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

Saturday, March 22, 2014

James Lawless A Question and Answer Session with the author of Knowing Women, Peeling Oranges, and numerous other works

Official Author Bio


I first became acquainted with the work of James Lawless when I read and greatly admired his novel, Knowing Women.

Here are some of my thoughts on his work:

Knowing Women by James Lawless made me think of one very good book I read a year ago, and two poems, one I have read several times in the last few months, and one I have not read in decades.  That Knowing Women brought these three powerful works to my mind is a very high tribute to its artistic depth and high intelligence.  

The central character in Knowing Women is Laurence Benbo, thirty seven, a bachelor getting over a so so relationship, living in Dublin.  He is bashful and has had difficulty finding women in the past.  He likes to go for walks around Dublin, when he is not at his job as a graphic artist.  He notices an attractive woman sitting outside reading Anna Karenina.  He is intrigued by her and begins to follow her on his daily walks.  Not wanting to give away to much plot, he follows her, she is from Eastern Europe to the club where she does lap dances.  He gets to know her, she is not really a prostitute but she does begun to take gifts from Laurence and they do start a romance of sorts.  Laurence wins a big lottery prize.  Now a subplot begins involving his brother and his family.  The brother has always up until now considered the better adjusted and more successful of the two.  Something nasty happens to Laurence, caused by his brother and sister-in-law, who I did come to emphasize with.  I will leave the rest of the plot unspoiled.  There is sex, fascinating plot twists, and it does feel like Dublin is being well depicted.

The first book Knowing Women reminded me of was Occasions of Sin:  Sex and Society in Modern Ireland by Diarmaid Feriter.  Feriter depicts a culture of sexual repression, of joyless sex, late marriages and old virgins with the church and the state in everyone's bedroom.   I see Laurence Benbo as clearly emerging from  this.   His girlfriend might as well be a prostitute.  Recently I read for the first of now numerous times Patrick Kavanagh's majestic poem, "The Great Hunger".  Benbo made me think of the men in this poem who never really mature sexually or discover their sexual nature.  Men with a hunger they don't understand.  Lastly, and this reaction is probably quite off the wall, I was at once brought to mind by the hesitant character of Benbo, "The Love Song of Alfred J. Profrock" by T. S. Eliot.  

Knowing Women is observationally and psychologically acute.  It is also a lot of fun.  You knew this middle aged graphics artist with an Eastern European bisexual lap dancer girl friend was headed for trouble and I enjoyed observing his tribulations.  

I recommend this book very much and hope to read more of the work of Lawless in 2014. 

1. Declan Kiberd in his book, Inventing Ireland:  The Literature of the Modern Nation, said the dominant theme of Modern Irish is that of the weak or missing father.  Do you think Kiberd is right? How does this impact your work, if it does.


Yes, it has been a dominant theme. We saw it with Joyce and Beckett and others who had fraught family relationships. My first novel Peeling Oranges is about a paternal quest, a son seeking a biological father, when he discovers his putative father was impotent. The modern father and indeed males in general are going through difficult times in trying to definetheir role in society. I find the caricaturing of males in many media ads unhelpful. A worrying aspect perhaps not unconnected to this is the rise in male suicides, particularly in young men.


2.  How and when did you begin to write? 


When my father bought me my first diary at the age of twelve. I had been weaned prior to that by my mother reading to me.


3.   Who are some of your favorite contemporary short story writers.  What classic writers do you find your self drawn to reread.  If a neophyte short story writer were to ask you who to read, what might you suggest?


I like the stories ofJunot DíazEdna O'Brien, Louise,ErdrichDesmond Hogan, Helen SimpsonWilliam Trevorand the undervalued Gillman NoonanClassically, I likePádraig Ó ConaireJames Joyce, John McGahernRichard Yates, Katherine Mansfield, Borges, CervantesChekhov andde Maupassant.


