Writers Chat 41: Philip Ó Ceallaigh on “Trouble” (Stinging Fly: Dublin, 2021)

You’re very welcome to my Writers Chat series. We’re going to chat about Trouble (Stinging Fly: Dublin, 2021), your new short story collection which, in John Banville’s words, shows you as “a wonderful writer…a master in full control of his material.” I have to agree – the prose is tight and illuminating, the stories gritty and surreal.


SG: Let’s start with the form of the short story. You were awarded the Rooney Prize in 2006 for Notes from a Turkish Whorehouse. In an interview with the Irish Times you said “…all life is material you just don’t always know when it’s happening what you want to write about.” Tell me what draws you to and keeps you with the form of the short story – is it easier to write direct from life?

POC: I’m not sure what you mean by “direct from life”. But I’ve found that short narratives suit my way of writing, which is intuitive in the first draft, not guided by any great conception of what I’m doing in terms of ideas or where I’m going. I may be guided by an image or a mood or a situation. Anything that gets me writing the next line. After I have a draft, then I’ll start to see what I’m about. This resembles life a bit, in that we generally don’t know what’s happening to us while it’s happening, because we’re usually busy reacting to what’s thrown at us. Maybe later we figure things out and apply retrospective meaning. We’re creatures that feel things, and we create narrative sense as a way of dealing with what befalls us. So I’m guessing that what appeals to some readers in my stories – a sense of strangeness, disorientation, things happening – is what appeals to me in the writing, that nothing’s quite fixed or settled. And yet the written story needs to interesting enough, as a problem, that it remains afterwards, like a puzzle. At least this is how I experience films and stories that have some depth. I prefer not to feel that I’m being forced by forced by the director or author to feel something. You know, when it’s really blatant in a film, and the music tells you, feel sad now. If something is well put together you don’t have to resort to such cues, and the process isn’t finished when you leave the cinema or close the book. The story resembles something you take with you and needs to be absorbed, digested. Like an experience from real life.

SG: I love that you’re at ease with nothing’s fixed or settled as you write, as in life, and that you can still wrestle with the form – once the draft is down. And does writing in the short form tie in with your work as a translator (I’m thinking, here of For Two Thousand Years)?

POC: No. Except that it involves sentences, one at a time, trying to find the most elegant and concise rendering in one language of what appears in another.

SG: As a Part B to this question – There were a number of stories (“My Life in the Movies” and “My life in the City”) in which the same characters and places appear. I wondered if these could be the beginnings or middles of a novel – are you interested in the long form, at all?

POC: Of course I am, as an experiment, a challenge. I don’t feel limited in what I can do in the short form, but I have been curious to know what I can do, what happens if I push myself and try things I’m not immediately inclined to do. So I’ve written a couple of novels, but the experiment has not been successful, and it’s time consuming so it’s not an experiment that tempts me much now. I think that in a longer narrative you can’t – or I can’t – write at that unconscious level that excites me and makes the process worthwhile. If I have to plot things out I get bored and frustrated. Yes, My Life in the Movies and My Life in the City are cut from a novel-length story that I struggled with for years, and in the end rebelled against. Not only did I chop it to pieces, I discarded the profound conclusions the central character reached at the end! In the new version I leave him scratching his head, confounded by his own emotional and intellectual shortcomings. Which seems right. Since that’s what happened to the author.

SG: You have me smiling here. Maybe we’re all still confounded. What struck me most about Trouble, a collection of 13 stories, is the atmosphere that you create. It could be called voice but I think it’s more than just the writer’s voice. It feels like something more fundamental within the stories – a tone of deep yearning, for example in “Smoke”, that is reflected in the tautness of your prose, it pushes against the edges of the readers’ emotions. Can you comment on this?

POC: I don’t know about the yearning but I can talk about the tautness. It’s a matter of technique and it’s what should distinguish a page of a short story from that of a novel. A novel can afford to be loose. You can’t have a page or a paragraph of a short story that’s superfluous or where not much is happening. The short story should ask more of the reader’s attention, but it can only do this if it rewards the increased attention.

SG: Thank you for that precise distinction, one which is not always easy to articulate. Many of your narrators are philosophical and offer the reader wonderful witty asides. Take the narrator in the title story “Trouble”. He tells us that Garrity’s problem with sleep “had also turned him into a reader and provoked tremendous mid-life bouts of thoughtfulness”. “Relaxing into money is an art. It takes centuries to learn.”

