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, April 24, 2013

Danielle McLaughlin A Question and Answer Session with author of Dinosaurs from other Planets

March 1 to April 28
A Q and A with
Danielle McLaughlin
County Cork Ireland

Danielle McLaughlin lives in County Cork, Ireland. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Stinging Fly, The Salt Anthology of New Writing 2013, Willesden Herald New Short Stories 7, The Long Story Short, The Irish Times, The Burning Bush 2, Inktears, Southword, Boyne Berries,
Crannóg, Hollybough, on the RTE TEN website, on RTE Radio and in various anthologies. She has won a number of prizes for short fiction, including the Writing Spirit Award for Fiction 2010, The From the Well Short Story Competition 2012, The William Trevor/Elizabeth Bowen International Short Story Competition 2012, the Willesden Herald Short Story Competition 2012-2013 and the Merriman Short Story Competition in memory of Maeve Binchy.

Danielle McLaughlin

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?

I really admire the work of Kevin Barry, Alice Munro, Anne Enright, Éilís Ni Dhuibhne, Mary Costello, William Trevor, Ethel Rohan, Claire Keegan, David Means, Clare Wigfall, Sarah Hall, James Salter, Tessa Hadley, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Tania Hershman, Ron Rash, Lane Ashfeldt,   Jhumpa Lahiri, Yiyun Li - I could go on but the list is getting too long. I’m not going to attempt to name the three best short story writers ever – there are so many writers I haven’t even got around to reading yet.

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.   Drinking plays a big part in several of your stories.

 I don’t consciously add alcohol to my stories, it’s not something I’ve ever set out to explore particularly, but when my characters, who are mostly Irish, get together, drinking often happens. Perhaps that in itself says something. The small rural parish where I grew up and where I now live, managed at one point to support six pubs, one of them owned by my family, so I suppose it’s no surprise that something of that makes its way into my work.

3. Declan Kiberd has said the dominant theme of modern Irish literature is that of the weak or missing father? In reading your wonderful story "Midnight at Ali's King Kebab Takeaway" I said:

I pondered if this story is another text book case of this.  The young woman lived in a foster home so her real father and mother were gone from her life, her foster father took advantage of her sexually, Ali's wife takes his kids from him and sets up as a father replacement figure a man we know is not going to work out at all.  We also do wonder why the woman left Ali, was it just she, we think she is Irish as she is described as having porcelain skin,  wanted an Irishman or was Ali too caught up in his food business to me a good father or husband.  So for sure we have one missing father, her real father, an abusive foster father, and Irishman we know will be a bust as a step father and we do have to wonder about Ali.  So how many weak fathers are in this story?  (Danielle, just please talk a bit about the Issue of weak fathers as it relates to your work and your perception of irish lit and life)

It’s funny, isn’t it, how we often don’t notice something in our own stories until someone else points it out? When I look back over ‘Midnight at Ali’s King Kebab Takeaway’, I see that the story does, I think, involve the theme of missing father. We have this rudderless young au pair, far from home, who gets involved with first one older man, then another, and then, as you say, there is Ali separated from his kids. Thinking of some of my other stories, there are a number of instances of missing fathers and there are missing mothers too. Perhaps it is the case that characters who have become untethered have the potential to be more interesting characters. As writers are we drawn more to characters who have been cast loose?  Or maybe it is simply that I wrote the story shortly after I myself had played ‘Mrs Host Mother’ to no fewer than seven young au pairs over the course of two years and they left me with plenty of material. (the story, I hasten to add, is entirely fictional…) In the wider context, is the missing father the dominant theme of modern Irish literature? I don’t know but it’s certainly one of the themes.

4. when did you start writing?

In 2009. That was also the year I became very ill very suddenly with what turned out to be a long term illness and had to stop work, so I guess that had something to do with it. I had attempted to write previously, but it didn’t come to anything. I used to write stories as a child and I remember ‘finishing’ some stories years ago and even sending some out, but I had no understanding of the need to do re-writes, for example, or of the time required to get a story right, so in hindsight, they would have been nowhere near ‘finished’.  I didn’t realise that there was craft to be learned. I used to think that if someone was really a writer, then the writing would more or less happen by itself. In 2009, it was non-fiction I started with, and my first published piece was an article in the Irish Times about going through the seven au pairs in two years. I switched to writing fiction quite quickly, although I still write the occasional feature article. 

5. Please tell us a bit about your none literary work experience
These days I’m a stay-at-home Mammy (I have three kids, aged 10, 8 and 6), although ‘stay-at-home’ is a bit of a misnomer, because most days I’m ferrying them about, and even when they’re at school, I find I often need to get out of the house to write, especially if I’m in the early stages of something. Other jobs over the years have included admin jobs, working in a pub, in a shop, as a lawyer and as a lecturer.

6.   Does living in the city where the world's most prestigious short story festival is held somehow inspire Cork based writers?

I first attended the Cork International Short Story Festival in 2010 and it was magnificent. Short story heaven!  That autumn, I signed up for some writing workshops run by the festival organisers, the Munster Literature Centre, and it was a turning point in my attempts to write. I’ve attended the Festival every year since. Yes, it’s inspiring and the buzz is incredible - I’m on a high for weeks afterwards. I’m already looking forward to this year’s festival  - 18 to22 September 2013.

8.    Please tell us something of your academic background?

I studied law and practiced as a lawyer for many years until I had to stop in 2009 for health reasons. I find writing and law quite similar in many ways: both revolve around words and stories and drama, and both require high levels of creativity. I also studied English and Irish as a night student at UCC.

