Monday, 18 August 2014


To celebrate the publication of beheading the virgin mary, and other stories (Dalkey Archive Press), I welcome Dónal McLaughlin to the blog today for a chat about writing in general and short stories in particular.
Author Dónal McLaughlin
 Dónal was born in Northern Ireland, but moved to Scotland as a child. His début collection, an allergic reaction to national anthems (2009), was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award, and nominated for the EIBF Readers’ Best First Book Award, both in 2010. He is a recipient of the Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial Award, was Scottish PEN's first écrivain sans frontières, and is a former Hawthornden Fellow. He is also a literary translator, specialising in contemporary Swiss fiction. He featured in Best European Fiction 2012 both as a writer and a translator. He has been called ‘one of the brightest lights of European fiction.’

Hi Dónal and welcome to WWR.

Your latest story collection is beheading the virgin mary, and other stories. It’s a great title. Personally I am mildly obsessed with titles and titling. What’s your approach?

Titles, whether of individual stories or collections, tend to come to me late. I may have a working title or no title at all when first writing a story. The working title will reflect the initial idea for the story or where I think it might go. The eventual title, of course, has to be a good fit for the finished story as a whole. For that reason, a story in my new book came to be called ‘a day out’ rather than the working title ‘thirteen’ - the age of one of the characters.
   One thing I know about titles is: I prefer them to be in lower case. Partly to avoid other people’s rules about which words are entitled to a capital letter, and which not. Partly for the (more modest) look. The ‘music’ and rhythm of titles are important too.
   In the case of ‘an allergic reaction to national anthems’, I sensed immediately that this would also be a great title for the book. The second collection had two possible title stories before I ever thought of writing ‘beheading the virgin mary’. When that story came along, though, I knew the title would pair well with that of my first book. As half the stories in both books are part of my ‘loose sequence’ of Liam stories, that particular ‘good fit’ was very welcome!

Language and voice are key in your work. Your stories are told in a Derry-Glasgow colloquial hybrid that works brilliantly. Did your editor at Dalkey offer any resistance to the language in your work?

Not at all. Keen to respect my ‘creative vision’, Sydney Weinberg even contacted me to ask about some aspects of my work before she started editing. I really appreciated that.
   Everyone at Dalkey has been brilliant. Our association began when Aleksandar Hemon selected ‘enough to make your heart’ for Best European Fiction. I later learned on a visit to Dublin that people at Dalkey loved the language, the rhythms, when they saw the first proof. So, no - no resistance!
   Editors are more likely to ask questions or make suggestions when it comes to translations – but Jeremy Davies, the editor I’ve worked with most, does so very sensitively. The need for such input is understandable given that anthologies like Best European Fiction consist largely of translations - done by many different translators from different countries. A level of editorial consistency throughout each volume is required, obviously.

I heard you say at a Q&A, at the International Conference of the Short Story in Vienna this year, that you do not intend to write a novel. What is it in the short story form that suits your purposes so well?

I probably said I don’t feel the need to write a novel, Nuala - a phrase I found myself repeating the month before in Germany. What suits me about the short story is its shortness! There was a time in my life when I could at most hope to find the time and energy to write a story. A novel would have been unthinkable. That said, a novel wasn’t the goal then either. The works that impressed me most at a crucial age were stories. I always say too: in everyday life, we tell each other stories - not novels! I’m also intrigued by how we tell the stories we tell – oblivious to the models that (I hear) are taught on courses.

Many of the stories in the collection feature the ten-year-old Liam O’Donnell. There is great scope in the humorous, innocent voice of a child. Can you tell us a little about the challenges and joys of writing from a child’s POV?

A number of stories in both collections focus on the O’Donnell family in their first years in Scotland – so Liam is in his pre-teens, yes. He and the rest of the mahoods do grow up, though. By ‘beheading the virgin mary’, they’re even the middle generation. Their language changes too: still ‘Derry’ in the first stories in each book, it’s clearly Scottish by the final story of each collection. – I should maybe explain to your readers that both books have a zigzag structure: the Liam stories alternate with ‘other’ stories. (Another example of me resisting the novel!)
   The narrator isn’t in fact a child. I think in terms of an ‘unspecified narrator’ who uses the language and voices of a BIG family - and the community they live in, first in Derry, then in Paisley - to tell these stories. The voice runs through the whole story, not just any dialogue. We’re talking ‘third person as if first’ often here.
   My hope is that by being true to these voices and perspectives, I can suggest things about e.g. the Troubles. There’s no place in the stories, normally, for abstract language or analysis. ‘broken peaces’ in my first book – with its focus on someone “teaching” the Troubles - is the exception. I’d much rather have the life, colour, warmth and humour that come with the other forms of language we’ve been talking about. And whatever is then conveyed between the lines.

