The Old Man hates foreign holidays and remarks about the purity and beauty of Ireland’s coastline. “Sure, what business would we have to travel to Brighton or Blackpool? They’re third-rate towns with bad food and rude people. You get a better class of person in the Irish countryside.”
This is a strong set-up in just one line of narrative and three short lines of dialogue. We are given a lot of information. Do you do (do you do) this consciously, through revision, or did it just pop out that way from the first draft?
James Claffey: For the most part the narrative comes out the way it comes out without revision. I read somewhere recently how essential it is for flash pieces to have a strong opening sentence, but for me they just start the way they start without prodding or poking. Sometimes my wife reads some of my short fiction and tells me to cut the first paragraph out and get into the meat of the matter, but it’s rare I do that. Admittedly, I do take a second look after writing them, usually after they’re up here at Fictionaut, and I’ll go through the story for repetitive language and things that go “clunk.” Maybe the first flush is the most honest writing, and I worry that too much tinkering with the piece will kill the honesty in it. And then I start worrying about the old workshop advice, “show don’t tell,” and the collar of my shirt constricts!
Susan: So you are what is called an “intuitive writer.” I kind of figured as much, because all your stories that I’ve read are stamped with a clear “James Claffey” imprint. Some people are born to this and you seem to fall into that group of storytellers. You obviously have very good writing instincts.
I find it ironic that your wife would tell you to get to the meat of it, when it seems that you always do, your stories start so strong (not to get in-between a husband and wife here!). You’re an Irish born writer. My personal favorites in writing have always been the Irish writers, I cut my teeth on William Trevor and Edna O’Brien. And of course the many poets and playwrights of Ireland— just amazing.
What is it about Ireland that inspires the storyteller? Is the landscape? The rain?
James: Thanks, in fact it’s because of her they start strong! I used to begin each story with a thesis sentence that didn’t do much for the narrative and her advice has worked, as evidenced by the stories I write now. She’s a wonderfully fluid and intuitive writer, and it’s partly her influence rubbing off on me. But, yes, these short fiction pieces are very much intuitive, springing from the wellspring of home and growing up in a climate, inside and outside the home, of storytelling and books. Our house was filled with my mother’s Readers’ Union editions, and those books have imprinted on my memory: Too Late the Phalarope, The Tiger in the Smoke, A Kid for Two Farthings, John Bull’s Other Island, and on and on. In terms of the imprint you generously apply, I really found my voice in the late summer when I re-read my late advisor, Jeanne Leiby’s notes on my manuscript. She noted that the “best” writing was the writing from a childhood perspective, and during my MFA I wasn’t convinced of its strengths. Today I write these stories and have no sense of “oh, this is crap,” the way I did about much of my grad school writing. And in terms of home,Ireland is likeNew Mexico, a place I love dearly, in that the land is “magical” charged with a sacredness that doesn’t exist in many places.
The rain made me a reader, and the reading makes me a writer. I’d tell my students in workshop to show me a great writer who wasn’t a great reader. Not possible. The books we read shape our writing, whether we like it or not. Oh, Trevor, and O’Brien! There are so many contemporary writers out ofIreland, wonderful voices like Claire Keegan, Kevin Barry, Belinda McKeon, Ethel Rohan… we’re called the land of saints and scholars, but truthfully, we’re a land of frustrated, and not so frustrated writers, poets, artists. It took a long time for me to be able to find my voice, and I feel incredibly blessed to have maybe finally figured out what it is I want to say in my writing.
Susan: In “Bottom of the Field“ you write:
The morning sun shatters on the brilliant blue waves of the Atlantic Oceanas I make my way through the fields behind the cottage we’re renting for a fortnight in the West of Ireland. Two rabbits bounce across the field, white tails darting in and out of the long grass.
In this passage the air quality becomes immediately apparent, it’s a felt thing, as are the brilliant blue waves, the fields with the long grass. It makes me want to go there so much and experience it all. I find that is key to a really good story, that the writer can bring the reader into the physical and emotional space so fluidly.
James: Time and space are keys to placing us “there” in the story, and the space I write about is a space I know, the visceral taste of the water, the stinging nettles on the backs of my legs, the leather strap of the binoculars, all become real to me in the collapse of time and memory. To paraphrase Peter Ho Davies by way of Glimmer Train’s contest call today: “The instinct to lay fiction over the top of history… is simply the instinct to understand why certain things happen.” This is what I attempt to do in my writing, layering fiction over history, creating a narrative that is authentic, and a character who is true to life, and captures the reader’s imagination and sympathy.
Read “Bottom of the Field“ by James Claffey
Monday Chat is a bi-weekly series in which Susan Tepper has a conversation with a Fictionaut writer about one of his or her stories. Susan’s new book From the Umberplatzen is a collection of linked-flash published by Wilderness House Press.