“I might find myself in a sanitised, bland place, devoid of oddities and deformities, without a dead animal in sight.”
Danielle McLaughlin’s debut collection of short stories, Dinosaurs On Other Planets, was published in Ireland in 2015 by The Stinging Fly Press, in the UK in January 2016 by John Murray, and will be published in the US and Canada by Random House in August. She lives in County Cork with her husband and three young children.
Can you recall the first short story to leave an enduring impact on you? The first to get under your skin? How do you think it achieved this?
I remember very clearly ‘The Story of the Widow’s Son’ by Mary Lavin from Exploring English 1, a short story anthology edited by Augustine Martin that I had in secondary school. I would have been 12 or 13 when I read it. The story has an unusual structure and opens like this: ‘This is the story of a widow’s son, but it is a story that has two endings.’ So even as we set out to read the story, we are doing so in the knowledge that the first ending that will be presented to us will not be the only one.
Another interesting thing about this story is the way Lavin steps in and out to address the reader at various points. Having delivered the first ending, she suggests that we don’t accuse her ‘of abusing my privileges as a writer. After all, what I am about to tell you is no more of a fiction than what I have already told, and I lean no heavier now upon your credulity than, with your full consent, I did in the first instance.’ So here we have a writer, mid-story, reminding the reader that what they have read is fiction and that what they are about to read is also fiction. In a way, it shouldn’t work, but it does. Usually, a writer intruding upon a story, a writer stamping around in big boots all over the text, is something I can’t stand. I think this story succeeds partly because Lavin is so upfront about her intervention, going so far as to flag it in advance. This isn’t a writer sliding carelessly into self-indulgence; it’s a writer very deliberately using a particular structure to particular effect.
The story also succeeds because of the emotional force and great beauty of Lavin’s writing. While the memory of how the story is structured stayed with me, it was the depth of feeling the story generated that had the greatest impact, the strength of emotion. It’s a heart-breaking portrayal of grief and sadness, of waste and loss. It also asks us to consider how much worse is grief and loss when brought about by our own self-destructiveness. Lavin ends by drawing a parallel between the ‘double quality’ or ‘possibility of alternative’ of the story she has just told, and life generally. In this sense it is a rather didactic story (a thing I usually hate) and yet Lavin gets away with it.
I’d like to be able to say that the story set me on a lifelong path of reading Lavin, or of reading short stories in general, but it didn’t. My obsession with short stories only took hold a few years back, I don’t think I read another story by Mary Lavin until I was into my forties. Even now I’m not terribly familiar with her work, although I do have one of her collections.
There’s a wonderful story of hers in The Long Gaze Back, an anthology of Irish women writers edited by Sinead Gleeson. That story, ‘In the Middle of the Fields’, is also an exploration of grief and loss and, curiously, also features a death linked to a bicycle ride. There’s the same wondrous ability to bring emotion to the page, the same sharp eye for the complexities of human relationships. Reading both stories now, I would, if forced to choose, say that I prefer ‘In the Middle of the Fields.’ As an adult in middle age, life has by now impressed upon me its ‘double quality’, its ‘possibility of alternative’; life has, in a way, caught up with fiction. My need for a story like ‘The Widow’s Son’ isn’t what it might have been when I was younger, though this in no way diminishes the impact it had over thirty years ago.
I like the story as usurper of a reader’s sense of aesthetics. Do you regard yourself, then, as a relative late-comer to the short story, in terms of writing them? Or must a considerable apprenticeship be served / life lived before the form can be scaled with any confidence?
I feel that I’ve a lot of catching up to do in terms of short story reading, and also in terms of learning craft. Writing is a mid-life career change for me, I didn’t have a word of fiction published anywhere until I was into my forties, so in that sense I’ve started later than a lot of other writers. I’m inclined to think that writing comes for different people at different times. It’s not like there’s any clearly defined trajectory to a writing career. Coming to writing from a different profession (law), it seems odd to me the way people sometimes speak in terms of promoting or funding ‘young’ writers rather than ‘new’ writers. Robin Black wrote a brilliant op-ed piece about this for the New York Times, about how, among other things, she considers it a feminist issue and how not everybody can afford to write when young. I think short stories can be written by writers of any age, young or old or anywhere in between. Whether they can ever be written with confidence is another thing, because they’re so difficult and so tricky. I’m grappling with a couple of new ones at the moment and I think I’m less confident now about making them work out than I would have been when I started writing six years ago. Possibly because I’m now more aware of all the ways in which they can go wrong!
Flannery O’Connor once said there are certain truths that can only be expressed in the short story. Does this resonate for you? Why might the story be better placed to do this than other literary forms, or indeed other modes of discourse?
Do I believe that certain truths can only be expressed in the short story? I’m not sure. It’s a pretty enormous claim to make; I’m guessing that were I to choose any one truth and claim it for the short story, within five minutes someone would have identified a novel that had expressed that same truth quite brilliantly. I think that it’s possible to take a particular truth and to present that truth in different ways via a range of different forms. All writers have their preoccupations and obsessions, and writers who write in a number of different forms – I’m thinking of writers, say, who write poetry as well as short stories, and perhaps also novels – often take a preoccupation and work with it in various different ways. I’ve just finished reading ‘My Name is Lucy Barton’ by Elizabeth Strout (what a remarkable book!) and there’s a part in it where the narrator is remembering something said to her by a writer whose workshop she attended: ‘ “You will have only one story,” she had said. “You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one.”’
