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

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Marc de Faoite A Question and Answer Session With the Author of Tropical Madness

Yesterday I posted on a marvelous collection of short stories,  Tropical Madness, by Marc de Faoite.  Here are my opening thoughts on it:

Tropical Madness by Marc de Faoite is an amazing collection of stories set in Malaysia.  

In talking about a collection of short stories (especially ones I really like such as Tropical Madness) I sometimes compare the reading experience to visiting a forest.  Most short story collections are like cold weather forests, forests out of deep rooted European memories.  I love tropical rain forests and I see a way to understand Tropical  Madness through this.  Many of the people in these stories ancestors lived for many generations in tropical forests, living from and in deep harmony with the land and with a love for old Gods and ways.  Now in modern Malaysia the rain forest is being cut for timber and to clear the land for industrial agriculture.  Young people do not want to live all their lives working a small plot of land and hunting and fishing.  They want and now have cell phones, IPads (or knock offs), they would rather work as a waiter or maid in a fancy hotel in Kuala Lumpur, maybe have a car one day and live in an air-conditioned place.  The appeal of western gadgets and luxury is hard to fight.  There is still beauty, and its friends, decay and  death in the rain forest.  For generations people from the forests worked as near slaves for colonial masters as rubber tappers, palm oil plantation workers and the women were the dusky beauties in the stories and novels of Joseph Conrad and Somerset Maugham.  Of course Christian missionaries and Muslim clerics tried to educate them away from their old folk beliefs that sustained them for centuries.  Now, based on TV commercials for MalaysianTourism shown on Manila TV, the country is marketing itself as a high affluence shopping paradise with exotic meals and beautiful beaches.  No mention is made of the teeming slums of the capital full of displaced forest dwellers or the squalor now found in forest communities where the young want out.  It is these people that de Faoite brings to life for us in his stories.  There is much to be learned about the very diversified ethos and culture of Malaysia in these marvelous stories.

I am very happy to be able to share this Question and Answer session with Marc.  

Bio of Marc de Faoite

Marc de Faoite was born in Dublin, but has spent more than half his life abroad, living in England, Belgium, France, India and currently Malaysia, where he leads a quiet, reclusive life on Langkawi island. He reviews books for The Star newspaper and has had several of his short stories and essays published in anthologies in Malaysia, Singapore, France and Ireland (Sini Sana: Travels in Malaysia, Fish Eats Lion, Readings from Readings 2, KL Noir, Love in Penang, Esquire Magazine, The Irish Times and Revue Pyrénéene). A collection of his short stories - Tropical Madness - was published in November 2013 and launched at the Georgetown Literary Festival in Penang in December 2013.


Besides writing short stories, he likes to drink tea and listen to the frogs singing in the paddy fields at night.

You can learn more about Marc and his work on his web site

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. 

I honestly don’t know if that is right. Not that I debate that what he says is true, I simply don’t know. It’s definitely not something I have ever taken into consideration when writing. If anything my perspective as an emigrant is more that of the missing children – the countless people who have left Ireland by choice or necessity, the generation that could have been, but wasn’t.

Looking at it from another angle though, I think it’s interesting, and indeed essential, for writers to look very carefully at words and see what might lie beneath the apparent, superficial meaning. ‘Father’ is a particularly charged word in an Irish context and of course is often used to refer to someone who isn’t the biological father, but who is actually a priest, and of course priests and religion have played a dominant and patriarchal role in forming the Irish psyche without being members of the immediate family, and are even placed at one remove from their own natural families. The missing father could also be a son who has joined the priesthood.

Added on top of that, if we were to ask the question ‘where is the missing father?’ another reply might be – well he’s in heaven. Most of us are brought up as Catholics and have prayers drummed into us from a very early age without necessarily understanding the meaning, but maybe this conditioned repetition of the ‘Our Father’ subconsciously affects the way we consider the notion of ‘Father.’

