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 5, 2013

Gerard Beirne A Question and Answer Session with the author of The Eskimo in the Net and Turtle

March 1 to April 14
Q & A Session with
Gerard Beirne

Gerard Bieme is a very highly regarded author with a long list of publications and accomplishments.  I am very honored that he has consented to participate in a Q & A Session for ISSM3.

Bio data
Gerard Beirne is an Irish writer who moved to Norway House, a Cree community in Northern Manitoba, in 1999 where he lived for three years. While living there, he interviewed Elders in the community and edited for publication an anthology of those interviews. He received an MFA in Creative Writing from Eastern Washington University and is a past recipient of The Sunday Tribune/Hennessy New Irish Writer of the Year award. He was appointed Writer-in-Residence at the University of New Brunswick 2008-2009 and is a Fiction Editor with The Fiddlehead.
His novel The Eskimo in the Net (Marion Boyars Publishers, London, 2003) was shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award 2004 for the best book of Irish fiction and was selected as Book of the Year 2004 by The Daily Express. His most recent novel Turtle was published by Oberon Press, 2009.
His short story “Sightings of Bono” was adapted into a short film featuring Bono (U2) by Parallel Productions, Ireland in 2001 and released on DVD in 2004.
His poetry collection Games of Chance: A Gambler’s Manual has just been published by Oberon Press- Fall 2011. His collection of poetry Digging My Own Grave was published by Dedalus Press, Dublin. An earlier version won second place in the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award.

Gerard Beirne

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?

So many great short story writers around, off the top of my head: Richard Bausch,  Lorrie Moore,  Claire Keegan, Alistair MacLeod, Richard Ford, Amy Hempel, Pam Houston, Sherman Alexie,  Junot Diaz... I could go on a while.... McGahern, the stories of Desmond Hogan... we shouldn't forget Aidan could we?

Best ever? Not for me to say. What I will say is the The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien is outstanding, a book you can ill-afford to go through your life without reading (and the sooner the better)– stories that aim at the truth of story, the shocking truths of our lives.

Collections of stories that impacted me greatly as a much younger writer – For Esme with Love and Squalor (also titled Nine Stories) by Salinger, everything by Somerset Maugham, Damon Runyon...

  1.  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?

Well alcohol has played a central role in most cultures since neolithic time, but it is well-known that its effects on behaviour are predominantly determined by cultural and social factors more so than the chemical content. In the Irish context the pub has sometimes been referred to as an “extension of the home”  a place where initially men went to socialise. Obviously, there have been great changes in this regard. But it is appropriate nevertheless, necessary even, that its evolving cultural and social implications are reflected in the construct of its literature (I read once that Americans drink “with a certain sadness” borne of a cultural ambivalence towards alcohol, and I do think much of their literature responds to this). But this is not to say that it should become a lazy prop (which is often the case) we should confront it – which may be the true function of fiction in any case, confrontation – in particular confrontation of self. But I also think we need to be careful with generalisations.  As Joesph O' Connor has said somewhat tongue-in-cheek about the  Behanesque image people have of Irish writers: “in fact, younger Irish writers are so serious they live on tofu and mineral water, they do pilates, rather distressingly.” In a similar way, the perceived focus on alcohol in Irish literature can sometimes be misplaced and have more to do with priming, the stimulation of selective attention by the reader.

3.  Samuel Beckett, Oscar Wilde and James Joyce all said they never felt really Irish until they lived outside of the country?  Does this in someway relate to your experience living in Canada?

Well, the writer is always the outsider. You have to stand back from your community to observe it. Be a part of it and apart from it.  In the same way that you have to step outside of yourself to observe yourself (which by appearance is the greatest departure of all) – but of course no one ever leaves really. It is the stepping in and out that constitutes who we are.

I have travelled a fair amount, and I have lived in a variety of locations including a Cornish fishing village, a remote village in Sierra Leone West Africa, many years on an equally remote reserve in the boreal forest of northern Canada (Norway House Cree Nation),  Washington State, the prairies of central Canada, and right now in the Maritimes. Truthfully, I feel as Irish now as I ever did. No less, no more. I am who I am.

