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Archive for the ‘Short Story’ Category

Lake Disappointment wins The Michael McLaverty Award.

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The shortlisted writers for the Michael McLaverty Award (2016) – Ciaran Folan, Sinead Slattery and Kevin Doyle

Some time last summer I read online that that the Michael McLaverty Award (2016) was open for submissions. The prestigious prize, run biennially since 2006, was set up to foster and encourage the tradition of the Irish short story. It is hosted by Belfast’s Linen Hall Library in honour of the life and work of Michael McLaverty (1904 – 1992), one of the foremost exponents of the short story form. Michael McLaverty was born in Co Monaghan and later moved to Belfast where he worked for most of his life as a teacher. In a fitting tribute to one of the leading cultural institutions in Belfast, the Michael McLaverty papers were donated to the Linen Hall Library in 2005 by his literary executors.

I had finished Lake Disappointment in May. It was a story that I had laboured over for a while. The characters and setting – Kenmare in Ireland and the Pilbara in Australia – had been on my mind for a considerable length of time but I struggled in early drafts to find a voice through which the story’s story could be told. I experimented and gave up a few times. However, I always returned to the story. On one occasion I was passing outside Kenmare  in Co Kerry – my father was from an area known as Maulnagower, outside Kenmare – and I looked at the landscape, at the bleak and beautiful McGillycuddy Reeks, and I knew I had to finish the story. It would come good, I just needed to persevere.

The theme of the 2016 Michael McLaverty prize was ‘Lost Fields’, a reference to his novel about working-class life in 1930s Belfast. I had Lake Disappointment finished and realised that it suited the theme, so I sent it off. For much of last year I worked on a novel set in Cork and I more or less forgot that I had entered the prize. In early November I heard from Samantha McCombe, the head librarian at Linen Hall Library, that I was on the shortlist. On December 7th, in Belfast, at the Linen Hall Library itself, I was announced as the winner.

At the award ceremony, Patsy Horton (of Blackstaff Press), a judge along with the author David Park, said this about the theme and the prize:

Prizes like the Michael McLaverty Short Story Award are a fantastic opportunity for writers to gain recognition and profile for their writing. I’ve been delighted to be associated with the award this year and to see the very many ways in which writers chose to tackle the theme of ‘Lost Fields’. There were a good number of common threads among the stories, not least of all a focus on the land and inter-generational conflict around inheritance, legacies and tradition. Not surprisingly, emigration, as both loss and redemption, also featured strongly. There is something of this idea in the winning piece, but Kevin Doyle gives it a deeper, richer, more mysterious resonance in a story that takes the reader all the way to Western Australia and the vast unending salt plain of Lake Disappointment.’

Winning was a huge honour. I try to take risks with short stories, not necessarily to be experimental, but rather to look ‘elsewhere’ for subjects to write about. In many ways Lake Disappointment exemplified this. As a story it didn’t come easy. I had to delve deeper inside than I had before to get at the centre of the story. The risk is always there that the story won’t work in the end – that means a lot of time and effort has been lost. For awhile Lake Disappointment looked like it was going to go that way, then it came good. Getting onto the shortlist was, in itself, an endorsement; winning the overall prize was not only a  boost but also an invitation to keep going, to write what I want to write about. Lake Disappointment is a love story but it is also about the search for place and peace in a world back-dropped by intolerance. mcl2

Finally, the winning stories and those of the other shortlisted writers, Ciarán Folan (A Parting Gift) and Sinéad Slattery (for First Snow) have been published as “Lake Disappointment and Other Stories” by Linen Hall Library and are available to order online. A huge thanks to Linen Hall Library for their effort and committment to the short story form. Michael McLaverty would, I feel, be proud.

Links:

Press Release by Linen Hall Library, Belfast

Linen Hall Library Announce …

Culture Northern Ireland on the Michael McLaverty Awards, 2016

Irish Times: Kevin Doyle Wins Michael McLaverty Award

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“We Are Interred Here With Certain Rights… ”

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‘We should march on City Hall,’ announced my mother. ‘That’s what I’ve been saying. Let’s make a stand.’ She raised her voice even higher. ‘Could City Hall hold out against us? Against all of us, I mean, the interred? Together, united, marching down Patrick Street? I don’t think so. All it takes…’

We Should Be Beyond This, my short story about our plight, has just been published in the current issue of Southwords (No 25, December), the online journal of the Munster Literature Centre.  

