Helen, You are very welcome to my WRITERS CHAT series. Many congratulations on the publication of your first novel The Heart Stone (Millbrook Press: Kildare, 2019). You write both short and long fiction and have won a number of prizes for your work, the most recent being the Michael Mullan Short Story prize – many congratulations!
Let’s first start with the geneses of The Heart Stone – your dual identity as writer and counsellor. Could you speak a little about how these professions fed off each other as you wrote the novel?
The Heart Stone grew not out of my desire to write a novel but out of my need to tell a story. Over the years, in my work as a teacher and therapist, I have met many children like Danielle and her classmates. I have long been concerned about the quiet child in the classroom; the child who may have suffered trauma or loss; the child who is anxious or sad but who is unnoticed because there may be other needy children in the room more actively seeking attention, and the child, who, like Danielle, slips by until her feelings become unbearable. I hope this book will be of help to teachers in understanding the process of therapy with grieving children, to therapists in understanding the dynamics of a busy classroom, and most importantly to children and teenagers in learning that they are not alone.
I think your need to tell a story about a quiet child is a wonderful way into writing The Heart Stone and it is a novel which is accessible for adults and younger readers. You’ve also given a beautiful, moving story a fitting title. Did the title come during writing the novel, before or after? And if there were other possible titles, what were they?
The title The Heart Stone came to me as I was writing the book. Many children who find it difficult to verbalise their feelings can work very well with art materials, therapeutic stories, play therapy, drama and music. Putting myself in Mollie’s shoes, I asked what materials I as a therapist would offer her and what would she be likely to choose. Some children like working with clay, shaping it to see what emerges rather than setting out to make something in particular (a bit like the writing process!). It seemed natural and maybe expected, that for Danielle a heart would emerge, but her feelings are more complex than that, so she goes on to use the heart to express what she needs to express. It also tied in nicely with a happy memory she had shared with her Daddy, so it seemed a fitting title.
The split structure of The Heart Stone enables the narrative to be revealed in short chapters. Did you find that your experience in short story writing fed into writing your novel or is it the other way around?
Yes, it certainly was my experience in short story writing that fed into the novel. The Heart Stone grew out of a short story about a child’s experience of grief – not actually a story about Danielle, but about her classmate Dylan, a much more out- there, attention seeking character. This led to me thinking about grief in the silent child in the classroom and how that might be explored. As I began to write, the novel came to me scene by scene, in no particular order. It was almost completely character driven. As I got to know Danielle, I began to explore how she might react in different situations so gradually a narrative thread emerged.
Danielle is a feisty, strong and yet very vulnerable young girl with whom readers can identify with on an emotional and nurturing level. Can you tell us a little bit about how her character is the driver behind some of the difficult themes – such as depression and suicide – that you skillfully tackle in The Heart Stone?
Danielle is vulnerable, but she is also strong. She lives in a world where depression, drug taking, jail sentences, poverty and disadvantage are the norm. Young though she is, she may have already encountered suicide in her community. She and her friends are tough because they have to be. In some ways Ms. Phillips, Mr. Power and Mollie are part of another world – softer and less harsh, because that has been their lived experience. Yet Danielle and her friends survive, kept going by the love of the adults in their world but also by each other, as each child, at some level, recognises the struggle in the other. She is feisty and strong, and it may be necessary for her to become even more so. Although the book has a happy ending, the story must remain real. And in the real world, Danielle and Lisa and the others will inevitably face many more challenges. Resilience is a buzz word at the moment, but I have to say I admire children and adults like these because they are resilient without even knowing the term. They don’t have to be taught it – they embody it.
You are so right, Helen, I love how you express Danielle’s strength – that she doesn’t have to be taught resilience, she embodies it. While The Heart Stone is about grief and truth on one level it is also filled with humour and is, I feel, really about what it means to be human and perhaps delivers an important message about being kind. Did these sentiments emerge for you as you were writing or after you’d written the novel?
What I would like to say about this, is that it has been a privilege for me to work with children like Danielle, her classmates, her parents and her teachers – people often dealing with the most unimaginable circumstances. For some, like Danielle’s Daddy, it all becomes too much and they just can’t cope. But for the most part, they just get on with it, and fun and humour, and joy and laughter are a huge part of it. I enjoyed imagining what they might say or do in certain situations. The character of Nicola becomes an important one in lightening the mood, as does Dylan with his classroom antics. It was important for me too, that Danielle’s mam Lisa, not only survives but thrives, as transformation following adversity is possible too. As teachers and therapists, we are often told that one kind person or perhaps an act of kindness remembered, can make a difference to a child’s later life and I know that in schools up and down the country there are many people; teachers, principals, classroom assistants and other members of the school community who strive on a daily basis to be that one person who makes the difference.
I think you’ve touched on something very important here – how kindness can be the greatest gift and difference. Can you speak a little about your experience of the publishing process – from idea to draft to manuscript to editing and finally to launching and selling The Heart Stone?
This is, by choice, a self-published book, because I wanted to do the project that felt right for me. I did not initially set out to publish it but when the project was complete, I strongly felt that if it could help one child, one parent, teacher or therapist then it was worth putting it out there. I have had very many positive responses including from adults who have themselves lost a parent in childhood, and who found the book of benefit in terms of understanding their own experience of loss and grief. The editing process was interesting, I had to lose some parts that were dear to my heart, but which didn’t really contribute to the overall project.
The self-publishing process was made surprisingly easy by the staff at Millbrook Press and although a steep learning curve for me, I thoroughly enjoyed it. The launch was of course daunting, but I surrounded myself with family and friends and through the whole publishing process I read and re-read Julia Cameron’s Walking in the World, constantly reminding myself, “A book deadline in not a NASA launch. A concert date is not a countdown for nuclear testing.”
Lastly, Helen, some fun questions:
Mountains or sea? Sea.
Tea or coffee? Coffee.
What’s on your Santa list?The Faber and Faber Poetry Diary 2020. I use it every year to record what I am currently reading, writing, studying and events I attend which feed my creativity.
What are you working on now? After I finished The Heart Stone, I subconsciously distanced myself from Danielle’s world by writing a short memoir of a time I had spent living abroad. Some short stories arose out of that, but I am now back in there and working on a collection of stories featuring some of the more minor characters in the novel.
What are you reading right now?Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout.
Some lovely suggestions for books and the Faber and Faber diary. Thank you, Helen, for being so open and honest about your motives and experience in writing your novel. It has already found its way into the hearts of many and I wish you much continued success with The Heart Stone.
Thank you to Christian Gullette for accepting our interview for publication. Issue 83 has the most fantastic artwork on its cover (German Garden (Weather Report) 2019, oil on canvas by Wayne Koestenbaum), and features a myriad of poetry including Cynthia Atkins and Alison Hicks, as well as work in translation. Read the Editor’s Note here.
In our interview, Ruth and I talk about process, the subconscious, art and poetry – all in relation to her latest collection Word Has It. Ruth was very open and forthcoming in her answers to my questions which were often prompted by my emotional reaction to her powerful work.
James, You’re very welcome back to my Writers Chat series. The last time we chatted, in 2012, we focused on Blood a Cold Blue a collection of short fiction. This time we’re chatting about your wonderful debut novel The Heart Crossways where you bring us into an Ireland that’s hardly recognisable today.
So, let’s start with language. As a tool it is very much part of the narrative of the The Heart Crossways. Take the wonderful opening section:
“On rainy days the time passes slowly. Trance-like, I tongue my bedroom window and lick the condensation from the glass. My nose smushes against the cold pane. The seagulls glower below, on the roof of the coal shed…”
How much of these wonderful verbs came to you on the first few drafts or was it when you edited the novel that they emerged? I am thinking of what Sheenagh Pugh once said – that great writing is in the editing.
JC: So, interestingly enough, Thrice Fiction Magazine published three short pieces in their March, 2012 issue, and one of those pieces was “Dublin On a Wet Day,” which was remarkably close to the opening beat of the novel. Over multiple drafts the frame of the book shifted considerably, and in several drafts the opening pages were completely different and set at a far different time in Patrick’s life. The image came to me in a memory of my childhood in Rathgar, and how on rainy days my brothers and I would stand at the windows, noses pressed against the glass, cursing the weather that forced us indoors. I went over and over different variations of that opening, changing tense, point of view, at least three to four times, and ended up with a first person narrator that finally seemed to work.
SG: It really is an arresting opening. I love that throughout the novel the power of books comes through. From the old blue ledger the Old Man uses to record transgressions and the books (from Mark Twain to Tennyson) our hero, Patrick, reads to escape. Was this one of those hidden symbols that emerged when you’d finished writing the book?