Liam is from Northern Ireland but lives in Scotland. You explore the Troubles and religious strife through him. Is Liam’s narrative a way of exploring your own past, and that of Northern Ireland?

For every would-be writer there is the question: what do I have to write about? Many years ago now, I realised that, for me, it was the Troubles. That I had a special perspective on them maybe as - once we emigrated to Scotland - I only ever experienced them on holiday every two or three years. I realised back then, too, that there were stories to tell about sectarianism in the west of Scotland. Stories to tell about the church and religion, too. That’s what I was thinking anyhow as I wrote my first Liam story. - I didn’t know at the time that it would be the first of twenty-odd (to date).
   Something Colm Tóibin wrote strengthened my resolve. I remember him mentioning, in The Sign of the Cross, that when he visited Glasgow in the early 90s, he was surprised to discover there were no Catholic writers in Scotland. Or, at least, that’s what people he asked told him. One – Thomas Healy - was eventually found for him. ‘Surely, I thought, there were stories to be told’, Colm commented at the time. He was right. It was around then – the mid 90s - that more so-called ‘New Scots’, inspired often by Kelman, started to publish their stories. Work written in their voices. Writers of Irish background included.
   When I invented Liam to write mine, I took the idea from a German writer, Alfred Andersch. In the early 60s, Andersch created a character called Franz Kien to write about his childhood and youth. Or about the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich, rather. He thought of these stories as a ‘loose sequence’ and included some Kien stories in every collection he published subsequently.
   The focus in German writing on ‘learning from the past’ or ‘coming to terms with the past’ won me for German – and German literature - while I was still at school. I was an avid reader as a kid but could never hack literature lessons. I could relate, though, to the stories we read by Wolfgang Borchert and Heinrich Böll. What I did at university built on that – I focused more and more on post-war literature. My first translated book – Stella Rotenberg’s Shards – included her poems about the Holocaust. And yes: I did get round to thinking that our past could be explored in similar ways. That we could learn a great deal from the Germans. In terms of learning, and moving on.

You are a literary translator as well as a fiction writer. Do the two fit together well? Does one influence the other? What do you like most about the translation process?

I think the two do fit together. I can also separate them as I translate into standard English normally – naw much of a talker by Pedro Lenz (Freight) being the exception – and reserve the forms of language we discussed earlier for my own fiction. I often insist I can’t write in English!
   Translation may yet influence my own writing more as I’ve - of course - learned from writer friends while translating in recent years.
   What do I like about translating? The fact someone else has done all the work already - and I ‘just’ have to move it across to English. The fact I get to share my enthusiasms. And the fact I often do readings with authors I translate.
   Our rapport on stage helps, I hope, to break down the barriers that often exist in the English-speaking world when it comes to translations – and subtitled films, for that matter.

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

I’ve always been more of a late-night than early-morning person. Though late mornings and afternoons can be okay too!
   New stories tend to begin on paper. Only once I’m ‘motoring’, do I switch to the PC or laptop. I can type with six or seven fingers, max, so I like to avoid having too much to ‘type up’. 

Who are your favourite short fiction writers and why?

