Claire Keegan: ‘I don’t come from a close family. We are not close at all’

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So Late in the Day, the author’s quietly devastating new story, draws on the misogyny and meanness of the Ireland she grew up in

When Claire Keegan began writing short stories, in the 1990s, watching the word count was an important part of the process as she entered and won competitions to build her reputation. Today, as her newest story, So Late in the Day, is awarded the rare accolade of being published as a standalone hardback, she no longer has to bother. Her writing’s quality is what counts.

Keegan is one of those equally rare authors whose every work has won a major prize. Her debut collection, Antarctica (1999), won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. Her second, Walk the Blue Fields (2007), won the Edge Hill short-story prize. Foster (2010) won the Davy Byrnes short-story award, and Small Things Like These (2021) won the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction and the Irish Novel of the Year Award.

If her output has been relatively modest in size – Small Things Like These, her sole novel, was the shortest ever to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize – its impact has been major, especially her last two works. An Cailín Ciúin (The Quiet Girl), adapted from Foster and directed by Colm Bairéad, was nominated for an Oscar, while the film version of Small Things Like These, starring Cillian Murphy, will be released next year.

Foster, about a neglected girl who blossoms when she is farmed out for the summer to be minded by a loving childless couple, is now a staple of the Leaving Cert English curriculum, and pupils will this year study Small Things Like These – not bad for someone who failed English at the Leaving Cert.


Keegan grew up on a farm in deepest Wicklow, near Clonegal in Co Carlow. As I drive to meet her in Tullow, where she runs creative-writing courses, I pass signposts for places familiar from her stories: Arklow, Shillelagh, Coolatin, Parkbridge. Yet, as anyone familiar with her debut collection knows, that is only half the story, for the Deep South of the United States, particularly its scenery and its writers, has a similar hold on her imagination.

The summer before she turned 17 Keegan spent cooking and cleaning for a wealthy American family near Gorey. She must have made a good impression, for they invited her to live with them in New Orleans – a city she found “hot and racist” – and paid for six years’ study at Loyola, a private university. (A US academic friend estimates this would have cost €100,000.) She cooked, cleaned, minded children and graduated with two first-class degrees, in political science and English. This sponsorship – I can’t help but think of it as fostering – changed her life. Her English professor, Mary McCay, opened her mind to ideas of personal freedom and taught her how to read fiction, which in turn made her want to write.

As I wait for the author in the foyer of Teach Bhride Holistic Centre, a Brigidine Sisters convent, I dwell on the convent in New Ross, 60km away, with its Magdalene laundry, where generations of unmarried mothers were mistreated, the dark heart of Small Things Like These. But Keegan sees no incongruity in the setting, and feels at home in this progressive institution. “Things have changed; times have changed. I think this is a lovely place. It’s lovely to see it turning into what it could have been all the while. Nice to be part of that.”

She was never religious. “I never really had a faith to lose. I never took it literally, even as a small child. I always thought it was a story, so I never felt broken-hearted. But I always had great respect for stories.”

She makes coffee and then, before we sit to talk, kicks off her sandals and climbs up on the sills, opening the windows to let fresh air in.

Most fiction readers are women, and most women have children and a great many things to do. But that’s not who I write for

So Late in the Day is a quietly devastating character study of a man whose misogyny and meanness destroy what may be his best chance of happiness. It started as a writing exercise for Keegan’s class but also has its roots in a shocking episode from her childhood.

“I was talking about how I much prefer tension to drama, as drama can be really tedious. For me, tension is about loss. Drama doesn’t make the reader or the central character tense at all. To me it is tedious and flat and it’s bad TV. Someone asked for a concrete example. I came up with this story [set significantly on the anniversary of Princess Diana’s wedding]. I said, let’s say we have a fella and he works in an office, he’s finished work and he gets on the bus. Is there anything wrong with that [as the start to a story]? I think there’s nothing wrong with that. Good singers start low is what I was taught.”

