Writers Chat 3: Alan McMonagle on “Ithaca” (Picador: London, 2017) and “Psychotic Episodes” (Arlen House: Galway, 2013)

The third post in my “Writers Chat” series is mix of old and new chats: a re-post of a chat with Alan McMonagle about his second short story collection Pyschotic Episodes and a new chat about his highly acclaimed debut novel Ithaca…

Alans novel

Alan since our last “Writers Chat” five years ago, your writing has gone from strength to strength, most recently with the astounding and well-deserved success of your debut novel Ithaca (Picador, 2017).

The Irish Times described it as a “fierce and funny modern odyssey” and while I do not disagree, I wonder if what they have described is what essentially makes up all stories – that of the hero’s journey. Did you set out to write Jason’s story as an odyssey (I’m thinking of the title here, of course, and the reference to Greek mythology) or did the story start with character and then evolve into an odyssey as you, the writer, journeyed with Jason?

When it comes down to it there are two stories to tell: a person goes in search of something and a stranger comes to town. This remark has been attributed to many writers, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Jason’s ‘search’ arrived fully formed from the get-go, a journey of sorts slowly began to present itself as the basis of a narrative arc. Jason’s story, however, started out as a voice. A youthful voice, playful and unreliable, that evolved into a character and to whom I bequeathed a hinterland, a stomping ground along with its motley population with whom Jason was going to interact in varying degrees. This mix of voice and character, of setting and encounters, I suppose, offered a tension that helped sustain a narrative thrust. However, from the outset I always felt there was a gaping hole in Jason’s psyche. And the further the narrative progressed the stronger this feeling took hold. Writing is an act of faith, and so I pursued my wayward narrative in the hope that what this gaping hole was would eventually present itself. As a writer I spent a lot of time looking outside of Jason. To his nearest and dearest. To his enemies. To pretty much everyone with whom he was interacting. I was constantly looking to the hinterland, to the claustrophobic horizons of Jason’s stomping ground. I was three quarters way through a solid draft when I realized I was looking in the wrong places. I shouldn’t be looking outside of Jason – I should be looking inside. This guy literally wouldn’t harm a fly, I said to myself. The only person he is a danger to is himself. And then it came to me – he is a self-harmer. He is a self-harmer because he is in need of a hero – a parental figure – he can look to. And so I went back to the beginning. And in this manner the narrative of Ithaca takes on that classical trope of the hero’s journey – but I think it is very much an inner journey, in addition to the more obvious outward journey as Jason strikes out beyond the confines of his stomping ground. So really the evolution voice into character provides the basis for the quest my narrator sets himself.

What a fascinating insight into your process, Alan. Lots to ponder here about character formation and narrative voice. Now the town, in Ithaca like in much of your short fiction, is another character. Tell me about the divisions of the town – the Swamp, McMorrows, Rich Hill – and how they might echo the divisions and gaps in Jason’s own life.

Great question. The Swamp, McMorrow’s, Rich Hill are key locations for Jason as he sets about locating his elusive ‘Da’.  The Swamp is where he first meets the Girl. She is in the water, and thinking the worst, he fishes her out and so begins one of the story’s two central relationships. A relationship that provides Jason with a means to reveal a side of himself he will most likely otherwise conceal. Another location, Rich Hill, provides Jason with a taster of how the other half lives, the ‘haves’ as opposed to the ‘have-nots’. Rich Hill in general and Fat Grehan’s unfinished mansion in particular serve to highlight Jason’s ‘wrong side of the tracks’ origins. It’s also the part of town where he gives himself permission to lash out at his circumstances and terms of existence. It’s where he is most likely to get in trouble, fall foul of the law and so forth. A third key locale, McMorrow’s (‘dimly lit pub’), is where he goes to seek out Flukey, the initial candidate Jason posits as his Da. And so, yes, the pub is representative of another crucial gap in Jason’s existence, and as far as Jason is concerned, probably the gap that matters most. At the end of his famous play Life Of Galileo, Brecht has Galileo’s friend say, Unlucky the man that has no heroes. And Galileo says, Lucky the man that needs no heroes. Well, for better or worse, my little guy needs a hero, and in his case it involves a journey that is a mix of humour and pain and chaos and desperation. A journey that involves a search for someone or something that may remain out of reach, elusive. And ultimately what I think the narrative of Ithaca is trying to do is convey the measures Jason is prepared to take as his search becomes more desperate and he finally begins to realize that who or what he is looking for may be a lot to closer to home than he is ready to believe when we first meet him. The locales you mention in your question, along with one or two others, all have a part to play.

Yes, I love how everything in Ithaca fits together. There are no wasted characters in this landscape. 

Read on for the Writers Chat Alan and I had in 2013 about his short story collection Psychotic Episodes.

psy episodes cover

I’ve just finished Psychotic Episodes, one of the few story collections I have read in one sitting. It seemed to me that what brought all the stories together was that thread of the absurd coupled side by side with a sense of dread and caustic humour. Tell me, did you have a plan or a vision for this collection or did it evolve into itself?

A plan – definitely not. In fact I am fairly certain that each of the stories has their own story to tell as to how they came into existence. One or two arrived unannounced from the farthest recesses of my imagination and insisted on writing themselves with little or no input from myself. One or two literally fell out of larger pieces that were paying absolutely no heed to anything I was telling them to do. Others were not so keen until they looked a certain way and so needed a little finessing. Others said to hell with the rules, let’s just go for it. The upshot of all of this is that I am, at various times, an instinctive, reluctant, plodding, spontaneous writer. It was only when I started looking over what had accumulated that the common ground began apparent – the absurdity and chaos you refer to, that teetering on the brink. The stories are in a big way influenced by my own reading and, of course, by my own latent sensibilities, how I perceive and receive the world.

