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

Monday, July 7, 2014

Aine Greaney. A Question and Answer Session with the Multi-Award Winning Author of Dance Lessons and The Big House

Recently I had the great pleasure of reading a short story, "Snow" by Aine Greaney.  Here is part of my reaction to Aine's wonderful story:

"Snow" is a deeply moving story centering on a middle aged woman, Delores, who moved from Donegal in the west of Ireland to New York State many years ago.  She has been married to an American for a long time and has a decent job as a buyer for a construction company.  She came back to Ireland when her cousin Bridgie, who began to run the family shop nineteen years ago when Delores' mother passed, called her and told her that her father had taken a terrible fall.  The father is an irrascible old man, made bitter by the passing of his wife and siblings, a feeling compounded by what he sees as the desertion by Delores, his only daughter, when she moved  to America.  The shop is on the first floor, the dwellings above.  People come in the shop for their daily needs.  The big town event is the purchase of a nearby hotel by a man from Dublin.  

Greaney in just a few pages does a masterful job of showing us, with great verisimilitude, what it feels like from both sides for an adult child, well into middle age, to be necessitated to move back into the parental home to take care of an aged parent. I know because I did this myself.  The child cannot help but resent the loss of freedom and does not like being treated as a kid and the parent is equally resentful at what he sees as an ungrateful child without proper sympathy and respect.

Official Biography


I'm a transatlantic writer, in that I was born and raised in County Mayo, Ireland, and I'm now living on Boston’s North Shore.   

As well as writing, I lead writingworkshops at various schools, arts organizations, libraries and colleges in New England and beyond. For information on my programs and workshops, visit the Mass. Cultural Council artist profile.

Among my writing awards and shortlists are the Hennessy Award for New Irish Writing, the Fish Anthology, the Rubery International Book Award, the Frank O'Connor Award, the Irish News Short Story Award and Indie Lit 2011. My essay, "Green Card" was cited as a notable in "Best American Essays," and my essay, "Sanctuary" has just been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. 

As well as working, writing and teaching, I get out and about now and again. I belong to local and regional arts and writing organizations, including PEN New England, the New Hampshire Writers Project and the American Conference for Irish Studies.

I travel back to Ireland frequently.

My Story

To the shores of Americay

I was born and brought up on a small farm in County Mayo, Ireland. My home parish is best known for the filming of that iconic Irish movie, "The Quiet Man" and for contributing the word "boycott" to the English language.

The word was coined and sent into the English-language lexicon from the front living room of our family's ancestral home, the thatch-roof cottage where I spent the first years of my childhood.

It derived from a local British land-agent, Captain Boycott, known for his post-famine-era rackrenting and general cruelties toward his Irish tenantry. In the heyday of the Irish Land League, a local priest (who rented rooms in our house) led an all-out public shunning in which workers, suppliers, drivers and neighbors set down tools and stopped serving Captain Boycott's Downton-Abbey-styled estate (only much smaller). Following a long and bitter standoff, the peasants won, and Mr. Boycott eventually moved his family back to England. This victory offered such hope for future peasant revolts and tenants' rights, that the priest suggested using the word "boycott" as a verb ("We'll boycott them!") to describe this practice of social shunning.  

So is it any wonder I grew up to be a little ... shall we say ... a touch bolshie?

In 1986, after a brief career as a primary-school teacher, I moved to the U.S. In those days, 25% of Irish college graduates left their country for continental Europe, Australia or the U.S. I write about this experience in the essays, "The Borders We Cross," in Stone Canoe: A Journal of Arts and Ideas from Upstate New York, and in "I Hate Saint Patrick's Day"  It's also the topic of my current book-in-progress. 

After working the usual hodgepodge of jobs, I went back to college to study for a master's in English. I also got accepted to a fiction-writing intensive at the New York State Writers Institute at the State University of New York, which is where I finally got the skills and courage to finish and publish a short story.

From upstate New York, I moved to Boston's North Shore.

Where Maritime Meets Industry

These days I live and write where the Merrimack River meets the Atlantic Ocean. The Merrimack Valley was the cradle of America's industrial revolution. In fact, Charles Dickens is reputed to have visited the area's mill towns and to have written back to his native England praising this pristine example of U.S. industrialization.

Inside these loud and terribly unhealthy textile mills, the machines were mostly worked by girls and women. The 'mill girls' founded America's first literary journal which featured the writings of young female immigrants from places like Quebec, Poland and Ireland. 

So I live and write at the crossroads of America's industrial and maritime histories--the perfect spot for a transatlantic writer.