JC: Yes, I think the books as symbolism emerged through the drafting process, and the ledger idea came to me from an actual ledger from my father’s business, filled with the incoming and outgoing monies for quite a few years, in fact. In several places in the ledger are crude drawings we did of dinosaurs and lions when we were probably bored on rainy days! Further, I wanted to seed Patrick’s world in the literature and drama of the time, the importance that books played in young children’s lives, long before iPhones and Fortnite. I grew up in a house filled with books, drama, literature, and as kids my brothers and I would sprawl in front of the coal fire reading comics, books, and newspaper cartoons, composting that love of books and all things literary.
SG: What beautiful memories, James. The Heart Crossways is set in an era (mid-seventies) when appearances – that you are perceived as good in the eyes of the neighbours and the church – still count for everything. As the Mam says, “All you have in this life is your good name.” Patrick – not unlike Stephen in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a young man – negotiates appearances and tracks his way through his father’s alcoholism, his mother’s worries and lusting after both Cathy and Mrs Prendergast by using humour. “Seducing Mrs. Prendergast is the mission I have accepted and in silence I try to plan how this will happen. Maybe she will wear a velvet cloak and come running to me like Maria in The Sound of Music?” Patrick is both teenage and reflective in his self-analysis. Can you talk about the development of Patrick’s character?
JC: Patrick began in those early stories as a lonely boy with time on his hands and parents too consumed with keeping hearth and home together to pay him much attention. I suppose there’s a part of him that’s living in his own head, thinking and overthinking life, and there’s a part of him that’s a small boy, desperate for his parents’, particularly his father’s attention. As the book unfolds, he moves from a more simplistic worldview, to one more complex, where he gains some understanding of the complicated nature of life in a Catholic and repressed Ireland. His use of humor as a compass to guide him through the fog of his life is, in my opinion, particularly Irish, in that we use humor to decode, to defuse, and to deflect the missiles life fires at us. And the sex. As a child of the seventies, Patrick is mired in the repression of the time, cosseted by his parents, stifled by the overshadowing Catholic hierarchy that divided the schools into same sex institutions where sex was what Kavanagh called the “wink-and-elbow language of delight.”
SG: A great phrase from Kavanagh! Yes, it is a particularly Irish trait, the use of humour. Continuing with this – there are many laugh-out-loud incidents, for example, when De Valera (the aptly named three-legged greyhound that serves as a pet) chews on the Old Man’s false teeth, or when Patrick gets a bowl cut when the Old Man thinks the barber didn’t take enough off – are any of these taken from real life situations?
JC: Well, we never had a three-legged dog, but some years ago I was in Solvang, near Santa Barbara, for breakfast and there was a American Greyhound Society event taking place in the town. One of the greyhounds was three-legged, and that stuck with me as something that might become part of a story one day. As for haircuts, most of us growing up in Dublin have had our run-ins with the local barber, and mine was with Mr. Roche, whose son was in my class in primary school. We’d tramp up to Terenure Village and enter the barber shop with its red-and-white striped pole, wait for “Skinner” Roche to cut us to shreds, and appear at school the next day to bear the brunt of the insults. Eventually, my mother started taking us to the Peter Mark Salon, a more contemporary place to get one’s “hair did,” than at the “Skinner’s.” My dad always threatened us with the scissors and bowl if we didn’t behave, and my oldest brother grew a ponytail and drew the ire of our Old Man on many occasions.
SG: Oh I remember Peter Mark Salon – still going – it was the height of sophistication! One of the themes I picked up on was that of emigration, and with it, the importance of place – of leaving and returning – creating and re-creating new identities with each new ‘start’. Although the Old Man is a difficult character in every sense of the word, and plays the role of too-little-too-late father (or, as Patrick puts it “a one-man wrecking ball”), I can’t help but think that working on the oil rigs (if that is where he goes to – there is a sense, connected to his drinking, that he frequently disappears) can’t have been easy for him. This must do with economics; the Brogan’s aren’t well-off but they have food on the table and go on holidays. Can you comment on this theme and what it might mean to you, an emigrant yourself?
JC: The Old Man spends three weeks away working the oil rigs in the North Sea at a time, and the work is gruelling and tremendously hard on his body. Patrick’s dad, of course, isn’t used to graft and his body shuts down over time, leading to physical issues that emerge in the latter stages of the novel. Everything the Brogans experience in their lives, scrimping and saving, getting groceries on credit at the local store, are moments from my own childhood. We didn’t have much in terms of financial wherewithal, but we had food, shelter, clothing and warmth, those critical components of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Money for the Brogans is tight, and Patrick’s mother is adept at stretching the pounds, shillings, and pence to make their home as comfortable as possible. For me, as both an immigrant and a child who grew up with not enough money to go around, the theme of economics rings loud, knowing how in my early years in America, I worked a bunch of retail jobs, barely getting by, and only really found my feet financially when I graduated from university and became a high school teacher. Even now, decades later, my greatest fear is running out of money, and I go into a panic mode if our bank account ever gets too close to the bone. I feel my parents’ desperation in those moments and return to those fraught childhood days, until I remind myself I am not my parents and I can make different decisions than they may have.
SG: While religion snakes through the story I found that the sense of loss overtook it. While Patrick imagines “God as a bitter, angry one who takes delight as he metes out punishment to ordinary sinners” he also prays for his own sorrow and torments to end- his relationship with his father. Not wanting to give any of the plot away, the ending of The Heart Crossways was fitting and poignant.
JC: The Church looms large in the story, and the strict Catholic childhood I grew up in shaped me in many ways. I walked away from the whole Mass on Sunday world and found my own way of navigating faith and belief over the years. Today, I identify as a Unitarian Universalist, cleaving to the ideas of Jefferson, Emerson and the Transcendentalists. There’s a freedom, a breath of relief when I’m at a service, with no sense of guilt or shame. As for loss, it defines my life. My father lived his life grieving for the business he lost in the 1960s, never letting it go. He reached his dying day filled with regret, loss and anger towards those he perceived did wrong by him. Being Irish, for me at least, means embracing loss, finding comfort in that feeling, knowing that one cannot be happy every day of one’s life, and that loss is as big a part of life as love, or happiness. Emotions are our weather patterns and there’s a beauty to all seasons, even those that bring devastation to our door. I know this too well, having lived through recent wildfires and debris flows in the area I’ve settled in Southern California.
SG: That’s very poetic – embracing loss. Finally, James, a little on the character of the mother and the Bird. There’s something familiar in both of these and it was lovely to return to them after meeting them briefly in your short stories. Could you talk a little about how characters can re-appear in our writing in different guises, under different circumstances and across genre?
JC: The Bird is a character I brought to life from early flash fictions I wrote about growing up in Ireland. He was a real person, a customer in my father’s pub in Moate, Co. Westmeath. The reappearance of the Bird is timely, after a project I did with Matt Potter of “Pure Slush,”—A Year in Stories. I wrote twelve stories revolving around the Bird, and one of my favorite ones appeared in Causeway/Cabhsair a few years back. In January I returned to the rich vein of material the Bird springs from, and am working on a project where I write a page a day about his life. He never was my mother’s beau, but I remember her commiserating with my father one morning as he read the obituaries in the “Irish Independent,” and announced, “The Bird is dead. The poor auld hoor.” I love how characters ebb and flow in our work, receding for years at a time, only for a re-emergence years later as the tidal patterns of our creativity shift.
SG: I think you’ve just captured the real essence of creativity – the flow and ebb of characters in tandem with our own tidal patterns of creativity. So, to finish up, James, let’s have some fun questions:
Kindle or paperback? Paperback
Novel or short story? Novel
Short story or flash? Flash
What’s the last sentence you read? “An aliveness that lit up the world,” Michelle Elvy’s The Everrumble.
Great sentence! What’s the last sentence you wrote? “Oh, poor man. The center of his universe hollowed out and collapsed.”
Another great sentence! The best jam in the world? Our family’s business is Red Hen Cannery, and we make the most delicious Boysenberry Jam.
Thanks, James for an engaging chat. The Heart Crossways can be purchased direct from the publisher or on amazon. Connect with James on his website.
Below is our chat from January 2012.
WRITERS CHAT – JANUARY 2012 – ON “BLOOD A COLD BLUE”
Welcome to James Claffey, originally from County Westmeath but now living in Carpinteria, CA, USA with his wife, writer and artist Maureen Foley. James is a prolific writer and his most recent full-length publication is Blood a Cold Blue, a collection of short fiction.
James, tell me about the title and cover of your collection Blood a Cold Blue. Was the title one you had in mind or one that emerged once you had the collection completed and formed? Tell me also about the photograph on the collection, I know you had trouble tracking down the photographer for permissions but was that image of a bird in snow with a crumb an image that you had in mind?
