Chicago?
The story, Auslanders, came to me first – a particular character, a particular take on life – and out of this came the decision to set a series of interlinked stories there. Chicago is a city I've visited a few times but which I don't know at all well. I felt like the proverbial orphan, nose to the window, on the outside looking in. I have a series of impressions of the city, rather than an intimate knowledge, and this is freeing. In some ways, the stories could have been set anywhere there is migration.
19. Do you prefer e reading or traditional books?
The only e-book I've read was Lane Ashfeldt's wonderful collection of stories, SaltWater, for review purposes, and I hated the e- part because I needed to flick and fold back and underline and scribble. But for just reading, I'll give it a go again. Books get heavy.
20. If you were to be given the option of living anywhere besides Ireland where would you live?
I could live in San Francisco. I also love Manila, where my husband is from, but perhaps it would require too many adjustments.
21. If you could time travel for 30 days (and be rich and safe) where would you go and why?
I think it would have to be San Francisco in the sixties, to find out if I'd be hanging out in the Haight, or clutching my twinset to myself in terror in some suburb. I think I have the potential for either.
22. Quick Pics questions?
a. Cats or Dogs? Dogs
b. Tablets or Lap Tops? MacBook Air, one of the best thing that ever happened me.
c. E reading or traditional? Traditional, but willing to venture into e.
d. winter or summer If that's in Ireland, summer. Nice to spend winter in Manila or California. I don't like the cold.
e. breakfast, lunch or dinner? Breakfast. I'm particular about my first cup of coffee.
f. Katherine Mansfield or Virginia Woolf I know you're a Mansfield fiend, but I've read relatively little of her work, and I'm a fan of VW (apart from the mean things she said about Joyce), so, not so quick an answer, but Woolf.
23. Have you attended creative writing work shops and if you have share your experiences a bit please.
Several. I'm a big fan. As part of my MFA course I'm studying the pedagogy of creative writing: what creativity is, how one can access it, what technical aspects of writing can be taught, what its place is in the academy. I'm teaching my first undergraduate course this semester, and it's really forcing me to examine these questions.
24. Best Literary Festival you have so far attended?
Apart from one-off talks and workshops I'm a bit of a festival virgin. I hope to remedy this soon with a trip to Cúirt, Galway, where the literary magazine ROPES will be launched (and in which I have a short piece, Angel-headed Hipsters.
25. Flash Fiction-how driven is the popularity of this form by social media like Twitter and its word limits?
As a firm believer in the usefulness of prompts, I think any limits can be good for creativity. There's something about squeezing infinite possibility into a restricted space, be that the theme for a story, or an opening line, or, indeed, a restrained word-count.
26. How important in shaping the literature of Ireland is its proximity to the sea?
Growing up with Peig (an Irish language account of growing up on the Blasket Islands, despised by generations of school children), and Synge's Riders to the Sea, one might say 'very'. My novel Peter Peter is island-themed, moving from Bull Island to the Philippines via Iceland. However, casting randomly about contemporary Irish writing, I don't see the sea as hugely important; it's always there, but not often foregrounded.
27. 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
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. I'm a bit more optimistic than this, in spite of recent catastrophic failures of church and state.
End of Q and A
My thanks to Paula McGrath for sharing her thoughts with us during ISSM3. I hope to follow her writing career as best I can. There is a link in my post on her short story that you can use to read "Auslanders".