In the poignant and gritty “London” we learn that “When his first child was born and he had held him in his arms he had learned what his own strength was for. The lesson was that strength existed to protect the defenceless. It was a simple trick nature played on the strong…”

In “The Book of Love” Sol tells us to “stop trying to nail happiness!”

Was this great mix of wit and philosophy intentional as part of the narrative drive or did it come from the characterisation?

POC: The tendency to get what you call philosophical. I have to watch it, to reign it in. It’s a matter of balance, you don’t want to load a narrative with meaning. There’s a natural weight that can be borne, that comes off as natural, as flowing from the action and the character.

SG: And these stories do have the balance you speak of. Dislocation, disconnection, disinterest come into many of the stories – movement from place to place, relationship to relationship, a sense that the narrators are often spectators in their own lives, on the edge of place and self. At times they appear to be actually living the life of others or not feeling at all, supressing everything. People all, of course, in search for connections.

In “The Island” the narrator, escaping his perceived reality, encounters an ever-growing band of copulating and arousing monkeys with their own social strata, realises that “every creature is tortured in its dreams, the lowest and the highest, always running, pursued by phantoms, even when stretched out unconscious on the ground…all my heavy flesh wished for was to wish for nothing, to lie there, kissed by nothingness.”

In “Graceland” the narrator, feeling his almost-ex-partner is “using” their child to get at him, “hushed the violence. He whispered to it and caressed it like you would a cat to gain its trust then he gripped the loose skin of the nape and removed it squirming from the room. No, nothing unpleasant was going to happen.”

Was this a theme that emerged as you put the collection together?

POC: Anything you can call a theme emerges after the writing. But the stories are more interesting gathered together, maybe less perplexing. The collection isn’t something that was plotted out in advance. It was one story at a time. But it’s the same mind coming at the same problems, obsessions, from different angles, different styles.

SG: Much of the writing is cinematic – take the opening of “My Life in the Movies” – “Opening scene: a bar in the old town”, which itself is about a man who makes movies and spends much of his time in a bar where

Around us, the new species of male that was invading the planet – skinny, blow-dried, finicky about attire and grooming. Aliens, hunched into the screens of laptops and hand-held devices, attentive as lovers, faces palely illumined in the hypnotic masturbatory glow.

In “My life in the City”, our narrator is often “quietly angry” and is finally “glad that the terrible dream city was not real, that I did not have to undergo its trials. My sole regret was I had lost the reels of film I had never shot.”

“The Book of Love” opens:

I was staring out through the plate-glass restaurant window at pensioners bearing cargoes of purchases and a young thug swearing into his phone, and a millionaire was telling me about the importance of cunnilingus.

Can you talk a little about the link between cinema and writing – if you think there is one.

POC: About ten years ago a Romanian director talked me into writing a screenplay. It was a terrible experience. This director knew nothing about telling stories and I knew nothing about writing screenplays. But I felt she was listening to my ideas and I could work with her. Except that she was a liar and the relationship deteriorated and she went on to make a crappy film. The mad thing is that making a film involves a lot of money and people and work, even if the product is a failure, or nonsense. I earned a lot of money from this shameful episode, relative to what I’ve earned for any of my books. It was a strange experience for me on another level too, because I think of storytelling as a way to make sense of experience. Here I was in a realm where the writing got garbled through the miscommunication between me and the director, her misreading of what I’d written. I envisaged the story as a comedy with a smart, thoughtful ending. The director made it serious, serious, serious – no relief, no contrast. Four top-class actors, they couldn’t save it. Lighting, editing, music, special effects – in vain. It was still crap. I didn’t attend the premiere, like Vali in the story; I slunk into a cinema in the afternoon and slunk out again. Writing for the cinema is not writing for the page and much depends on the relationship with the director. Even then, you have to be detached about the result. It doesn’t belong to you. I’ll be very happy if I can sell the rights of any of my stories for film. But wary of getting involved in screenwriting. Anyway, I got to write my story about Vali, who bumbles his way through these things as cluelessly as I did.