Yes, I submitted the collection to several places and it was always titled Blood a Cold Blue. I chose the title from a line in one of the stories that also bore the same name (I’ve got this habit of titling my stories with fragments from the text). As for the photograph, the publisher, Press 53, sent a couple of early cover suggestions that I didn’t like at all, and then they sent the bird photograph and I loved it straight away. It turned out to have been taken by an Icelandic photographer and he was unresponsive to the publisher’s attempts to contact him. We waited a week or two and there was no word so Kevin at Press 53 said we might want to look at other options including a new title completely, so I went on the hunt for the photographer. All the usual social media avenues were fruitless and on the verge of giving in, I did a last Google search and found an old LiveJournal blog he’d had years ago. It had an Icelandic email address and I sent a message asking him to contact Press 53 about the image and the next day he got in touch with Kevin and agreed to let us use the photograph.
Great to hear it all worked out! You’ve stated that “Skull of a Sheep” is your favourite story in the collection. Can you expand on the idea of having a favourite story?
“Skull of a Sheep” is a fictionalized version of a family vacation in Mayo when I was a kid, and the unpunctuated stream-of-consciousness mirrors the breathlessness of the drive down the country and back again, I found the story stirred my sense of hiraeth, that Welsh word that suggests nostalgia for home, but with some sense of longing for those departed. My father passed away in 2000 and the piece was written right before my mentor and friend, Jeanne Leiby, died in a car crash in Louisiana, so there’s a sense of this story having more weight because of these events. Also, the piece ran in the New Orleans Review, and that is a publication that means a great deal to me, having spent three years in the South, learning the ropes of what being a writer means.
There’s a great sense of compassion, compression and a long breath of emotion in that piece. You capture so much in it – all that lies beneath the landscape and landmarks.
I’d like to hear about how you get into character. Do you have a favourite character in the collection? If not, why not, if so, whom?
I do. The Bird, a character in a couple of stories I’ve written, is close to home for me. My father, if I recall correctly, who used to run a pub/grocery in the Midlands, had a customer who was called by the same name, The Bird, so I found myself putting myself in this man’s head and imagining what it would have been like to wander the streets and fields of my old hometown. I’m currently working on a year of stories for Pure Slush, an Australian publication edited by Matt Potter, with this same character. I find great latitude in taking on the task of creating a life from so few details.
That’s interesting to hear, James, as The Bird is one of the characters that stood out for me. Now tell me about settings. You have some wonderful ones that seep through via the use of names, the turn of phrase (for example “Fragments of the Bird”), from the absurd to the very real and named (for example “Fryday, June 17th, in the year 1681” or “Hurried Departure”). Do the settings come first, or come to you as you write? Or are they sometimes somewhat peripheral?
Thank you. Place is incredibly important to me, and I tend to write with almost reverence about certain locations—New Mexico, Ireland, Louisiana, California. “Fryday, June 17th…” came out of an old print of an Elephant’s skeleton and the story of its death, and I reimagined the actual events of the disaster, which actually took place in Dublin back in the 15th Century. As for “Hurried Departure,” it’s almost a fantastical world slightly based on the area surrounding our house in the avocado trees. Detail, even as liminal as the light over a stand of trees, is terrifically important to give a piece of writing an anchor in the world and as I’ve gotten less naïve as a writer, I find myself noticing the small details of objects and places much more than before.
I think, for me, anyhow, that’s what is so great about this collection. The myriad of different experiences in different settings that you (re)imagine/capture.
On writing, if you’re willing to reveal, what are you working on now?
Well, the year in stories project at Pure Slush, for one. Also, I’m working on an untitled novel with Thrice Publishing, and that’s about a small boy growing up in Dublin with a father who works away on the oil rigs in the North Sea and a mother who struggles at home to raise her son and deal with her own aging mother who lives with them. I’ve also got a novella project I’m collaborating on with another wonderful writer, and I’m very excited about that opportunity. On top of all that I’ve returned to teaching high school English, so I’m having to really be creative in terms of finding time to write, what with my wife and two kids to devote time to, and a dog that needs walking!
That’s a pretty full and creative life! Finally, James, what three books are on your bedside table and what three books are on your ‘to read’ list.
Varieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis, Bound in Blue,by Meg Tuite, and Gears by Alex Pruteanu, are on my bedside table, and to read are The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, Transatlantic by Colm Toibin, and A Place to Stand by Jimmy Santiago Baca (a re-read).
Thanks, James, for such insightful and fascinating answers.You can find out more about James and his writing on his website and blog: www.jamesclaffey.com
Andrew, You are very welcome to my WRITERS CHAT series. Congratulations on your latest publication, a linked short story collection Sunsphere (BlazeVOX [books]: New York, 2019). A previous collection of fictions, Self-Titled Debut, won the Subito Press Prose Contest in 2009 and a novel The Big Red Herring is due in October.
SG: Let’s start with the cover image, which, I think captures much of what Sunsphere is about: people orbiting each other, people trapped with each other, people seemingly identical but inside so very individual. It strikes me that this book also speaks to the politics of our times –whereby we are part of this increasingly homogenised society and culture and yet we often fail to identify on a national level.
AF: It seems to me that people are constantly looking for that one thing they can use to define themselves, and they want this definition to be both inclusive (so they can have someone in their corner) and exclusive (so they can point at the people who don’t belong). The problem is, we either pick ideas we’re unsuited for (like Herbert in “White Dwarf Blues” who very obviously doesn’t mesh with the drug addicts he’s hanging out with), or we’re unwilling to move on when the old ideas don’t work anymore (Trevor and Kat refusing to breakup in “Do Kids in California Dream of North Carolina?” for instance). In both cases, we cling desperately to whatever it is that defines us, even once it becomes the nightmare version of itself. I think that’s what you’re talking about with the increasingly homogenized society. We want to be able to say, “This is what it means to be an American,” when really any country is just an arbitrary set of borders on landmasses composed of people who likely ended up there by chance. When we’re willing to move on, we can tap into our individuality, but that can be as dangerous as stagnation. Yang Wie-Te in “The City of the Sunsphere,” for instance, goes off on his own, but that almost kills him. Why? Because when you remove yourself from all of the accepted groups, even the smaller groups in society, you risk being ignored by everyone. So, we’re forever on our irregular, ellipsoid orbits, but we tell everyone they’re actually perfect circles. And they agree because their irregular, ellipsoid orbits are perfect circles too.
SG: Yes, I think that we do, as you put it, “cling desperately to whatever it is that defines us” especially in these polarised times. At the core of much of your work is, as stated on the back cover blurb, “a search for humanity”. Could you talk a little about this search in relation to your writing process for Much of the collection was published in journals including “Everything Under The Sunsphere” which was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and I’m wondering about the order in which each story is placed and how that evolved.
AF: Honestly, the search for humanity wasn’t the conscious part of the book. Instead, I’d say Sunsphere is an argument for how humanistic science, including quantum physics, is. After all, my goal was to write a collection of stories focused on the concept of energy because that was the theme of the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville (the Sunsphere being the symbol of that fair). I also wanted to focus on entropy in the stories because World’s Fair Park was in shambles when I lived in Tennessee, and I thought it was interesting that the exposition based on energy had reached its entropic state. And so the collection came together via different forms of energy or concepts connected to energy (“The Physics of the Bottomless Pit” being kinetic energy, “Do Kids in California” being potential energy, “Everything Under the Sunsphere” being heat energy, “I Don’t Know Why” being entropy, etc.). It wasn’t until I was done writing the stories that I realized the material had taken me on a search for humanity, I think because science is our way to help us understand the universe which includes ourselves.
As for the order the stories appear in, it’s changed over the years (since the book wasn’t published until about decade after I thought of it as done). But “Do Kids in California” was always first because it’s the potential energy story and because it introduces us to the Sunsphere. That was also the only story I didn’t have the idea for prior to beginning the book. I had this big poster with all of the titles lined up next to the type of energy the story represented, except for potential energy… Much as “California” was always first, “I Don’t Know Why” was always the penultimate story, since the first narrator in the piece references the fact that it’s second to last in the collection. “You Are Where I Am Not” doesn’t have the Sunsphere in it because I wrote it after I thought I was done with the Sunsphere stories, but then realized it’d make a good final stasis piece. The other stories were organized for rhythm, keeping “Bottomless Pit” for the center, instead of putting such a long piece at the beginning.
SG: Hmm that’s an interesting intention – to explore how humanistic science is. Again I think it brings us back to polarisation – the arts/feelings and sciences/logic, them and us, the othering of everything. At the same time place – and the concreteness of it – is central to this book – the city, the land and, at the heart, structures that symbolise achievements, and celebrate understanding of the larger questions of life and our world. As the narrator says in Everything Under The Sunsphere:
“There is sun-poisoning. Heat sickness. Heat delirium. The inflamed, demented, diseased city runs wild. Careens down streets whose names change so often they have no names at all.”
