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

Friday, April 26, 2013

Ger Burke A Question and Answer Session with the author of "Ebb and Flow"

March 1 to April 28
Q & A Session with Ger Burke

GER BURKE is a novelist and short story writer. She has had many
literary successes both in print and radio, including being short-listed
for the Francis McManus Short Story Award and long-listed for The Fish
Short Histories Prize and the 2012 Fish Flash Fiction Competition. She
is a co-editor of Crannóg literary magazine. Her novel My Father’s Lands
was published in 2010 by Wordsonthestreet. Braided Loves, her new
novel, is due out in 2013.

   1. Who are some of the contemporary writers you admire? If you could hear a reading by three famous dead poets, who would you prefer

There is such an array of writers I admire and enjoy, I’ll just have to be disciplined and choose two novelists and two short-story writers. The first who comes to mind is Kiran Desai. Her novels have depth and emotion while also being imaginative and wise.  I have read The Inheritance of Loss more than once! Because I have written a novel set in the 16th century myself, I marvel at Hilary Mantel’s ability to re-imagine the life of historical figures with such authenticity and empathy. Wish I could do it as well!

Short stories –I really like Annie Proulx.  She shows the darker side of the human psyche against the harsh background of Wyoming while still retaining a sense of humour. Like most, I enjoy Alice Munroe. I love her style. The writer in me sees something new to learn from her in almost every sentence.
Obviously there are many contemporary short story writers in Ireland, in Galway specifically, whom I admire. I wouldn’t dare pick out one. I’m very proud of our local talent many of whom have been published in Crannóg and by Wordsonthestreet.       
I assume, Mel, that you mean poets who were dead before the advent of recording technology. I would love to hear Keats reading Ode to a Nightingale and Ode to a Grecian Urn, Wordsworth reading Tintern Abbey and Emily Dickenson reading all her poetry!  
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.  Why do the Irish drink so much?  

I’m not sure that alcohol plays a bigger part in the Irish short story except in the social setting of the pub.
I thinks it’s a myth that the Irish drink a lot. A recent OECD report puts Ireland 10th out of 40 countries, for alcohol consumption.
Also, interestingly, there is a much higher rate of alcohol abstention in Ireland compared to most of western Europe – 23% compared to 10% in a recent study.
Also drinking may be more obvious and more public in Ireland. I spent five years in Massachusetts and went to many dinner parties where there was no shortage of alcohol!

   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?

How modern? I think the dominant theme in Irish literature has been the effect of the Catholic Church on our society since the Famine. The role of the father in modern Irish literature I think reflects the role assigned to him by society. He was the breadwinner, his role to bring home the bacon! So he was absent emotionally but not necessarily weak. My novel Braided Loves is set in the late 80s so the father in that would have been born about 1912. He is typical of his generation, grappling with adverse circumstances rather than weak. It due out in September so you can judge for yourself!   

   4. When did you start writing?

My first ‘serious’ writing was when I was twelve. I won a national radio letter-writing competition. The theme was Tír Gan Teanga Tír Gan Anam ( A country without its language is a country without a soul.) As a teenager I was also published in The RTE Guide. I was very proud! In my early twenties I sent a short story about my uncle, who had just died, to David Marcus. My uncle had been in the Old IRA and had fought in the civil war. It was an emotional piece, probably laudatory of his armed struggle, and over the top. The rejection I got back was scathing. I think new writers should be encouraged even if their writing is, in someone’s opinion, rubbish.
In Crannóg we publish many new authors. We take great care to inform each unsuccessful author in an encouraging way and we always invite them to submit again. I know it is said that David Marcus did encourage many, so maybe I was an exception!

  1. 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 definitely not just another day in the life of the Irish. The misery inflicted 
by the lunacy of the bankers is devastating and has brought back the scourge of emigration. One of my daughters is in Toronto, the other in Sheffield.    
I think we have discovered that we should not be an economy but a community where the value of your house is not the be all and end all. This is a positive aspect since in the Celtic Tiger era many were solely focused on money. 
I'm not sure it has brought people closer together. We have a long history of focusing on how our neighbours might be ‘working the system’ while we ‘honest souls’ play by the rules.
Lessons for Irish writers. Power corrupts and even if it’s not absolute it can still
devastate a community.  The Celtic Tiger is fertile ground for authors both in its
rise and demise. However I tend to be optimistic. Yeats wrote in Ben Bulben: 

Sing the lords and ladies gay
That were beaten into clay
Through seven heroic centuries;
Cast your mind on other days
That we in coming days may be
Still the indomitable Irishry.

