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

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Colm O'Shea Question and Answer Sessions Author of "Better, Not" Noir Fiction Writer

March 1 to April 28
Q and A Session with Colm O'Shea

Colm O’Shea is originally from Leixlip, County Kildare. He currently lives in Dublin City where he works as a Civil Engineer. He was one of the winners, in 2012, of the inaugural Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair Competition. 

For more information on Colm O'Shea be sure to visit his blog. 

My post on his excellent short story, "Better, Not"

1.   As this is Irish Short Story Month Year III, please tell us who some short story writers you find yourself often returning to are?  Do you have anything like a favorite short story?  Who are some contemporary short story writers you admire?

Anyone reading, or trying to write, an Irish short story cannot escape Joyce’s Dubliners hanging over them, especially The Dead, though with good reason. You also have to be aware of other Irish masters of the form such as Frank O’Connor and William Trevor. A collection of stories I loved but one that never seemed to get the attention it deserved was We’re in Trouble by Christopher Coake. More recently I was completely blown away by The China Factory by Mary Costello, I thought it was utterly brilliant, she has an amazing ability to just stop the reader dead in their tracks with a few simple words, and I look forward to reading her work long into the future.

2.  I recently read Strumpet City by James Plunkett (the 2013 Dublin One City One Book Selection).  It presents a culture whose very life blood seems to be whiskey.   Drinking seems much more a factor in Irish literature than Indian, Japanese or even American.  There are rude sayings like “God Created Whiskey to keep the Irish from ruling the world” and “Without Guinness the birth rate in Ireland would be near zero”.  What do you think are some of the causes of this or is it just a myth?.   It seems to me from my reading of Irish short stories that few important conversations or events happen without drinking.   As a writer of Noir, will or does drinking and hanging out in gritty bars play a big part in your work?

Drinking and alcohol do play a major part in Irish life and culture, there’s no point in trying to deny it, from the trite supposed-jokes you repeated in your question to major levels of addiction and abuse. In many ways Irish life is, or at least was, centred around the pub, it’s hard to think how our reputation as a nation of talkers would be affected if alcohol wasn’t there to lubricate the communication. The reason that important conversations are often shown taking place around drinking is that the people involved would generally be unable to ask the hard questions or reveal the uncomfortable truths without alcohol to give them the confidence to speak. Like the Latin phrase, In Vino Veritas, something I’ve often seen to be true and as I said in many cases the only means for some things to come out. From the point of view of my own writing, as I’m sure it is with many other Irish writers, you have to be aware of the fact that it is extremely unlikely that characters will have these important conversations you speak of anywhere but inside a pub, or at least anywhere without alcohol flowing. People sitting around drinking tea and eating sandwiches will only talk about tea and sandwiches; you need something more for the real truths to come out

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 manifest itself in your work?     

With all due respect to Mr Kiberd I generally try to avoid these kinds of sweeping generalizations  plus I doubt I would have the comprehensive knowledge of modern Irish literature that he would. However, giving my own generalizations a shot for a second I wonder if the figure of the weak or absent father isn’t in reality one in the shadow of the Irish mother, in most cases a much stronger and more dominant figure.

Writing in a genre, or at least outside the field of literary fiction probably means I haven’t been as concerned with such figures as the absent or weak father as others have. Literary fiction, or at least what is passed as literary fiction when it’s not done well, can often seem to be comprised of endless navel-gazing, the continuous failings of the main character and his or her family, in which cases it is unusual for anyone to be portrayed well, as Larkin put it;
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.

Coming back to my own writing I’ve generally written characters with no family background, those parts of their past aren’t necessarily important to me, it’s their own actions that have caused their problems, not any family issues, they’re essentially alone in this regard.

5.   The Fall of Celtic Tiger, the Irish Economy,has caused a lot of pain and misery.  Is there a positive side to this?  what lessons for the future can writers take to their work?  has it in any sense brought people closer to values other than consumerism?  Is it just another day in the life of the Irish?   

It’s become almost a mantra in recent years, that the death of the Celtic Tiger and the years of recession will somehow make us a better people, or bring us back to some form of authentic Irishness which we have supposedly lost, something which I think is utter, utter shite and usually spouted by someone with more than enough money to be immune from the effects of the recession. I’ll admit I probably have a lower opinion of Irish society, and humanity as a whole, than most but I fully expect that if the economy improves over the next few years people will be as self-centred and treat others as ignorantly as they have done in the past. I really don’t buy this idea that the recession should be treated as some sort of learning experience or penance. It’s a hard difficult time for so many people the last thing they need is a lecture that they should embrace it as something positive.