Creative Writing

I became smitten with the short story form as a student in my convent secondary school in Ballinrobe, County Mayo. To this day, I remember reading Padraic O Conaire (Irish Gaelic) and Guy de Maupassant (the great French story-author) and loving the art and artifice of each short work. I've published my own short stories in Irish and U.S. literary journals and anthologies.

Most recently, I've published personal essays in "Under the Sun," "Boston Globe Magazine," ","  "Stone Canoe: A Journal of Arts and Ideas from Upstate New York," "The Daily Muse" "Forbes," "When Women Waken," "Generation Emigration (The Irish Times), The Feminist Wire and "Merrimack Valley Magazine."

Other outlets include Creative Nonfiction, The Literary Review, The Fish Anthology, Natural Bridge, IMAGE Magazine," "Litro" and "The Sunday Tribune."

In September 2006, my short-story chapbook collection, The Sheepbreeders Dance was released by Flume Press (California State University).  

Other publications include my debut novel, The Big House (TownHouse/Simon & Schuster, `03) and the gift/travel book, Newburyport: A Photographic Portrait (Twin Lights Publishers).  

Among my awards and shortlists are The 2011 Indie Lit Award (runner up, literary fiction); The Rubery International Book Award (longlist, fiction); Flume Press Short Fiction Chapbook Contest `05, The Frank OConnor Short Fiction Award, the Irish News Short Story Awards, The Steinbeck Award and The Hennessy Award for New Irish Writing.

My second novel, Dance Lessons, set in County Mayo and greater Boston, was published last year by Syracuse University Press. My how-to writing book, which offers guidelines on balancing a day-job with a creative writing life, was released by Writers Digest Books (2011).

I work in healthcare, and have a growing interest in narrative medicine or the intersection of writing, the arts and healing. I am a lifelong journal keeper. 

I hold a B.Ed in teaching and an M.A. in English.

Irish Literature

1.     “Countries are either mothers or fathers, and engender the emotional bristle secretly reserved for either sire.  Ireland has always been a woman, a womb, a cave, a cow, a Rosaleen, a sow, a bride, a harlot, and of course, the gaunt Hag of Beare.”   As I read this in Mother Ireland by Edna O’Brien I at once thought for sure the Philippines is a mother, even the country’s religion revolves around Mary almost as much as Jesus.  Is O’Brien right about Ireland or maybe I should say is this still accurate?   If it is true what are the positives to this?  The negatives?
Um, I'm not sure about this, Mel. The traditional song and lore refer to Ireland as "mother" and "proud old woman," and certainly, Ireland was once a very matriarchal culture. I suppose it depends more on who you are as a child of Ireland, whether you see your home country as a mother or father. I myself don't see it as either--simply as a place where I was born and whose culture is still within. 

2. 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.  In "Snow" this seems a strong underlying factor.

I hadn't read Kiberd's comment. In my work, you're not the first person to have pointed this out to me, and I guess it's true. Irish women, broadly speaking, have often held the power in the family--even when it's a very subversive power. I think it impacts my work because as a woman, I'm naturally going to give the power to the female character, while also holding her to a higher standard. This isn't fair, I know, but it's almost as if there's an in-built expectation that the male character  won't have much of an influence on the story or be capable of driving the plot -- either toward bad or good. 

3. 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. 

In modern Ireland, it's often easy to forget that we are, comparatively speaking, a new country. Like all post-colonial societies we labor under the dual and dueling influences of emancipation and oppression. It's hard to stake a line  in the sand and say, "this much of our faux humility, or self-hatred we inherited from our oppressors, and this much is actually home grown, in that we made it ourselves." It's impossible to determine which is which.  Sometimes, as an expatriate, I think there's a fusion between the Irish mandate to be funny or witty and that  same self-hatred (if it exists). In other words, rather than standing back and assessing a certain social wrong or condition, we quickly make it into gallows humor or comedy. Once a social ill makes its way into T.V. comedy, it is automatically downplayed or diluted. We do this in America, too (especially the late-night shows), but I think the Irish have perfected it. While it's great to be funny, I have often questioned what that race to, and pride in, gallows humor is all about.  Maybe literature provides the same "safe" outlet to just display, or vent our national anxieties. 

4.  Oscar Wilde said he never really felt Irish until he moved to London, did you experience anything like this when you moved to America.?

Yes. In fact, I'm not sure that we even called ourselves "Irish" until we move offshore, where we have to wear some kind of label in the larger melting pot. 