4.  Frank  O'Connor in The Lonely Voice:  A Study of the Short Story said short stories seem to be about marginalized people, the lonely, those with with little voice in society.   Do you think he is on to something illuminating about the format?  Why is there so much loneliness in the Irish short story?


It's often in the form of a voice crying out more like a poem than a story encapsulating an emotion on the hoof as it were, affording us an epiphany into our hidden selves.


5.  I sometimes wonder why such a disproportionate amount of the regarded as great literature of the world 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 tropical island, for example. 


In Ireland we live indoors most of the time staring out at rain, so something like writing prevents us from going mad.Having said that, I still enjoy editing a manuscript on a Mediterranean beach, feeling the heat and listening to the waves lapping.



6.   (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 anthropologistwhether she really believed in the “little people”, replied with terse sophistication: “I do not, sir – but they’re there."   In general how do you feel Ireland's extensive mythology impacts the literature?


In my new novel just completed American DollCon the firefighter dreams of the bean sí on the Cliffs of Moher warning of the 9/11 disaster. So I think the other world is always near our consciousness, maybe not as evident now with all the technologies bombarding us.



7.  Do you think the very large amount of remains fromneolithic periods (the highest in the world) in Ireland has shaped in the literature and psyche of  the country?




8.  When you write, do you picture and audience or do you just write?  


Initially I tend to just write. The audience comes into focus in the edits.


9.  Assuming this applies to you, how do you get past creative "dry spells", periods when you have a hard time coming up with ideas or when things seem futile? 


Read and research; if you do enough of that the writing will seep through.


10.  how deeply is the Irish short story impacted by the Famine years?  The diaspora ? 


The famine in its displacement of people impacted perhaps,but as regards the diaspora, it is too soon to say, except maybethat there is more of an international flavour now to some of the stories.


11.  What are the last three novels you read?  Last three movies?  do you have any favorite TV shows?  


I write book reviews for the Sunday IndependentBooksIreland and the Croatian Istros Books, so recent books I have read tend to be those I reviewedA Handful of Dust by Marinko Koscec, The Eloquence of the Dead by Conor Brady and A Possible Life by Sebastian Faulks. In my recent personal reading, I have enjoyed The Dead Eight by Carlo Gébler, Anil's Ghost by Michael Ondaatje and Shadowstoryby Jennifer Johnston.


Films: Doubt, Winter's Bone (I love Woodrell's writing), The Wolf of Wall Street.


I find a lot of TV insipid except for the odd drama, quiz or nature programmes. I'm inclined to watch it when my brain has gone dead from books.



12. 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 Spanish or American Rulers..  How has the fact Yeats is alluding too, assuming you agree,  shaped Irish literature? In America it seems somehow the best short stories writers like Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty, and Carson McCullers, all writers admired by Irish authors,  had their sensibilites shaped by the defeat of the south in the American Civil  War.  


I think a lot of that stuff applied to past generations of writers and maybe even warped them a bit, but I'm not so sure it applies to writers of today. I agree with Martin Amis when he said something like the contemporary writer should write for the near future.


13.  If you could live any where in the past for six months, or forever, and be rich and safe, where would you pick and why? 


I write some of the time in the mountains of West Cork without Internet access. But the pull of the city is always there.  I'm an urban man with a rural soul as reflected in the title of my poetry collection Rus in Urbe. I also wouldn't object to a quiet villa overlooking the Mediterranean.


14.  when out of Ireland, besides family and friends, what do you miss most?  What are you glad to be away from for a while?


I miss the stability of home, but I'm also glad when I'm away from noise and too much proximity, characteristic of suburbanliving.


15.  Why do you think the short story is so popular in Ireland?


I think myths are generated about the Irish short story as indeed they are created about the Irish characterSometimes we get carried away with ourselves. The cuento or short story is popular in many countries. Cervantes wrote the first shortstories in his Novelas Ejemplares. 


