Writers Chat 58: Liz McSkeane on “What To Put In A Suitcase” (Turas Press: Dublin, 2022)

Liz, You are very welcome to my WRITERS CHAT series. Congratulations on What To Put In A Suitcase (Turas Press: October 2022) – a thought-provoking collection of sixteen stories that explore our everyday interactions and how we form our world, and transform it, for better or worse. Let’s start with the intriguing title (and provoking cover artwork) – What To Put In A Suitcase – I took it to refer to the essentiality of life and living, the people, things that we cannot do without. Can you speak a little about the genesis of the collection and the title?

Cover of “What To Put In A Suitcase” by Liz McSkeane – colourful art work depicting a smiling face

LMcS: Thank you, Shauna, for inviting me to take part in your Writer’s Chat series and to reflect on What to Put in a Suitcase as a whole, and in relation to the themes you have identified. Concerning the genesis of the collection – these stories were gathered over a long period of time. Some were written more than a decade ago but about two thirds were written in the last few years. When stories in a collection span a long period of gestation, it’s perhaps inevitable that they will delve into different topics, expressed in different styles and genres that reflect the writer’s current preoccupations and interests. That’s how it was for Suitcase.  And I did find myself asking at a late stage, what was the best way to pull these apparently diverse elements together.

At that point, I had just written the most recent story – which also gave me the title for the whole collection.  The story What to Put in a Suitcase was inspired by very recent events but is obviously also relevant, on a literal level, to many other geo-political crises of past decades which have resulted in mass movements of populations. It seemed to me that that title provided a kind of thematic umbrella within which the other stories could be contained, whether in a literal, or thematic, sense.

As you suggest, the process of making very practical decisions about which material possessions to take with them when starting out on a journey into the unknown, will distil the people’s vision of what life could or should be about; and also, about how they may prepare themselves to cope with uncertainty. It is a question that I have sometimes asked myself.  I think that the question also works on a metaphorical level, for what is life, if not a journey into the unknown, where we have to decide along the way what to keep and what to leave behind?

SG: Very interesting that your most recent story became the title story and that of the collection, and, as you say, so relevant to current events. I loved how many of the stories involve chance encounters where one or other party has expectations that are not met, or misunderstood, or where there is the potential for change that could have a ripple effect. It’s those Sliding Doors moments that happen to us all – quiet regularly. I’m thinking here of “Samaritan”, “A Hot Coffee”, and the opening story “Regression Analysis”. In “A Hot Coffee” we are told “The only reason she is here, handing this person a Fairtrade coffee in a recyclable cup, is because he is there.” It’s this interconnectedness that you explore so well in the collection. Can you talk about that?

LMcS: I am interested in what you say about chance encounters and the conflicts, anxieties and challenges these present and I think you’re right, that these encounters may appear trivial, but can force the characters to review their way of thinking and perhaps, generate epiphanies. Although the stories you mention are very different in terms of the actual events they depict, thematically they push the protagonist out of a particular comfort zone into a space – physical, psychological, emotional – where previously unquestioned certainties, or even just habits, are thrown into doubt. This in turn causes the narrator to examine not only the situation, the other person or people with whom they are interacting, but also themselves, their own attitudes, prejudices, assumptions.

Of course, this potential for change is not always realised – rather, it may be held in abeyance or else avoided, ignored, so that the habitual comfort zone is reasserted, albeit with a level of discomfort. And sometimes we are not even sure if the character will make any change as a result of what they have experienced. I guess I have an inclination not to wrap things up in certainties and often prefer to leave the reader to interpret, infer, to reflect on the possible actions, or lack of them, that might ensue.

SG: Yes, I liked how you made the reader work, that many of the stories leave us thinking. Children feature in many of the stories and I felt you captured that sense of childhood where wonder is gradually or suddenly replaced by a sense of loss or disappointment – reality – that you sense, as the reader, will sit with them forever. In “Ambush” we see the cruelty of adults trying to protect their own and in the poignant “The Games”, Kate knows “All the lochs and fields and rocks as far as you could see belonged to Donald” and believes her sense of self and identity is like one of those rocks, until she dances, and the rhythm of the music is not what she expected. In this story, her tears come with the onset of kindness. Again it struck me that when the expectations of people – adults and children – are at odds with their situations, shifts of self and future occur. Does this tie in with your intentions when you wrote these stories?

LMcS: I didn’t have a conscious intention to depict primal disappointments met in childhood but in telling the stories that spoke to me, I agree with you that that is one of the most salient themes in some of the stories.  I think that the impulse to make sense of the world starts at a very young age and the children in these stories experience the multiplicity of meanings, which are sometimes in conflict, in a very intense way, which can be confusing.  

     I think that such confusion is almost inevitable, as the messages we receive from the external world about almost everything – how to live, what is right and wrong, even who we are – are fraught with contradiction and, as we learn as adults, sometimes deliberately manipulated to serve the needs of others. Obviously, the children in Suitcase don’t consciously frame their experience of the world in that way but the reader looking over their shoulder can sense it and observe their puzzlement at the often conflicting messages they receive.  And it is true, what they want and expect does not always correspond to external reality.  I get the feeling that navigating this inevitable discord will filter into how these children manage their lives as adults. In fairness, though, I can’t in all honesty say that I consciously set out to explore those themes when I sat down to write the stories. Rather, they were the ideas that emerged in the process. For me, that happens quite often, perhaps most often – that the primal concerns and themes become clearer – though not necessarily completely clear! – in the process of writing.