5.  Why have the Irish produced such a disproportionate to their numbers great writers, or is this a myth?

I'm not sure. For one thing, storytelling is very much part of who we are, what we did for entertainment, what we value as a people. Once, at an American party (at a writer's conference), I was shocked when someone rolled her eyes and said, "Oh, no. Not another one of her stories." I was offended, too, because it never occurred to me that story wasn't precious, didn't have a really high currency and topped a covered dish in terms of what you could contribute to any party.  So that natural bent toward storytelling would lend itself to a disproportionate number of writers.  The dual-language thing is also a factor, I think. We may write in English--only English--but a few readers have told me that  the evidence and mastery of a second language (Gaelic) is very evident in my work. She described it as a kind of daring, a a playfulness with language that writers who speak only one language do not exhibit. 

6.    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.  ?  Of course this plays into the stereo type of the stage Irishman.

I think it does make its way into Irish literature. The cultural norms around drinking are different in many countries, and, indeed, among certain national groups within melting-pot countries like America or the U.K. or Australia. Just as the Irish are stereotyped (often justifiably) for heavy drinking, there is a long and active movement in the country called the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association--of total non-drinkers, who never, ever touch alcohol. But who are you going to cast in a story or play? The drinker is a much more colorful character, and the best we can hope for from the abstainer is a kind of contrasting foil to make the drinker seem even brighter, more vivid or funny or tragic. Alcohol consumption aside, the pub is also -- or was--the lifeblood of both rural and urban Irish communities. It was where you drank a pint, but it was also where you met your neighbors, friends, formed a community. It wasn't as frantic or lone-drinker styled as the American saloon or today's gin-mill bars. In the country, where i grew up, it was where you went to hear music, spend time with neighbors, even bring your kids.  So as a setting for human drama--which is what much of writing is--the pub is kind of a natural. 

A.    Can you tell us a bit about your writing routine.  Do you typically set aside a certain period to write, always write in same place, do you listen to music while you write, do you need solitude to write?

I am definitely a solitude writer and will often go away on writers retreat where I simply hole up in a room and do a lot of binge writing all at once. In fact, that’s my favorite way to work—in a hermit, total-immersion kind of approach. Between those getaways, I manage to get up earlier than I have to about 3 mornings per week to write before I have to depart for the day job. I also work on weekends.


B.    if you could give your eighteen year old self one suggestion, what would it be?  


Oh, my. This is a great question. I think it would be to start my career and stop trying to please people. I would also advise her to have more courage, to be more forthright and ready to strike out and fight for what she really wanted.


C. " in the name of a humanism hypocritically turned champion of the reader’s rights. Classic criticism has never paid any attention to the reader; for it, the writer is the only person in literature. We are now beginning to let ourselves be fooled no longer by the arrogant antiphrastical recriminations of good society in favour of the very thing it sets aside, ignores, smothers, or destroys; we know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author."

What is your reaction to these very famous lines from "The Death of the Author" by Roland Barthes?  


think that good writing is always a kind of conversation in humanism, and conversations, by their nature, are a two-way process.  It’s not an easy equation, and it’s probably a decision that every writer has to make very early on, or half-way through her career: to write for the market and popularity or to write what’s truly in her heart and what will improve our minds.  But does it have to be an either, or setup?  For me it’s quality, not quantity. Yes, of course I’d love to be a bestselling author, but not at the cost of the quality. If I have to choose, I’m going for the latter.


D. UNCHARTED LIVES is a fascinating study by gay psychotherapist Stanley Siegel and straight Newsday columnist Ed Lowe Jr. The text is a mass analysis of how gay men develop through the eight male life passages from 'pre-emergence' to 'mentorin'’. The book is the result of numerous interviews and research. This data is balanced with Siegel's own dramatic mid-life coming out story.

When asked why such a seemingly disproportionate number of creative men are gay this was Siegel's response-  


"I think that because gay men live in a society that is hostile to them, because they are oppressed, have few role models, and in most cases have no legal rights or institutions that support and honor us we became extraordinarily inventive in the ways we live our lives. The process of become gay, of accepting one's sexuality, is a process of living an extremely original life. The apparatus of a creative life begins early, when we feel we are different in some way but have no language to explain the difference. Young gay boys feel that almost always and consequently they often isolate themselves or are isolated by the outside world. Isolation presents a creative world. Sometimes in fantasy we deal with separation by becoming highly productive - drawing, writing, creating. Usually this stays with the person the rest of their life and is only enhanced by the challenges they meet later on."

