March 1 to April 21
Q & A with Steve Wade
Steve Wade is an Irish Writer and English language teacher. A prize nominee for the PEN/O’Henry Award, 2011, and a prize nominee for the Pushcart Prize, 2013, his fiction has been published widely in print and online. His work has won awards and been placed in prestigious writing competitions, including being shortlisted among five in the Wasafiri Short Story Prize 2011, a nomination for the Hennessy New Irish Writer Prize, and Second Place in the International Biscuit Publishing contest, 2009. His novel ‘On Hikers’ Hill’ was awarded First Prize in the UK abook2read Literary Competition, December 2010 – among the final judging panel was the British lyricist sir Tim Rice. His fiction has been published in over twenty-five print publications, including Zenfri Publications, New Fables, Gem Street, Grey Sparrow, Fjords Arts and Literary Review, and Aesthetica Creative Works Annual.
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?
Gerard Donavan, Colm McCann, and Kevin Barry. To narrow it down to three writers I regard to be the best ever short story writers would be presumptuous. I’d prefer to say whose work has engaged me more than others: John McGahern for his gritty realism, James Joyce – his epiphanies still get me, even though I know they’re coming, and Hans Christian Anderson for the sheer beauty of his prose and his ability to make me see through the eyes of a child and believe as an adult.
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?.
As a non-drinker, and quite an intolerant one at that, it’s a sad but true reflection on what I consider to be a major epidemic in this country. There isn’t an event or social function that doesn’t end with all hands clutching glasses. And then there’s the anti-social behaviour that accompanies the abuse of alcohol in pubs and clubs at weekends. But now that you draw my attention to the proliferation that alcohol plays in Irish stories, I’m happy to note that I don’t think I’m guilty too often in my writing of drawing further attention to this fact.
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?.
From Joyce to McGahern to Colm McCann, It’s a theme that is certainly prevalent. The angle I come at it is the fraught relationship that exists between father and son. An area that is forever ripe for exploration, as the growth of the child coincides with the decline of the man. Out of the 22 stories in my forthcoming collection, ‘In Fields of Butterfly Flames’, 6 of them deal with the father/son theme. Ridden with guilt, and grieving his father’s passing, a man seeks forgiveness by following an old man he believes to be his dead father through the city’s streets. In another story, a character has abandoned the life he has forged to look after his ailing father following his mother’s death. In the story he recounts the events that have brought him back from his American Dream to the country of his birth, where there is nothing for him but regression and stagnation.
4. when did you start writing? what first motivated you?
From a very young age I enjoyed expressing myself creatively. This I did for years through pencil sketching and oil painting. Not until I was into my early twenties did I realise that I could express myself better in the medium of writing. What really spurned me on was being awarded First Prize in the first short story competition I ever entered, the Telecom Eireann/Rank Xerox competition.
5. In my reading of "The Land of the Ever Young" and Sheridan Le Fanu's classic short story, "The Child Stolen by Fairies" which your story brought to mind I said that both of these stories could be seen as about the attempts of the people of Ireland to rationalize the massive death of children during the famine years-can you talk a bit about your reaction to this, please?
It’s a wonderful idea and one that, I’m sure, holds a lot of credence. But, given the grip of the Catholic Church on Ireland back then, a time when records suggest inbreeding was prevalent in certain areas, perhaps changelings came about through a God-fearing folk beholding the subnormal offspring – maybe not baptised - of closely-related couples. Many of these children, because of their weakened genes, would have perished. However, in fairness, it’s a question that demands, if not a thesis, at least an essay as an answer.
- Your bio says you lived for a number of years in Sardinia-how did this come about? what besides write did you do while there?
Simple answer: I left for a girl. Besides writing, I enjoyed the wonderful beach life during the summers, where I could do two of my favourite things: soak up the sun and read. And then there was my garden. With an acre of land, I grew oranges, lemons, kiwis and peaches. And with plenty of space, I was able to get a Pastore Meremmano – a huge Meremma sheepdog. I called her Sadhbh after John B Keane’s character. She and I spent memorable times in the rugged hills of Sardinia. I miss her.