16.  A while ago i read and posted on a long biography of Hart Crane, author of the Bridge-few read it but many known 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  Hart had done this and 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  by Irish writers last year was 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 to 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.). Some of this may just be a story about a poet with a stable marriage, a job and no substance issues may seem dull compared to wilder lives.  


I think in the past writers like Brendan Behan were chaotic and often inebriated, but some of the writers of today are cuter and pragmatic and not necessarily more endearing. I tend to go with Flaubert's idea of the writer as merely bourgeois in his outward daily life while his mind is contending with unfettered imaginings.


17.  Please explain to total outsiders like me how important government grants to writers are to Irish literature? who decided who gets a grant?  


It's an area that perhaps could do with more transparency. I got a small bursary for study of modern poetry Clearing the Tangled Wood: Poetry as a Way of Seeing the World, but bigger bursaries are rather elusive. When sometimes the same people repeatedly wind up getting awards (sometimes by the same grant givers every year), one again wonders if you have to be in the know. As it is a very subjective procedure, in the interest of fairness, I think the people who award the bursaries should be changed regularly.


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


I remember attending one creative writing class some years ago which nearly destroyed me. It was conducted by amilitant feminist and misandrist who never lost an opportunityto ridicule me for daring to be male. In hindsight I should have complained about her, but I let it go. Recently I have conducted some workshops myself. They can be good for the writer in that they force engagement with others and helpclarify what one thinks on the process of writingWhether they achieve any good for neophytes is not for me to judge, although I did get heartening feedback on workshop efforts that had done well in competitions.



19.  Make up a question and answer it please.


As a student in college I asked is there such a thing as a universally accepted work of art.

The professor winked.



20.  Not long ago I was sent several very hostile messages from Irish writers demanding to know why I had posted on the works of other writers and not them.  Some suggested I had been influenced  by some sort of shadowy group to ignore their work. I was informed there is a small elite group who decides who gets reviewed, published or receives grants and it was also  suggested they had sent me negative feedback on writers I should ignore.  What in the Irish literary scene is behind this?  Is there anything like an "Irish Literary Mafia"?


There could be some truth in that. Maybe we could do with a literary ombudsman and few literary whistleblowers to clear the air, like they have in the gardaí. There is cronyism; itseems to apply to all walks of Irish life a case of who you know rather that what you know. It could have something to do with our tribal past; there is a tendency to group together,be part of the winning team, and if you're not in tough. In my view such behaviour is the opposite to that of an artist who must cultivate solitude to be true to his craft. That of course makes one vulnerable, but I see vulnerability as the hallmark of a true artist. The sad thing about the club mentality is that some talented writers who may not be cute or as adept as others in handling or being sycophantic to the media, do not receive the recognition they deserve. Some of the holders of literary power remind me of priests of yore who kept harping on about your original sin and how you wouldnever be worthy no matter how hard you tried. As a race we don'always speak well of one another and often onlygrudgingly acknowledge talent after it is recognised outside the country. There are some self-appointed celebrity'authorities' on literature who command the media and who have never written any creative work themselvesThere is a perception that if you get in front of a camera or microphone it somehow confers status on you, and it is worrying to think that some people go along with this idea. It's like if you shout loud enough or are seen often enough in media circles you become a guru. I read an interesting comment from Jeanette Winterson recently advocating a refusal to take 'advice' on how to write from anyone who has not written and published a significant piece of work.




21.  Do you think poets and short story writers have a social role to play in contemporary Ireland or are they pure artists writing for themselves and a few peers?   One of the characters in Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano, set in Mexico city and centering on poets, says that the main reason poets, nearly all male in Bolano's book,  read at work shops is to meet the way disproportional number of women who come to them in search of a tortured soul to nourish.  is this just stupid?


The act of writing is social in itselfYou make your statementthrough your characters and your art. Leave the politics to the politicians. Otherwise you are diminishing your writing with agitprop.