My question is do you think he is onto something?  Is the creativity of Gay men derivative from growing up without role models, from having to create a sense of self?


Yes. I hadn’t thought about it in this way before. In my case, I wish I had had the voice or the resources or the chutzpa to have honored that difference.


E. "It is the habit of approaching works of art in order to interpret them that sustains the fancy that there really is such a thing as the content of a work of art" - from  "Against Interpetation" by Susan Sontag


As a writer, how do you feel when people Interpet your work, attribute meaning to it?, see things in it you never thought about?  

Who is your ideal reader?  

My ultimate goal is to write in a way that creates or translates or instigates or stokes our shared and perpetual search for meaning.  My ideal reader is someone thoughtful enough to either dispute or endorse what I have to say. But “thoughtful” is the key, here. Also, as I generally write across two cultures, it helps if my reader has enough comfort with the unknown to simply accept the work for what it is, within its own context, not try to “translate” it into American language or force it to fit within that reader’s own experiences or social contexts.  


F.   It seems more and more writers have MAs in creative writing, some PhDs.  Education is a great thing but is there a negative side to this, will it produce  in few years a literary culture where lacking this degree will make it hard to get published?. Is it homogenizing writing styles? Will the day of the amateur writer who comes from nowhere and changes everything be over because of this?  Does it give you pause to know the University of Iowa M A in writing scholarships for students from outside the USA, were for years funded by the C. I. A? 


don’t think you need any advanced degree-or any degree at all—to become a writer. Some writers are born, not created, and it’s easy to tell the difference between the two.


G.  How important is seeing different parts of the world to you in terms of stimulating your creativity?  


Not very. It’s more important to have interpreted and known what parts I have actually seen. Some of the most “educated” and “well-traveled” people I know have never left their own home towns. Equally, I know world travelers who bring back little more than a set of souvenirs from the places they have visited. It’s more about the person than the number of destinations.



H.  Where can we find you online? Or google some of my past essays in Forbes Women, Boston Globe Magazine,, Cognescenti and other publications.


I.              Besides reading and writing, what are some of your hobbies or interests. ?


I am a great and lifelong walker and hiker. In fact, I don’t see much distinction between the writing and the walking, as that’s how I often tease out certain parts of the work or where titles and/or opening lines just come to me. I’m also a big beach bum, and nothing makes me happier than sitting on the beach with a book.



J.  Please tell us something about your recent publications and/or works in progress.


I am currently completing a bunch of personal essays—all in various forms of non-completion—plus a book-length memoir, “What Brought You Here.” The memoir is about my immigration to the U.S. at age 24 and my first 10 years here, and the inherent struggle for identity as a young woman in a foreign country.


K.  In "Snow", what motivated the central character, a married woman, to sleep with a man she barely knew?


think Dolores’s motivations in doing this are one of the nuggets of this story that will change slightly for each reader.

Read on one level, her one-night stand is simply rebellion or sexual attraction. Read on another level, there are other motivations, including the link between carnality and the obliteration of memory and childhood history.  But there is no single motivation.   


L.  What was your focus in obtaining an MA in English?


As a relatively new immigrant to the U.S at the time, I thought that it would help me to transition from   service-style jobs into the world I wanted, which was the world of literature and writing. In Ireland, the universities are more or less governed via a central, national university system.  When I enrolled in my M.A. program, I didn’t know that in America, each course or college is different and ranked differently. Of course, I was too young and clueless to research this or ask the right admission questions before I plunked down my Mastercard.  I just knew that I was ready to get into a new type of life, and this seemed the obvious way to do it. I knew nothing about MFA degrees or that creative writing by and of itself warranted an entire degree course. So I chose an MA.     


M.  Tell us a bit about your novels please.


My novel “The Big House” was published by Simon & Schuster U.K. in 2003, which seems like a long time ago no. It’s about a historic home in small-town Ireland. As happens in small towns, some folks want to demolish it, while others want to preserve it for history and posterity. There’s a romantic interest in there, too. It’s a light-hearted book, which I would probably never write now, though I do retain an interest in architecture and historic homes.


My second novel, “Dance Lessons” was published in the U.S., and is about an American woman who discovers that her Irish-born husband had grossly misrepresented himself, his family and his life in Ireland. After his premature death, Ellen, the main character, travels to Ireland to unearth the secrets of his life and to understand the dark parts of their troubled marriage. It’s a much more serious novel, and I’m glad to say it garnered some very nice shortlists and awards.


