“Stories are a basic human need. Not in the sense that food is, we don’t need them to keep our hearts beating. But in the sense that as long as our hearts are beating we need to hear them, and there will be people called upon to make them.”
Philip O’Ceallaigh is the author of the short story collections Notes From A Turkish Whorehouse (2006), for which he was awarded the Rooney Prize, and The Pleasant Light of Day (2009). Both books are published by Penguin and were shortlisted for the Cork International Short Story Prize. He edited Sharp Sticks, Driven Nails (2010), a collection of contemporary short fiction. His stories have been widely anthologized and translated into a number of languages.
Given the relative prejudices and lower commercial impact experienced by collections, why do you write stories?
I write instinctively and my instinct is to write a story, get it down and be done with it, and I don’t think about length. The story imposes its own demands on the telling and that’s something I find out by doing it. A story can end up very much longer than I expect. What I’m saying is, I’m making it up as I go along. I can pay a certain amount of conscious attention to technical aspects, but for other things I’m in the passenger seat, pretty much, watching it happen.
The ‘novel’ is a publishing convention that deforms the story. If more attention were given to form there would be fewer novels and better stories. There’s no reason a publisher can’t put out a story that’s a hundred or even seventy pages long. But a publisher will look at a story like that as defective novel, ineligible for shortlists. It should be in a collection. Or pumped full of air, turned into a novel… It’s a pity. You see some good writers behaving like performing monkeys.
It’s true though, it’s hard to build a readership or earn a living writing stories, and there is a subtle pressure, always, to produce a novel, from publishers and agents and from your own desire to be read and to be eligible for prizes. These are all good things to ignore, if you can. Occasionally I worry that by not producing The Novel people will think I haven’t developed as I writer and I will die alone and unappreciated. Then I go take a big shit.
Whilst the story can hunt big game, it seems particularly adept at capturing nuances of human behaviour, subtle truths obliquely teased out, that quietly resonate long after reading. When writing are you aware of deliberately tackling themes, large or small, or do they emerge, as you term it, more instinctively?
Themes emerge after the fact, and it’s interesting when you read reviews or critics, the degree of premeditation they imagine. I’ve published thirty-something stories and I try to make sense of them one at a time. I find out what I’m doing by doing it. In telling a story, there are too many decisions to make and you can’t make them all consciously. You have to let yourself go.
But this has something to do also with how I see life, and the purpose for me of writing. I write to discover something, not so much to set down what I already know. I see ignorance and confusion all around me. I see these things in myself. I’m subject of all kinds of fears and conflicting desires. But one of those desires, the sanest one, is to see through the confusion. And just as we make music out of sound, we’re driven to make narrative sense out of images and words. We hunger to see the real world and our place in it. Reading and writing reflects this hunger, and sometimes satisfies it. So, I don’t want to be too glib in saying I write instinctively. Writing and reading are meditative acts.
I find the short story particularly powerful when a narrative silence is left for the reader, room for them to find meaning, perhaps even ‘complete’ the story. Is this something you’re aware of doing in your work, for example in your story ‘The Retreat from Moscow’? Is meaning in your stories ‘up for grabs’?
‘The Retreat From Moscow’ is an extreme example of a particular type of story – which is maybe why you chose it as an example – in that it depends almost entirely on a mood, an atmosphere, a sense of strangeness or enigma. So it has to succeed on that level. That was a story I wrote very quickly, with little forethought or reflection. But there are other stories which were all forethought and reflection, and in the case of those the challenge was for the meaning to flow, naturally, organically, from the narrative. It must be a story first. Overload it with what you wanted to say, the story collapses. There are a few writers, like Dostoevsky or Bellow, who can grapple with ideas on a grand scale and create narratives that work. But I think what you mean by ‘narrative silences’ is something which you notice particularly in shorter works of fiction – the very selective use of detail, the absence of information about a character.
Leaving out the kinds of things that would fill a novel. It’s about achieving an intensity of focus – and it can be focus on an atmosphere or an idea or on mood or both. Only that gets the story in the air and keeps it flying is what should be there. The rest is distraction, ballast. So, I don’t tell you much about the previous life of the narrator in ‘The Retreat From Moscow’, which is about mood, and nor do I do it in Tombstone Blues, which is bursting with ideas, or what you might call ‘meaning’. It’s not about being mysterious, it’s about being focused.
Some readers’ resistance to the story is often accompanied by an expression of feeling unsatisfied, almost cheated by a denouement that’s somehow incomplete or arcane, perhaps unfulfilling narratively. How, if anything, do you hope your readers feel when they finish your stories? And at risk of sneaking two questions into one: what should we make of such resistance?
It’s infamously hard to sell a collection of stories by a new or unknown writer because people expect they won’t be satisfied. And people are right. Shortness isn’t the problem. It’s the lack of form. Shorter works attract attention to their own form, so our expectations are high. There are no second chances or compensations. It works or it doesn’t. Short stories demand something from the writer and the reader and I think people are quite right not to be charitable when their effort is not rewarded. There’s so much crap out there.