SG: And often what emerges in the writing can be the most interesting to the reader! You captured shifts in sense of self within the confines of different bodily spaces, and examined the chasm between internal and external selves/voices against the backdrop of gender and space particularly well in “Underground”, and “Lebenstraum” where second person narrative works brilliantly:

“Powerful forces are ranged against you. Many are arising from within: from your currently dormant best self…a distant second, good manners…and from without: the tyranny of these people in their group…”

Do you think – within the realm of these stories – that our perceptions of self have shifted with the restrictions on movement over the last few years?

LMcS: I think that they have been heightened, to a significant degree and that sometimes, a sense of urgency emerges that might have not been there before to the same extent. Before the pandemic, the character in Lebensraum would not have minded sharing a table with other people in a café. It’s the crisis that produces her outrage at the invasion of her personal space.

     I found this scenario interesting, because I think it puts the spotlight on a dynamic which existed long before the pandemic and perhaps, has always existed:  a constant negotiation, a jostling, between the self and the boundaries with other selves.  What the restrictions did, I think, was to highlight the importance of a newly scarce commodity – space – and show how this plays out in interactions with others. And in this case, as often happens, some people decide to take all of this scarce resource for themselves, or at least try to, convinced of their own entitlement by spurious justifications. This, in turn, confronts the protagonist with the question of how to  defend her space or whether she should, and even, whether she has the right to do so.  

       Although this is obviously a ‘pandemic story’ I think I could have written a very similar encounter outside the context of the pandemic, as these struggles for resources – be that space or any other valued commodity – were not created by the circumstances following the lock-downs, but were highlighted by them. That is why I called this story Lebensraum, which as you know, was one concept that underpinned the Nazis’ rationale for annexing European territory, invading other people’s countries. Tragically, we see this being repeated today in Putin’s Russa.  Competition for resources, both tangible and intangible, has always fuelled the dynamic of interaction, on a personal, societal and also, a global level. It is a struggle which this story shows being played out in impulses within the individual human heart.

     Aggressive colonisation, invasion, the story concludes,  has to be resisted, starting with how this person conducts her personal interactions. Is she going to give up her spot to keep the peace? Or should she dig her heels in and refuse to be pushed out. And if the latter,  where does this leave tolerance, compassion, simple kindness? There is a time to yield, to be kind – and a time to resist. The challenge is, knowing which is which. It’s not an easy question to answer.

SG: I think you caught the tension of that question, Liz, so well. Interestingly, the placement of “Atlanta” and “Venice” side-by-side in the collection gave a wonderful continuity to the themes of the failing body and illness, located/dislocated in place and between people. In “Venice” a friend’s embrace fills the narrator

“with yearning and overwhelmed her with loneliness and longing, not for him, but for the desire to want him and everything that being with him would bring.”

I thought the title story “What To Put In A Suitcase” tied these themes together, creating an almost filling up then emptying out of a life, and its meaning – including our relationship to time. What interested you about exploring these themes in this way?

LMcS: I think that some of the stories do explore the notion that the awareness of loss is an inevitable part of living. To arrive at an acceptance of that truth is a different, more complex journey and I am not sure that most of the characters in these stories – with the exception of the final story, Leopold’s Violin – have accomplished that yet. Perhaps they are just embarking on that journey. At least two of the characters in Suitcase are confronted with a heightened sense of mortality, their own or other people’s, which for them is a kind of rite of passage, a point beyond which things are never the same. It is an  awareness does call into question their relationships with others, their aspirations, what to keep, what to change, what to leave behind. Like packing a suitcase!  One response would be to throw in the towel, retreat to a kind of apathy that refuses to decide, as nothing matters anyway.  And yet, these characters respond to loss by giving up but rather, by re-making. We may not know what they are going to do, but I think there is a sense that they will do something, make some significant change that will integrate their life experiences into how they live their lives into the future.

     Once again, I have to confess that I didn’t consciously set out to explore these themes. Rather, they emerged within the stories I found that I wanted to tell.  Perhaps it takes some time and distance – and an attentive reader! – to process them in a systematic way.

SG: Or perhaps, readers bring their own systems and patterns to what we read! To finish up, Liz, some fun questions:

  • Tea or Coffee?  Tricky one. Tea at home, coffee when out. I used to drink gallons of coffee, especially while I was writing, and eventually decided to cut down. So I only very occasionally have a coffee at home, but when I do, I go to a bit of trouble – I have one of those old-fashioned Bialetti percolators that takes forever.
  • Mountains or Sea? Definitely the sea. I have often thought I would like to live in Madrid again for a while (I lived there when I was a student) but I know I would miss being close to the sea if I was there for any length of time.
  • Trad or Disco? Neither. For me, it’s tango all the way. An addiction.
  • Music or quiet when writing? I can’t write when there is music on as I find my attention being pulled towards the melody, but I can filter out most other noises. Except the angle grinder. There’s a construction site nearby at the moment and as soon as the angle grinder is switched on, I grab my laptop and head for a local café.
  • I would defy anyone to create with an angle grinder switched on! What’s next on your reading pile? At the moment I am reading the final volume of Knausgaard’s My Struggle and when I finish that, I have Maggie O’Farrell’s The Marriage Portrait to look forward to; then a book I know nothing about – always exciting – which I got as a present, The Italian by Shukri Mabkhout; then the new George Saunders short story collection Liberation Day. So many books, so little time!

Thank you, Liz, for engaging with my probing questions. I wish you every deserved success with this collection of stories.

Author Liz McSkeane in the Irish Writers Centre at the launch of What To Put In A Suitcase (Photograph courtesy of Liz McSkeane)

Purchase What To Put In A Suitcase

With thanks to Turas Press for the advance copy of What To Put In A Suitcase

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