Having said all that, I do think that the short story can engage a reader with a level of intensity that often eludes other forms. It’s possible, I think, to ask more of a reader in a short story than in a novel. We can invite the reader to work alongside us, to participate in the story to a greater degree. Hilary Lennon has a great essay in the current issue of The Stinging Fly magazine on Frank O’Connor’s 1920s Cultural Criticism and the Poetic Realist Short Story and I was struck by this quote from O’Connor’s Paris Review interview of 1957: ‘Dragging the reader in, making the reader a part of the story – the reader is part of the story. You’re saying all the time, “this story is about you – de te fabula.”’ And I think that this involvement of the reader facilitates the delivery of not just broad, generic truths, but personal, reader-specific ones, where the reader takes what the writer is working with and translates it into the circumstances of her own life, her own experience, her own social environment. And as these smaller, deeply personal truths are going to be different for everybody, it could be argued that this is what is meant by certain truths only being capable of expression in the short story.
What’s your ‘one story’?
That’s a tricky one, especially since I’ve only written one book so far. That said, there are eleven stories in the collection and while I wasn’t writing with any theme in mind, I did notice by the time I’d finished writing it that certain pre-occupations and concerns were surfacing. And after the book was published it was interesting to read the reviews and to see other people identify those things too. I’m inclined to think that the idea of ‘one story’ has more to do with the concept of ‘lens’ than ‘theme’, it’s the idea that all of a writer’s stories, whether they number ten or a hundred or more, and no matter how different they are one from another, are all written through the lens of the writers own ‘one story’, or at least that’s how I interpret it. I certainly don’t see it as relating to plot, because obviously a writer can work with any number of different plots involving any number of different characters and settings. So to apply the ‘one story’ idea to myself, I find I’m drawn to exploring the strange and alien nature of the world, also the distances between people and the difficulty, perhaps even the impossibility, of ever truly knowing other people, even those close to us; the ‘other planet-ness’ of daily existence, if you like. My stories tend to feature characters who navigate the world with difficulty, at the mercy of misunderstandings and communication fails and distortions, people living life in translation. And I’m usually writing about them when they’re moving towards a crisis of some sort. I think that’s me leaking into the stories. I’m neurologically atypical – on the autism spectrum, Aspergers, or autistic without intellectual or language impairment – and alongside that I have mental health issues, and I think those things make their way into the fabric of the stories. It’s a complex concept, though, this idea of ‘one story.’ I’m aware, by the way, that I’m discussing a notion put forward by a character in a work of fiction. I don’t think it’s something Elizabeth Strout herself has said, not that I know of anyway. I find it a really interesting suggestion though, and I think it may be linked to the idea of particular writers having particular pre-occupations or obsessions. And I think that the lens can be influenced by a number of different factors, including things like where we are from, the time period in which we live, family environment, and so on. I’d like to hear what writers who’ve written, say, ten books have to say about this – I don’t feel I can speak with much authority having written just the one.
Must the writer – in order to develop, to occupy new realms – escape their pre-occupations, invite novel obsessions? Or to put it another way: do you feel any pressure/desire to recalibrate your lens for future work?
I like to believe that new stuff will keep finding me, that I just have to stay open to allowing it in. New material presents itself all the time. I think that creativity likes to keep stretching us and so, as long as we don’t shut it out, I believe that it will lead us constantly into new challenges. And I’m all the time encountering new-to-me writers whose work influences, to varying degrees, my own. After I’d finished the collection, I wrote some things that were quite different to anything in the book. There was, for example, a radio story for BBC Radio 4 called The Computer Speaks, a monologue written in the voice of a computer. There was also a short story written in a number of segments covering a number of different historical periods that was, in part, a ghost story. And for a while I toyed with the idea of inventing a new persona who would write in a different voice under a different name. That last one has yet to come to anything, though I liked how the first two turned out and I enjoyed working on them. And yet, if I were to analyze the computer story I would have to acknowledge that it’s a story involving communication difficulties and alternate time dimensions (a modern day computer gets regressed to an Amstrad 464) and the short story in different segments also grapples with communication difficulties and different dimensions, as well as with mental illness, so there’s that lens again…
As to recalibrating the lens, I don’t think I want to and anyway, I’m not even sure that it’s possible. I certainly feel no pressure to recalibrate it. The lens is central to bringing ‘me’ to the story and at the end of the day, there are only so many plots, so whatever newness and originality we have to offer as writers is rooted in ourselves, in our individual voice-prints. I think the lens is core not just to what story is told, but also to how it’s told. I think if I were to attempt to escape my pre-occupations I might end up playing writer Whack- a-Mole, you know that electronic game where you watch for moles popping up and every time you whack one on the head another one pops up somewhere else? Well, I think that’s what a writer attempting to rid herself of her pre-occupations would be like. And I imagine that the process of suppressing them would eat up a lot of creative energy that could otherwise be put to better use. And what if I did succeed in escaping them? I might find myself in a sanitised, bland place, devoid of oddities and deformities, without a dead animal in sight, and I’m not sure my fiction would be any the better for it. But I’m back now to reminding myself that so far I’ve written just the one book. Perhaps I should attempt to write a story with very single bit of every pre-occupation ruthlessly weeded out and see how that goes.