5. I sometimes wonder why such a disproportionate amount of literature of the world, that is regarded as great, is written in the colder temperate zones rather than in the tropics. How big a factor do you think the Irish weather is in shaping the literary output of its writers? I cannot imagine The Brothers Karamazov being written on a tropical island, for example.   All of the stories of Alice Munro I have read make use of the cold Canadian weather as an pervasive factor.

We are no doubt shaped by our geography, our landscape, our climate. Does it affect the form of our writing? It has to. We each have a unique rhythm, I believe, and we spend our writing lives attempting to recreate it. As Barry Lopez explains in "Landscape and Narrative" the writer "draws on relationships in the exterior landscape and projects them onto the interior landscape" to create a harmony between the two  “The interior landscape  responds to the character and subtlety of an exterior landscape; the shape of the individual mind is affected by land as it is by genes.” But that one region of the earth would produce literature that was “greater” would not resonate with me.

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?

That seems to go back to the oft misquoted “loose baggy monster” description of the novel. By the very nature of their size, there are necessarily differences in their form. Richard Ford talks about them being the “high-wire act of literature” which appeals to me more. The “leave a lot out of life and try to make us not worry about it” where as novels come “equipped with more” and are more “self-forgiving.” Is the “old whore” more self-forgiving than the “goddess” or “nymph”?

Lorrie Moore describes the short story as “a more magical form” which ties in with Ford's interpretation and coincides with my own view. To achieve more with less, the form distorts chronological time, subverts point of view, creates the illusion of space, engages in legerdemain. But as Ford reminds us somewhere else (with more than a hint of decadence),  "Forms of literature don't compete. They don't have to compete. We can have it all."

8.  One of the things I was very moved by when reading a history of the famines in Ireland was that North American Indian tribes sent them relief funds and goods.  I wonder if you could talk a bit in some way about that based on your own knowledge of the culture of the Cree Indians?

The donation you speak of came from the Choctaw in Oklahoma, those who had been forced to take the 500 mile journey known as The Trail of Tears about fifteen years before. Over half of them (about 10000) died on the journey Only sixteen years had passed since their forced journey when they heard about the Irish situation. As Gary Whitedeer said, “they heard an echo fo their own suffering.” Conquest, migration, exile, mass starvation. It is of course ironic that this journey was forced upon the Choctaw by President Andrew Jackson whose own parents had emigrated from Antrim.

But I believe it goes deeper than this. Simon Ortiz of the Acoma Pueblo tribe, and one of the key figures in what is generally known as the "Native American renaissance" of the 1960s and 70s  spoke to my wife and I about it at a literary conference in Montana in the early 90's. He said that his people felt a very direct connection to the Irish people but that he found it difficult to explain why. He felt there were cultural similarities and of course there were political ones in relation to oppression but that it was even more significant than this. And again as recently as a month ago, a Passamaquoddy Chief from along the Bay of Fundy here in New Brunswick told me something very similar. He  mentioned this story of Famine relief but said that the kinship he somehow felt was much more complex than the details or knowledge of a shared experience.

When I lived in Norway House, I was involved in an oral history project. A local Cree lady and I interviewed approximately 35 Elders in the community and I then edited for publication an anthology of those interviews. Norway House was the crossroads of the northern transport network of the Hudson’s bay Company during the 19th century, and many young men were brought out there to work mainly from Scotland. Many married into the community. So there is a somewhat more direct link there. But although the Cree lived a very different lifestyle of summer fish camps, hunting and trapping in the bush in winter, I must admit when interviewing them about their lives,the core values remained the same and struck a personal chord. So in one sense the answer is simple. A common experience was brought to the Choctaw's attention by an appeal letter read by a government agent, but beneath the simplicity lies something more complex, an inter-cultural common humanity felt at the deepest levels.

9.  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 see no other option. These “remains” are all a part of our landscape as discussed above – a part of our cultural geography, our cultural climate. The behavioural and cultural characteristics of the neolithic period: the growth of agriculture coupled with the growth of more permanent settlements; the ritual associated with chamber tombs, standing stones, passage graves are a constant presence, have direct psychological implications. Our thoughts are shaped by our surrounds, and thus there are real cognitive consequences. Our attitudes, feelings, memories, values define our daily experience. As one Cree Elder I interviewed told me, “our values come from the wilderness.” There is a spatial relationship - perception, thinking, experience, a territorial behaviour so to speak.