  6.   A while ago I read and posted on a long biography of Hart
Crane, author of the Bridge-few read it but many know 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, 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 referenced 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 too young from alcohol abuse.  If Ezra Pound had not gone mad, would he still be a role model for the contemporary poet?  (I know this is long, please just respond to it as you will.)

We have no faith in the writer who looks and behaves like us. You speak of Hart Crane and Arthur Rimbaud who ended their lives prematurely. I’m not sure they would still be as popular if they had lived. Like war victims they never age in people’s psyche. It’s a pity society immortalises people who bring about their own demise. On the other hand, I don’t think art would be much served by having loads of middle-class writers and poets moaning about their property tax and the advent of water charges.

   7. Tell us a bit about your non-academic non-literary work experience please.

When I was in secondary school, I worked in a supermarket stacking shelves. It was Christmas when I got my first taste of ‘entrepreneurship.’ The supermarket owner told us to bring out semi-rotten grapes that had been discarded in the storeroom and mix them with the healthy grapes, which were running short. They were all sold!  Later I worked pulling pints in a pub in London and later as a pot-man in an Irish dancehall there. I worked in CBS records on Tottenham Court road for a while as a personal assistant. I could have been a Simon Cowell if I’d remained! I also worked as an office assistant in Kentish town. A lovely experience. The Irish Diaspora was so kind and supportive and knew how to have the craic.   

8.    Tell us something about your educational background, please.

National school, Secondary school, University. Post-graduate in Education. No MA in creative writing, I’m afraid!
   9. Why have the Irish produced such a disproportional to their population number of great writers?

We are an island nation so we get tired talking to oursel


   10. When you write, do you picture somehow a potential audience or do you just write?

I may be more widely read if I pictured a potential audience before I wrote. No. I write first for myself. Then, having written, I look for suitable outlets to place it. For example we advise prospective submitters to Crannóg to read the magazine before they send us their work to get a flavour of what their potential audience might be.

   11.   In your role as an editor of the literary magazine Crannog, what sort of works do you look for?   How do you go about trying to increase your readership?

Crannóg has recently published its 32nd issue and has just celebrated its 10th anniversary. We pride ourselves in giving aspiring and established writers a forum to express themselves. We publish literary short stories that are strong on style. Nothing experimental.
We increase our readership by sending our newsletter out to a large database of contacts. We are always trying to get our magazine out to a wider audience. We recently had a subscription drive, which was very successful.
We launch each issue in The Crane Bar and those who are in the magazine read from their work. It is a great night of celebration, an opportunity to make more sales and for writers to meet and socialise with each other.

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?   Rude question-is the performance poet a version of this?

The drunken ‘stage Irishman’ is more a creation of Hollywood film directors and scriptwriters and was only ever a caricature.
The performance poet could not be a version of this when ‘stage Irishman’ is a caricature in the first place!     

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 to, assuming you agree, has shaped Irish literature

Irish literature makes heroes of the defeated. Think of Robert Emmet, celebrated in poetry and song, yet his contribution amounted to a mere skirmish. Or the 1916 rising, which failed, yet is remembered as if it were our day of independence. There are many more examples from Irish history.

   14.   Do you see writing short stories as kind of like practice for novels?  Which form do you think is more of a challenge to achieve quality work and to get noticed as a writer?

I think the short story and the novel are two different disciplines. They are crafted in a different way so, no, I don’t see writing short stories as a kind of practice for novels.  
The short story is more of a challenge in some ways. Every word is important in the short story whereas in the novel the plot can carry it some of the way. However, I think it is easier to get one short story published than one novel!

   15. 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 the poet should be first and foremost a pure artist. A poem is a creation in itself. It shouldn’t necessarily have a social function.
However, the reach of poetry should be expanded. The beauty and value of poetry are too precious to be confined to poets and their peers.