Then there’s the history of colonialism – a patriarchal ruler who has dominated our country for hundreds of years and then gets up and leaves, resulting perhaps again in a subconscious feeling of abandonment by the father figure. I don’t want to get too Freudian about it, I’m just thinking out loud, but words have many layers of meaning whether we understand them consciously or not.

2.  how and when did you begin to write?

My parents brought me and my sister and brother on a camping holiday to France when we were children – this was back in the late seventies. I’m not sure what their thinking was, maybe it was just a way of keeping us quiet or entertained, but they bought the three of us notebooks and every evening in the tent after dinner by the light of a hissing camping-gaz lamp we would have to write what we had experienced during the day. I kept a diary on and off after that. I was an introverted kid and I felt terribly misunderstood, so I often poured my thoughts out into a spare copybook. I’m sure I would cringe if I was to read the sort of self-indulgent stuff I was writing back then, but part of me would be curious to read them and meet that earlier version of me. I still have the camping diary from that French holiday.

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 think maybe the first short story writer I ever really connected with is T.C. Boyle, back when the C was still Coraghessen. At least he’s to first who springs to mind. In fact I just bought his latest collection of short stories a few days ago, so maybe that’s why I think of him. I’ve recently discovered Ron Rash and am bowled over by his work, particularly the stories in Burning Bright. His is they type of writing style that I aspire to.  I really like some of Will Self’s warped short stories. George Saunders of course is very much the flavour of the month with his double whammy with the Story Prize and the Folio Prize. I read some of Hemingway’s short stories years ago and they really appealed to me and might appeal to any neophyte. I’d like to read some of them again. You can never go wrong with Ray Bradbury or Chekhov.

4.    your stories are often about marginalized people caught in transition from older cultural forms to western values?  Can you talk a bit about how this has impacted your work. 

I think the entire population of the planet is marginalized in one way or another and caught in the transition from older cultural forms to something else - something I see more as a combination of urbanization and losing contact with nature, coupled with a new millennial culture that is more global rather than something specifically western. All traditional points of reference have shifted radically within our lifetimes and there is often a cultural chasm yawing between older generations with more conservative mind-sets and the new generation of digital natives.

Traditionally elders in societies were those who passed down the knowledge to the young. For the first time in human history we’ve seen those roles reversed, for example a seven year old can explain and guide his/her grandparents through the interfaces with new technologies like internet, smartphones, i-pad and so forth.

I think the new technologies have given rise to a new form of consciousness and awareness that has allowed minority groups to connect with each other and realize that even if they don’t fit in to their immediate local community that there are many others all across the planet who share the same ethics, interests and concerns. This perhaps gives some people the courage to stand up and be seen as different and demand to be accepted on their own terms and when that happens we often see how quickly society can adapt – I’m thinking of things like the acceptance of gay marriage, or even open homosexuality for example, where there has been a radical shift in perspective even within the last decade. 

I could go on about this at length, but I suppose the short answer is that my own personal perspective as an outsider, given that I’ve been a ‘foreigner’ for almost my entire adult life, allows me to identify readily with those who exist on the periphery of the mainstream.

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.   You live in what many would say is a tropical paradise, how does this impact your work?  Do you think if you had never lived anywhere else your sensibilities would be very different. ?

Yes,  I believe the climate is a huge influence. Look at Iceland – it’s hard to imagine a more gruelling climate – and I’ve heard that they have more writers per head of population than any country in the world. The simple fact is that the weather forces you to spend more time indoors and books and writing become natural allies during that forced confinement. The long dreary winters oblige or create a certain degree of introspection as well. Many writers have come to writing through depression. Living practically on the equator, where the sun shines every day, I know how much that, or the lack of it, can impact on the mood.