For me, it all started with Bernard Mac Laverty (Secrets) and Jim Kelman (not not while the giro) - then didn’t ever stop!
  In my late teens and early twenties, I’d been reading German and French literature as part of my degree in Languages & listening to academics talking about literature. Jim Kelman became the new writer-in-residence at Paisley Central Library at the time – and opened up a whole new world for me. Jim alerted me to work by Glasgow-based writers, books that reflected where I came from. Bernard’s early stories and his novel Cal did far more for me than the French Catholic Novel. Alasdair Gray’s ‘A Liberation’ in Firebird 3 was another eye-opener. As was hearing Jim himself read for the first time - from his novel A Chancer. Something clicked, grand-style, that night. Here was someone who could capture on the page the kind of voice I often heard in Glasgow. And it was note-perfect.
   Hearing authors read - and talk about their work - became hugely important to me. Living in Glasgow, then Aberdeen and Edinburgh, in the 80s and 90s meant I regularly got to hear authors like Janice Galloway, A L Kennedy, Ali Smith, Alasdair Gray, Alan Spence, Gordon Legge & Duncan McLean. Roddy Doyle was a frequent visitor too. All of this informs my work. My work as a translator – crucially - too.
   Back to short story writers, though! I’ve read Carver over and over. More recent discoveries have been American writers like Andre Dubus (who died in 1999) and Peter Orner (still to be published on this side of the pond). Wayne Price, a Welshman living in Scotland. Irish writers like Claire Keegan & Kevin Barry. And most recently: yourself & Billy O’Callaghan & Colin Barrett.
   Currently, I’m reading Andrés Neuman’s stories, The Things We Don’t Do. Born in Buenos Aires, Andrés grew up in Spain. Chapeau to his translators, Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia. I feel I’m in good hands. - And to Pushkin Press for running with a translated book of stories. How often does that happen?

What story do you love? (You know the one that begs to be re-read over and over.)

I could name so many! But let’s go back to how it all started for me: Bernard’s ‘The Miraculous Candidate’ & ‘A Rat and Some Renovations’.
   Jim’s ‘Acid’  - about a dozen lines long - & ‘The Habits of Rats’.
   Other favourites that spring to mind are: Janice Galloway’s ‘where you find it’, Duncan McLean’s ‘Housewarming’, Ali Smith’s ‘A Story of Love’, Des Dillon’s ‘The Blue Hen’, Suhayl Saadi’s ‘Ninety-Nine Kiss-o-grams’. Most of these I first heard.
   This is cheating – but I must also mention Seamus Deane’s Reading in the Dark. For me, many of the short chapters are really powerful stories. ‘Roses’, for instance. Or ‘Deathbed’.

Is there any writing advice you received that stays with you always? What one piece of advice would you offer novice writers?

I’ve often heard Bernard Mac Laverty quote his namesake Michael: ‘Don’t have the veins bulging in your biro’.
   Jim Kelman talking about being ‘a monkey on the shoulder of the character’ stayed with me too - i.e. no privileged perspective for the author or reader.
   My own piece of advice would be: read, read, read, - and go and hear writers read.
   There’s also a lot to be said for having NO FUCKIN CHEATIN above your desk.

What/where is your favourite bookshop?

This is like being asked to single out a child, Nuala! – It’ll have to be favourites (plural).
   First up: the soon to be 20-years-old Word Power Books on West Nicholson Street in Edinburgh. - I’ve fond memories of Elaine, back in the 90s, celebrating the “miracle” of each birthday.
   I also have a huge soft spot for the bookshop in the Ceilidh Place in Ullapool – north of Inverness - that I’ve often visited after walking or climbing all day. You can use the shop even after it “closes” – and pay for any books at the bar.
   I travel a lot and there are bookshops abroad I’ve never forgotten. Even if, in some cases, I only visited once. There’s a gorgeous bookshop in Porto, for example: Lello & Irmão. In Montenegro, there’s Karver (named after Raymond C). Round from my hotel in Düsseldorf recently was a beautiful bookshop with an astonishing range of books, in the Heinrich Heine House. And they say that quality bookshops no longer exist! In New York, there’s the Strand, of course. And, in upstate New York, a short drive from Ledig House & its great residency programmes, is the Chatham Bookstore – of which I’m very fond.
   A propos of the kind of bookshop that no longer exists, supposedly: I should mention ‘tell it slant’, a new poetry bookshop in Glasgow. It has great readings most Friday evenings that include singer-songwriters and short story writers!
   Finally, let’s not forget my favourite second-hand shops: the Oxfam bookshop on Byres Road in Glasgow. Housing Works in New York.

What are you working on now?

Having delivered two translations last month, both novels, I now get to focus on some stories that have been waiting to be written.
   It looks like a couple of stories in beheading the virgin mary may be the first in new sequences. New “Liams” already exist for the next collection too. Others are planned. As is an “other story” that might provide the title of my next book!

Thanks so much for stopping by, Dónal. Wishing you lots of luck with the new book. Readers can buy the book directly from Dalkey Archive Press and from the usual online outlets. It's even in shops (!) such as the Strand in NY and The Ceilidh Place book shop in Ullapool.

Dónal will read from the book tomorrow, August 19th, at the Edinburgh Book Festival along with Andrés Neuman. More here.

Dónal's website is here.

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