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

  Tell us something about your educational background, please. ,


Worked as a pools collector, a screen printer, an encyclopaedia salesman, a TEFL teacher, a library assistant before becoming a secondary teacher and lecturer. Worked voluntarily with the Simon Community for a number of years. Did an arts degree in Irish and Spanish and later a Masters in Communications.



23. Why have the Irish produced such a disproportional to their population number of great writers? Or is this a myth?


See q. 15.


24. Quick Pick Questions


A.  tablets or laptops?




B.  E readers or traditional books?


Both have their uses, but I like the feel and indeed the smell of a physical book.


C.  Synge or Beckett?





D.  Cats or dogs?




E.  best city to inspire a writer- Paris, London, Dublin, or?  


Seville among others.


F.  Walt Whitman or Willam Butler Yeats?


Both have their moments.


G.  RTE or BBC? 






I.  Would you rather witness opening night for Waiting forGodot, King Lear, Playboy of the Western World or Ubo Roi?


I like the idea of attending a drama where nothing happens twice.



25.   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.


With Simon I sometimes visited their camps. I was disturbed by their early mortality rate and seeing children from a very young age being conditioned to beg. Most of the beggars and homeless on the streets now seem to be multiethnic. If you are nomadic it is hard to live in a settled community, so I wouldn't try to force a change of culture on them, rather I would try to provide more facilities and places for them to live in their own way.




26.   Death, natural and otherwise is a central factor in the Irish short story and it seems to me to play a bigger factor in the Irish short story than other cultures-can you talk about this a bit, please .  


See q.15For me life is an enquiry. It is not what you make itwhich is escapist, but what you make of it.


27.      How important is social media in the development of the career of writers?  Do you have your own web page and if so why?  Do you think it is good business savvy to post free samples of your work online?  


I am learning to do this. I feel anything that helps to get your work read is worth trying. Ireland is a small island with limited opportunities and the Internet opens up exciting possibilities globally. My work is being translated at the moment into Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and French. Emails are so quick and a website gives a nucleus for one's work which can be easily accessed internationally. I have a website:



28.   I recently read Strumpet City by James Plunkett (the 2013 Dublin One City One Book Selection).  It presents a culture whose very life blood seems to be whiskey.   Drinking seems much more a factor in Irish literature than Indian, Japanese or even American.    What do you think are some of the causes of this or is it just a myth?.


See q.16   


29.  related to question above, recently Guiness sponsored a creative writing program and set up a grant system for writers and artist.  A number of my Irish Facebook friends said they would repudiate a grant from Guiness and art festivals and programs should refuse their sponsorship.  This was in part because of the perceived terrible social cost of alcoholism on Irish families.  It was also stated that Guiness was trying to get people to see drinking as associated with creativity.   Would you refuse a grant from Guiness?  Are  their sponsorship efforts insidious? When I facetiously suggested I would take on the burden of these malicious grants, I was taken to task as an outsider who needs to mind his own business.


Many of the people of the Liberties in Dublin where I was born were grateful to Guinness for setting up the Iveagh Trust flats which took a lot of them out of slum dwellings.Guinness's made money but they were philanthropic. I don't see too much philanthropy from the present day new rich.




31.   In his book The Commitments, Roddy Doyle has a main character say, as if it were something commonly seen as true, “The Irish are the niggers of Europe and Dubliners are the niggers of Ireland”.  There is a lot of self loathing expressed in Irish literary works from Joyce on down to Doyle.  Is this just a family fight where one might say something terrible about a father, mother or brother or wife and then attack  an outsider who says the same thing or is it really how people feel?  I do not see this level of self hate in other literatures.   There is nothing like it, for example, in the literature of the Philippines.  Talk a bit about how you feel or think about this.  


I think it is a silly slogan.


I thanks James for taking the time to provide us with these very interesting responses.

James Lawless has very kindly sent me a short story in observation of ISSM4 so look for that soon.

I hope to read all of his books.






No comments: