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

Maria C. McCarthy A Question and Answer Session with the Author of As Long as it Takes

My post on "As Long As It Takes", the beautiful lead story of the collection. 

Poet, writer of short fiction and memoir, performer, social networker, workshop leader.

Maria’s first poetry collection, strange fruits is published by Cultured Llama in association with WordAid with all profits going to Macmillan Cancer Support.

Her first collection of short stories As Long as it Takes, about first and second-generation Irish women living in England, is forthcoming in February 2014.

Writing as Maria Bradley, she was a regular columnist on BBC Radio 4′s Home Truths.

Maria has arranged themed events at libraries in the Medway towns, Canterbury and Swale, and at The Avenue Theatre, Sittingbourne, featuring her own work and that of other local writers and musicians. She has also taken part in events at the University of Kent, at the Medway Fringe Festival 2006, and at Foyles Bookshop in London.

She leads creative writing workshops in her writing room – a converted shed at the end of her garden – and has also taught workshops on short fiction at the Hazlitt Arts Centre, Maidstone, for Save As Writers, Canterbury, and has led poetry workshops for libraries in the Medway and Swale areas of Kent.

Maria has an MA with Distinction in Creative Writing from the University of Kent. She was winner of the Save As Prose Awards 2011, having also won the 2009 Award, and gained second place in Canterbury Festival Poet of the Year 2010.

Maria finishes five sentences for Canterbury Laureate Sarah Salway - featuring a photo of her writing shed


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As Long as it Takes (due for publication February 2014)
Unexplored Territory (published November 2012)
strange fruits (published July 2011)

A.  Please tell us a bit about your experience leading work shops?

I don't lead workshops very often, but when I do the biggest challenge is that I want to include everything. I over-prepare, spending ten times as long as the workshop lasts. The rewards are the writing that comes from surprising places and people. I gave some objects to a group as writing prompts. One person had a small plastic tub with bags of spices inside. She chose to write about the lid of the tub. It was a wonderful piece, quite beautiful.

B.   does an anti Irish attitude persist in England.
I think it does, but a lot less so than when I was growing up, when we from Irish families were associated with the acts of the IRA. My brother was beaten up by his English friends on the night that Mountbatten died. This was behind the story 'Cold Salt Water' in my collection. I can identify with how Muslims feel in England, when they are associated with fundamentalists. It's similar to how the Irish were treated in the '70s.

C.  Tell us a bit about the foundation that your book sales help support please.
My first book, strange fruits,  was a fundraiser for Macmillan Cancer Support, which supports people with cancer and their families. The book is in memory of my friend Karen McAndrew, who died just 4 weeks after being diagnosed with cancer. Macmillan were very supportive to her and her family, and I used their website a great deal to get information. Macmillan nurses work in the community and in hospitals, and they helped Karen and her family in her final days. The final story of As Long as it Takes features Macmillan nurses. The story, 'Combing out the Tangles' is based on my final visit to Karen, when I combed her hair. Such an intimate thing to do, and all I could do for her at that stage.

D.  Are you willing to generalize a bit and compare and contrast the Irish versus the English?

Ooh, goodness. I grew up in England in an Irish family. I suppose my memories are of Irish people as willing to have a party at the drop of the hat, and English people being a bit more reserved. And I have to say, in the circles my family moved in, there was a tremendous amount of drinking by the men (not so much by the women), which I didn't see in the families of my English schoolfriends. I do think there is a sadness in a lot of Irish people, in spite of a seeming outgoing nature. But all these sound like generalisations, and are based on memories rather than current day. And talking - the Irish can talk!

questions for Irish Short Story Month Year 4
These questions are designed to get responders talking.  They are asked out of a deep respect, they are not a quiz.  Feel free to ignore questions you do not wish to answer.  The more you answer, the  more valuable the session will be. Say as much as you like.  


A.  what is your reaction to this ?

I do feel that a lack of respect, a challenging of authority, is something that has been passed down to me in my genes. I remember my mother marching up to the school to speak to the headmisstress about my brother having been locked in a cupboard as a punishment. This was in primary school. My sister, who was perhaps only 8 years old herself, walked out of school and ran home to tell Mum what had happened. A brave thing to do, and born out of that lack of respect for authority. 

B.I love this quote.  Is Edna O'Brien onto a fundamental insight about the Irish.?

I think she is on to something. It does make me think of the landscape of County Clare where my mother comes from. 

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.

It totally impacts on my work. My father worked on building sites and he and his mates travelled to wherever the work was, often leaving before I woke and returning after I had gone to bed. He also spent a lot of time in the pub, so I felt I didn't know him, growing up. The child in my story 'A Tea Party' longs for her father's attention, and to see his donkey jacket hanging in the hall. The world of As Long as it Takes is matriarchal, but governed by an often absent patriarchy. The matriarch of the family, Maura Flaherty, keeps everything going, but is dependent on whether her husband Jack gives her the rent money, or whether it "disappears on the back of a horse".

It was the search for my father, seven years after his death, that led to me writing the Mitchelstown sequence of poems in strange fruits and fed some of the stories in As Long as it Takes. I went to his home town, Mitchelstown in County Cork, to find out why he had been left there as a baby by his parents. He had never talked about his childhood and rarely went back after he moved to England.

2.  how and when did you begin to write? 

I began to write after becoming ill, when I had just turned forty. I had to give up my job in 1999. I was later diagnosed with Chronic Fatigues Syndrome, which I still have. I was mourning for my life, how drastically it had changed, and I started to write poetry at first, coming to fiction later. it was a way of dealing with grief, and later became a new love, replacing many of the things I had lost.

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 Claire Keegan, Lorrie Moore, Vanessa Gebbie - there's an international selection for you! In recent years I've enjoyed collections by Gerard Donovan and Alexsandr Hemon. Classic writers - Joyce's short stories, John McGahern, Katherine Mansfield. I would suggest Katherine Mansfield to a new short story writer. 

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?

I've heard that quote and thought it was William Trevor. Though, come to think of it, his quote was about short stories being about the little people, those who would be overlooked as heroes. Both are true, i feel. I think the loneliness comes from the isolation of those in small towns, rural communities, and in a country where there is so much poor weather that keeps people apart, indoors. The migration on Irish people has led to a lot of loneliness in the countries they migrated to. You can be surrounded by people and still be lonely. I think there is loneliness in all short stories, a sense of the outsider looking in.

      The best book by far on the short story?

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. 

Oh, I appear to have answered this in the previous Q! More time indoors, more isolation, the effect of rain on the psyche...

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

I never picture an audience; I just write. When I edit, my thoughts are more with the readers. I need to know that the readers are oriented in the story, that I have put on the page what is in my imagination without telling them too much. But I couldn't write to order. I'd be rubbish at writing for a women's magazine or if told to write horror, for instance.

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 take the view of keep making marks on the pages. I had a dry spell after finishing As Long as it Takes, and got through it by writing about things close to home, mainly things I could see from my writing shed, which overlooks an orchard. The poems felt slight and worthless at the time, but they emerged into a sequence, some of which have been published. The one that I felt the slightest of all has been accepted for Poetry Salzburg Review.

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

I'm not reading much fiction at present. The early arrival of my first grandchild last November turned my reading routines upside down, and I've got into reading mostly non-fiction and poetry. So i can't actually remember the last novel I read. Last three movies I saw at the cinema: Inside Llewyn Davis, 12 Years a Slave and Alpha Papa. 12 Years a Slave was brilliant if gruelling. The way that McQueen lingers on the horror - you want to look away but can't. Came out of the cinema unable to speak. TV shows - I do love watching old episodes of ER. I find a blood and guts hospital drama strangely relaxing. I am loving The Last Leg on Channel 4 and the US series Girls is really smart and funny.

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

I took a Cert than an MA in creative writing and have also been a part of workshopping groups, such as Medway Mermaids women's writing group. I learned a tremendous amount on the courses, but they were only the beginning of my learning and practice as a writer. Workshops - at their best they can be supportive and helpfully critical. At their worst, they can destroy a beginner writer's confidence. I had a malicious workshopper in my MA group for 2 years. Why the tutor didn't deal with it I do not know. I have lost faith in workshopping, I have to say, except in a trusted group. Even then, it's good to get the opinion of someone you don't know after a while, someone with a different perspective. I am not a member of a writers' group now and it doesn't appeal to me anymore. 

12. Make up a question and answer it please.

What are your favourite stories about encounters with the rich and famous? 

I once made a cup of coffee for Eric Clapton. I had a summer job as a receptionist for a PA and lighting company, and he popped by with his road crew. The roadies acted as if they were more important than he was. He was quite charming, I also met Slade when I was social secretary at Thames Polytechnic in1980 and they came to play. The hall was packed. We had to get extra security. Noddy Holder came out of the green room at the end of the night, much the worse for wear, and said to me, 'Someone's pinched me fags. It's not so much the fags I'm worried about, it's the principle of the thing.' 

I also see Bob Geldof a lot, as he lives in Faversham, a few miles a way from where I live. I don't get excited about it anymore, as I see him so often. He is a lot shorter than he appears on TV. 

13.  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"?

Ha ha! That's hilarious. I don't really know the irish literary scene, living in England as I do. I do know it seems hard to get small publishers' books reviewed in the national press in England, and having connections probably does help. But then, you don't know me from Adam and have asked me to do this Q&A. I'd say you're squeaky clean.

14.  Tell us a bit about your non-academic non literary work experience please
  Tell us something about your educational background, please. ,

I went to a Catholic primary school in Surrey, which was very mixed in terms of race and culture. Lots of Irish children, plus Italians, Polish. It was quite rich in many ways. I then went on to a girls' grammar school, which was very posh and mainly white English girls went there. It was a culture shock, as I'd mixed so much with Irish children and families, even though we lived in the heart of Surrey. I did a first degree at Thames Polytechnic, being the first in my family to go on to higher education. I worked as a library assistant after graduating with a non-spectacular lower second (too many interesting things going on to study hard). Marriage and children came early, so I didn't get into work properly until my late twenties, when I started a career in the charity sector, working mainly with volunteering schemes around disability. My last full-time job was managing an advocacy scheme for people with mental health problems. Then I got ill and haven't worked full-time since 1999.
15.  Quick Pick Questions

A.  tablets or laptops?

I love my MacBook laptop, and I don't have a tablet. If I had one, I might love that too.

B.  E readers or traditional books?

Traditional books, definitely. Though Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel was rather heavy on the wrists. i'd have appreciated an e-reader for that one.

C.  Synge or Beckett?

To my shame, I am familiar with neither. Blame an English education that largely ignored Irish writers as well as Irish history.

D.  Cats or dogs?

Cats. I have a 19 year old tortoiseshell called Biscuit. 

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

I get my inspiration at home, as I don't travel well, but I do find that I write a lot when I am away,

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

I'm not that keen on theatre. I've hardly been since all those Shakespeare productions I was forced to see at school.

16.   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 short answer is yes.

17.   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 .  

The Irish do seem to have a bit of thing about death. I remember my mum and an Irish friend would take a walk around a graveyard as entertainment. And it's something that I like to do as well. John McGahern's stories are haunted by the death and absence of his mother. My own have been accused of being very melancholy, but as the reviewer mentioned my work in the same sentence as that of William Trevor, this didn't upset me too much. Happiness doesn't make compelling fiction, in my opinion.

18.     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?  

It has become increasingly important. I use Facebook and Twitter a lot. They are great for connecting with other writers as well as readers. Writers work on their own a lot; it's lonely. I asked the poet Helen Ivory how Facebook affected her writing, as she posts all the time (and I often interact with her). She said it's like a virtual office to her. She has her water cooler moments on Facebook. Incidentally, having known Helen Ivory and her poet husband Martin Figura on Facebook for so long, I got to meet them in person recently. A lovely long lunch at their home. So virtual relationships can become real ones.

I do have a website

Posting samples of work online is good to an extent. i do worry for those writers who post their work all the time. They are giving away their work for free. Why would someone buy one of their books if they can read their work for nothing? And sharing early drafts is not such a good idea. I only post completed work, and usually when it has already been published by an e-zine, which gives it some validation.
19. 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.

Interesting one. I think I would take a malicious grant, too! But I would have to confess to not liking Guinness, in which case they might not give me the grant after all. I do have an ambivalence about the drink/creativity myth. I have seen alcoholism rife in Irish men, particularly, and it's not funny or pretty.

My great thank to Maria for taking the time to provide us with such interesting and informative responses.

I hope to post on her full collection in April.


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