- Tell us a bit about your non-academic non literary work experience please
Before I left Ireland to live abroad, I worked for eircom while doing my M.Litt. degree. I worked first of all on the technical side, which was funny because I’m the most non-technical person on the planet. After that, I worked in an office for a couple of years. I met a lot of interesting people during this time, and learned quite a bit about human interaction in the workplace. All grist to one’s mill.
8. Based on your years in Sardinia, can you be bold enough to offer some general comparisons or contrasts with the Irish and Italian Character? (Steve, just say what ever you are comfortable with, I know every person is unique etc but there are also commonalities)
In some aspects, we’re similar. Both the Irish and the Italians love to talk. But the Italians, of course, are more animated, more physical and less inhibited at displaying feelings and emotions than the Irish. A thing I greatly admire about the Italians is there sense of family, their togetherness at mealtimes, and the way they revere and cherish their elderly and treat them as the older generation should be treated. This is something our government and we as a people could learn from them. But one thing the Italians might learn – not sure from the Irish though – is safe driving.
9. Why have the Irish produced such a disproportional to their population number of great writers?
This is another question that merits a thesis, but again it’s probably connected to our love of communication. British colonialism, and having our language and, by extension, our identity taken from us has no doubt also played a factor in our need to reaffirm who we are. And then there’s the Shaw and Wilde factor of mastering the language that was forced upon us and using it as a two fingers gesture towards the old oppressor.
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." (Steve-I am asking this question of everyone-the answers have ranged from yes with all my heart to no of course I do not)
In a literal sense, no answer is necessary. But every time I step into the world of Hans Christian Anderson or the works collected by the Brothers Grimm, yes, I believe in fairies in all their forms. And this belief I carry with me when I sit before a keyboard and screen and create my own fantasies, be they traditional fairy tales, or anthropomorphic stories with wolves and eagles as the protagonists. Your question brings to mind the famous reply in 1897 by the editor of the New York Sun to eight-year old Virginia O’Hanlon who posed the question about the existence of Santa. In his beautiful letter to the young girl, a line runs: “… real? In all the world there is nothing else real and abiding”.
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?
It’s not something I’ve ever considered, but it’s an interesting idea. My immediate reaction is that I can’t recognise any link.
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?
Only when I’m writing for a publication or a competition that has specified a particular type of story with certain elements, do I write for a potential audience. And, even then, I’m going more with the requirements than the imagined audience. Generally I write the kind of story that I like to read.
13. Albert Einstein was once asked by a parent how they could make their children smarter, he told the parent to have them read fairy tales-why do you think he said this-does this seem like sensible advise to you?
Fairy tales work on many levels: philosophical or moral stories depicting evil versus good. They tap in to the naturally inquisitive mind of the child, developing his or her ability to use their imagination, to think laterally and realise that there are no truths, only a different set of possibilities.
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?
This stereotype continues to make an appearance in Irish literature, but there are plenty of other character-types portrayed and themes explored.
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
By celebrating those who were defeated, we acknowledge their gargantuan efforts in the face of adversity. To borrow from Dylan Thomas’s great poem: although we know defeat/death is inevitable, it’s better to ‘rage against the dying of the light’. Perhaps, for the Irish, true heroes are those who sacrifice themselves for the cause.
16. The character of the child as a changeling in Irish myth and stories, is this also a way of dealing with infant death and in a darker vein the burden babies put on huge families during the bad times?
This question is similar to question 5.
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?
All art, to some degree, is socio-political. It may not be overtly so, but even those writers who claim to write for themselves come to their work from an ideological standpoint. So even the most self-enclosed writer can’t help but produce work that is in dialogue with the world around 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).
There is greater legitimacy in oppressing and dominating a people and colonising a nation if its oppressor perceives it is a land of barbaric morons. This way, they can justify their tyranny by, as they see it, enlightening and civilising its people. Not everyone can be ‘poetic and magical’; so, the Irish writers and poets would be exceptions to the rule. That the successful Irish writer, the Shaws and the Wildes, for example, expressed their genius through the mother tongue of the old enemy can be seen as a triumph by the invader. Added to this, the Irish writer could only gain recognition by migrating to England.
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.
The Irish Traveller, like other marginalized groups, are entitled to the ethnicity status they seek. ‘Special rights’, however, would have to be specified, as this could not include events like sulky racing on major roads.