I think there are a few things going on in the tropics, and the relatively sparse amount of writing, and I’m thinking more specifically of South-East Asia. One is the level of education. Though it’s a minority, there are still a lot of people who are actually illiterate, and those who can read often do so just out of necessity. Reading for leisure is not an inherent part of South East Asian cultures. Also the relative newness of actually having the free-time to read. In the past, and even now of course, people have had to work hard just to put food on the table. I’m not sure that the average Irish person in Ireland in the 1850s was overly concerned with reading either. That said, the writing scene in Singapore, while small, is flourishing. It helps that the government are very supportive of writing and promoting literacy.

Joseph Conrad set Heart of Darkness in the tropics. Southern Noir is sub-tropical and that dark atmosphere could easily be transferred to South East Asia. I’ve tried to bringing that heavy, brain-fuddling humid heat into some of my stories. It can be crushing. The higher faculties are subdued and we revert more to our base level, primal, instinctive functioning. I think there’s a lot to be explored around these themes. Again I think Conrad captured it perfectly in the title of The Heart of Darkness. Anyone who has lived in the tropics for a while, like Conrad or Celine or yourself, understands the inherent oppressiveness of the tropical climate.

My output increased significantly when I had an air-conditioning unit installed. The constant heat addles my brain. Sometimes I have foggy ideas for a story, but I need to sit down somewhere cool to get my ideas straight. I don’t know if there are studies on this, but I know I function better intellectually in the cold, so often I write quite late at night and make up for the lost hours with a nap during the day.

I don’t know if my sensibilities would be different if I had never left Ireland, but certainly my perspective would not be the same.

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 anthropologist whether 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?  Marc, there are numerous references to Malay folk beliefs, how do you think the lingering of these views impacts society and or literature.

 Fairies. Well it depends how we want to define that. I certainly believe that there are realms of existence that are beyond the range of perception of our extremely limited senses. Dogs can hear and smell and taste more accurately than we can, hawks have better eyesight. Butterflies see colours we can’t perceive. Machines can prove that x-rays exist, or microwaves, or ultra-violet, or infra-red. Turn on a radio and you realize that there are all these invisible and imperceptible waves flowing all around you. The same with the reception bars on a mobile phone. I keep an open mind. I’ve dabbled in the esoteric for long enough to understand that we are certainly not getting the full picture of the reality that surrounds us.

I’m not familiar enough with Irish literature to say how much of an impact mythologies have made on literature, but there is the obvious fact that myths are stories that are told and heard and re-told. Stories are powerful things and most, if not all, cultures have them. A peoples’ identity is rooted in the stories they tell themselves about themselves, and that can extend beyond literature. Take television for example. If you watch a country’s national television there is a certain narrative that is being produced, or in the case of Malaysia -  imposed. I don’t have a television, I haven’t had one for twenty-five years, but when I see television I always get a different understanding of the country – a sort of “aha – so these are the stories they tell themselves about themselves.”

Malay folk beliefs are very real. I don’t see it as something lingering, but as something very much alive and omnipresent. Scratch at the surface and there it is. There is a minority subset of educated Malaysian society that is perhaps more westernized, and have little time for these beliefs, but I think for the vast majority these things make up the narrative of who they are. One obvious example is the use of ‘bomohs’ – traditional ‘witch-doctors’ for want of a better word – in the recent search for the missing Malaysian Airlines plane.

7.  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’m not sure Ireland really consciously considers the neolithic tombs and such, but it underpins the idea that there is something very old, very ancient in our past. I think that it’s as much in the air as anything else, especially when you get out of the towns and cities. Ireland has traditionally been a very religious country. I think the ‘success’ of religion in Ireland was, and is, due to a deep underlying pre-existing foundation of spirituality. I really can’t speak accurately for the cultural changes in the past twenty-five years in Ireland, but things seem to be changing. One example is a fairy fort I used to pass when I cycled to school as a kid. It was a ring of trees in the middle of a field and the farmer would always work around that ring. Who knows how man hundred or even thousands of year that fairy fort had been there. The last time I was back in Ireland I passed that same field and the fairy-fort was gone, removed to make way for more crops. That would have been unthinkable when I was growing up, but obviously it’s thinkable now.

