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

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Shauna Gilligan - A Question and Answer Session with the author of Happiness Comes From Nowhere

Irish Short Story Month Year III
March 1 to April 7

A Q and A with Shauna Gilligan,  Author of 

Happiness Comes From Nowhere

ISSS3 will continue until April 7.  There are a lot of exciting things still to come.  Your participation is invited.  If you are interested, please e mail me.

Shauna Gilligan, author of Happiness Comes From Nowhere has done a great deal to increase my understanding of Irish literature.  She has contributed several guests posts  including a very recent interview with Patrick Samples.  She wrote a very illuminating introductory post for The Reading Life Desmond Hogan Project and has given me lots of good advise on Irish literature and culture.  I am very happy she has consented to do a Q and A for Irish Short Story Week.

Author Data

Born in Dublin, Ireland, Shauna Gilligan has worked and lived in Mexico, Spain, India and the UK. She holds an MA in History from University College Dublin having also studied English as an undergraduate. She is completing a PhD in Writing at the University of Glamorgan, Wales and occasionally lectures in NUI Maynooth in Creative Writing.
As part of her research, she is examining suicide and writing processes in a selection of novels by and in a series of interviews with Irish writer Desmond Hogan.
Her work has been published in The Cobalt ReviewThe Stinging Fly (online), The First Cut, New Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writingand in The Ulster Tatler’s Literary Miscellany. She has given public readings of her fiction in Ireland and USA and has presented on writing at academic conferences in Ireland, UK, Germany and USA.

Her debut novel, Happiness Comes From Nowhere is receiving great reviews from all over the world.

Shauna Gilligan

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? The best woman?

Contemporary writers? Alice Munro, Desmond Hogan, Colm Tóibín, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Kevin Barry, Carol Shields, Edna O’Brien, Anne Enright. Others would be Maeve Brennan, Ernest Hemingway, Seán O’Faolain, Katherine Mansfield, Raymond Carver, James Joyce. Three best ever short story writers? It’s a hard one as there are so many but top would be Alice Munro (the best woman).

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.

I think that is because alcohol is part of Irish culture – or more precisely, part of the way the Irish socialise, especially in rural areas. The church and the pub have always gone hand in hand. Even these days, socialising revolves around drinking, but increasingly, it also involves eating (or dining) like on the European continent, though the chat and the craic (fun in Irish) over a pint will never cease. The flip side of this, of course, is that there are high rates of abuse of alcohol and from that, increases in certain social problems such as suicide can also be linked back to the relationship with alcohol, using it to mask emotions, and sometimes not being able to socialise without a few (alcoholic) drinks.

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.

I do think this is one of the themes though not necessarily the dominant theme of modern Irish literature. In my novel, Happiness Comes from Nowhere, the father, Sepp, is largely absent though not entirely. His presence is still felt. This was deliberate as the focus was on the mother-son relationship.

4. When did you start writing?

I can’t remember a time when I was not writing. I’ve always written. But I started to take my writing and the notion of myself as a writer seriously in 2008.

5. 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?

It’s a funny line, and a good one, but I don’t agree.  I always think of the short story as a small lawn, perfectly manicured, you perfect it time and time again whereas the novel is like a big field, filled with wild flowers, chaotic and beautiful and you’re trying your best to tame it, put a shape on it.

6. (Ok 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."

Yes, I do believe in faries. I grew up with stories of them, notions of their existence as part and parcel of my childhood – walks in the woods, looking for them, leaving my teeth for the fairies, visiting fairy forts, knowing the look and feel of the bark of the oak tree where they might have their homes. The sense of something other being present with us.

7. 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?

Interesting question. I don’t know that they have influenced the psyche at a conscious level. But I do know that we (governments over time) have been very lax in appreciating them – exceptions are Newgrange, for example, which you should try and visit when you’re here.

8. Do you like the Stories of an Irish R. M.? either the stories or the TV show? are the stories of Edith Somerville and Martin Ross mocking or celebrating Irish heritage?

Again, something I remember from my childhood. A different Ireland, or a different picture to the Ireland in which I grew up and in which I now live. I would have to revisit these stories again to answer the question properly.

9. How important are the famines to the modern Irish psyche?

I think the notion of ownership and responsibility, as something the famine times might be seen to represent is, in today’s Ireland, very much present.

10. 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?

It seems this question alludes to the notion of taking something real and exaggerating it for the sake of fiction. I don’t know that the colonial question haunts us as much as it used to – I think we’ve burdened and repressed ourselves well enough in the last (almost 100) years of independence to stop the finger pointing. We have enough to be writing about without having to create stage personas.
The Irish writer has always been confronted with a choice. This is the dilemma of whether to write for the native audience – a risky, often thankless task – or to produce texts for consumption in Britain and North America. Through most of the nineteenth century, artists tended to exploit far more of Ireland than they expressed. Cruder performers resorted to stage-Irish effects, to the rollicking note and to “paddy-whackery”, but even those who sought a subtler portraiture often failed, not so much through want of talent as through lack of a native audience. Most of these writers came, inevitably, from the upper classes and their commerce with the full range of Irish society was very limited.

Kiberd, Declan (2009-05-04). Inventing Ireland (p. 136). Random House UK. Kindle Edition.

I think the notion of choice for the Irish writer - as outlined by Kiberd in your quote - is an interesting notion. It has, in a less obvious way than in previous eras, carried through to the 21st century. Writers such as Julian Gough claim (and somewhat rightly) that many of us are still stuck in the dilemma that Kiberd refers to, thus writing about the same subject matter (the weak fathers, emigration etc) that Irish writers have been writing about for centuries. But I think there is a wave of writers who are not interested in or who do not want to engage with this so-called choice of audiences or, indeed, are not prepared to limit their subject matter - and why should they? I'm thinking of writers such as Kevin Barry with his gritty prose, or poets Noel Duffy and Dave Lordon who have their own very individualistic take on what it means to be Irish and a poet writing and performing in the recession-riddled Ireland of today. I think we should not be restricted in viewing writers through the polarised lens of colonialism or indeed, post-colonialism. I'd be inclined to agree with sociologist Tom Ingles who, at a conference in NUI Maynooth in the summer of 2012, talked about how much Irish identity is tied to the relationship we have and have had with the body. This relationship has been dictated by Church and State (think of the recent reports on the Magdalene Laundries, for example) and we are now in a period - as we all know - of enormous change. And these changes are reflected in and will continue to be seen in how we identify ourselves as Irish, particularly in relation to the body, and more particularly, the female body. This is something, I believe, that can be seen in the writing of many of my contemporary female writers, such as Nuala Ní Chonchúir or Órfhlaith Foyle. So to respond to that first line of the quotation, for me when it comes to writing, the inclination is to write from the gut rather than with a "choice" (of) audience in mind.

11. 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 natioonal 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?

It seems Yeats is alluding to the notion – again – of the colonial power asserting its authority and might and the underdog, the colonised left with nothing but its woes. Martyrs make great national heroes; the living generally disappoint. There is something to be said, here, I think, for the number of Irish writers (Joyce, Beckett etc) who have left Ireland and never returned – and wrote kindly and unkindly about the country and its people.

12. Who was the first great Irish writer who was not at all Anglo/Irish?

I’d need this question clarified – when you say “Anglo/Irish” are you talking about linguistically, racially, thematically or something else?

13. 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?
Why single out poets? I think art as a whole – be it fiction, poetry, visual art or whatever – has a function to play in society. I agree with the function Victor Shklovsky assigned to art in Art as Technique whereby “Art…exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony…the technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar’. I also believe that writing – especially literary fiction – both explores the absurd and also tries to experience it by examining themes or actions in great detail, so that we can find our place in the world, where we belong, where art itself belongs. Writing for me is an act of extreme curiosity.

18. "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).

For me this description is that of humanity – the ultimate in contrasts, in contradictions. The oppressor always needs to place the oppressed into a box that is labelled other. In other words, the oppressed must be defined by what the oppressor is not. The wonderful play by George Bernard Shaw, John Bull’s Other Island is a classic example of this.

19. OK to ignore this question- 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.

This is a very loaded political question. Desmond Hogan – in his fiction - portrays a particular view of the Travellers which is not necessarily representative of the Travellers as a group or indeed as individuals.

20. Where is the best place in Dublin and Galway to get a real Irish breakfast? Fish and Chips and Irish Stew.

In Dublin - I’d try Johnnie Fox’s pub ( up the mountains and then for fish and chips Burdocks.

21. What is the best book store in Dublin to buy collections of Short Stories?

Books Upstairs (just opposite Trinity College) or the Winding Stair Bookshop (in front of the Ha’penny Bridge).

22. Do you prefer ereading or traditional books?

Traditional books by far. However, I do read books on my Kindle.

19.What is your response to 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

My response is – how miserable. It captures the creeping menace that the great Patrick McCabe has in all his novels.

20. (you can ignore this and I know I asked u before but American readers will have this come to mind ) "How do you feel about or has the TV show Gilligan's Island ever been shown on TV in Ireland

The first time I heard of Gilligan’s Island was when I was in Mexico and people had seen it. Now that you mention it, I’ve looked it up online. It seems like it was (is?) a very successful TV show. I don’t watch TV (apart from occasional documentaries for research reasons) but as far as I know it hasn’t been shown on TV in Ireland.

21. Once you knew your novel, Happiness Comes from Nowhere" was going to be published, how long until you had a copy?

It was a quick lead in from contract to publication – 13 months  - but the lead up to contract was longer than that.

22. Can you describe the feelings when you first saw your book in the store and/or when you read the first reviews of your work?

My reaction was one of detachment like it wasn’t anything to do with me. I experienced this also when I had finished my masters and PhD thesis. I think when you’re so close to a piece of work and then you let it go out into the world, in a way you abandon it, it is as it is. Yes, it is something I have written, but it is quite detached from me and me from it. I’m already (and was already) into my next work(s). However, I can’t deny that I’m not thrilled and honoured both to see it on the shelves and to read the reviews.

23. What do you miss most about Ireland when you are out of the country? what are you glad to be away from?
I’ve lived in many other countries and what I missed most about Ireland was the ability to chat to random strangers on trains, at bus stops, in queues. There is a lovely warmth about this chattiness.
What I was glad to be away from was the narrow mindedness, the constant backward glance and the moaning. We’re great at moaning.

24. quick picks?

Cats or Dogs?
Cats. Mine is called Lucky, the same name, I recently discovered, the American poet Weldon Kees called his cat.

Irish Fish and Chips or English 

Have to say Irish.

Dublin or London best city for neophyte writers

What about Paris? Or Berlin?
I think writers shouldn’t need to pay too much attention to where they are, really.
But in terms of agents, publishers, then it’s London by far. My publisher is based in London.

RTE or The BBC


I give my great thanks to Shauna Gilligan for taking the time to give us such interesting and well considered answers.

I will shortly be posting on one of her new short stories (with a link to where it can be read) which was published in The Lakeview International Journal of Literature and the Arts. (I am a member of the advisory board of this journal.)


shaunag said...

Thanks, Mel, for the great wide-ranging questions and for the feature. I'm thoroughly enjoying reading the fanastic variety of responses to the Q&A sessions!

Sue Guiney said...

A fascinating and wide ranging discussion! Thanks, and it's good to find this blog. I think we have overlapping interests, especially the post-Colonial Asian one.

shaunag said...

Thanks for taking the time to post, Sue. It's a great blog, isn't it? You'll defintitely find fascinating posts here and I am sure Mel would be interested in your writing, too.