by Hubert O’Hearn
Let’s imagine a scene together. You’ve received an invitation to a swank literary event, one of those champagne and piano evenings where the conversation is all dry wit and sincere chuckling; hands are kissed, cuffs are linked, and may I say you’ve never looked lovelier? You wander through the room, not quite sure who to talk to but finally somewhere near the Utrillo hanging above the cheese selection you find yourself chatting with a very bright young woman whose face you don’t recognize from a dust jacket. (Well you certainly can tell a face from a dust jacket, I hope, but you know what I mean.) So she tells you that she’s a writer and you ask what she writes and she says “short stories” and you say: “Are you working on a novel?”
Short story writers go through some version of this — oh what’s the right word? — crap virtually every day and by the dozen at book launches and book signings. I’m not quite sure when it was historically that the novel and novelists elbowed every other creative form of literature hard in the ribs and shoved past the others to the front of the line, but there it is. And we only do to writers, this nearly reflexive dismissal of those who work in condensed formats. No one has ever gone to the Louvre, stood in front of La Gioconda and muttered, “Well if Leonardo had been on his game, that would have been a mural.” No one who has ever seen a Frank Lloyd Wright house has asked, “Where’s the rest of the neighborhood?” And finally, no one ever listened to a Duke Ellington song and then sniffed to whomever else was in the room while opining, “Not an opera? Lazy bastard.”
And yet, some of our finest literary work has emerged from the form of the short story. Alice Munro and John Cheever, of course; and also you can make a strong argument that Hemingway’s “The Killers,” Fitzgerald’s “A Diamond as Big as The Ritz,” and Chekhov’s “The Lottery Ticket” are just as strong, just as lasting in their personal impact as any of their longer works. As the Duke of Windsor may or may not have said, size simply doesn’t matter.
So it was that, not long after I moved back to Ireland after a short stay in England I requested an anthology of new Irish writing titled Young Irelanders (New Island Books). Simply put, I wanted to know what and who was worth reading in my adopted country. (You might not know this, so let me explain: I’m an expatriate Canadian. How’s it goin’, eh?) Within that book, which is absolutely astonishing in its quality, I discovered a story and a writer that I unreservedly love: “How to Learn Irish in 17 Steps” by Roisin O’Donnell. As I’m in a generous mood, here is a link to that story. Go ahead and read it now. I’ll wait.
Now that story has everything I want in a piece of writing: warmth, humour, originality, education, and characters I care about. As such. I sought out Roisin O’Donnell for two podcast interviews, one just after I had read Young Irelanders and the second just prior to the release of her collection of stories titled Wild Quiet (New Island Books).
Roisin O’Donnell is in her late twenties and was born in Sheffield, England to parents with roots in Derry, Northern Ireland. When she was 18, she moved to Ireland with her family and was at first excited to be coming back to what she had felt was home. You see, when she was living in Yorkshire, she was identified as “the Irish girl,” however that did not hold up so much when she actually came to the small island of her ancestry.
“The sense of home, and belonging, and what is home is a theme in the stories. It’s always been a theme in my life, I suppose. Growing up I always felt very much Irish. I was always encouraged to feel that way. I would have done Irish dancing lessons and we always had Irish music in the house and just, whenever we went on summer trips to Derry it was always referred to as ‘trips home,’ even though we’d never really lived there. So I always had this real sense of being Irish.
“But then what happened was, my Dad got a job in Dublin when I was 18, and so the whole family moved to Dublin, and I just was sure that I was as Irish as the next person. But then, I was constantly confronted with this attitude from other people that I was not actually Irish, ‘you’re English!’ From my accent you know, people would presume that I was English. So I suppose, you know, the idea of identity became a big thing for me.”
As life would have it, when Roisin went on to become a primary school teacher, leading classes with multi-cultural children from immigrant families under her care furthered her interest in identity. Although it certainly was not a plan at the time, working with children and observing how they would struggle to fit in became a sort of ideal, albeit accidental, research study.