I’m interested, also, in the sequencing of the stories. You start with the moving ‘Looking after Little Patrick’ – I love the child’s name here and though there is something shocking about the cocktail making at the start, by the mid to end of the story I was laughing out loud and feeling they were all having a lovely time until, of course, your killer ending, which wiped the smile off my face and left me feeling guilty for laughing!

Your question, as well as being so well thought out, is also the ideal compliment you can give this particular story, Shauna. My good writing friend and all round purveyor of lightning wisdom, Ger Mills, says my stories snuggle up to you and then take a bite. I like this description and think it can be applied to the story you speak of. The story is essentially a psycho-drama – with the comedy thrown in. At the time I was re-reading Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and sitting up late watching Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton go at it in the film version. Also, at the time, my neighbours’ little baby seemed intent on establishing a new world record for crying. Also, at the time, my girlfriend and myself were given our little nephew for the day. Somehow the disparate yet timely elements coalesced. Instinctively, I placed this story as the opening story for the tone it quickly sets, for the early flavour it provides of the skewed sensibilities in the stories. It was also the first story I finished after my first collection.

That’s really interesting, such an insight into the creation of the story, and indeed, the collection. I’d like to hear about how you get into character. You’re fond of first person voice and move well between a child’s voice (‘The Story Teller and the Thief’ and ‘Runaways’) and a female voice (‘Psychotic Episodes’).

I am an aural learner (as opposed to the more common visual learning). And so, in any piece of writing, I need to ‘hear’ everything – narration, reflection, observation – in addition to dialogue. In my own reading there are writers I return to time and time again precisely for this purpose. William Saroyan (his wonderful take on childhood). Flannery  O’Connor (for the darkness). Sergei Dovlatov (for the chaos). Grace Paley and Amy Hempel (great female voices). These (among others), if you like, are my tuning forks. I’ve read about the so-called advantages of the third person narrator, its flexibility and omniscience. However, I feel if you have a strong enough ‘voice’ then a first person narrative becomes an essential part of story.

I must look Hempel up I don’t know her work. Now, tell me about endings. You have some wonderful ones – ‘Gutted’ and the wonderfully titled ‘Elizabeth Taylor and the Tour de France Cyclist’. Are you ever surprised by the endings that come to you as you write or do you plan the ending?

Almost every time – surprised. Which is why I think writing is an act of faith – at some point in the future you are depending upon something presenting itself (an ending, for example) that doesn’t yet exist. Endings, as well as beginnings, are delicate, require soft hands. It is what takes you from beginning to end that involves cement and mortar and blood and tears. I think it was Philip Larkin, of all people, who said a good story should have a beginning, a muddle and an end. All too often I find myself muddling…And then, from nowhere it seems, a way out – an ending – offers itself. The two stories you refer to here are good examples.

What a wonderful quote, I love the idea of muddling. But I have to ask you if you cycle – I like the way cycling and bikes feature in the collection, almost little creatures in themselves.

Bicycles as little creatures – what a lovely observation…I take a push bike around the narrow Galway streets. On my way in to town, there is a certain road I always use because it slopes downhill and so gets me where I have to be quickly and without huge effort. However, there is a certain hour in the day – early to mid-afternoon – whereupon if you find yourself on this road and on a bicycle you really are running the gauntlet. I also take my bike out on the backroads near where I live. I am restless by nature, need to be in motion, and it amazes me some of the ideas that arrive while pedalling through the desolation and dignity of Old Clybaun.

I  think the collection holds some of that desolation and dignity. But I was also tickled by nostalgia with all the references to 99s, flakes, Tayto crisps and I laughed out loud at the ‘Bloomsday Bus Driver’ which seems quintessentially Irish to me with the ice-creams, the desperation to catch every last ray of sun, the need, generally to get and keep something good while it’s still going. Any reflections on this?           

My grandfather used to work on the buses out of Sligo. Occasionally I would tag along, the five-mile trip from Sligo town to Rosses Point being a particular favourite. ‘Bus Driver’ (in many ways) is a slender story, but I like its simplicity, its purity, which I feel is in keeping with the time it is attempting to reflect. A couple of people whose judgement I respect have said to me that it rings so true. I was even given a wonderful anecdote by a Galway poet about his long-ago experience on slow-moving trains. It is very satisfying to hear that this story is speaking to a generation from a time I myself barely experienced.

Finally, if you’re willing to reveal, what are you working on now?

There are poems to coerce, new stories to plámás into life. Someone has asked me to write a one-act play, the one constraint being that it has to be set in a bar – which, for an Irish writer, surely has to be the most liberating constraint conceivable! And now I’ve put the hex on myself and no doubt I’ll soon be muddling again…

Wow, a play in a bar. Interesting indeed. And poems. Good luck with that. I look forward to reading what comes of the muddling!

Aoife Casby’s wonderful artwork graces the front and back cover. Find out about Aoife here: http://www.aoifecasby.net/

Author: Shauna Gilligan

Writer and Educator who, when not mothering, is writing, teaching, baking, reading: adding life to form. Ireland. Spain. Represented by Andrew Nurnberg Associates International Literary Agency.

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