There’s an interesting thread here – if I have picked up on it correctly – that speaks about the deep divide in American history the remains revealed in stereotyping, place and food names, and in a place where everyone has air conditioning except for the narrator. At the end of this story, the narrator realises that he – and everyone – is “able to look past the city of Knoxville…look past all of it…to see the place where the roads run logically and the streets’ names never change.” Could you speak a little about the connection between place and history?
AF: I don’t know if it’s there anymore, but when I lived in Knoxville in the early 2000s, there was this giant advertisement for Philco televisions on a brick wall downtown. To my knowledge, Philco televisions went bust in the ’60s or ’70s. Since I was born in 1978, I don’t know that I ever watched a Philco TV. And yet here’s this huge sign asking you to buy something you couldn’t buy with all the money in the world. Oh, sure, you could pick one up at a junk store or an antique store, but the ad didn’t say, “Buy a beat to hell television,” or, “Get yourself some old timey technology.” No, the sign was talking about new TVs. Seeing history imbedded in place like this connects us to the past, but also forces us to deal with change (since this too shall pass). Because I was willing to confront history, being confused by a TV brand I’d never heard of before, I researched Philco and learned about the Predicta, which I later used in The Big Red Herring. In other words, by paying attention to the history found in place, I discovered something new to think about (even though it was actually something old). More often than not, though, people will look through the Philco sign, or ignore it because it doesn’t immediately make sense (either because they don’t know what it is, or because they know its time has come and gone). Gene is like this in “Everything Under the Sunsphere.” So, the old Sunsphere is falling apart, while the brand new Sterchi building, which has air conditioning, is his respite from the Southern heat. But Gene wants everything to make sense, so he’d like Knoxville to be completely rebuilt, to be completely stripped of difficult history. It’s no surprise, then, that the arsonists use names they stole from a 19th century graveyard, since they represent the chaos that scares the hell out of Gene. And it’s no surprise that Gene imagines a rebuilt Knoxville “where the roads run logically, and the streets’ names never change.” He certainly thinks of that city as perfect because it remains the same forever. A pretty dream, but it’s impossible, and shows an abject terror of the difficult knowledge of the past and the change inherent in the future. But won’t the change in the future eliminate every vestige of the past? Obviously not, since in 2002 there was still an advertisement for brand new Philco TVs right in downtown Knoxville.
SG: Oh that’s an interesting interpretation of place and history. I was actually thinking of civil war politics, race, and gender but you make link how things are placed around us to how we identify in time and history through objects, what we own and how we project those identities to the world. Following on from this, your characters often speak at each other rather than to each other in a world that is so fast moving that, it appears, we don’t notice when we grow or change, and don’t often realise when the landscape around us has become eroded. In the very amusing “The Physics of the Bottomless Pit” rumours, conspiracy theories, stories and tales abound including advice on “what to do in case”. The story also has a section which calls out for you, the author, exclaiming “If anyone can hear me, please let him know….”. Can you comment on how this collection speaks to the busyness and depersonalisation of our society?
AF: “The Physics of the Bottomless Pit” and “I Don’t Know Why” are perhaps the two stories that speak to the busyness and depersonalization in our society the most. In both stories, the characters really never stop to think about what’s going on. Instead, they either ignore what’s going on so they can grind through their endless, inconsequential tasks, or they produce great amounts of irrelevant material on either the bottomless pit (that “what to do in case” you referenced, for instance) or the KnoxVillain threat, respectively. Occasionally, characters figure out what they need to do is less, not more, but nobody is willing to interrupt their busy schedules to listen to them. In the meantime, there are characters who break down and try to reach out, but since their questions don’t make sense, or are scary because they don’t have easily prescribed answers, no one really listens. I portray this in “Bottomless Pit” by using disembodied conversations between characters who never quite understand each other. “I Don’t Know Why,” on the other hand, has stereo speakers spread throughout the entire city of Knoxville that constantly broadcast static so no one can hear what anyone else is saying. The white noise doesn’t stop anyone from talking, though; it just ensures no communication will take place. Only simple commands can be comprehended, but with no context the simple commands end up leading to absurd ends.
SG: For me you’ve touched on our shrinking attention span here, there’s so much communication – and so many ways in which to communicate – that we often end up saying nothing. Reading this collection more than once I thought of literary critics and writers such as Roland Barthes and Jacques Lacan … and of course you quote Samuel Beckett at the start of “I Don’t Know Why.” Does this collection play as much with form and content as the role of reader and writer?
AF: When Ilana Masad interviewed me for The Other Stories podcast, she was really surprised that Sunsphere is a mixed collection, meaning it has stories of various genres and styles. So, I’m absolutely playing with form and content. But how do I play with form and content? I rarely sit down and say something like, “I want to write a science fiction story.” Instead, I have an idea or ideas, say that people erupt into destructive shock waves when they die and the Sunsphere, inexplicably, was turned into a miniature pulsar. I then ask what kind of story should I write using these ideas. After I asked that question, I began imagining the pulsar slowed way down, almost like a rotating spotlight that briefly illuminates different parts of Knoxville. In film, perhaps you’d use slow motion. In print, I decided extremely detailed descriptions of each part of the city would be best. That then reminded me of the way Alain Robbe-Grillet describes the banana plantation in Jealousy (1957) and the grounds of the resort in Last Year at Marienbad (1961), so reserved and meticulous.
Consequently, I ended up with a Robbe-Grillet inspired science fiction story. On the other hand, “White Dwarf Blues” turned out to be a parody of what I call drug noir stories because I imagined the super deadpan, super depressing works by Hubert Selby, Jr. or Bret Easton Ellis and wondered what it’d be like if a character was really, really happy to be in one of those stories. Herbert, the happy character, keeps trying to act all burned out, but he can’t do it because he’s so excited. Now, in the collection as a whole, I did require that all (except one) of the stories had to have some version of the Sunsphere and that all of the stories had to use concepts connected to energy, but otherwise the form came from the content of each piece. Meaning the stories in Sunsphere have thematic connections, but no stylistic or generic restrictions. That’s how I ended up with a mixed collection.
SG: So, does your work as a professor in a university speak to your work as a writer? And do you believe that all writing is creative (academic and otherwise).
Much as I write metafiction, I would say I’m a meta-teacher, meaning I not only ask my students discussion questions, I then tell them why I’m asking those questions. It always drove me nuts when I was a student and a prof would take a particular position, but wouldn’t say why they were taking that position. Furthermore, I’m lucky enough to run creative writing workshops (which have always been my favourite classes). These workshops keep me asking what is this piece doing, how is it doing it, why is it doing it, and how well does it work, so I then ask myself those questions when I’m editing my own writing. Not to mention the fact that my students keep me updated (either purposely or otherwise) on what is going on in the world. For instance, I’ve taught classes where a great many students were all writing, say, fantasy, and so I end up getting familiar with what is going on in fantasy now through their writing and influences, and then by the research I do in order to help them.
And, yes, I do believe that all writing is creative. I wish we saw it that way more. Instead, we tend to approach critical papers like math problems and try to grade them accordingly. Much as there are many theorems in geometry, we try to load the students down with as many rules of writing as possible (including heaps of rules that aren’t actually rules of writing at all, but more like pet peeves a particular teacher might have). Consequently, when the students roll into my classroom, they’re terrified to write because they’re positive whatever they say will be wrong (grammar mistakes often being the greatest fear my students have). It’s then my job to get them to accept that good writing doesn’t come about in one draft. Hell, the first draft, you shouldn’t think about any rules at all, you should just get ideas down on paper. And, yes, as you move forward, there are more guidelines to follow, but they get easier to follow once you know what you’re going to say, how you’re going to structure it, and on and on. Although it often takes a while for them to believe me, they do usually come to understand that writing is easier when you’re not trying to write a perfect draft in one go. I feel like creative writers understand that. And so, I bring as much as I can from creative writing into composition in the hopes it’ll help allay those fears that only end up destroying writing (often before it even actually starts).
SG: Oh I love that you think that all writing is creative. I also think that and find, like you, that teaching is wonderful engagement with writing and reading in ways that feed into my own practice. Speaking of practice, what, if any, is your writing ritual?
