Love in the Time of Chaos is my sixth collection of short stories and my second with Arlen House. The title refers to the seismic uncertainty of these times for a host of reasons including Brexit, Covid, the cost-of-living crisis and the war in Ukraine.
Stories can be sparked through myriad means, whether by news items or personal testimonies. Here Comes the Day was ignited by an article about a real-life self-burial in aid of charity just round the corner from where I live. As we were in the midst of the pandemic, being sequestered in a coffin struck me as the perfect symbol for lockdown.
One of the questions I find myself asking is this: why do writers keep faith with the short story? I think it relates to Frank O’Connor’s famous quotation, ‘Always in the short story there is this sense of outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society.’ Short story characters tend to be mavericks, renegades and mavens of loneliness, but that extends to short story writers too. We short storyists are the outliers of literature, keeping the votive flames alight in hieratic devotion to our cult.
Autobiography is the catalyst for many of my stories. To cut a long story short (as I inevitably do), it was Nabokov who said that ‘imagination without knowledge leads no further than the back yard of primitive art.’ I’ve always understood that personal experience is the gateway to authenticity and depth. Erin has its genesis in the biopsy I had on a breast lump. Love in the Time of Lockdown and The Love Virus reflect ‘the skin hunger’ I felt during lockdown and the need for intimacy that propels the protagonists into defying rules or braving the perils of Tinder. Oestrogen City charts my mercifully brief foray into speed dating as soon as restrictions were lifted.
Clear Blue is for every woman who’s ever had a pregnancy scare and McCrory’s Millionaire encroaches on memoir with the day a millionaire boyfriend of mine came knocking on my parents’ door, only for me to dash their burgeoning hopes that I might get hitched to him. Mountain Gods is loosely based on a visit to India with the John O’Connor Literary Festival, replete with tiger-spotting, unfettered behaviour (a feature of all great litfests) and Himalayan views.
Although I don’t write about the Troubles per se, I sometimes explore its lingering effects on contemporary lives. The Sun Through the Smoke was inspired by a 2020 news article on how ex-combatant William ‘Plum’ Smith’s archive was sold for £11,000 in a Dublin auction house. The echoes of the past are even stronger in The Crosshair, which features a conflict memoirist.
Eilis O’Hanlon interestingly wrote in the Sunday Independent last year that my decision to replace Troubles narratives with writing ‘about Brexit and the Protocol hardly sounds scintillating either’, but I believe a skilled writer can always find the human element to transmute plain politics into fictional gold. A Storm on the Border takes place in Larne against the threatening backdrop of anti-Protocol demonstrators.
The war Love in the Time of Chaos is most interested in, however, is the one threatening to drag the whole of Europe into its maelstrom. Khaki Beach is about aid workers in Ukraine’s war zone and was inspired by observations from my trip to Kyiv last June.
With the recent profusion of Northern Irish collections from the likes of Wendy Erskine, Bernie McGill, Anne Devlin and Peter Hollywood, it appears on the surface at least that the short story is flourishing. But my one issue is this: considering that Ireland is the birthplace and home of the short story, why isn’t more being done to promote it? For instance, there is Poetry Ireland, but where is Short Story Ireland? Why have there been Irish poet laureates and not short story laureates? Why is there an Ireland Chair of Poetry and not an Ireland Chair of Short Stories? Why was the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award which was worth €25,000 discontinued in 2016? Surely, it should be reinstated. There is a Cork International Short Story Festival, but we’re crying out for a dedicated short story festival in Northern Ireland too.
It’s true that, for most of us, the love of the short story transcends money, but we shouldn’t just be fobbed off with succès d’estime. Short story writers never push for better pay, but perhaps it’s time for us to show our pecuniary ambitions in a more showbiz way like rappers Le$ and Ca$h Out - even if our earning power is more akin to 50 Cent! From now on, therefore, I’d like to be known as Ro$€mary J€nkin$on - a total winner in terms of search engine optimization.
Joking aside, the short story is not an obscure offshoot of the novel, but a great art form in its own right. To my mind, the novel is a hearty meal while the short story collection is a tasting menu at a Michelin-starred restaurant. Each story is calculated to leave you wanting more. Or, if you prefer, the novel is regular sex whereas the collection is a series of tantric delights. Short story writers are never short of similes as we work in such a metaphoric medium. One superlative comparison comes from Annie Proulx who said, ‘In a rough way the short story writer is to the novelist as a cabinet maker is to a house carpenter.’
I also keep returning to Mary Lavin’s searing analogy: ‘A snow storm can be an immensely impressive sight… But a single snowflake under a magnifying glass shows a complexity of design that has its own immensity.’ There is a rare muscularity in minusculism. The appeal of a short story collection differs from a novel as it’s less about characterisation and more about authorial voice. Because of the exigencies of form, there’s an inherent danger in deciding what to keep in or omit, but for me short story writing is entirely instinctual. Cut too much and you lose emotion; cut too little and you lose clarity. The calibrations are so fine it’s like balancing on a seesaw or cutting the final few pounds to make weight for a prize fight.
It’s interesting that Claire Keegan said last year, ‘I think it’s more difficult to write a collection of short stories than it is to write a novel. That’s just a generalization, of course, but I think it’s true.’ Whether you agree with her or not, a short story does hover halfway between a poem and a novel. The best short story writers write prosetry, a poem in prose form, and when it soars, it’s the pure embodiment of a feeling, an emotion preserved in amber, set to survive the surrounding chaos for all time.
Rosemary Jenkinson’s collection of short stories, Love in the Time of Chaos, is published by Arlen House and will be launched alongside Liz McManus’s When Things Come to Light on International Women’s Day, March 8th, at the Irish Secretariat, Belfast.