Please go here to read the story.

To view and read Southwords 25 go here.

We Should Be Beyond This was a commended runner-up in the 2013 Seán Ó Faoláin Prize judged by Joyce Russel.  My thanks to the MLC for all their ongoing support for short story writers and the short story form.

About “Do You Like Oranges?”

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Do You Like Oranges?is a collection of three short stories, each of which is concerned with State repression.  The setting for the stories is the Ireland of the late 70s/ early 80s.

At the time, repression and ‘counter-terrorism’ were widely used in Northern Ireland by the RUC in conjunction with the British Army.  It is less well known that in the Republic (26 counties) the State used similar methods with clear disregard for human rights.  The intention was identical: to instill a climate of fear among political activists.  These stories then are of that time.

In the shortest story, But Your Mother, the central character is made aware of what the consequences might be for him if he continues with what he is doing.  The choice that he will have to make is not resolved in the story but it is significant and cannot be ignored.  The story is told in a first person narrative voice with the dilemma posed remaining interior to the character’s persona, underlining the personal and private nature of such choices.

In the title story, Do You Like Oranges? the main character has been the victim of a serious beating at the hand of Garda Special Branch.  The key events take place in and around the Hungers Strikes in the Maze Prison, although the location for the story is Cork – a city geographically removed from the conflict that was ongoing in Northern Ireland at that time.  In the aftermath of the assault the victim was threatened in such a way that he believed he was going to die.

We first meet the main character on his return to Ireland from exile in Australia.  Events and circumstances which are only broadly alluded to in the story have propelled him to come back and confront  the man who tortured him.

In this story the main character is about to take the matter of justice into his own hands.  This, to an extent, is what makes the story tick – the determination to seek some re-dress.  While the relevance of the story has receded in terms of the conflict in Ireland, the central concern in the story – the ability of torturers to evade justice and judgement – remains a pressing issue in particular with the resurgence in the use of torture in the post 9/11 period, particularly in the USA and the UK.

For example what should we do when the State de facto avoids its responsibilities in respect to the need and demand for justice.  Or what should we do when the State itself organises the business of torture and is resistant to any attempts to hold it or any of its agents to account?  Not an unusual occurrence in fact.

The third and final story, Down The Tunnels takes a different approach and is written from the point of view of a police officer who was involved in beating a confession from a number of innocent men.  The story resonates with the events of the infamous Sallins Train Robbery case (here in Ireland) when Nicky Kelly and a number of other men were falsely accused and convicted of a robbery that they had no part in.  The story focuses in an entirely imaginative and fictional way on what the motivation  might be for a police officer who knowingly seeks the conviction of an innocent man.

The three stories that make up the short collection have all been previously published. The title story was an Ian St James International Short Story Award winner and appeared in Pulse Fiction (London, 1998) and Snapshots (London, 1999).  Down The Tunnels was first published in The Cúirt Journal 7 (Galway, 1999) and But Your Mother in Stinging Fly (Dublin, 1999) and Southwords (Cork, 2000).

This collection is now available in all the main digital formats at Smashwords or Amazon.

Silence Now Pervades (The Pensive Quill)

Excerpt from Do You Like Oranges? (The Pensive Quill)

But Your Mother – Audio Reading

 

The Hand of God – A Short Story (Video reading)

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The most popular [theory] I recall was from a quiet boy whose name I now forget.  He advanced the idea that Brother Bannister enjoyed hitting us.  When this boy first stated his view, it was followed, it should be said, by a deathly silence.  Then everyone laughed.

Background: This story arose from a chance meeting with an old school friend in Cork.  Inevitably we talked about that time and this led onto a conversation about one Christian Brother who had a particularly violent temper; a lot of them had just ordinary tempers.  Later on however it struck me how this Brother had lived on in our minds for the wrong reasons.