I do feel writers have to be wary about trying to write the great ‘Death of the Celtic Tiger Novel’. I remember being at a play last year and it was obvious that the writer was attempting to SAY SOMETHING SERIOUS ABOUT MODERN IRISH SOCIETY in their work but it jarred so badly with the rest of the play that it was the equivalent of a child walking into a room with a saucepan on their head and banging two more pots together shouting LOOK AT ME, LOOK AT ME while everyone else had been trying to talk about personal matters.

I think writers should just try to reflect the world around them, very few are skilled enough to make a social or political point that doesn’t come across as hectoring or ruin the rest of the story; I know I’d certainly be afraid to try. I think it has to be up to future readers to assess how well the current world is reflected. One feature of writing in Ireland at the moment has been the suggestion that genre fiction, and especially Irish crime fiction, has been much better at reflecting the Ireland post-crash, as literary fiction often appears to be concerned with the past. Modern Irish crime fiction is at least at pains to set itself in the modern world, in modern Ireland and may well be the books people go back to in the future to describe our early 21st Century world.

6.   A while ago i read and posted on a long biography of Hart
Crane, author of the Bridge-few read it but many known of his life style as one of the first Gay poets living out a life of rough trade and wealthy older benefactors-he lived a very chaotic life and died young from suicide by jumping off a cruise ship. His father invented Life Saver Candy and wanted Hart to go in the Candy business with him-so if he Hart had done this and died at 75 rich living in ohio fat bald and married would he still be even much thought about let alone read?  One of the most references poets is Arthur Rimbaud who likewise had a short and chaotic life.   Does a poet need or naturally tend to a chaotic life?  why so much seeming admiration for writers like Jack Kerouac and others who died way to young from alcohol abuse.    (I know this is long, please just respond to it as you will.)

The ‘Live fast, die young’ myth is really just a tired cliché and while poets or other artists may tend to a chaotic life I don’t think they necessarily need one. I don’t know anything about the life of Hart Crane but remember; Rimbaud retired from the life of a poet and only died young because of cancer and medical complications arising from his life in Africa. If Kerouac had been better able to deal with the immense fame that accompanied the publication of On the Road he may well have lived to an old age. For those that die young we are left with the unfulfilled potential, the works they never undertook, this is often balanced with the lives of others who live to old age but whose output fades as they age.

It was a tragedy that Sylvia Plath died so young, not only for herself and her family but for the admirers of her poetry. The fact that she took her own life does not make her work any better than it already is; it survives, and is admired, on its own strengths.

If you look at the life of any poet or artist they nearly always have a golden period during which they produce their best work, it is nearly impossible to continue this into old age so their later inferior work is compared with the smaller, yet higher quality body of work completed by those who died young.

Essentially when someone dies their work is fixed, they can never go on to do something rubbish. People loved Kurt Cobain because of what he produced during his short life, what would they think if he had lived, overcome his addictions and was now a judge on a reality singing show?

7.    Tell us about your educational background?  

I attended school in Leixlip, my home town, it’s what’s called a Community School, essentially open to the children of the area but not controlled by any religious order or organisation. After school I went to Trinity College Dublin where I studied for a degree in Civil Engineering, and have a couple of post graduate diplomas in the same field. Books and reading have always played a big part in my life and I occasionally think that I might have preferred going to college to study English or the Arts in some form but I suppose I enjoy the fact that I have been able to explore the works of writers as I came across them and as they appealed to me, I wasn’t confined to a syllabus that might have put me off. Working in a bookshop after I finished college certainly helped me explore things in my own way at my own pace.

8.    What are some of your favorite movies?  What was the last movie you saw, the last novel you read?  Do you watch much TV or have favorite programs?

Unsurprisingly I love the classic Film Noirs of the 40s and 50s. My favourite film, however, is Sam Peckinpah’s Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia which is an incredibly dark, noir tale and a film I seem to come back to on a regular basis. The last film I saw was a small independent Irish film called Pilgrim Hill which explored themes of loneliness in rural Ireland, specifically in the life of one small farmer. Though it might not sound like much it is a brilliant film, made for an absolute shoe-string and very powerfully performed by the lead actor.

The last novel I read was one that would usually be outside my normal reading habits but I really enjoyed it, it’s Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World by my friend Janet E Cameron.

I watch a lot less TV than I used to, I really pick and choose rather than channel surf. My favourite TV show is The Wire; all the praise it’s received by others is well deserved. From my own point of view all I can say is that it destroyed my ability to watch the generic crime shows full of implausible comic-book serial killers and implausible and ridiculous plots that make up so much of crime stories on TV and for that I’ll be eternally grateful.

9. Why have the Irish produced such a disproportional to their population number of great writers?  Or is this a myth?

Ha! My own training in Engineering and Mathematics would lead me to ask to see the evidence, the statistics to back this up. I think the desire to tell stories is a very human trait, not something confined to the Irish; maybe we’re just more determined to make our stories heard than others. As to our production of great writers I really don’t know, maybe it was just a desire to express themselves in a society that they felt was holding them back that forced them on.
10. (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."

I don’t. For some I think the belief in fairies is something that reassures them, irrespective of whether they are Christians believing in what are older, pagan forms. Essentially believing in a supernatural aspect to life reassures them that there is something else beyond the world we live in. This isn’t something I share. I always suspect that people seeing fairies is similar to the phenomenon of seeing religious figures in slices of toast or in stains in windows.

The human mind sees shapes and extrapolates around them to make an image, probably some evolutionary left over, our ancestors saw a shape in the trees, those that could extrapolate a bear out of that shape got to run away and live, those that couldn’t got eaten.

We all want to believe that there is something more to the world than what we see when we open the curtains every morning, there’s nothing wrong with that, I just don’t believe that that something is little fairy folk dancing around at the end of rainbows.

11.  I will be touring the West of Ireland as part of my first ever Irish trip with my brother.  What are the scenic highlights?  What are the literary must do places?

Most of the scenery of the west of Ireland is spectacular, especially if the weather is good, though be warned, that doesn’t happen all that often. Connemara in Galway and the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare are well worth seeing. Travelling around West Cork and Kerry is something I would recommend and Sligo and Mayo are beautiful places to see.

County Tipperary, where my parents come from, should also be seen, the best way to get a flavour of the Irish countryside.

Rather than try to find specific literary highlights I would advise any visitor to just experience the country and the people, your own favourite Irish writers will give you some pointers as to what direction to head out into.

12.  How does your training and work experience as a Civil Engineer impact your work?    

I don’t think I can really answer that; I can’t really compartmentalise and say that my training and experience in one particular field has an impact over others. Like every other writer, everything I try to write is informed one way or another by everything I’ve ever read. But I know that when writing a novel I do plan and plot out the story before I start putting anything on paper, even to the extent of using sheets with bullet-point summaries and spread sheets. I don’t know if this is something that I picked up through my work as an engineer or just the way my mind naturally works. Every story I try to write still begins life in the daydreaming phase, definitely not something I would have learned as an engineer.

13.  It seems more and more writers have MAs in creative writing, as you do from UCD, some with PhDs.  Education is a great thing but is there a negative side to this, will it produce  in few years a literary culture where lacking this degree will make it hard to get published.   Will the day of the amateur writer without any formal literary training be a thing of the past soon, if it is not already so?  Often I see reviews, especially of American short story writers saying the writers work is standard University of Iowa writing-I don’t know what this means but it sounds like writers are being forced into standards acceptable to professors of creative writing?   Colm, do you see yourself one day obtaining a MA in creative writing?

Personally I don’t have any qualifications in creative writing, though I know quite a few people that do. Someone from the publishing industry might be better placed to say how much these qualifications have on their decision making processes though I’d hate for them to become any sort of factor. I think there is a risk that these courses only produce a certain sort of writer, that any personal rough edges are sanded off to produce something homogenous.

I occasionally think I’d like to take some time off and do one of these courses, more for the chance to spend an extended period of time in a creative environment and one where other day to day concerns don’t come in, and possibly the course could do me a huge amount of good. But I worry that these courses would destroy the things that make my writing mine and mine alone, though that might not necessarily be a bad thing.

14.   What is your reaction to these lines from Susan Cahill about the beauty of Ireland-”There is a hopelessness that a glut of natural beauty can create when there is a cultural and intellectual morass”.  Is the beauty of Ireland is two edged comes from nowhere and changes everything be over because of this?  

 All I have read about Ireland and all the images I have seen on the net present a country of amazing beauty.  How much does this saturation in natural beauty impact the writing of the country   Does it inspire and defeat at the same time?  

I think you’re asking the wrong man here. As someone who grew up in the suburbs and now lives in the city, and someone who’s stories revolve around these areas I don’ think I’ve ever been concerned with trying to portray the natural environment. My concern is usually what’s crawling around inside my characters skulls than what they see around them.

15. 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.   It is interesting to me that the American short story writers most admired by Irish writers, like Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty and Katherine Anne Porter all came from the American south, the only part of American to be crushed in a war.   Does defeat bring wisdom more than victory?   

I think the only time when anything in Irish life was portrayed as triumphal was during the brief peak of the Celtic Tiger, and that didn’t last too long.

Defeat is something that Irish writers have embraced, we’ve very rarely had much to shout about but I don’t think that any Irish writer sits down and thinks how their writing should fit into some sort of national voice or form of expression. Everyone that tries to write sits down with a blank slate, naturally they express the world they see around them but unless they’re trying to write according to some political or spiritual code they’ve no interest in toeing a party line

We have a great phrase that gets used often after sporting losses, a ‘Moral Victory’, that is there was something in our actions or character that was deserving of victory but due to factors outside our control we lost, whether we feel we were cheated out of something or just came up against something bigger and better than ourselves. In a roundabout way this might be something the Southern writers you mentioned could have been talking about?

Maybe it just comes down to a simple idea, like a line from a song by the Irish band Therapy in the 1990s
‘Happy people have no stories’
Maybe that’s all it is?

What draws you to working the area of fiction of Noir?   If someone were to say to you, what are some really good noir movies and novels, what examples would you give?   

Noir is something that I was drawn to through my reading, the books I read appealed to me, either as they reflected something in my own character or the stories simply made sense to me, I could see the worlds in which these stories were set easier than others. A lot of crime fiction seems to draw on high-tech, high concept scenarios or elaborate serial killers. I much prefer smaller stories, there may be a murder but it has usually been committed out of desperation, there is no grand plot. In reality serial killers are pathetic nobodies, not geniuses with infinite resources to commit more and more elaborate killings. For me in most cases these books may as well be written about the bogey-man or an alien or a supernatural monster, I can’t believe the characters they are trying to portray are human.

Noir Fiction is something quite specifically defined. Many people think of Film Noir and Noir Fiction as one and the same thing, there are differences. Likewise the term Hard-Boiled. I often read reviewers using Hard-Boiled and Noir as one and the same. Hard-Boiled in many cases is the white knight transplanted to a modern urban setting, think Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, and while these are fantastic stories they wouldn’t be Noir Fiction in its pure form.

Noir Fiction is something that many have attempted to define, like most things it is easier to recognise it and feel it rather than sit down and try to define it. Otto Penzler edited a fine collection called Best American Noir of the Century. He defined Noir Fiction as:

Like art, love, and pornography, noir is hard to define, but you know it when you see it. For the purposes of the book and my longtime working understanding and definition of it, noir stories are bleak, existential, alienated, pessimistic tales about losers-people who are so morally challenged that they cannot help but bring about their own ruin.
There are many famous examples of Film Noir but to pick one that encapsulates the essence ofNoir I would suggest Night and the City starring Richard Widmark and Gene Tierney. Unusually of classic film noir it was filmed in London but perfectly expresses the bleak, existential, alienated, pessimistic tale as described by Mr Penzler.

Regarding Noir Fiction I’d have to recommend two writers, David Goodis and Derek Raymond. David Goodis set his great novels amongst the drunks and the losers of the Philadelphia slums, perfectly reflecting the desperation of the characters looking for a better life that will always remain just out of reach. Derek Raymond’s Factory novels show a bleak world where even though deaths are investigated justice can never really be found. Derek Raymond’s semi-autobiographyThe Hidden Files is as good a thesis on the Noir novel as anyone has managed to write and I highly recommend it.

17. 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 sometimes think poets can be seen as like the canaries in the coal mines of society, they feel the dangers first.  Are poets kind of like your early warning signals?

To be honest I sometimes think that poets, and other artists, sometimes have an over-inflated sense of their own importance. A good poet or writer will reflect what’s happening in the country but the idea that they serve as some form of early-warning device isn’t something that I agree with. Sure some writers were decrying the state of the country during the Celtic Tiger years but more due to some perceived loss of Irish soul as our consumerism became more apparent; I never remember hearing a poet warn about the property bubble or the unsustainable levels of debt or the activities of the banking sector. Yes, a good writer will hold a mirror up to society but they’re not going to feel any of the dangers first, many others will be suffering before anything affects them.

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).   It is interesting to me in that not to long ago many white Americans viewed African Americans as very skilled at music and dancing but otherwise inferior and barbaric.  