I’d rather mention the great stuff though. Joyce’s and Hemingway’s best work is in the short story. Tolstoy’s War and Peace is overblown – do yourself a favour and read his Death of Ivan Ilych. Bukowski is a lesson in concision – to pass from his narrative poems to his stories is a lesson in the arbitrariness of forms. Isaac Babel is a revelation. Isaac Bashevis Singer. Until this year I’d never read Varlam Shalamov – truly great, inspiring, beautiful short stories. And yet a record of the gulags to stand alongside Solzhenitsyn’s.
I had the honour of playing DJ last year, editing a collection for The Stinging Fly Press (Sharp Sticks, Driven Nails). I wasn’t even aiming for a collection by unknown writers, I just wanted the best stories I could get my hands on. But the stories mostly turned out to be by new writers. You haven’t heard of David Mohan or Colin Barrett or James Moyhnihan because they haven’t got books out, but these people have produced accomplished short stories. And you haven’t heard of Zakhar Prilepin from Russia or Radu Pavel Gheo from Romania, because they’ve never appeared in English, except in that book… How do I hope readers feel after finishing one of my stories? Like they’ve shared the journey I took when I wrote it, whatever that happened to be. Reality is bigger than anything I can find to say about it and any failure of technique, of vision, are there on the page, plain to see. Give the book to the dog to chew, if it didn’t move you. Don’t let it block up the bookcase with negative energy.
I meet people who tell me things like, ‘I read your book in two days’. Please don’t do that. These things take me years to write. Slow down. Everything you read, slow down. Reading is our great act of resistance in this age of speed and carelessness.
I wondered if you could say a little more about the scope of the story, whether it can (or should) claim qualities beyond providing pleasure or entertainment, such as didacticism or allusions to some human truth, without, as you say, the story collapsing. Perhaps to put it another way: should the story have pretensions to be art? This question came to mind after reading your extraordinary and powerful story ‘A Performance’, in which a performance artist opens his chest and displays his beating heart on stage. The audience discuss what, if anything, it meant, declaring that ‘it had not been elaborate at all, but it had been affecting’. I also wondered whether this could be said of the best short fiction…
Stories are modest looking things with the big pretensions, in that they offer the chance to fuse poetry with the power and clarity of narrative. Now, the word art is tricky, and I tend to avoid it because it has a lot of romantic baggage hanging from it and you never know what is really being talked about. I remember passing an art gallery in Greece, and ‘techne’ was written on the sign. We get our word for technique and technology from their word for art. I thought that was good, because it’s at least clear. It refers to the craft. A craft is an impersonal discipline, while we, when talking about artists, tend to emphasise the uniqueness of the artist as a personality.
There is no such thing as pure spontaneity in art. You have to train to be spontaneous. Before you play jazz you have to master the instrument. And I think of Kerouac, that exemplar of spontaneous prose – read his journals (Windblown World, Journals of Jack Kerouac 1947-54) and you get a taste of the religious intensity which he devoted to the act of writing, for years, in order to reach a point where he could write something like On the Road. It’s technique, it’s craft. Or what they call style. Without style, you’re just another nut talking to the wall.
A story has to be engaging, that’s the craft, getting the hook in and pulling you along. And the greatest part of the craft is the achievement of simplicity. Intellectuals make something complicated out of something simple, artists render something simple from the complexity. Maybe this is why I just used the word artist. Because it seems like a magic trick.
I think though, in asking about the ‘art’ of the short story you are in fact referring to something beyond the technique employed. I think you’re referring to the very point of it. Which to me is the very point of being alive. And that is, before we do anything, we must make some kind of sense of what we have in front of our eyes. If that’s the case, the impulse to see the world reflected in stories is no different from a religious impulse, a desire to see to the heart of things, and ourselves. That’s quite a drug and you need to watch the dosage. Enter the performer in the story you mentioned and his messianic idea of art, revealing his beating heart to the crowd. He believes the world needs his sacrifice. It does, in a way. But there are other shows on in town too.
With funding to the arts curtailed and developments such as the digitizing of books, do you think the short story has a healthy future?
I like funding for the arts because I get trips paid for to festivals and events in different countries, usually thanks to the Irish taxpayer. And work published in magazines that wouldn’t exist without subsidies, and so on. These things are nice, they allow people to meet and exchange ideas. But the short story as a form doesn’t rely on it. The real writers are tenacious creatures, and they found a way long before there were writers workshops and creative writing courses in the universities. In the absence of formal frameworks, personal initiatives and informal frameworks become more important.
Stories are a basic human need. Not in the sense that food is, we don’t need them to keep our hearts beating. But in the sense that as long as our hearts are beating we need to hear them, and there will be people called upon to make them. Even in the most adverse circumstances. I mentioned Shalamov – he describes how in the prison camps the people who knew stories and poems were valued. The gulags were a deformed society, and there the people in a position to pay were the toughest element, the non-political criminals, so the arts revolved around them.
It’s not of any importance whether the short story as a form flourishes or dies. If it disappears it will be because the impulse behind it has gone somewhere else, into longer stories, or songs, or performance, or a few people huddled around a fire, passing the time, as it was in the beginning.