“I found myself working in an area of Dublin, sort of north in the suburbs where there’s [a] very large immigrant community. In the school that I was teaching in, I think there was 32 kids in a class. You might have had only one or two were sort of, what you would call Irish in the sense of having two Irish parents and being born in Ireland. So most of the kids would have at least one parent from elsewhere. And I became really interested I suppose in their take on Irishness. So I think that that’s a concern that popped up in quite a few of the stories.”
When it came time for Wild Quiet, Roisin’s first collection of a dozen stories, two of them are linked. Both “How to be a Billionaire” and “Crushed” center on the same group of three children, although the two stories are set three years apart.
“Kingsley is a boy whose parents are from Nigeria, although he’s been born and bred in Dublin. He has learning difficulties and he’s negotiating his sense of belonging. At one point in [“How to be a Billionaire”) someone shouts through their letterbox, “Go back to Africa!” so his sister shouts back, “We’re not from Africa! We’re from the Navan Road!” So it’s this constantly trying to define where he’s from.
“It’s very much, I think, a voice-driven story. Which, I mean, it’s a gift when it happens. With some stories you just really get into the voice. The voice of the character just really propels the story. So I spent a good bit of time with this character of Kingsley, and I really liked him as a character. And then, when I started writing “Crushed” it was initially going to be a different group of characters, but then the more I got into the story I realized that this central figure was actually the same boy that I had written about before; it was Kingsley.
“It was a bit of a risk I suppose to include the two linked stories. I think it was like the last decision I made before kind of going to print. I remember talking to Dan Bolger from New Island Books, the Commissioning Editor, and saying, “Aw you know, should I do this or not?” because I felt that maybe it hadn’t been done that often in a short story collection, to have two linked stories. But I sort of realized that, well look, it’s all about taking risks, now isn’t it? And I felt that it works, and I wanted (the book) to show more of these characters.”
I have had many versions of what can be broadly stated a “Defend yourself Sir!” conversation with short story writers, wherein I ask them to explain the worth of their genre. And yes, of course that is grossly unfair. Hearkening back to an earlier point, among the thousands (millions?) of questions Sir Paul McCartney has had to field, I rather doubt that one of them has been, “Are rock singles popular?” But, short story writing has been seen as the Desperation Zone for would-be/should-be novelists for far too long. Within that, Roisin O’Donnell gave as eloquent a defense of her genre as any as I have heard.
“It’s not like I think, ‘Today I’m going to write a story about a Somali child.” I would never force it like that. It’s just that if a certain story, a certain voice, comes to me then I follow it, I suppose to see how far it can lead me really. It can be the first line, like, ‘U N I C E F, those were the first English letters I learned how to read’ and, I don’t know, that just came into my head one day and I just really followed that voice to see where it would go.
“I take it for granted that, yeah, that’s what writing is all about, is exploring different perspectives. I think I’d get very bored if I was just writing from my own perspective all the time, you know? I suppose a lot of collections are, you know, I suppose similar to each other. But to me … the whole thing with a short story collection is you have a great opportunity to really take on different voices and different angles and – it may be stating the obvious – but it’s not a novel you know? It doesn’t need to be. Each story doesn’t need to be the same.”
Yes! Aye, that’s the definition of the beast that I have sought. If I might close with a metaphor of Christmas, a novel is like the present under the tree, that major gift that has been chosen with care and a great deal of money spent. And that is all lovely, if the clothes fit or the jewelry fits, and if everything matches the taste of the receiver. But short stories? Those are the Christmas stockings stuffed with fruit and chocolate, silly games and puzzles, and that very odd thing deep down in the toe that you still have with you oh so many, many years later. I bow to the novelists, the great grand gifts they bear. But I hug the short story writers, the Roisin O’Donnells, for they and she are the fonts of endless surprise and surprise, mes chers amis, are the sheer joys that make getting up on Christmas morning, or opening a book, worthwhile. ◊
Hubert O’Hearn is a writer/editor born in Canada and currently living in Ireland. Author of four books, as a reviewer he has previously been on the editorial staff of Winnipeg Review, San Francisco Book Review, Le Herald de Paris et Cie and many other publications.