N.  As a creative writing workshop leader, what are the biggest challenges most students face?


Feeling that writing is something that they can do and can allow themselves to do. Some students, too, are over focused on the product of writing—on the prospect and promise of their names on the spine of a book or on the big screen.  It’s important that students understand that writing is a long and often unpredictable process and, sadly, there are no short cuts.


1.     how and when did you begin to write? 

I’ve always kept a journal, but I didn’t write for publication until after I was well settled into the U.S.


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


I read mostly British novelists and female memoirists. There’s also a list of my fave and inspirational writers here, at my website:

3.  These are loaded question coming from me, but with the decline of print reviews, are book blogs becoming more important?  Professional critics have denigrated book bloggers as reviewers without credentials,book bloggers have replied professional reviewers just don't like bloggers doing for free what they ask money for doing? Reviewers do it for money, bloggers for love.  What is your reaction to this?  Do you join book tours or send bulk mailings out asking for reviews?  


First of all, I only discovered the world of book blogging when my 2nd novel, Dance Lessons, which was published by a university press, was released in 2011. As a non-name-brand author published by a literary indie press about a non-ripped-from-the-headlines topic, I knew that my novel would not be reviewed by the usual print reviewers. I loved the world of book blog reviews—not simply for the fact that many were kind enough to review the book, but also because, as a busy author who works a busy day job, it gave me a kind of virtual literary world to “hang out” in. It gave me a world of other readers from all sorts of places to get to know.  In other words, it became my virtual writer-reader community. So I’m not sure if it’s about the payment, so much as the added value of democratic literary conversation that distinguishes book bloggers from print reviewers. I didn’t do a book tour, per sae, and I never did or do bulk mailings. Instead, I truly enjoyed and still email with the book bloggers I “met.” It’s been a really exciting development in my writing and reading life.


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

It depends on what I’m writing. I have “public” kind of opinion essays that I know or hope will be published and have an audience. The deeper, more creative pieces, I just write—often in a very scattered way.

5. 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? 


Oh, I just read a lot, and journal a lot or write something in a genre that’s different from the one I’m stuck in.



6. If someone says to you, "I prefer to live life, not just read about it " what is your reaction inside?  (Besides cringing!)


Yes, cringing. Why live one life, when, via reading, you can be part of many. Also, by just living your own life,  how are you going to be exposed to the travel, cross-cultural and different experiences and human empathy we get from reading? You’re not.   



7. 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.  Feel free to apply this to your heritage.


Certainly, I think the feeling of “otherness,” – the non-victor status—helps in writing. If for no other reason than we have glimpsed a second life.  Also, in Ireland’s case, Colonial occupation—as in many countries—included an attempt at annihilation of a native language. However, that language lies dormant or forefront in the imagination and seeps into the writing. I once had an American reader tell me that she could tell that I was writing from a bilingual tradition—which is true.  Perhaps this is why I also gravitate toward and love Indian authors. There is that cross-pollination, that awareness of two linguistic traditions—the native and the Colonial.


8.  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 often fantasize that I would like to live on the coast of France. But as I never have, it’s hard to say if my stay would extend beyond six months or not.   



9. Are you open to  e mail, Facebook or Twitter, contact with your readers or do you fear stalkers or don't want to be bothered?


am fine with being emailed or IMd.


10. Is a certain amount of suffering good for a writer?  


I don’t know. I’m not sure that it’s the suffering itself—per sae—but how the writer or wordsmith or song writer has processed it, derived meaning and applied language to it.  And of course, for that to happen, there has to be a certain fallow period and a period of creative distance between the suffering itself and the creative work.


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


I am a communications director for a busy healthcare nonprofit.


12.  Quick Pick Questions


A.    tablets or laptops or smart phones?




B.    E readers or traditional books?


Traditional books


C.    American Fast Food- love it, hate it, or once and a while?

Hate it. Never eat it.


D.    Cats or dogs?

Definitely cats.


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


Maybe it’s New York.


F.    Walt Whitman or Willam Butler Yeats?   


W.B. for sure.


K.  Winter or Summer? Day or Night?


Summer. Day.



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



13.    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?  Can you estimate how many hours a week you are online?


My website is at Yes, I think social media is a great tool for readers and writers, and not just to promote ourselves, but to be part of the larger reader conversation.



. If you found out that a favorite writer of yours was grossly bigitoted would you lose interest in them?


Yes. Probably.


I offer my great thanks to Aine for taking the time to provide us with such interesting and well considered answers.  I look forward eagerly to reading more of her work.

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