This got me to wondering about what we must have thought at the time – when we were boys.  You try to rationalise everything as a child even things that make no sense.  But what did we make of this Brother’s violent ways and how did it match with the idea of God that was being preached to us?

Maybe the story is a metaphor for the violence of religion.  God is far from loving in this story; in fact the main theory put forward by the boys suggests that God is willfully assisting in the reign of terror.

The sadism of the Brother is another feature of the story.  The boys of course do not understand what sadism is but they are beginning to see that in this Brother’s case, he is enjoying his violence and power.

What remained then with the boys afterwards and how did it affect  them in their lives – if it even did?

 

Don’t Mention The War at Frank O’Connor Short Story Festival

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2003 invasion of Iraq

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Sometimes the best way to get your hands on the cream of short story writing for the year is to get along to the Frank O’Connor Short Story Festival, held in Cork.  This year the short list of six writer (see below) for what is regarded by many as the most prestigious prize for the short story in the world, included five writers from the United States.

There is no doubt that the short story is a valued form in the States.  Publications such as the New Yorker have in particular promoted the discipline and must be credited for their support for the short story over the years.  Frank O’Connor himself benefited enormously from US patronage when he struggled to make a living here in Ireland all those years ago.  Furthermore we cannot easily dismiss writers of the caliber of Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Jane Anne Philips and Annie Proulx – to name just a few of the accomplished writers who have penned stories from over in the States.

But – and here’s the thing – it stuck me forcefully this year, with the US having such a strong presence in the final shortlist, that there is something wrong.  The United States after all is at war.  Actually it is fighting not just one war but two – in Iraq and Afghanistan.   These wars, it must be underlined, are major conflicts.

In 2003 the United States led coalition invaded Iraq. It deposed the regime there and installed another one.  Massive civilian casualties were suffered and many atrocities occurred.  It was discovered that torture and the ill-treatment of prisoner by US forces was rife – recall the Abu Ghraib revelations.  In sum Iraq has been bombed into a relic of what it was once by the US war machine for dubious and long discredited objectives.  Then there is the war in Afghanistan.  Attacked in 2001 it has been in a state of crisis for nearly 9 years.  Again the casualties have been massive.  Torture has been rife and there is the ongoing plague of drone bombings which have in fact escalated in intensity since the Barak Obama’s election.  Significant numbers of civilians have been massacred.  We are talking here of outrages as serious as what Guernica represents to modern warfare.  Now however it seems as if atrocities of the scale of Guernica have become so commonplace that they are hardly commented on any more.  But they are still outrages and they are still happening.

What has all this got to do with the short story?   Well, for me, it is this.  Here, on this occasion in Cork, we have five US short story writers shortlisted for a prestigious international award.  These are very good writers – some are new and have produced debut collections while others like TC Boyle and Ron Rash are established.   But is there one significant story about the above wars in the collective output from these writers?  Well, so far, if it is there, I haven’t been able to find it.  And by the way if someone does find such a story, then do let me know.

The pat explanation of course is that stories or literature (and art), if you want, are above these base matters.  Or another generous explanation might be that the material for stories about these wars has yet to filter down through the great sponge that is contemporary life and civilisation.  In other words, with regard to US output these stories will come in time – as indeed they did when we look back at the invasion of Vietnam by the US.

The above points are indeed reasonable.  Or are they?  Do they explain the avoidance of these US wars – that’s the question? Or maybe avoidance is too strong a word – is it?   ‘Omission’ perhaps?  Lack of interest perhaps?  Well what then?  Why silence about such important and vital events?

I accept that this blog observation of mine is not a scientifically valid study of contemporary US fiction and it’s engagement with war.  Fair enough. Nor is it intended to be of course!  And perhaps there is an explanation, or part of one, in the process of selection for the Prize – from long list to short list even.  There were, I think, over twenty US writers on the long list so, maybe, along the way the writers of war stories were weeded out.  I don’t know if that is so.  And so maybe I am getting the wrong end of the stick here?