SG: It sounds like all this miscommunication was such a pity but as you say, a story came from this experience. Changing direction now, I was particularly moved and shocked by the genius story “First Love”. It is a semi-fictionalised rewriting of the diary of Felix Landau (1910 – 1983), recounting some activities as Judengeneral in 1941/2. “First Love” came as a shock – the title like a bitter taste as you read the disturbingly convincing narrator express so eloquently how love sick he is at the same time as he crisply recalls duties performed. In July he writes:

A precarious light, a mood, a few tinkling notes at the end of a melody. Sky oozing colour like those Bosnian cakes drip syrup. For the personal to assume such proportions now, when the world is being remade – madness….Reds didn’t know what hit them. Salvaged what we needed from what they left behind as the Jews scurried about, cleaning up. I have so many thoughts, impressions, but it is almost midnight and they’re all for Trude. I speak to her in my head, constantly. 

He also recounts his frustrations of not being immersed in combat: “I desire combat, end up shooting unarmed people. 23, including two women” and follows a detailed description of the shooting with this reflection: “It was mid-morning, I was exhausted but the usual administrative work followed.” 

“First Love” also stands out as being so different in style (diary entries) and context from the stories either side of it. As I read the stories in the order in which they’re presented, this came to me like a palate cleansing story. How did you decide on the placement of it in the collection?

POC: It’s a disruptive story so I wanted it somewhere in the middle. I have noticed in the past that what some readers dislike about some of my stories is that the narrators are strange or nasty or both. And some readers draw back from this challenge, because they think that they’re being asked to be complicit in the thoughts and acts of the narrator. And I suppose you inevitable identify with a first-person narrator or a central character. I like this kind of tension in a story, that such demands are made. We aren’t all nice all the time and fiction gives us a way of facing this complexity. So maybe there’s some slyness in the introduction of this narrator in the book, because the things he does are so categorically, criminally terrible, and I didn’t make them up. They’re a matter of historical fact. In a way, it allowed me to declare something about my technique for those who fail to get it. And to put the other characters in the book in some kind of perspective, morally.

SG: Oh that’s interesting. I hadn’t thought of how acceptable some of the behaviour/attitudes of other characters felt after this story. Very clever placement. The body and all its functions and the desire to escape its limitations and entrapments is to the fore in this collection.

In “The Book of Love” Sol, a “scientific wonder,” a man with “an animal head”, pays women to let him pleasure them, has “delicate hands for such a short, heavy man” but “he carried his bulk gracefully”. The body echoes our problems, “like memories,” and cars “shimmered and wobbled in the heat”, the same cars that allow us to actively enter the dream state.

Can you talk about the body – human, animal, mechanical, and the body of story – and how it both serves to contain and also offers escape.

POC: That’s what Leonard Cohen asked God, and God said unto Leonard:

He said I locked you in this body

I meant it as a kind of trial

You can use it for a weapon

Or to make some woman smile

Can’t beat that.

SG: Ha! You can’t beat that, not Leonard! So, we’ll end this Writers Chat, Philip, with some short questions:

  • City or Countryside?  Alternating.
  • Sounds like the best sort of life. And to drink? Carafe of red wine or bottle of beer?  Yes, but beer before wine.
  • Specific order! Music or silence when you write, and, if music, what type?  I often kick-start the writing with a song, and then listen to the same song each time I start a new writing session. But I’ll turn off the music once I get going, there’s a point at which it’s distracting. Nearly always something lyric-heavy. For example, for Island it was Dylan’s Thunder on the Mountain.
  • Yes, I can relate to the kick-starting and returning back to that point again. So, what are you reading now? Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. One of the most important books of the 20th century. I don’t know why we weren’t given it to read at school. Instead of Shakespeare.
  • Yes to Solzhenitsyn. He’s someone I need to return to. All the Russians. What are you writing now? A story about an academic, a historian of religion, whose career goes into a tailspin when it transpires that he transpires that he’s written somewhere, in a social media discussion, of Greta Thunberg: “The kid’s retarded!”

Wow. I can see why his career is in a tailspin, he sounds like he’d fit in with some of the characters in Trouble. So, thanks, Philip for taking part and engaging with this Writers Chat session. I want to go back to Trouble and re-read it now! Wishing you much further success with the collection.

Order Trouble directly from The Stinging Fly.

Thank you to Declan Meade, The Stinging Fly and Peter O’Connell Media for the advance copy of Trouble.

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