10. 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?

Literature in relation to imprefection, inadequacy, fault, and ultimately defeat - The ethics of failure.  Not dissimilar from Frank O'Connor's comment on the short story containing “submerged population groups” - protagonists who have been maginalised. The protagonist as outsider, the “sense of outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society” What I am saying, is that I personally see “defeat” in the context of a literary ethos – but not so much oppressed (or marginalised) people fighting for independence but more as independent people fighting to remain independent – or maybe not so much fighting but struggling – and there is no defeat in that. I think in literature we re-imagine “defeat” - each failed rebellion is but a rehearsal – the notion of the epiphany ( a formative term of Joyce's aeathetic) where the protagonist comes to some sudden realisation, some recognition that changes their view of themselves, that instant of felt-understanding seems more unrealistic to me, more symbolic of failure. The literary construction of the individual and individual experience and the crisis of communication in the poetic, dramatic or fictional form are all a part of the struggle – now that to me is heroic.

11.You are the fiction editor ofThe Fiddlehead,  Canada's oldest literary journal.   What is the greatest reward you find from this position?-can you tell us what you look for in a story or do you just know it when you see it?   How challenging  is the growth of online literary journals (I am on the board of directors of one, The Lakeview International Journal of the Literature and the Arts) t old style print journals?

The best reward of course is finding a great story that you can bring to an audience – I am always particularly pleased when the writer may not be that well known or perhaps not known at all to our readership.  I also find it rewarding to work with writers druing the editing process. Sometimes this may be quite trivial but other times it can be more significant. A lot of toil over and back as the story finds a way to emerge more completely.

As for what I look for in a story as an editor - well first and foremeost I want to be entertained. Too many stories that are sent to me are dull, uninteresting. Stories must reach out to the reader from the get-go. Draw, perhaps even yank the reader in to the unique world they are about to create. Very often writers seem to have no sense of the power they have to shape their own stories, or their characters the power they have to shape their own lives, and consequently the writers fail to wring meaning from their characters' lives. The formal constraints of the short story form are there to provide tension. Characters need to be pushed into corners until they come out fighting. But the artifice of writing should not be visible to the reader. So many demands!Writing requires courage, nothing less will do. The courage to take risks, to venture out into unknown territory. Only then can discovery occur. Great stories disrupt our expectations, veer away from the writer's intentions. There is an inevitability about story that is somehow never predictable.

  1. 12  What motivated you to leave Ireland to  move to Norway House, a Cree community in Northern Manitoba, in 1999. ?    What were the greatest rewards and challenges in the interviews you conducted with the elders of the tribe?
I left Ireland for an adventure. Ice, snow, a northern landscape, a different culture. Our children were still young – four, two, five months old. The location appealed to me – a remote northern community situated on the confluence of the Nelson River and Lake Winnipeg - defined by freeze-up and break-up. An important post of the Hudson Bay Company during the fur trade era, linking the interior via the Nelson River and the Hayes River to Hudson Bay. We spent three years there -much of my time was spent observing the water freeze and thaw, walking the frozen rivers and lakes, trekking through the boreal forest, lying out on the granite shield at night watching the Northern Lights, listening to the pounding of water beneath the ice covered lakes as though the dead were threatening to burst through. Temperatures in the minus twenties, thirties, forties. A biting burning cold that froze your beard and the hairs in your nostrils. Travelling those same rivers and lakes in our boat during the summer, camping on the islands. Float planes and ice roads. Talking to the Elders of traplines and fishcamps, Indian agents and fur traders, moccasins and beadwork, moss mattresses and rabbit fur socks, beaver pelts and moosehides, canoes and dogsleds. Manitou (the Creator) and Wesakaychak (the benevolent trickster). The stuff of their lives.

The greatest challenge was gaining the people's trust – a white person from outside their community. The greatest reward - the trust they gave to me.


I offer my great thanks for Gerard Beirne for taking the time to give us such interesting, illuminating and informative answers.
I look forward to reading much more of his work in the future

Mel u

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