AF: Although I have written in the day, I prefer to write at night. Not only am I an Indoorsman, I am also a night person. I do my best thinking and writing after the sun goes down. While writing, I can’t listen to music for some reason, but I do need noise. So, I usually have a floor fan buzzing monotonously or one of those background noise generators going. Especially when I’m working on the early stages of any piece, I pace a lot. The most difficult thing for me is to look at a blank page. If I sat there and stared at the screen, I’d never write anything at all. So, I walk back and forth, talking to myself about what I’m trying to do. Once it starts to sound good, then I sit down and type a little, then pace more, type a little, pace more, sometimes imagine other things (I’m fond of pretending that I’m a knuckleball pitcher for a baseball team), and then back to typing. Once I have pages filled up with writing, normally well-structured but poorly written, then I’m happiest because all I have to do is focus on making the sentences sound the way I want them to sound. I also take tons of notes, which is another way to generate lots of writing so I’m not dealing with an awful blank page. But, yeah, at night, fan buzzing, pacing, note-taking, occasionally typing, and as the typing increases, the pacing decreases.
SG: Here’s where we differ! I’m not a pacer – more of a procrastinator, making tea kind of person – and I’m more of a morning or late night but not into the night person. I love how we all find our own spaces and paces.
Lastly, Andrew, some fun questions:
Sea or Lake? Lake. Preferably the great ones next to Cleveland or Chicago.
Dogs or cats? Neither. Although a friend of mine had to take care of a robot dog for a while at the University of Alabama, and I thought that was pretty awesome.
A robot dog! Fabulous. Beer or wine? I never drink … wine. So definitely beer.
High Street or Mall? When I was a kid, my dad worked at the power plant for Chapel Hill Mall in Akron, Ohio. So, anytime I go into a mall, I remember going to Chapel Hill when I was a kid (although now it’s almost a dead mall). The strange thing is, I’m not especially fond of shopping in malls. I just like walking around in them sometimes for that nostalgia rush.
Inner city or suburbs? Definitely the city. I lived in Chicago for five years in the city itself. And I very briefly lived in NYC in the city itself. If I could live anywhere, I’d absolutely live in a city, not outside of the city, and certainly not way outside of the city.
What are you reading right now? Since I’m currently teaching a class on the alternate history genre, I’m reading Karen Hellekson’s The Alternate History, Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Sur,” Maureen F. McHugh’s “The Lincoln Train,” William Sanders’ “The Undiscovered,” Poul Anderson’s “Delenda Est,” Larry Niven’s “All the Myriad Ways,” Bruce Sterling and Lewis Shiner’s “Mozart in Mirrorshades,” and Lawrence Watt-Evans’ “Why I Left Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers.”
Wow, what a list! So, what’s your next writing project? I’m currently working on a collection of essays called The Great Indoorsman. The title is the title of the book and of an essay in the book that’s already appeared in Heavy Feather Review. The other essays are specifically about me exploring various indoors spaces (since I’m not much a fan of the out-of-doors). Most recently I had an essay in The Iowa Review called “Filk” that’s about filk music and old video rental stores. Also, The Big Red Herring, my novel, comes out October 28, 2019.
SG: Thanks, Andrew, for engaging so thoroughly with this Writers Chat. I wish you all the very best with your many publications and I will look out for your novel The Big Red Herring later this year.
About Andrew: Andrew Farkas is the author of two short fiction collections: Sunsphere (BlazeVOX Books) and Self-Titled Debut (Subito Press), and a novel: The Big Red Herring (KERNPUNKT Press). His work has appeared in The Iowa Review, North American Review, The Cincinnati Review, The Florida Review, Western Humanities Review, Denver Quarterly, and elsewhere. He has been thrice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, including one Special Mention in Pushcart Prize XXXV and one Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2013. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Chicago, an M.F.A. from the University of Alabama, an M.A. from the University of Tennessee, and a B.A. from Kent State University. He is a fiction editor for The Collagist and an Assistant Professor of English at Washburn University. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas.
For my 20th WRITERS CHAT, I’m delighted to welcome back Ethel Rohan.
Since we last chatted in August 2017, Ethel, your debut novel The Weight of Him wasan Amazon, Bustle, KOBO, and San Francisco Chronicle Best Book, and winner of a Plumeri Fellowship, Silver Nautilus Award, and the Northern California Publishers and Authors’ Award. Congratulations, and thanks for returning to Writer’s Chat.
SG: Can you tell us a little about the reception of The Weight of Him, and if, and how, it affected your writing? I always find that it is so difficult for writers to keep those two hats on – one in the midst of finding the way into a new creative project, and the other out and about meeting people and talking about the already published project.
ER: From my publishers’ perspective ( St. Martin’s Press and Atlantic Books), my debut novel wasn’t received well i.e. its sales were disappointing. As much as I tried to prepare myself for the challenges this book would have reaching readers (it centers on difficult subject matter, suicide, and a marginalized protagonist, 400lb Billy Brennan) I was hopeful it would succeed and was crushed when it didn’t fare better. The blow knocked my confidence and two years later I’ve only just recovered. From my own perspective, I still continue to receive a wealth of emails, messages through social media, letters (yes, handwritten letters!), and IRL responses that speak to how deeply the reader was affected by the book. This generous, heartfelt feedback has greatly buoyed me. I persist, and losing myself in writing new work has been my greatest salve.
SG: Well, if you consider why we write, alongside one of the roles of literature in society, I think it is to affect those who engage with it and to shine a mirror on society. Isn’t that the real measure of success?
In your new work, do you find yourself returning to the themes of The Weight of Him? They are themes not easily released from our psyche, I find.
ER: I never enter a story with any theme in mind, but invariably the same patterns and obsessions emerge. I think that’s true of all artists. I’ve even tried to fight it: This story will not be about food, hunger, guilt, shame, loneliness, friendship, missing parts, another “bad” parent, or one more dysfunctional marriage etc. but sure enough… I’ve made peace with my psyche at this point. My only objective is to tell the best, the most interesting and urgent, stories I can. Thus I allow whatever best serves the story to surface in freewrites and survive in revision.
SG: What a noble aim – to tell the best, the most interesting and the most urgent stories. And, of course, holding on to that belief that the work (the writing) will prevail. Tell me, Ethel, what are you working on now?
ER: Christ, I write so much, it’s finishing that’s the challenge. I’m good at plotting stories (which is interesting because I always enter a story blind, never knowing what’s going to unfold) but beyond the beginning, middle, and end where I have to work hard is with character, giving them interiority and complexity, and allowing the reader to deeply connect with each of them and the protagonist in particular. I currently have two draft novel mss completed, and am handwriting a third. The two complete draft mss need further full revisions that focus on theme and character, and I’ll return to them when I’ve finished this handwritten novel draft.
SG: That’s a fantastic outpouring and I completely get that – I’m the same, constantly moving and working on multiple projects. What’s next for publication?
ER: Aside from hopefully publishing some short stories I’ve been working on, and returning to personal essays, I hope to next publish one of the three novel mss mentioned above, and ultimately to publish all three. I’ll lead with whichever “finished” ms I believe to be the strongest and see what happens. What’s daunting, and frankly frightening, is that the low book sales for The Weight of Him will make publishers less likely to take another chance on me and I know I’ve got to write a story powerful enough (or in their own words “big” enough) to sway them. What I won’t do, though, is pander to any trend or market need. I’m staying true to the stories that I most need to tell, those that arrive unbidden and insistent, like surprise, pressing gifts.
SG: I think that’s the most difficult part of the writing life – that industry push against the creative urge. I’ll say it again… the work will prevail!
Lastly, Ethel, some fun questions
What’s next on your to-be-read-pile and and what’s last on the (same) pile? I have shelves of unread books, and a tower on my desk, and another by my bedside. From that former looming tower, I’m eager to next read Devi Laskar’s The Atlas of Reds and Blues and at the bottom of that pile (simply because I’m so behind in my consumption) is Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent. My first read when I return to Ireland in July with be Sinéad Gleeson’sConstellations.
I have Constellations on my pile now, nearing the top and at the moment I’m reading Niamh Boyce’s wonderful Her Kind. Tell me, Ethel, where did you take your last holiday? Aside from a couple of nights recently in Portland, Oregon, the answer is Ireland (although I’m not sure it can be considered a holiday in that it’s never restful!). Since I emigrated in 1992, I’ve returned 30+ times. My husband’s also Irish and all our family members are there, so the pull is huge.
And when you’re on holiday, do you bring Kindle or paperback with you? Never Kindle. Mostly paperback, sometimes hardback. And I leave every holiday with more books than I brought.
Tea or coffee when writing? Barry’s tea (and way too much Cadbury’s or See’s chocolate). Always. Praise be for the several import shops here in San Francisco where we can get all our Irish favourites (albeit at a premium).
Dogs or cats? Both, with a definite preference for dogs.
Thanks, once again, Ethel, for joining me in a Writers Chat session. I wish you the very best of creativity and luck with your current and new writing projects. Below is the ORIGINAL Q&A WRITERS CHAT, PUBLISHED AUGUST 2017
READERS: See below for the chance to win a copy of The Weight of Him!