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

I just write. If I can be satisfied that I have done my best and that I have managed to produce something that bears reading then that’s good enough. The reader will either get it, or not, as the case maybe. I want to write something that I would like to read.


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?

I’ve never experienced a dry spell, or writer’s block. I have more ideas than I have self-discipline to sit down and do the work. Certainly there are times when I don’t feel particularly motivated to write, but it’s never ever for lack of ideas. Thankfully.

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

I really don’t know. I don’t feel qualified to say.

11.  What are the last three novels you read?  Last three movies?    Do you watch much TV?


1 – Dogs at the Perimeter by Madeleine Thien

2 – The Time Regulation Institute by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar

3 – Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murikami


1 - Dallas Buyers Club

2 – Blackfish

3 – Beasts of the Southern Wild

I don’t have a television, and haven’t had since about 1987, but I pick up the occasional series. I recently binge-watched House of Cards and I saw True Detective and Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake. I enjoyed them all. The quality of writing and acting in television is getting better.


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 don’t feel qualified to answer this question.


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?

For six months in the past – maybe hanging out with Thoreau at Walden Pond? Forever - I’d pick exactly where I am now, in Langkawi. I live in paradise. If I was rich I might live on the coast with a view of the ocean, but as it is the beach is less than five minutes away on my bicycle. I am very lucky.

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? Marc, you left Ireland in 1989, never to return, do you still feel Irish? 

What I miss most about Ireland is how friendly the people are, the way that it’s perfectly acceptable to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger. I miss the sense of humour. I lived in France for twelve years. The French language doesn’t have a word for ‘fun’. Compared with Malaysia I miss the simple freedom of expression - that you don’t have to worry about speaking your mind in Ireland. I don’t think Irish people or other nationalities who have guaranteed freedom of speech realize what a gift that is. I certainly didn’t until I came to understand that speaking your mind, or voicing your opinions here in Malaysia can get you in a whole lot of trouble. 

Do I still feel Irish? Yes I do. You can take the man out of Ireland, but you can’t take Ireland out of the man as they say. I think it was George Bernard Shaw who said something about an Irishman’s patriotism growing proportionately to the distance he is from Ireland. That said when I go back to Ireland I feel disorientated. The Ireland now is radically different from the Ireland I left at the end of the nineteen eighties. Plus the years away have rubbed the corners off my accent and speaking other languages has maybe deformed it a bit as well. Last time I was ‘home’ I went for a haircut and chatted with the barber. Afterwards he asked me “So what part of Germany are you from anyway?” That’s happened to me more than once, having Irish people mistake me for a foreigner.

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

I don’t know.


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’ll skip this one if you don’t mind.

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

No, I haven’t.

 18.  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 any thing a Malaysian literary mafia?

I can’t speak for the Irish scene. The Malaysian literary scene is quite small. Many writers here know each other and there are a few main players that everyone knows, but I don’t think there is anything Mafia-like about it. If anything it is quite open and welcoming. At least that’s been my experience. I suppose there are a few individuals who have their own particular axes to grind, or have a chip on their shoulder about certain things, but I guess that happens in any domain. I think if anything Malaysian writers and publishers are generally very supportive of one another, possibly because to do so buildss good karma, as the scene is very small and it is in everyone’s interest to nourish the Malaysian literary world. Also I can only speak in the context of Malaysian writing in the English language. I don’t know anything about the Malay, Chinese or Tamil literary scenes.

19.  Do you think poets and short story writers have a social role to play in contemporary society 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?

I definitely think that writers have a social role to play. The function of art is to hold a mirror up to society. Certainly part of my objective with the stories in Tropical Madness was to get Malaysian readers thinking about themselves and their prejudices, and also to reveal Malaysia in a different light to overseas readers than the images conveyed in glossy travel magazines or Truly Asia ad campaigns.

I only have experience of reading sessions in Malaysia, but it hadn’t occurred to me that people would come to hook up. Perhaps it’s cheeky of me to say this, but there is also a particularity in the Malaysian writing scene in that a significant proportion of male writers, be they poets, or other, are not interested in women in any case.