She started using the outline in workshops until a student asked whether she had written the story. “I realised she wanted to write it, so thought I had better write it.”

As we follow Cathal, the protagonist, through the day, and seemingly innocuous encounters with various women (a colleague, a cleaner, women on the bus home), he reflects on his relationship with his French fiancee, Sabine, and we gradually encounter the character flaws that have led to his undoing.

Misogyny is not just a personal failing. Cathal’s colleague Cynthia tells Sabine that, for some Irish men, women “are just c***s, that she often hears Irish men referring to women in this way, and calling us whores and bitches”.

The Ireland she grew up in was steeped in misogyny, Keegan says. Contraception was banned until 1985. Marital rape was legal until 1991.

She had three brothers and two sisters. Was the family itself a misogynistic institution? “Without doubt. I didn’t know any family that wasn’t. When a male came in, a female stood up.” In Keegan’s story, Cathal recalls his brother pulling the chair out from under his mother as she was sitting down with her plate after serving their supper, causing her to fall to the floor. Her sons and husband laughed at her. “I’m sorry to say that this scene is autobiographical,” the author told the New Yorker, which published the story last year, both in print and as a podcast of Keegan reading it. “My own brother did this to my mother when I was a child, and it was treated so casually, as though little or nothing had happened. It stayed with me all my life.”

Little wonder that Keegan escaped as soon as she could. “I don’t come from a close family. We are not close at all,” she says.

“Women have no difficulty writing from a man’s point of view. We are taught to imagine what pleases a man and what displeases him from the time our heads were lower than the table. My brothers were never taught what pleases or displeases a girl. It is of huge benefit to me as a writer, one of the few benefits of misogyny. The last two books I published are told from the male point of view.”

Children, cared for and neglected, are at the heart of both Foster and Small Things Like These. Keegan was disappointed that George Saunders and Deborah Treisman overlooked the significance of children in their New Yorker podcast about her latest work. “There is a child on every page of this story. The reason why most people of childbearing age get married is to have children, and that seemed to get overlooked in the discussion.

“Cathal’s proposal is like a pounce: ‘We could have a child if you want.’ He looks for a reaction, and she didn’t turn away. I think misogyny Irish-style has produced a sense that you’re not really a man unless you’ve produced a son to carry on your name – it’s that backward – and that it has to be your own flesh and blood. It produces a type of cruelty that we call a family. I like to think this story has something to say about not having children. Part of me is concerned with the child that could have been born; they escaped.”

There is a problem with #MeToo, though. I think it takes the eroticism out of some of the encounters between men and women

Cathal and Sabine also have a cat, for which Keegan holds out little hope.

Keegan’s writing, like her speech, is measured and precise yet rich. “My mother was a very good housekeeper and cook. She taught me to look for meat marbled with fat that keeps it moist while it cooks. There are little marblings in my prose that may seem unnecessary but produce the feelings.”

Her opening page is a case in point, “a brazen sun”, “a taste of cut grass”, “a gulp of swallows skirmishing” and “beds plump with flowers” establishing the mood before a warning shot: “so much of life carrying smoothly on, despite the tangle of human upsets and the knowledge of how everything must end”.

Cathal works for the Arts Council, but that is just for the author’s amusement, as she had a friend who lived on Merrion Square in Dublin, where the organisation is based, so she knows the geography – always a concern in where she sets a story. It is not a veiled #MeToo allusion, although the author, like every woman, has a story. “I had an inappropriate encounter at the Impac awards dinner with an American gentleman who was not a gentleman. It was so inappropriate. He was putting his hands in my hair at dinner, pretending I was his partner.” But she was too young and too shy to object.

“There is a problem with #MeToo, though. I think it takes the eroticism out of some of the encounters between men and women. I think part of that eroticism is a playfulness around domination. If there is an attraction between two people the risk is too great, especially for the man, to play that out.”