Shauna: Let’s start right away with the title and your starting point for the story. In the Dublin launch in Hodges Figgis in June, you mentioned that the idea began with an image of a snow globe in a window. I remember thinking that was a powerful image – there’s layers there – and when I read that scene where Billy looks in the shop window, I knew exactly what you meant.
‘Billy wanted to shake the globe and bring it to life…His hand pressed the side of his head, as though trying to keep the egg of himself together.’
Can you expand a little more on this initial characterisation of Billy, in particular his emotional nub.
Ethel: Thank you, Shauna, for hosting me and for your tremendous support of writers and books.
The initial spark for my novel was a conversation I overheard in a Dublin pub about an obese woman in mourning. “The grief might just kill her before her weight does.” That statement stuck in my imagination and I wondered what if this woman’s grief and weight don’t kill her, but propel her to do something extraordinary?
That’s the question that drove me to the blank page. As soon as I started writing, Big Billy Brennan appeared in the white space. The first scene I wrote was, as you mentioned, Billy standing in front of a shop window, his attention fixed on a snow globe. As you’ve quoted, he’s filled with the urge to shake the globe and bring it to life. I knew in that moment I’d hit on Billy’s emotional nub and his impossible burning desire to bring his loved one back from the dead.
I don’t plan my stories, so the novel’s first draft(s) was really just me continuing to answer questions on the page as they arose. It was a risky novel to write and to publish (thank you, St. Martin’s Press and Atlantic Books). I met many hurdles in the telling, largely fueled by self-doubt. Mostly, I struggled with whether or not I had the authority to write about a 30 stone man. I worried whether or not I could make the unlikely marriage of the difficult topics of obesity and suicide work. I felt an enormous responsibility to handle both topics with sensitivity, compassion and honesty.
Shauna: While the narrative is told from the perspective of Billy, I found we got some close insights into his wife Tricia’s point of view. Can you tell us about their relationship and how much of it is viewed through the lens of grief, loss and unanswered questions?
Ethel: Point-of-view was another major challenge. I knew I was taking yet another risk in keeping the story wholly in Billy’s perspective—he’s the camera through which everything is filtered. But after multiple drafts, I became convinced that close third point-of-view was the right choice for this story. That sense of limit and containment mirrors how trapped Billy feels in his body and his grief, and also underscores how trapped Michael felt, and to a lesser extent, Tricia. The close third point-of-view also felt true to life. We can’t get inside others’ heads in reality—we know others only by their story and what they say and do—and that’s the way I kept it on the page. Limiting, yes, but sin a bhfuil.
With the close third point of view, it’s a bigger challenge to render the other characters as fully as possible, and in particular the main secondary character, Tricia. I only had the use of backstory, Billy’s perspective, and what Tricia does and says in scene. I learn who my characters are by both interviewing them off stage and putting them in scenes, to see what they say and do and how they interact with others.
In discovering who my characters were, I learned that Billy and Tricia’s marriage was troubled long before Michael’s death and that they were merely coasting along in a largely humdrum existence. Tricia felt betrayed by Billy because early in the marriage he lost the agency and sense of empowerment he’d exhibited in their courtship—his brief sense of bravado and buoyancy was fueled by the first glow of their love. When Michael dies, their relationship inevitably unravels further and they each grieve, and try to go on, in startlingly different ways.
Leaving some questions unanswered in the novel might seem like another risk, but again I tried to best reflect life and truth. Reality can’t be wrapped up and tied with a permanent, pleasing bow and neither should story. Suicides leave behind more questions than answers and our relationships with food and our bodies is ever-evolving. There is never resolution in all things in the world, so how can there ever be complete resolution in story?
Shauna: Oh I agree. Much of life is spent searching for resolutions, and often through stories, so leaving some questions unanswered was one of the powerful elements of The Weight of Him and one that served the portrayal of Billy and Tricia’s relationship well.
Now without giving away the plot, one of the elements of the story that stayed with me long after I’d finished the book was the emotional weight that is evoked through the work Billy puts into building his ‘other world’ made up of the imperfect miniature figures from the factory where he works. It is only in this world that he can save Michael, the son he lost to suicide, and it is only in this world he can be the ‘right son’ and the best father. Can you talk to us about the psychology of this powerful subplot.
Ethel: Thanks, Shauna, it took restraint in final revisions to keep concise and not get too caught up with the subplot of Billy’s alternate world, a wonderland that fired up my imagination.
In that first draft, I was deep in the writing, answering the question of where Billy worked, and the toy factory came to life on the page, and then the damaged toys appeared. When Billy secretly pocketed the first damaged toy, a soldier that represented Michael in his mind, the subplot developed from that pivotal moment. It was one of those rewarding, exhilarating gifts in the writing when what a character does surprises you and you know you’ve opened a rich vein.
Many of the scenes in this miniature ‘other world’ didn’t end up in the final manuscript but they did allow me to fully understand Billy’s psychology with relation to the damaged toys and the idyllic tiny village he creates for them—a perfect world where Michael is returned and the Brennan family is whole again. Of course, perfect doesn’t exist, not even in Billy’s pretend world. That was another of the lessons Billy had to learn and more of the suffering he had to withstand in this story.
Shauna: I walked for Pieta House this year as part of their world wide appeal Darkness into Light and was really moved by the sense of community and hope. Billy walks for suicide and uses the media as a way to come to terms with his loss and also give hope to others.
In a scene where his mother takes ill, the nurse in the hospital turns to him:
Her eyes stayed on him. “You’re the father from the newspapers, aren’t you, the one doing the suicide prevention fund-raiser? I heard you on the radio too. Well done, you’re an absolute inspiration.”
Ethel, not only did you donate the net earnings from your Dublin launch to Pieta House, but much of the novel focuses on the difficulty in getting people to talk about suicide and suicide prevention, and the roles (positive and sometimes negative) the media can play in this – in other words, how do we talk about something that is so painful when often the very thing to prevent, or help heal that grief, is to talk?
Ethel: Thanks for walking, Shauna. I did too, here in San Francisco. Suicide is preventable and one of the key ways to prevent it is to talk about it. For those suffering suicidal thoughts, it is never too early or too late to seek help and talk about your illness. For those, like me, who have overcome suicidal ideation, is it important to share our stories so others know that they are not alone and that there is great hope.
As a culture we need to educate ourselves on suicide and mental illness and lift the last of the stigma. At my most ill, I became convinced that no one would understand or care. We need to send a clear message as a culture that we do understand and we do care. Like every person suffering an illness, the suicidal should be accorded compassion, dignity, and the best of treatment.
Silence has its value, but not when it’s silence locked up by secrecy, shame and fear. That kind of silence causes enormous damage, and can be killing. So, please, just talk out the thing. I’ve found whatever it is we least want to talk about, that thing that we most want to keep in, that’s exactly what we should talk about and let out.
Shauna: Yes. And literature – storytelling – can be a way in which we can speak of these things and also the means by which conversations can be started. In The Weight of Him, despite the initial subject matter- that of an obese man who has just lost his eldest son to suicide – there is much beauty and hope.
“He roared. Roared till the scorch inside his throat and chest made the sting of his bloodied knuckles feel like nothing. Roared till he’d nothing left. Breathless, spent, he struggled back to standing, his feet slipping about in the muck and the pain pulsing in the sides of his knees. He pushed himself to the farthest edge of the cliff and lowered the flashlight to the ground. In life, Michael would not have been able to stand here next to him on the cliff’s edge. It would be nice to think the boy’s spirit was standing alongside him now.”
I found it to be a very human story touching on identity, relationships and discovering – through Billy – that we are all, in our various ways, striving to fully embrace who we are. And that wonderful line that Billy’s younger son Ivor says: “We get reminders about dying, so we don’t forget to make the most of living.”
Ethel: Thanks for such a close and generous read, Shauna, and for these excellent questions and observations. I think all my writing is ultimately my characters and me trying to find the beauty and hope in damage and loss. It’s how we can best go on.
Shauna: And isn’t that, yet again, much of life? Finding the beauty in the cracks, the cracks that are in themselves, beautiful. Thanks again, Ethel for such wonderful, honest answers. I wish you further success with The Weight of Him and I look forward to your next novel.
And now for the opportunity to win a signed copy of The Weight of Him – Irish and UK readers only! Simply add a comment below along with your name (first name will do) and an email address so we can contact you if you win. The winner will be picked out of a hat on Monday 28th August at 8pm.
Maria, You are very welcome to my WRITERS CHAT series. Congratulations on your debut novel, The Chicken Soup Murder (Seren, 2017), a finalist for the Dundee International Book Prize and shortlisted for the Rubery Book Award. This publication follows on from your short story collection Pumping Up Napoleon and Other Stories (Seren, 2007) and your flash fiction Tea for Mr Dead (Leaf, 2006).
