March 1 to April 14
Q & A
Susan Millar DuMars
Lights in the Distance
SUSAN MILLAR DUMARS was born in Philadelphia. She has been short-listed for the Cúirt New Writing Prize and the START chapbook prize. Her fiction was awarded a bursary from the Arts Council of Ireland in 2005 and was showcased in a mini-collection, American Girls (Lapwing Publications) in 2007. Susan has also published two volumes of poems with Salmon Poetry.
Millar DuMars was born and raised in Philadelphia to a Belfast mother. In 1997 she visited Galway during the Galway Arts Festival, and has since made the city her home. Her husband is the poet Kevin Higgins; the couple have organised the 'Over the Edge' reading series and facilitated creative writing workshops throughout Galway since 2003. She also teaches creative writing classes at the Galway Arts Centre, GTI and GMIT and for the Brothers of Charity's Away With Words project.
In 2009 DuMars and Higgins were the subject of a short documentary by Des Kilbane called 'Rhyming Couplet', which was screened at the 2009 Galway Film Fleadh.
Susan Millar DuMar
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’m always hesitant to name the three best anything…partly because I know whoever I say, I will wake up tomorrow and realise the key person I left out! Here are the names that popped into my head…as a kid, I liked Roald Dahl and O. Henry. In college, I discovered Raymond Carver with his ambiguous endings and Edna O’Brien with her wonderful eye for the telling detail (a woman untying and tying her apron strings). And then the Katherines – Mansfield and Ann Porter – and Dorothy Parker wrote some corkers. Truman Capote’s short fiction has style and heart. I resisted Joyce for a long time, because I was Irish and everyone told me I had to like him. Then I read The Dead and that was that. Current Irish writers? I won’t name my favourites because I know so many of them personally. But there is a wealth of talent in the short story genre in Ireland now. What is needed is more short story journals, more chances for fiction writers to read, more publishers willing to take a chance on story collections.
2. 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. It seems present in several of your stories
The theme of a missing dad recurs in my stories because my parents were divorced when I was eleven or twelve. I write from what I’ve experienced or witnessed and I believe most writers do likewise. I don’t agree that missing/weak fathers are THE theme of modern Irish lit – though I happily admit I’m not an expert. I do believe a dominant character in Irish tradition is the strong Mammy. In certain domains, the Irish woman has enormous power. In others – including decision making power over her own body – Irish women have been, and to a great extent still are, powerless. It’s a strange dichotomy, and some of us should be writing about that.
3. When did you start writing?
I wrote my first poem at age eight, in school. I don’t remember a time I was not making rhymes and stories, creating little plays.
4. What do you find most rewarding in the creative writing workshops you instruct at?
First of all, watching people relax into the sessions. Most are quite nervous at first, afraid this will be hard or embarrassing or too much like school. It’s lovely to see them open up, laugh, enjoy the work and take pride in their results. Then after that it’s about teaching each to have an appreciation of their own voice, of what is unique and powerful in the way they express themselves. This is why I’m always puzzled by people who claim that writing classes and programmes churn out writers who write similar work, “McWriting” or whatever the latest clever term is. I wonder if people who suggest this have ever attended a writing class. Every student has an utterly unique style, tied into their home culture, their schooling, what they read, and so on. If I tried my hardest I couldn’t make them sound the same! And what I actually do is the opposite of that; encourage them to make their own quirky, rich stories and poems the best they can be. It’s like polishing precious stones. It’s rewarding to see students feel pride and pleasure in the final product.
5. (OK I know this is big question and OK to not answer it)-why have the Irish produced such a disproportional to their population number of great writers?
I don’t have a smart answer to this; I will say that it’s striking to an outsider like me to what extent the Irish love language, love the spoken word. Natural storytellers, natural singers, joke tellers, monologists. What I find sad is that truly inspirational Irish political speech makers are few and far between. It’s in colloquial settings that the Irish speaker/writer shines.
