Tuesday, 23 November 2010


Writer and designer Seán Mackel joins me today to celebrate the publication of his first short story collection by Guildhall Press, The River. The book will be launched this Thursday 25th November @ 7:30pm in the Clarendon Bar, Derry. 
Seán held the post of Senior Lecturer in Graphic Design at University of Ulster Magee. After establishing the first Master of Design in the north of Ireland he became a key contributor to the formation of the School of Creative Arts at UU Magee. After over twenty years lecturing in Australia, Germany and Ireland he took early retirement in 2007.

Welcome, Seán. Tell us about your new short story collection The River.
I was a bit of a rascal as a kid. When I told my mother a ‘fiction,’ she would often say to me, “Do you think I came up the river in a bubble?” To be honest I think in a way we all have, if we see life as a river and the womb as a bubble. I was born in the front bedroom of a house on a street called Owenvarragh, from Abhainn Bharrach - barred river, in Belfast from Béal Feirste - mouth of the sandbank.
              Before coming to Derry I lived near other rivers, the Ligoniel in North Belfast, the Swilly in Donegal, and later the Murrumbidgee in New South Wales. In recent years I spent the New Year staying by the Pegnitz in Nürnberg. When I returned from Australia I settled along the banks of the Foyle. No surprise then that the 13 short stories in my collection are thematically linked by a river, in this case the Foyle.
              But in exploring narratives linked by the Foyle, I was influenced by one translation of An Feabhal as ‘estuary of the lip.’ And it was this link between life and language, which intrigued me. So the first story in my collection acknowledges the Irish language as the roots of our imagination. The collection then flows forward from the 1920s, through the 40s, and addressing the Troubles, it continues up to the present day featuring characters from Australia, the Czech Republic, Germany, France and Poland.
              Given our recent history in the North, the title story, “The River”, explores the idea of truth. It is placed at the physical centre of the book. Like the River Foyle itself it has the capacity to divide and, more importantly, to unite.
              But equally in mining the character of a city and a region on the cusp of cultural celebration, I wanted to absorb influences and interests of my own from art, music, writing and performance. Whilst there are stories of history and loss, there are also stories of humour and hope. And in a gesture towards our own instinctive tendency to dream, to imagine something greater waiting for us up ahead; like the title of the last story we are not unlike the river ourselves, “Dreaming of the Sea”.

Why do you write?

Because I also work in the visual field I find my mind is often a jumble of different threads of thought. I think I write as means towards disentanglement. Drawing my thoughts out onto the page or screen helps me see what I think. I find the process of writing to be very similar to sketching, making initial, sometimes tentative gestures towards some semblance of form until the thing itself becomes organic and finds its own shape or voice. The more I write the more I feel the need to. But it’s a strange urge, as though the drive to express, the need to make, has its own agenda.

What is your writing process – morning or night – longhand or laptop?

Like most processes it has adapted with the times. I do still carry a notebook and pen; you can’t beat the immediacy of just putting your thoughts directly onto paper. But I would be completely lost without my (Mac) laptop. The process of writing is so accumulative; word-processing software is an absolute must for saving various versions, copy and paste, restructuring and accessing the web for little bits of logistical narrative detail.

Who is the writer you most admire?

Ciaran Carson, a hugely gifted poet, prose writer, and translator.

Which short story would you like to see on the Leaving Cert?

“Crossing the River” by David Park, is a deceptively powerful story told from the point of view of the oarsman who rows passengers oblivious to their destination, across the river to their afterlife.

What is your favourite bookshop?

Without a shadow of a doubt, it has to be Galway’s Charlie Byrnes.

What one piece of advice would you offer beginning writers?

The receipt of honest feedback is pure gold. Get out there and participate in constructive critical workshops. But be wary of the mutually therapeutic variety, as they tend to feed the ego and not the voice.

The River is available through Guildhall Press from Monday 22 November here.


Rachel Fenton said...

Really enjoyed your questions, Nuala, and Seán's indepth answers - so much information in the one interview there. Thank you for that - and for giving me yet another book to order/read! Looking forward to it.


Rachel, you'll be the most well read English person of Irish writers in the Southern Hemisphere!
Thanks for tuning in. N x

BarbaraS said...

That's gas! I was on the MA in Queen's with Sean. I loved his stories and hope to get this book soon!


B - no way! Cool!

Tania Hershman said...

Great interview - and great tip about workshops! Thanks Sean and Nuala.