SG: I thoroughly enjoyed The Chicken Soup Murder and agree with the description which says it’s “part crime fiction and murder mystery, part meditation on grieving, friendship and family”. Essentially, it is a great story, I think, which defies genre, and sits outside all those boxes that the book industry want novels to sit in. Can we talk a little bit about this – did you set out to break with genre or did you set out to write a good story, filled with complex and lovable characters? What was your intention when you started writing?
MD: I tried not to think in terms of barriers and boxes while I was writing. A novel has to be written before it is anything at all and the only way I could see of getting there was to be true to myself, to the characters and the story. Of the story strands only one is the crime, the others have to do with the meaning of family and of ways in which different characters respond to their experiences of bereavement. Having said that, I should not be surprised that it is most often sub-categorised as ‘crime and mystery’. It’s just that it’s also humorous general literary or contemporary fiction, which could be described as ‘coming of age’ since the narrator is an eleven-year-old boy who goes through many changes.
The novel evolved, beginning with an incident in which my husband nearly killed me while I was making chicken soup. My reaction, after a bit, was to laugh, as Irma does: both of us laughing in the face of our fear of death. I teased my husband that I would one day write a story called ‘The Chicken Soup Murder’ and I filed it away under ‘Crime’. Yes, I did think that a puzzle and a mystery would give the reader something strong to follow but whatever the story was going to be I wanted it to also have emotional significance. I had no idea how that would work, or who the characters in it would be or what the story was or that it would even be a novel, until much time had passed and my life drastically changed. I didn’t begin work on it until I was already two years a widow. I did my best with what I had and was concerned with making something that did my themes justice and made an enjoyable, if sometimes troubling read.
But then comes the business of communicating with agents and publishers and the reading public. You have to succinctly describe what it is you’re offering. It is certainly much easier for publicity and marketing, for libraries, literary festivals, reviewers and reading sites, if you can do that in a few words and have a strong identity. You start noticing the industry use of the word ‘brand’.
It’s logical that booksellers and libraries need to know where you’re supposed to go on the shelf: from there stems an entire system of categorisation. Would it be a neat marketing idea to have a novel on several shelves in a bookshop at once? Or would that just be confusing? Would it seem as if the novel had much to offer or would it be seen a weakness? Anyway a first-time novelist must be glad of being given any space at all.
Only the experience of reading the novel will tell you if you like it but that can be said of many a book. Take it off the bookshelf and read the first paragraph. Online, you can ‘Look inside’. But here we come full circle. In some way you have, in the first place, to give people the notion that this is the sort of book they would like to read.
For the future: while I have learned more about this kind of categorisation, and respect the reasons for it and keep it in mind, I wouldn’t want to feel this put a brake on writing the kind of story or novel I want to write because then I might not do it at all and there’d be nothing to discuss.
SG: That’s quite amazing, Maria, that the idea involving chicken soup came from your own life, and then how you wove this personal incident into a whole fictional world. And then, in relation to how the novel is presented to the reading public, well, I love the idea of a novel appearing across genres – – and on many shelves!
Writer Francesca Rhydderch has described this novel as ‘a lovely, warm-hearted novel about love and grief.’ What makes this exploration of grief so powerful was how it is firstly told through the eyes of Michael, an eleven-year-old who understands life through its patterns and habits. In a way, it’s what we all do – an attempt to control life – but seeing Michael struggle at Irma’s sudden death (which he is convinced is a murder) really brings the vulnerability of being human home to the reader. As Michael reflects:
Sometimes I wanted to cry about it: sometimes I wanted to shout or run to break the tight feeling – but everyone else was being normal so I had to be normal too.
And then later, on a rare trip to the beach “I keep thinking: Luxury. The luxury of being alive.”
This is something that we should all remind ourselves. Did you find that using a child narrator at this key age of transition helped you be more authentic in the exploration of life and death and coming of age?
MD: It certainly helped me that I was filtering everything through Michael’s consciousness. His sensibilities about death and bereavement and how he sees other people cope or not cope were all things I wanted to show in an emotionally realistic way. Remembering what it was like to be that age and having been a child who thought about death quite a bit, I felt I could help him tell his story. Another thing: his observations of the adults around him are all we have and though it is important that his understanding of them as well as himself can grow and change, being Michael saved me, in this novel, from falling down the well of my own grief. If I had been too close to Janey’s mother or to Nan there would have been a danger of that. Though I tried once to change the novel to third person, it felt wrong and I couldn’t do it. It was Michael’s story and, given that I had so many other things going on, I was glad that I kept it in his voice.
SG: Yes, it is such a strong voice that really, I think the story couldn’t be told in any other. Sickness, loss, and the stories we tell ourselves to make things better also run through The Chicken Soup Murder. Janey’s family have lost their father, Michael has been deprived of his father and, without spoiling the plot, both of these subplots grow and change as the book progresses. You do this with a three act structure (the three parts to the novel) rather than using traditional chapters. Was this something that came organically to you as you wrote it or did you impose the structure when you’d finished?
MD: It was my plan to write a novel in three parts because I knew it would give the book a strong dramatic structure and as I have a tendency to incorporate ideas on the fly, it felt good to have reminders that we were supposed to be going somewhere. But the structure also felt organic to the novel. Each part represents a new phase in Michael’s understanding. If it hadn’t been right I suppose I would have done something different. I wanted a flow to it within these three big sections so just settled for white space to show changes in time, place or subject rather than clearly defined chapters. My dad said that this was fine but he didn’t know when to stop reading. Perhaps that could be seen as an advantage!
SG: My favourite character was that of Nan. She’s witty and she’s wise and she is a very complex character – she feels very real to me. When everyone around her is struggling, she manages to surmise the situation with humour and grace. She says to Janey when she’s worried that everyone has forgotten about her father because Irma has died “Ah, the league tables of grief. But it’s not a competition, Janey. Nobody wins.” Tell me about how you developed Nan.
MD: Nan is like an old friend now, one I loved from the start though I had to get to know her with all the experiences of her years. I felt I could rely on her to be herself and do and say what came naturally in any given situation. It is important that I knew her well because she has been the biggest influence on Michael’s life and character. Their relationship is key. I wanted her to be funny, forthright and fearless though for a long time her presence is muted by her need to keep a big secret.
In developing Nan it helped things along quite a bit to think of her as a person with more to her than her identity as Michael’s grandmother, though it is important to her to do a good job in that role. She’s a young grandmother though it might not always seem like that to Michael. She and I share certain cultural references and I wanted to show glimmers of her as the woman called Zena, who back in the day had been a rebellious teenager listening to Wreckless Eric. For a time, to remind myself that she has never quite lost her attitude, I kept a postcard of ‘Xena, Warrior Princess’ in view, in which the heroine is scowling, alongside the caption, ‘The way to a man’s heart is through his ribcage’. Nan takes no prisoners but deep down she’s kind and if you can make her laugh you’re halfway to disarming her. Nan has had some adventures in her life but now she’s dedicated to looking after her grandson and that is her strength and purpose. But she’s still her own person. I wanted her to use her sense of humour as a shield and to be willing to follow her own judgement. I made her wary of commitment, because she can’t bear to do half a job. If she takes on a responsibility she takes it seriously and does her very best. I also allowed her to speak her mind, which is useful, since what Michael tells us about what she says and does is all we can know about her. She is unabashed about giving what she thinks is good advice, such as the quote you mention. I’m grateful to her because if it weren’t for Nan that observation would have stayed in my mind, instead of which I could write it down and let the words come out of her mouth. And if Janey rolled her eyes when Nan said that, we don’t know, because Michael was in the back seat of the car.
SG: I love how real Nan has become to you, and you’re so right; perspective is everything in a novel. The first line of The Chicken Soup Murder is a great one – “The day before the murder George Bull tried to poison me with a cheese sandwich”. It captures the tone of the novel – serious topics told with humour and tenderness. Was it the first line you wrote or did it come to you when you’d finished the novel?
MD: As I recall I had that first line from the start – or very early on. I liked the idea of introducing my hero and identifying his enemy in one go, of Michael making a joke, half at his own expense, while establishing the important fact of the murder on which the novel depends. I liked the idea of him having not one big fatal flaw but a series of small ones, like lactose intolerance. It also helps to know that the big event is coming soon. Before we get to it Michael tells us about his paradise lost. Life has already changed because of the coming of the bully and the falling apart of his ‘family’ after Janey’s dad dies from cancer.
The only real difference is that the character also known as Bully started out with a different first name associated with yet another theme. When I’d nearly finished I had to deal with the fact that the name, which Michael uses most mockingly and cruelly in that draft, was also the name of a boy I knew. I struggled with this and though his mother gave me the go-head to use his name, in the end I decided that the whole theme, which was about child abduction and abuse, was pulling so hard that it was going to move the story away from where I wanted it to be. It was the right thing to do to remove that storyline. Changing the name to George gave me a name with a similar sound and a new set of associations that fitted fine with the novel as it was meant to be.