The reason why the Irish were portrayed as inferior in some respects isn’t something that an Irish writer can address, you’re essentially talking about how we were portrayed from the outside by others. I suppose it’s the same around the world, the occupier has to portray themselves as superior to the occupied. If they portray themselves as the same then the question arises as to why they are occupying. Essentially no one wants to portray themselves as the ‘bad guys’, they need some rationale for the fact that they are occupying or subjugating another people. In many cases they will subtly and subconsciously endorse the idea that those they occupy or subjugate need their authority above them, they are lacking in some way and cannot manage their affairs on their own. It suited that the Irish were thought of as inferior yet poetic, that is they were essentially useless and couldn’t look after themselves but were always good for a song and a story.


21.  In his book “The Snapper” Roddy Doyle has the father of the family say, as if it were something commonly seen as true, “The Irish are the niggers of Europe and Dubliners are the niggers of Ireland”.  There is a lot of self loathing expressed in Irish literary works from Joyce on down to Doyle.  Is this just a family fight where one might say something terrible about a father, mother or brother or wife and kill an outsider who says the same thing or is it really how people feel?  I do not see this level of self hate in other literatures.   There is nothing like it, for example, in the literature of the Philippines.  Talk a bit about how you feel or think about this.  

First of all words cannot express just how much I hate that particular sentence by Roddy Doyle. Don’t get me wrong, he is a fantastic writer and I would encourage anyone with an interest in Irish writing to check him out, The Woman who walked into Doors is my own favourite of his work, but I just hate the sentence you have quoted in the question, cannot stand it.

Self-loathing as you put it is something I’ve found in the literature of many countries, I don’t think it’s a uniquely Irish.

Just think about what writing actually is. To write you have to shut yourself from everyone and everything. It has to be just you and the pen and paper, typewriter or computer. The blank sheet of paper or screen is also a doesn’t matter what you are writing, whether it is autobiography or genre fiction with cops and robbers or wizards and dragons, everything you need is coming from inside your head. When you go digging inside your skull there’s no guarantee you will like what comes out. No matter what you are writing your own character will find its way onto the page, if you are an optimist it will be reflected, if you are a pessimist it will also be reflected. Self-loathing will find its way onto the page whether you write ‘I’ or ‘he’ or ‘they’

The raw material for writing is what you read filtered through your own personality. Now this is your own personality, the person you are when no one else is around, no one to engage with in conversation, no one to make jokes with or try to entertain or try to seduce, just you, alone. In some cases this may not be an attractive sight. We all have different aspects to our personalities, writers maybe more so, we have the personality that the outside world sees, that we share with others every day. We also have that personality that is revealed, raw, naked; when we sit down to write. I’m sure there is a patron saint of writers somewhere but it really should be Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the two sides of who we are.

21.   Have you attended literary workshops?  if so please share your experiences with us a bit.

I have attended a couple of workshops, specifically in the field of crime fiction. The biggest benefit of a workshop is the simple sense of not being in this thing alone. Writing is essentially a lonely thing to do; it can be very helpful to mix with people who are going through the same experience as you are, that you are not alone. I am a member of a Writing Group which I find a great help, we meet every month and each read from something we are working on, we critique each other but one of the biggest benefits is simply hearing your work being read out loud. Hearing your work aloud is the closest you can come to the experience of someone else reading it, you can often pick up flaws yourself just while reading something aloud, even before others see it.

22.   If someone from outside of Ireland were to ask you what are the top 5 or so contemporary Irish novels one should read to get a feel for the country, what would you advise them?     

Rather than repeat the same list of high-profile literary novels that always get the attention I’ll recommend some Irish crime novelists that I like:

Tana French
Declan Burke
Gene Kerrigan
Kevin McCarthy
Declan Hughes

27.   Why write?

I really don’t think writing is something you rationally decide to do. For years I was happy reading, I love reading but never thought about writing myself, writers were others, they had something I felt I would never have. Then the idea started to creep in, why not try it myself? Once that question is asked you are ruined, you start scribbling little things, maybe stories, maybe poems, it doesn’t matter. You know when you write that the chances of ever making any money out of it are extremely slim, hell, the chances of even getting published are astronomically small, but you keep trying. Once you’ve uncovered that little writing gene in your head the little story ideas will start to crop up, the best thing you can do is put them down on paper as quickly as you can to make room for the next little ideas, otherwise they all start to back up, blocking everything else from functioning. You have to keep that writing sewer unblocked and regularly flushed out for the system to work.


I give my great thanks to Colm O'Shea for providing us with such thought provoking answers to my questions.

I hope to read more of his work.

Mel u

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