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

  Tell us something about your educational background, please. ,

I studied hotel management. It was the late eighties and the only job prospects were overseas. I wanted to study languages, but I didn’t want to become a teacher, I wanted to travel. I was also interested in food and cooking and meeting people, so the hospitality industry ticked a lot of boxes for me.  I thought that given that there are hotels in every country in the world that I would be able to work and travel to other countries and learn languages along the way. It pretty much panned out that way for a while. I worked for the Sheraton hotel for seven years after graduation.  I worked nightshift for three years. The long unsociable hours started to get to me and somehow I ended up in the accounting office working Monday to Friday, nine to five, driving a computer. I decided that wasn’t for me. I moved to the south of  France at the foot of the Pyrenees and did a variety of jobs – a lot of teaching English, mostly in primary schools, which I loved, I worked in import export for a surf clothing company for a short while, I got a job telling lies in a call centre which was reasonably paid, but gave me a hard time looking in the mirror. I ran a vegetarian snack-bar attached to an Irish pub for a few years. Again the hours were tough. I went back to teaching school kids English and some friends who ran a hut for hikers in the middle of the Pyrenees national park offered me a summer job. After about a month of working seven days a week with board and lodgings in the mountains included I realized that I could save every penny that I earned. I worked the full season, phoned the school and told them I wasn’t coming back in September and bought a plane ticket to India. I spent three years like that going back and forth between this little cabin at the foot of a glacier in the Pyrenees and spending time in ashrams and meditation centres in India. Somehow, I’m still not sure how that happened I qualified as a yoga teacher. I met my wife the first year in India and then by ‘coincidence’ I met her on my second trip. She’s Malaysian, so that led me to living in Malaysia and teaching yoga and meditation, which is what I do most of the time when I am not writing.


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

I don’t think it’s a myth. Not at all. Again it’s back to the wet and cold weather, being forced to be indoors. Also there is a huge culture of reading. I’m always amazed when I go back to Ireland how many people I see reading books. It’s not something I see so much here in Malaysia. I think the Irish are naturally loquacious – call it the ‘gift of the gab’ if you will – there is a need to connect and engage with other people, and in Ireland it is easy to do so, especially on a superficial level. The Irish are very sociable. But on the other hand I think there is a sort of dichotomy between being gregarious and having a tendency for introspective. Writing and reading allows people to engage on a very intimate, yet removed level and to delve deeper than the immediate superficiality of day to day communications.

23 Quick Pick Questions


A.  tablets or laptops?


B.  E readers or traditional books?

Traditional books, though I have an e-reader that I use mostly when I travel.

C.  Singapore or KL?

Neither. If I could be fantastically wealthy I might choose Singapore, though I’d probably opt for KL if forced to choose.

D.  Cats or dogs?

Neither. I think humans have peculiar relations with the other inhabitants of this planet. It makes me uncomfortable. If I had to choose I’d take the independence of cats over the loyalty of dogs. That said, my wife’s Chinese astrology is a dog – so I’d have to say dog then.

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

I’m not a city person, but I’d like to visit New York just once in my life. I think the diversity would appeal to me.

F.  Walt Whitman or Willam Butler Yeats?

Walt Whitman


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

I had to Google Ubo Roi, from what I’ve read I’d go for that.


24.   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. 

I don’t believe in special rights or privileges for anyone. I don’t like to divide people by ethnicity or nationality. We are all just human beings on this tiny, tiny ball of rock floating in the vast immensity of space. I think Travellers, and anyone else for that matter, should have the freedom to live their lives as they choose, on their own terms, so long as that doesn’t infringe on the rights of others of course. Perhaps the formal education of the children of the Travellers is an issue. Maybe the internet can open opportunities for continuity of education despite a semi-nomadic lifestyle. The bottom line is respect. From all sides.

25  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 . 