6. (Ok 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 believe in fairies per se. I believe there are vast amounts of things we don’t know about, and the way some of us explain what we don’t understand is to cite fairies and magic. I like it that I don’t know everything. The world is full of mystery yet. I like that.
7. To what extent is "creative writing" a cottage industry in Galway?
Cottage Industry: a small, loosely organized, yet flourishing complex of activity or industry. (definition from the online Free Dictionary)
To quite an extent! It is now a place where people expect good quality writing courses for adults at different levels of ability, with differing focuses of interest; where there are many readings and literary events, including the monthly Over the Edge which my husband and I have organised for ten years, which gives a platform for newer writers and which always includes an open mic; where groups of individuals with special needs participate fully in the classes and showcases of creativity in the city; where a variety of writing groups flourish; where the top-class literary magazine Crannog has thrived for a decade and a number of worthy publications, including the recently launched Skylight 47, have joined it; where the Uni boasts a popular MA in Writing programme; where we take pride in being the birthplace of Salmon Poetry, Doire Press, Wordonthestreet and other publishers; and where the excellent Cuírt Literary Festival continues to grow and prosper. My husband Kevin Higgins and I are among the people who have worked hard, and continue to work hard, to make Galway’s literary scene thrive. I must add that we have done that primarily because we need to make a living! And we choose to make a living by lifting people up, encouraging them to express themselves, explore their creativity. What I find moving about all this is the way that different individuals can harness all this creative industry to their own, differing, ends. I have students who have no interest in being published, but wish to create works of beauty and meaning for their own satisfaction. I have students who, for various reasons, have spent their whole lives feeling not listened to and turn to writing and to public readings as a remedy for that. I have older students who are writing for their children and grandchildren. And then I have had many students who are getting published, and of course I celebrate that. It’s a wonderfully fertile atmosphere and it encourages me to keep striving with my own work.
8. 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?
For reasons I don’t know (Catholicism? Colonialism? Melancholy weather?) it is true that Irish literature tends to elegise the defeated. The effect is a wonderful empathy, an openness to vulnerability – and darkness, emotional darkness. I prefer that richness to trite tales of heroics.
9. 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 writing poetry is inherently a political act, as you are putting your perspective forward. I don’t think you should write poetry expecting it to change the world. At the very least, though, your words may be the way we remember certain eras, events. We are chroniclers of our time. The best you can do is be honest, write from your true self and experiences – don’t strike a pose.
- 10. Philly Cheese Steak or Irish Fish and Chips?
Definitely Philly cheese steak, with onions, from Jim’s Steaks at 3rd and South.
11. Irish winter or winter in Philadelphia?
Philadelphia winters are longer, but I prefer the dry cold with a bit of snow, so I’ll vote Philadelphia.
12. Do you prefer ereading or traditional books?
Definitely traditional. I love the way books smell, love their weight, love the look of the covers.
13. If you were to be given the option of living anywhere besides Ireland, where would you live?
While I love cities, in the past few years I find I increasingly crave solitude. I imagine a small cottage near the sea – preferably someplace sunny – no traffic sounds, no phone, lots of books and plants and good coffee and good wine in the cupboard. Plenty of time and space for writing!
14. Has being an American made it harder or easier to get your work published in Ireland?
15 What if anything do you miss about Philadelphia? (besides friends or family)
Philly cheese steaks! And there are wonderful art and science museums, great ballet, a great second-run cinema, a very beautiful main library. Philadelphia is a city in which high and low culture co-exist, and history and the modern co-exist.
16. Do you have follow up plans for more collections?
I try not to make plans with regard to writing…I like to surprise myself. That said, I’m putting together plans for a non-fiction book. I have a draft of a novel I’m thinking of revisiting. I currently have a new short story on the go and I’m writing poetry too. Watch this space! At the moment my focus is promoting my new book of poems, The God Thing.
I give my great thanks to Susan Millar DuMars for taking the time to provide us with such interesting and well considered responses. I look forward to reading more of her work in the future.