But my main point has been taken up elsewhere too.  The dearth of novels about the current US wars has already been previously noted.  US writer and small press publisher, Tony Christini has pointed out in a number of articles that there is serious lack of material emerging in the States to do with the current wars.  Tony Christini’s points to a number of reasons for the paucity of fiction relating to these wars.  Publishers are business people (as we all know – don’t we?) and as such they are uncomfortable with any rocking of the boat.  And on the writer side, a focus on these wars  can lead to the stigmatization of the writer as ‘political’ or as ‘having an agenda’.  Apparently such qualities are good for your career.  So is the issue censorship or perhaps more worrying still: self censorship?

Returning to the collections at this years prize, something else struck me though.  And this in some ways is the most disturbing thing.  It is not just that the collections concerned here don’t touch on the various wars now being waged by the USA.  Rather there is also the inverse problem: this indeed is even more damning of the state of writing in the US to my mind.  What I mean is: the picture that emerges of the Untied States from the collective output of the shortlisted US writers for this years Prize is of a society NOT at war.   Indeed the concerns of many of the characters is rather of a world not unlike our own.  (Note that Ireland is not currently at war or in the process of invading any other countries – that I know of anyway.) What I mean is that the characters obsess about normal and everyday concerns (mean neighbours; bad parenting and so on and so forth).  And perhaps this is the double injustice of the literary output from the States as exemplified by this shortlist.  In these times the ugly truth of a nation at war and a society driven by a voracious military-industrial complex is not only not being examined, it could even be argued it is being airbrushed from the picture we are being offered to see of that same society.

As a short short writer myself and as someone who has always admired Frank O’Connor’s engagement with the political, I must say I am unsettled by what I’ve read, and by this short list.  But lastly let me say a few words about the worthy winner, Ron Rash.  His stories in this collection are a cut above the others IMHO – going by the US entries anyway.  While I couldn’t find any stories in his collection, Burning Bright, about the current US wars, this in a way is not surprising since his work has a focus on the southern, US Civil War dynamic.  Fair enough I suppose.  Indeed Rash’s collection points out well the problems in what I am attempting to draw attention to here and I accept that. Burning Bright is very good in its own right and indeed all the collections are worthy.  It’s just as I say: how can you, you know… (… THE WAR).  It’s still on everyone, isn’t it?  Right now.

The Short List:

If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This (Picador UK, 2010) by Robin Black
Mattaponi Queen (Graywolf Press, 2010) by Belle Boggs
Wild Child (Bloomsbury, 2010) by TC Boyle
The Shieling (Comma Press, 2009) by David Constantine
Burning Bright (HarperCollins, 2010) by Ron Rash
What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us (Dzanc Books, 2009) by Laura van den Berg

Note: TC Boyle had to withdraw from the final contest due to an his inability to travel to Cork for the Festival.

The Long List is here.  (Scroll to the end.)

Related Articles

Irish short story about Garda brutality online

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I’ve put up an audio (mp3 format) of But Your Mother, the second story from The Heavy Gang triptych of stories I wrote in the late 90s.  The story is about the ‘hidden from view’ intimidation that political activists have to face when they take a stand against injustice.  It is told from the point of view of the activist who arrives home from a protest about unemployment only to find that the Special Branch have been to his house and gone.

Take a listen … and let me know what you think.

the hand of god …

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Latest story on my web site ties in with the horrendous details revealed by the recently published Ryan Report.  I wrote the story back in the late 90s after meeting a friend of mine from school.  We both ended up taking about our school days and about the fear we felt.  I would go further now …  one of the important things about the release of the Ryan Report is that it allows us all to be more honest about that period and what we were subjected to.  It is not an easy place to go back to – that has to be said.  But what I would say now is that it was not fear that I felt but rather terror – I was scared out of my wits so much of the time.  So the story comes from that.

But now since publication of the report I think of how lucky I was.  I was in secondary school when I suffered at the hands at the Christian Brothers but at least I could get away at the end of the school day.  At least.  I shudder now to think of those who encountered the Christian Brothers and the nuns and were at their mercy 24/7.

Today so many have marched in Dublin in solidarity with those who have suffered.  It is great to see.  Something at least.

To the story…

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