I don’t know. Perhaps it’s a religious hang up about the final judgement, or the sinfulness of murder, or a love of life that makes the prospect of losing it so terrifying. Growing up in Ireland I saw death as something very negative. Of course a violent death is a terrible thing and we’ve had our share of that. To deliberately deprive someone of their life is abhorrent of course.  I suppose in writing it’s a transition from one state to another. There’s a finality about it, but often stories about death are not so much about death in itself but the impact it leaves on the lives of those still alive. Dead people don’t worry about being dead. It’s only really an issue for those of us still in the waiting room. People write about the death of a loved one because if they have experienced it they understand the traumatic power of it, because it is something that has made a huge impact on their lives, but even the mere contemplation of these things makes us question our mortality and the meaning of our lives, which of course are important and interesting things to consider and leads to all the big questions of who, or what we are, what are we here for, what’s it all about. Personally nowadays I see death as an inevitable and very natural thing. I think it’s something worth contemplating on a regular basis because it makes us question our own lives, and for me that’s what reading and writing should be about, although I’m not averse to reading for entertainment as well.


26.   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? 

Well I wouldn’t be writing this, and you wouldn’t be featuring this, and the reader wouldn’t be reading this if it wasn’t for social media. It’s the ultimate networking tool. I learn about any calls for submissions, or competitions, or literary events etc through social media.

I do have a website and I do post up stories there and people can read them for free. I know some people have bought my book because they have read some of my stories on-line. It can be a useful way to beta-test a story, so to speak. If a story gets a lot of hits, or gets shared a lot, or talked about then I take that as encouraging. I’m always interested in feedback and sometimes I can change the story based on how readers react – I might find that I have failed to portray something in a certain way, or that something hasn’t been understood and I can look at that and maybe rectify it if I feel that the feedback is warranted.

The counter side of that is that social media can be a major distraction to a writer. I know personally it affects my productivity levels. I would write more and read more books if I had no internet.

27.   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?.  

Drinking is just a socially accepted norm in Ireland. It’s woven into the fabric of the cultural identity. It’s the national social lubricant - that and tea of course. I don’t drink alcohol though I have done in the past. (I do drink massive amounts of tea).

It’s very hard for many Irish people to understand that someone might choose not to drink. You are treated with suspicion, as if there is some ulterior motive, or something you are trying to hide. There is a self-destructive element in the Irish psyche, and I don’t think we are unique in that, but I suspect alcohol is used to subdue the demons as much as it is used to socialize. Drinking is the simplest and most acceptable form of self-medication. There is very little stigma attached to it.


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.

I’m not sure that I would refuse. I don’t think me accepting money from Guinness would encourage people to drink more. They don’t need encouragement. They drink more than enough as it is. That said, I am aware of a double standard in my thinking. If the question was, for example, would you accept sponsorship from a petrochemical company, or big pharma, or a company like Monsanto, then I wouldn’t dream of considering accepting even for a moment. And I could just as easily rationalize that if I accepted their money it wouldn’t stop people putting petrol in their cars, or drugging up their kids, or spraying round-up on their flowerbeds, or killing off the bees. I guess that double standard is something I have to look at more closely.


30 Reading Paul's response to one of my questions, I thought of a new question I wanted to ask.

I was reading your answers again.  I think there is one sort of big difference between the reader and the writer.  As you know, true reading is not passive but involves a creative process.

Looking at this quote from question 1 " That observation makes me pause. If I'm honest, I didn't know it was a dominant theme. I operate in such a bubble when I write and analyse the content very rarely. My writing bears no conscious relation to the world of writing, no matter how obvious the connections are to others. In this pause you've brought I have to say the theme impacts on my work greatly".

Readers do read within a tradition, seeing works as part of a great conversation, part of a hopefully ever deeper culture, writers see themselves as starting from ground zero, without a conscious relation to a tradition.  Also readers or especially reviewers, I am not a reviewer- I just post stuff- put a limit on a writers work when they talk about it or find meaning in it, thus breaking the writes sense of pure creation.  A writer might well truthfully say, "I just write", but you cannot really just read.