SG: It’s fascinating to hear about these big changes which are invisible to the reader but so present, even in their absence to the writer.
Lastly, Maria, some fun questions:
Mountains or sea? Sea. I’m scared of heights. But looking at mountains is fine too. I’m also fond of the Dutch mountains.
Ha! I love it. Brown bread or white bread? I nearly always buy brown but sometimes look longingly at white as if that is the greater treat.
Cats or dogs? Both have been wonderful friends to me but now I have neither and am mostly interested in the doings of the birds and insects in my garden and anywhere I go. Creatures that have the power of flight amaze me, as does the idea that birds still manage to live amongst us – just about. Blue tits built their nest in the garden last year and raised six young. That felt like an achievement.
What writing project are you working on now? I am aiming to finish another novel called The Miller’s Wife. It’s set in a dystopian near future in the southernmost part of the Netherlands and mostly concerns the miller’s agony of uncertainty as he tries to find out what has happened to his wife. There’s also an odd but possible romance with his new neighbour, an immigrant woman, who has been in the country for many years and who sets up her own investigation out of mistrust of the miller’s version of the story. Like Michael and Nan in The Chicken Soup Murder, these two will need each other’s help to solve the mystery. As you can see, I’ll need to work on that fifteen-word description.
SG: Well fifteen or fifty-word description, The Miller’s Wife sounds fascinating… I look forward to it!
I have in the background the novel I stopped writing when my husband died, and a few short stories I would like to complete to put together another collection.
For that short term finishing and publishing hit, I sometimes write very short fiction, poetry (of a sort) and songs. There are blog posts over at www.mariadonovan.com. There I experiment with ideas about truth and time, and question various assumptions. I am also trying to write a little more about the background to The Chicken Soup Murder so I thank you for your kind comments and your questions and the chance to go back and think about it all again. It has been educational.
SG: Oh, Maria, it has been wonderful to chat to you and it has been educational for me, too. Thanks once again and I’d encourage everyone to read The Chicken Soup Murder and check out your website.
Wade, You are very welcome to my WRITERS CHAT series. Congratulations on your latest publication, a poetry collection Songs of the Sun Amor (Blaze Vox Books: New York, 2019). Songs of the Sun Amor can be purchased directly from BlazeVox.
SG: Your work has previously been described by critics as ‘emotionally satisfying’ and ‘profound’.
I found myself very moved by a number of the poems, perhaps, I feel, the most personal in the collection, and, at the same time, the most universal.
In ‘About My Mother’ and ‘The Map of Elsewhere’, the early loss of your mother is explored and in ‘Black Sheep’, and ‘Sun, No Son’, the difficult relationship with your father. Could you talk about the placement of these poems in Songs of Sun Amor. They sit, almost as beacons, in between tones of humour and angst.
WS: You are right: my poems are meant to be complete in themselves and to have an immediate emotional impact. The reader may experience them as I wrote them: with the shock of recognition. There is a certain sadness of course, a lingering melancholy, but there is also the humour and the joy. My editor had suggested that my book be organized thematically. He said he found three main themes: the mother/father/child relationship, the lover/partner/wife relationship, and the relationship of the search for a going beyond or transcendence. However, I thought it would be more interesting for the reader to experience My Sun Amor poems as a progression, with certain poems as you say acting as beacons and lighting the way forward. One of the poems you refer to ends with the line: “Real Amor was on the map of elsewhere.” That marks the separation from the mother and father and the beginning of the poetic journey to find that “Real Amor.” Ultimately it leads to the conclusion or illumination if you like, of the last lines of the book, the conscious coupling with the “Sun Amor immensity.”
SG: Much of Songs of Sun Amor is concerned with the search for and hope of finding the self, and, at times, escaping this self. In “The Map of Elsewhere” we learn that ‘I discovered love in strange places/Real Amor was on the map of elsewhere’ and in “Bio Poem” the past is linked to the future
‘with a simple ampersand/Ghost floating through the hourglass of your life/Longing to break the glass, rise in the air, free’.
Can you tell us about these themes – did they emerge as the collection formed or had you those themes in mind?
WS: Let me share a secret with you: I didn’t write my “Sun Amor” book. It wrote itself. The themes emerged by themselves in an organic way. One of my first memories as a child was that of being trapped not only in my own family but in my own body. I didn’t want to be a prisoner of myself or of the accident of my birth. To do that I had to recreate myself, “to find the promise of a life reborn.” How to escape the limitations of the self, of the language that defines you? I did it from an early age by a process of carefully organized revolt. I did it through literature and poetry, I did it through travels and encounters, I did it through learning and assimilating other languages and cultures that were not my own. I made my own “elsewhere.” My Sun Amor book is the result of that search. The reader can explore that geography and find some really interesting things that will help them in their own relationships.
SG: I think that journey of escaping through immersion elsewhere really comes through in the collection. I’m also interested in the title of the collection, as on reading it for the second and third time, I found myself wanting to read many of the poems aloud and it occurred to me that they were almost hymn-like, particularly with the sparing use of punctuation. I’m thinking here, for example, of “Mirror Man”, after the great line ‘I’m the tossed back of my father’, the poem comes at the reader with each line, almost like listing off the anger points. I’m also thinking of “Amor Belief” and “The Language of Sunflowers.” And, of course, the striking “A Question of Pain”. Can you talk a little bit about this?
WS: All my books are about pain and loss and recovery and the quest for transcendence, for finding a way to heal and go beyond. As I wrote in one poem, “The good doctor Amor will repair all the broken/ With threads of solar gold.” It’s true that the collection could have been titled “Hymns to the Sun Amor.” It’s also true that the lines are constructed in such a way that they almost cry out to be read aloud. When I write them, or rather work on them, it’s as if I had another deeper voice in my head reciting them. Poetry from the beginning was an oral tradition. And it’s regained some popularity today due to the performance poetry readings. One of my favourite poems is “My Amor Belief.” In these dark times, when there are so many forms of hatred and intolerance, it would be amazing if we all could just “learn how to breathe and to be/ Relieved of belief, of religion free.”
SG: Yes, it is a beautiful line, Wade, and I wonder how we can do that, learn to breathe and be relieved of belief and religion. But God, nature, landscape and beauty also feature in Songs of the Sun Amor. They seem, to me, to be intertwined, as if a dialogue between them is running concurrently with the narrator’s life, and, at the same time, with the continuum of time – the back and forth between past, present and future. Could you tell us a little bit about your use of time in the collection? I’m thinking, specifically, of “Big blue beautiful you”, “The Language of Sunflowers” – ‘Seize the special moment that comes/Between the breathing in and the breathing out’ and ‘Spend an hour lying in the summer grass/Listening to what the yellow flowers say.’ This speaks to me of recapturing childhood. Irish writer Desmond Hogan once said that writing is about ‘keeping childhood alive’.
WS: I’ve made many trips to Japan, spending some time in a “ryokan” in Kyoto, and I feel a great affinity with the deep spiritual essence of Japanese culture. They have an obsession with nature and an obsessions with perfection in even the simplest things, like a bowl or a shadow or a cherry blossom. The Shinto religion is based on a reverence for nature. It’s interesting that in a Shinto shrine, there is no decoration, none at all. There is only an image of the sun. The sun is considered to be female, a goddess and the supreme deity (Amaterasu). And I think today, perhaps more than ever, we are all looking and thirsting for some illumination in our lives, for “the flash that stuns/ Awake from the sun god’s gun.”
SG: That is fascinating. I hadn’t connected your work to the deity. I shall have to have another read, with new eyes! After I had read the collection I found myself thinking about the stories within the poems and I wonder if you would ever return to the form of fiction again?
WS: Each poem in My Sun Amor book tells a story, and that story, like those Russian dolls, is imbricated in and part of a larger story, and it all leads back to Amor. And I have written fictions and a memoir, all about Amor with a small A by the way, in my books “One Tine in Paris” and “The Electric Affinities.” And there may be one more to come.
SG: That is lovely to hear that there may be another novel to come. Lastly, Wade, some fun questions:
City or countryside? I was born in the Big Apple but I would to live in the countryside with wild horses and apple trees.
America or Europe? When I am in Europe I miss America. And viceversa.
Coffee or tea? Japanese green tea.
What writing project are you working on now? A book of poems entitled “Going Head to Head.” It’s about my head and your head and how we can escape from our heads and move into some other dimension.
SG: Well, Wade, thank you so much for participating in my Writers Chat series. It has been wonderful chatting with you and I wish you well with this collection and your forthcoming one Going Head to Head.
Songs of The Sun Amor can be purchased directly from BlazeVox.