   16. "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).

Both views are designed to denigrate. It’s a standard colonist strategy to keep the peasants in their place. You’re either inferior and barbarous or you are ‘airy fairy.’
It’s probably the job of both the social historian and the artist to figure out this conundrum.

   17.  In your excellent short story, “Ebb and Flow” what was behind your decision to make the male character a professor of cinema at Columbia University?

I spent five years in Massachusetts and while there met many variations of the male character portrayed in “Ebb and Flow”. As you correctly pointed out in your review of the story, I felt a film buff would tend to view his life as if through a lens and evaluate each shot. This gave great opportunity for homing in on detail, while also pulling back to the big picture when needed. He was an academic so it gave me the excuse to make him arrogant and self-involved! This is why he can’t see the ebb in Sinéad’ feelings for him.  That he was American also gave me an opportunity to have Sinéad show him around Salthill and thus give a strong setting to the story.   

   18.   Tell us something about your new novel, please.

‘Braided Loves’ is set in the 1980s and draws us into Teresa Goldstein’s family life where nothing is as it seems.
When Teresa, a successful author and teacher, begins to receive ominous calendars, with certain dates marked in red, her instinct is to ignore them. But before long, she realises she has too many problems to ignore.
Living in the West of Ireland with her Bostonian Jewish lawyer husband and children, Teresa is an author of a sexual guide for teenagers. She freely admits to herself the irony of her advising adolescents on sexual matters, an area in which she is heartbreakingly lacking.
I think the novel is compelling in that it reveals a woman’s struggle to be happy while battling with sexual repression, heavy drinking and the conflicts they bring to her life.

19. Do you prefer ereading or traditional books?

Obviously my spontaneous response is the standard one, I prefer traditional books. It’s difficult to adapt to change. But both have their place.  I was in Sweden recently and found the e-reader invaluable. Wonderful to be able to ‘carry’ so many books without having to pay for extra baggage. In time I think we will learn to appreciate both.

20. If you were to be given the option of living anywhere besides Ireland where would you live?

The Big Rock Candy Mountain!

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

Since I only have 30 days I’ll split the opportunity into three adventures. Firstly 10 days in 16th century Ireland where my novel, My Father’s Lands, is set. I’d love to take a trip back there. Not to stay in the tower houses of the aristocracy but to visit the cabins of the peasants to discover more detail about their day-to-day living.
Then to Renaissance Italy. Oh for a chance to persuade Raphael to teach me how to paint a Madonna.
Beijing 2048. Book tour to China to launch my 20th novel. China has long ago colonised Europe and is now ruling the world. I need to be where the action is! I could compare 16th century Ireland, Renaissance Italy and China in the future.  

   22. Have you attended creative writing workshops and if you have share your experiences a bit please.

They were never boring. Some were good, some not so good. If I learned one new bit of information or skill, I was satisfied.    

   23. 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?

Flash fiction is becoming more popular as is social media. There may, indeed, be a link. Attention spans are said to be shortening. Dialogue in plays is certainly shorter than in the past. Think of a Shakespearean speech! But then that probably reflects speech patterns in reality.

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

It has been said that those who grow up around the coast of Ireland are more intelligent than those from the interior! I suspect, though I haven’t counted, that there are more writers from our coastal counties and our islands than other parts of the country. It is supposed to be due to all the iodine from eating fish!
More seriously, there may have traditionally been greater regard for education in the poorer coastal counties, as a way out of poverty. This, in turn, may have led to a greater exposure to literature, and thus produced more writers. Which expands my answer to question

25.  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 miss the uniquely Irish sense of humour. Glad to be away from the rain and austerity.

   26. Quick Pick Questions

   a. John Synge or Beckett-? Synge

   b. dogs or cats     dogs

   c.  best city to inspire a writer-London or Dublin   London

   d.  favorite meal to eat out-breakfast, lunch or dinner? dinner

   e. RTE or BBC RTE

   f. Yeats or Whitman Yeats

   g.  Starbucks, McDonalds, KFC-great for a quick break or American corruption?
A nice break with a dash of American corruption!
h. night or day Day


My thanks to Ger Burke for taking the time to provide us with such interesting and insightful answers.

Mel u


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