Is there a built in divide between writers and readers?  Is this is what the resistance to interpretation is at least in part about?


As a writer you are trying to get something out from inside your head, or wherever stories and creativity come from, sometimes I feel it’s more through me than from me, but anyway, that process is inherently imperfect. Words have limitations and this is further complicated by the fact that words resonate differently for every reader. If I write ‘cheese’ I know for a fact that this conjures up very different images and emotional resonances and memories for me than it will for the reader. When I read one of my stories I want it to be as close as I can come to the pictures that the story makes in my head. Even if I sometimes (let’s be honest, rarely) feel that I get close to those images, when I do it is still never close enough. If I can’t read my own writing and accurately reproduce the images in my head then what hope do I have of conveying the same thing to a reader, or ensuring that the reader will see the same images or understand the same things? Reading is completely subjective. What the reader can take from writing is as dependent on what they bring to it as much as the actual writing.


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 remember that line and I don’t agree with it and never have. I spent a significant portion of my adult life – almost twenty years - as an Irish immigrant in Europe. Perhaps in Britain, yes, the Irish have been treated with disdain in the past, and I personally witnessed and heard some terrible things directed towards the Irish when I lived in London at the end of the eighties, but in mainland Europe no, definitely not.

We have the advantage of having English as our mother tongue and that automatically sets us apart and gives us access to a whole range of things that mainland Europeans only experience second-hand. My experience living in five years in Belgium and twelve years in France is that the southern Europeans were the ‘niggers of Europe’, the Portuguese, the Spanish, the Italians and the Greeks. In post-war Europe they drifted north and took up a lot of the unglamorous menial and manual labour. That generation were usurped by the North Africans and now I see that role of outcasts being filled by the eastern Europeans - particularly the Roms who seem to be despised with a virulence that is very worrying. If anything the Roms are the ‘niggers of Europe’ at the moment, but I don’t think it was ever the Irish.

But back to the initial question of self-hate - I remember at school being taught very early on that I was soiled and imperfect and tainted with original sin, and no matter what I did, or how hard I tried, that I could never redeem myself for the sin of simply existing. Catholic guilt and all that. That’s a lot to dump on a child’s plate. It’s a terrible, terrible self-image to force upon a child, and often it was forced upon us physically, with sticks and straps and fists. I believe that has all changed now. I certainly hope it has. I know it marked me for a long time. That sort of conditioning is toxic. So self-hate, sure, there’s a cultural predilection thanks to the indoctrination by the church.

Another perspective is that there is a level of honesty and idealism -  and maybe even counter-intuitively - self-acceptance behind this concept of self-hate. I strongly believe that most people, perhaps all people, Irish or otherwise, generally hold a negative self-image of themselves. When we truly examine ourselves I think we are disappointed, and maybe ashamed to find that we are not as perfect as we would like to think we are, or as we would like other people to think we are. We fail to live up to our own ideals. I don’t think this is just an Irish thing, I think it’s inbuilt in humanity. We are optimistic idealists, mostly functioning in a state of denial necessary for survival. We want to believe in perfection, in pure goodness but then we look into our hearts and see that purity isn’t there. Or maybe like the sun in Ireland - it’s there, shining in the sky, but obscured by clouds so much of the time that we lose sight of it and forget that it is real. Then one fine day the clouds part and we get a sunny day, and all the foibles of the ego and the nonsense chatter in our heads is silenced for a moment and we touch that purity that we long so much to believe in once again, restoring our faith for a moment, before the clouds come rolling back in again.  


I offer my great thanks to Marc for taking the time to provide these highly interesting very well thought out responses to my questions.  He has kindly agreed to allow me to publish one of the great stories from Tropical Madness so look for that soon.


Saacha said...

Good session with the author. Nice...

shaunag said...

I enjoyed this post, will look out for Marc's work. Thanks, Mel and Marc.