After university, in 1992, Keegan returned home. The first things she wrote were 300 job applications, which generated 300 rejection letters. She was living with her mother in Tullow, and found books by Dermot Healy, John McGahern and Edna O’Brien in the local library, which “taught me I could write about rural Ireland. I found that irresistible, that here might be as good as anywhere.”

She got a job on a Fás scheme in Clondalkin in Dublin, teaching creative writing, which she loved. Every Thursday when she got paid she went to Eason in Tallaght and bought her mother a Wordsworth classic edition, such as Madame Bovary or a Thomas Hardy, “and she just ate them”. Her mother, who was born in 1926 and died last year, “was extraordinarily capable and talented. Whatever talent I have I think I got from my mother. My father would have said that anything to do with stories was just a nonsense.”

Because of the pleasure she took as a reader and because she had nothing else to do, Keegan couldn’t resist giving writing a go. “I wrote a story for a competition on Live at 3 [on RTÉ One] with Thelma Mansfield and Derek Davis, which my mother was watching.” Clocks in the Air was one of 10 chosen by Brendan Kennelly for the resulting anthology. “I have never read it again. I’m sure it was dreadful and promising,” she says.

I write for myself. It has to pass my aesthetics, in order for me to show it to anyone else, and then I write for everyone

She won RTÉ’s Francis McManus short-story award twice; it was judged by David Marcus, who was a scout for Giles Gordon of the literary agency Curtis Brown, who secured her a book deal with Faber & Faber. Another story, The Ginger Rogers Sermon, won the William Trevor Prize, judged by the author. “Word restrictions at the beginning taught me not to make a story longer than it needed to be. I think the worst writers I know have no regard for the limitations of the artform. There is nothing more dull than self-expression, and yet creative-writing classes tell people you should express yourself. I think the opposite: you should learn restraint. McGahern said all good writing is suggestion, all bad writing is statement.”

For Keegan, reading and writing are a way of life, and a way to understand life. “I love being able to make a good living out of something I enjoy doing and am deeply interested in, but it is always the text that matters, not being a writer. It’s finding out what I have to say and trying to say something fresh about what it means to be alive and what’s in the human heart that matters to me.”

Keegan’s devotion to the word, her 30 years of teaching creative writing, much of it carried out in this centre, makes me think of exegesis, the study of secular scripture. For her, reading means rereading.

“I don’t think you’ve read anything properly, understood it, until you’ve read it twice, and closely. I think the tail of the dog feeds back into the jaws. I’d never dream of teaching anything I haven’t read at least twice. Most people buy a book and read it quickly. It’s the constraints of time. Most fiction readers are women, and most women have children and a great many things to do. But that’s not who I write for. I don’t make anything short for that reason. I write for myself. It has to pass my aesthetics in order for me to show it to anyone else, and then I write for everyone.” Her aesthetic is “whatever pleases me as a reader, that feels original, decent prose which is clear and plausible”.

So Late in the Day is just over 6,200 words. Or 12,400 if you read them twice, as you should.

Chaucer was her first influence. “I loved the humour and the structure.” As she was in Louisiana, she read southern writers, the “extraordinary” Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner, “but I still don’t understand him in the way I don’t understand Joyce. The modernists escape me. Maybe I don’t have enough patience.”

She likes O’Connor’s notion that “fiction is the art of making pictures”. “We are such visual creatures: we stood up on our hind legs to see over the long grass, I think. That is how desire enters our bodies: we want something because we can see it. I like work that is not cryptic, that facilitates the reader; images that cohere, an unpretentious way of writing. It feels pleasurable to come up with a version of that with my own personality or style. I think good writing is good manners. If you are writing well you are taking care of your readers’ needs and your characters’ needs. You are also abiding by the constraints of the art form and not showing off.”

I can’t write about misogyny if I’m not allowed to say it. I want it to be offensive because it is offensive

Her favourite, however, is Chekhov. “I started reading him in my 30s and I’ve never stopped. I keep teaching him. I find him deeply humorous. I suppose his regard for human freedom is what draws me back again. What we do with that and how we abuse that.” She feels an affinity between Irish and Russian writers: “families, parochialism, backwardnesses, silences, superstition, the folklore, nature, just trying to survive, often in a rural place, what people do to each other, the violence towards children as well – all of that felt very much at home.”

Redrafting for her is neither cutting nor polishing but changing her approach. “I could change the point of view, where it is set, the time it’s set in. My tendency is not to go on. I try to find the kernel, what the core of the story is, something that interests me, and stay with that, and make it fatten on loss. I think of a story as it goes along as almost like a wild creature that is looking for something to eat. When it eats it eats loss, and that’s what keeps it alive. There isn’t anything we care about that we cannot lose. That’s what I’m looking for, not to artificially impose it on someone but to find out what they truly care about, and treat it with dignity.”

Faber is issuing revised editions of her collections. “I went in with an arrogance, thinking I might rewrite them with all the skills I have now, but I can’t. I wouldn’t write those stories now, but I also couldn’t, because my preoccupations have shifted and I’m older, my taste has changed. I can’t rewrite them any more than I can get away with wearing the clothes I wore in my 20s. They just don’t suit me any more. So really I am just editing, mostly punctuation. Neither collection was edited at all.”

The boundaries of what language is considered acceptable are always shifting. George Saunders chose not to read aloud her new story for his New Yorker podcast because of the c*** word, used to convey her character’s misogyny. I wondered whether she might revise the rare use of pejorative terms, such as the N-word, “tinker” and “simpleton”, in her older stories.

“I absolutely can’t [be constrained], because then I can’t say what I need to say,” she replies. “I can’t write about misogyny if I’m not allowed to say it. I want it to be offensive because it is offensive.” If some readers find it too triggering, “I absolutely respect their desire not to do that and not to read my work.”

As a teenager on the farm, Keegan used to help the men felling trees to keep the lines clear by attaching a chain to the trunks and dragging them down to the road with a draught horse. She has been studying the horsemanship of an Australian, Bill Faulkner, for 10 years and travelled to Queensland last April to train a wild brumby. She is retraining an ex-racehorse. “I find it delightful and the opposite of sitting at a desk inside. It’s going out and being physical.”

I remember coming to Tullow to see Snow White, and at the end I just lay down in the foyer and cried. It wasn’t a tantrum

I ask what happened to the novel she started back in 2009, which was set on a farm on Mount Leinster, near Bunclody. “It’s still there, I just went off and wrote something else, [but] I like the language of it. Who knows, maybe that will be next.” Her next project is “a book that is set on the farm where I was raised. You come out the front door and you look at Mount Leinster, so there may be a meeting of the two.”

She is pleased that two books have been made into films, and doesn’t feel protective or possessive of her texts. “I just wish them [filmmakers] luck with it but have no interest in micromanaging them in any way. I would like to write a screenplay, because I love film as much as I love books.” She loves paragraphs, which might be a bit tricky, but more usefully she also loves writing dialogue and what it reveals. “We are bound to reveal ourselves when we open our mouths. I think a film can be the most beautiful thing. I remember coming to Tullow to see Snow White, and at the end I just lay down in the foyer and cried. It wasn’t a tantrum. I just was longing to go back in, as I thought it would never happen again. I’ve just always loved stories.”

She doesn’t own a television but loves film. “My favourite living writer is the filmmaker Michael Haneke. It’s astonishing what he does. He knows that nothing is ever resolved, life goes on. He writes for grown-ups.”

Keegan is happy that Small Things Like These may have ignited an interest in shorter texts, made them fashionable again, that books don’t have to go on and on to be interesting. Story collections, however, will always struggle, she thinks.

“I think collections are too upsetting for people. Short stories are not comforting. You don’t go through something and then come out of it, whereas with a novel you can give readers one huge upset, which is overcome to some extent, or there is some kind of reconciliation. I think a collection is harder on a reader.”

So Late in the Day is published by Faber & Faber

Martin Doyle

Martin Doyle

Martin Doyle is Books Editor of The Irish Times