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

I don’t know how our numbers compare to other countries but we’ve certainly produced lots. Historically, going back to Brehon law times, the position of writer/poet would have been highly regarded. And, being a small island, we were not engaged in the sort of empire-building that other countries were involved in, so perhaps our energies were directed elsewhere.

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."

Where I live there are lots of fairy forts and as I child I understood that one mustn’t mess with them. Yes, I believe in fairies in that I believe other ‘realities’ may exist that are beyond our knowing or our understanding. And who is to say what spirits or beings may exist in those other places?  I doubt, though, that fairies are sweet, doll-like creatures in pretty dresses  - I like to think they’re a lot more interesting. 
11. 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?

The area where I live has lots of standing stones and there is a souterrain quite close to our house. I tend to take them for granted because I grew up with them and they are part of the landscape. But their existence is bound to impact in some way - there is that sense of something left over from lives gone before, of something that lingers.

12. When you write, do you picture somehow a potential audience or do you just write? As a playwright, do you caste the play at least by types as or before you write it?

Mostly I just write whatever story presents itself, although if something has been commissioned for a particular publication then I will keep readership in mind, eg is it something that needs to be suitable for children? 
I haven’t written any plays.
13. Do you have any rituals or superstitions about your writing, do you have fixed, "writing times"?

The closest I get to a routine is in the mornings when, after I take the children to school, I drive to a café taking a notebook with me and work on a story for a couple of hours. I always have to do the first draft of anything longhand, never straight onto a computer. When I get home, if what I am writing has reached a particular stage, I might transfer it to the computer then.  In the afternoons, the children are home from school but I might get to work on edits of stories that are further along and I try to do a couple of hours in the evenings after the children are in bed.

14. 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?  

I don’t recall having encountered the ‘stage Irishman’ much lately. 
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

Maybe it’s an example of ‘write what you know’? I suppose over the course of history the Irish experienced more defeats than victories, so perhaps the literature simply reflects this. I don’t know enough about the particular poetry Yeats was referring to, to comment on whether he was right or not.

16.   What is the best thing about the Cork International Short Story festival?

There are so many things that combine to make the Festival great  - the readings, the workshops, the panel discussions -  it’s difficult to pick just one. Having said that, at the Festival there’s always a very strong sense that everybody –  whether participating writer or audience member – is there because of a shared love of the short story, and the level of interaction between the writers and those who have come along to hear them is something I haven’t experienced anywhere else. I’ve been very fortunate in previous years to get chatting to a number of internationally acclaimed writers.

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 think everyone has a social role to play, poets (or other writers) no more or no less than anyone else. 
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).

I’m afraid I just don’t know, so I’m going to skip this one!

19. Do you think Irish Travellers should be granted the status of a distinct ethnic group and be given special rights to make up for past mistreatment? Are the Travellers 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.

Travellers are an ethnic group and their ethnicity should be recognised. I don’t know about the Irish/English analogy.

20.  Best city for a neophyte writer in Ireland? Dublin, Cork, Galway?

Cork (but then I would say that, wouldn’t I…)

21.   If you have attended literary workshops, tell us a bit about them please-

I’m a big believer in workshops and I go to as many as possible. Many of my stories started out as workshop exercises. The workshops I did in 2010/2011 at the Munster Literature Centre in Cork made a huge difference to my writing and it was out of those workshops that my writing group formed. Five of us continue to meet once a fortnight to critique each other’s work. Some workshops I attended last year were with Éilis Ni Dhuíbhne  at the Cork International Short Story Festival, Tessa Hadley at the West Cork Literary Festival and Nuala Ni Chonchúir at the Waterford Writers Weekend. All really great!

22. Do  you prefer ereading or traditional books?

Traditional books, I don’t have an ereader. 
23. If you were to be given the option of living anywhere besides Ireland where would you live?

New York – I’ve never been, but I imagine it as an extraordinary place and I’d like to try living in a really big city.

24. If you could time travel for 30 days (and be rich and safe) where would you go and why?

I might go forward a couple of hundred years - see how things work out.

26. Flash Fiction-how driven is the popularity of this form by social media like Twitter and its word limits? Do you see twitter as somehow leading to playwrights keeping conversations shorter than in years past?

I’m not on Twitter, but I do like to read and write flash fiction. I can’t imagine Twitter impacting on playwrights in that way, but then again, I’m not on Twitter so I don’t really know.

27. How important in shaping the literature of Ireland is its proximity to the sea?

As a small island, we are in the grip of the sea and it is something that remains uncontrollable, regardless of scientific advances. It also contributes in large part to our isolation. No-one in Ireland is ever very far from the sea so in that sense it is ever-present and this finds its way into our writing. My husband’s family mostly work in the fishing industry in one way or another, so in our house we would be very much  aware of the sea as a force to be reckoned with. There’s a wonderful debut collection called ‘Saltwater’ by Lane Ashfeldt, all of the stories inspired by the sea. It’s a gorgeous collection and I highly recommend it.

28.  When you are outside of Ireland, besides friends and family, what do you miss the most?  What are you glad to be away from?

I’ve never been away long enough to start missing anything. It’s good to get away from the rain for a while.

29. Quick Pick Questions
a. John Synge or Beckett-?  Beckett
b. dogs or cats? Dogs
c.  tablet or lap top? Lap top
d.  favorite meal to eat out-breakfast, lunch or dinner? Dinner


I give my total thanks to Danielle McLaughlin for taking the time to provide us with such interesting and well considered responses to my questions.

Mel u

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