20. You have a masters degree with a focus in Literature from Trinity University. Tell us a bit about your area of focus. If there are "trends" of who is seen as must reads at Trinity for students in this sort of program, who are they?
For my M.Litt. degree I researched the work of the American playwright Sam Shepard. My area of research concentrated on the nature of identity in Shepard’s work. In my thesis I drew upon the entire corpus of Shepard’s dramatic output. I concentrated on the most subjective aspect of his plays – their hunger to locate an ideal sense of self, i.e., to achieve a noteworthy identity through the playing of a role or roles in society. While researching Shepard, I also read David Mamet, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Edward Albee.
21. My brother and I will be making our first trip to Ireland in May-we will be staying very close to Trinity University so I have some questions I hope you can indulge me by answering-
- best Fish and Chips near the university?
Leo Burdock’s, Werburgh Street, opposite Christchurch.
- best place in Dublin to buy hard to find collections of short stories?
The Winding Stair opposite Trinity College.
c. top literary must sees
The Book of Kells in Trinity, the Dublin Writers’ Museum, and, being biased, as I wrote my first thesis on him and his work, Bernard Shaw’s birthplace in Synge Street.
d. The Book of Kells-worth the long wait or view it online?
You can view it online anytime. Absolutely, I would advise you visit the real thing.
e. best place for a fairly price pint?
No idea. The last and only time alcohol touched my lips was when I was seven and my granddad gave me a sip of sherry at Christmas. I never was one for the pub-scene.
f. best place for a splurge meal that offers real Irish food?
My favourite food is Italian, so my favourite restaurants are Italian. But I really don’t think there’s any need to fork out to get a good Irish meal. Pubs, in general, do good grub, reasonably priced. Try O’Neill’s in Suffolk Street.
h. best place to hear old fashioned Irish music?
O’Donoghues pub, where the Dubliners and Christy Moore often played. Music seven nights a week.
22. Do you prefer e reading or traditional books?
Traditional books. No question. I love the texture, the heft and the smell of a real book.
23. If you were to be given the option of living anywhere besides Ireland where would you live?
Because of its vastness and its unique wildlife, Australia would be my choice.
24. If you could time travel for 30 days (and be rich and safe) where would you go and why?
Back to the 1960’s in the USA. I would love to have been around to experience this exciting time, with the music of Dylan, Baez, and Simon and Garfunkel, complemented by writers like Updike, Harper Lee and Ken Kesey.
25. Have you attended creative writing workshops and if you have share your experiences a bit please.
Since returning from living abroad six years ago, I’ve made the annual pilgrimage to Listowel Writers’ week in Kerry every year except one. The outstanding workshops for me were Gerard Donavan’s novel-writing workshop, and Paddy Breathnach’s writing for Screen workshop. Both facilitators were enthusiastic and incredibly generous with their knowledge and time.
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 don’t see any connection between Flash-Fiction and Twitter. And, if conversations are shorter and dialogue tighter in modern plays, it’s probably due to a change in convention, where the modern theatregoer no longer expects or accepts lofty monologues. Flash-Fiction has always been appreciated. Aesop’s Fables are Flash-Fiction.
27. How important in shaping the literature of Ireland is its proximity to the sea?
Given the short distance between Ireland and its neighbour, it provided easy migration for writers to England, and, from there, to Europe.
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 miss trekking through the Wicklow hills. And I miss eavesdropping on the sometimes philosophical exchanges between old men sitting on park benches. What I’m glad to be away from is the excessive drinking culture, and loutish behaviour in general.
29. Quick Pick Questions
- John Synge or Beckett-?
b. dogs or cats
Dogs. They understand us better than our own species.
c. best city to inspire a neophyte writer-London, Dublin, Rome, Paris ?
Rome, bella bella Roma.
d. favorite meal to eat out-breakfast, lunch or dinner?
e. RTE or BBCS
30. OK let us close out on this note-what is your reaction 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
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.
My response to this quotation from O’Loughlin’s first collection is that it seems disingenuous, too forced and melodramatic. There’s nothing enlightening here, no spark to set alight a blaze in my stomach, as poetry should for me.
End-I give my great thanks to Steve Wade for taking the time to provide such interesting responses to my questions. I look forward to reading much more of his work in the future and hope to do another Q and A with him in March 2014 for ISSM4