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Author Mary Costello: ‘I want my characters to be rattled by something’

Irish author on her new book, a collection of stories and the fruit of 10 years’ work

There is a particular poignancy to Mary Costello dedicating her fourth book and second short story collection to her late father Thomas, 20 years after his death.

A recurring theme in Barcelona, from the opening title story, to the closing one, The Killing Line, is humankind’s treatment of animals and how this subject can be divisive in relationships. The author, a vegetarian with a lifelong concern for animal rights, is, like The Killing Line’s troubled protagonist Oliver, the child of a beef farmer.

“I had the character Oliver in my mind for a long time,” Costello says. “I know the territory of his life, what he wrestles with, the love of a father. I know we have to mediate opposites. I wouldn’t write if I didn’t have to. I write whatever consumes me. If I’m upset by something it will eventually germinate. Some image or story will prompt it.

“The animal issue has probably tormented me for 30 years and I grew up on a farm. I had a very good, loving father who was a very progressive farmer, very good about animal welfare.” Because society as a whole chooses to exploit animals, she does not assign blame to any one group, farmers or industry, “but the animal issue is, I suppose, a question of mercy for the weak. Milan Kundera said humanity’s real moral test is our attitude to those who are at our mercy and he counted animals in that number. Man is the only being that kills for sport. Every other hunts for food.”


The strong have always crushed the weak, she says. “Look at what’s happening in Gaza. It’s hard sometimes not to despair.” So her dedication is a deliberate statement, she agrees, a recognition of a loving bond that is deeper than even a fundamental disagreement.

“Yes,” she says. “I had a very loving relationship with my father and I probably tormented him for many years arguing. He would have been concerned for me because I had a few years of great despair over animal suffering because I saw it everywhere. I had to pull back from that isolation and pain. As with Gaza, it’s terribly hard, but one has to mediate it somehow and plough on.”

Costello, like her writing, is quietly impressive. The Stinging Fly published The China Factory in 2012 and it was nominated for the Guardian First Book Award and an Irish Book Award. Reviewing this debut collection, I wrote: “it’s clear Costello is the real deal, capable of turning clay into porcelain.” Her first novel, Academy Street (2014), about an Irish woman carving out a life in New York, won both Irish Novel and Irish Book of the Year Awards and was shortlisted for a Costa award. I loved her second, The River Capture (2018), a Joycean homage meditating on art, nature and the life of the mind, which was shortlisted for three Irish novel prizes.

Coetzee is probably the living writer that I admire most and who has influenced me most, the integrity of the writing and the man

Yet she was a reluctant writer. Despite having two stories published in Hennessy New Irish Writing in her early twenties, she found the compulsion to write burdensome. She became a primary schoolteacher and writing slipped to the margins but when her marriage broke up in her 30s she began to devote more time to it. When her first book was published, she quit teaching. She quit the Dublin suburbs too after 25 years and lives a very quiet life, married to a writer, about 40 minutes from where she grew up in rural Galway.

“I wasn’t right when I wasn’t writing, I wasn’t right either when I was but it was less wrong,” she says. “I did feel it was a burden. I felt it like a disturbance in my life, I didn’t know what to do with it, but a story would kind of push up. I would write it and purge it and six months later another would push up.

“I found something gnawing at me, an impulse, an urge to put my finger on something, to know what to think. Joan Didion said: ‘I write to know my own mind.’” She was studying Carl Jung around the same time and likens the urge to write to his “impulse towards consciousness”. Similarly, Tess in Academy Street “doesn’t find enough sustenance in ordinary life, she finds it in poetry, in Mass, choral music”. A character in The China Factory’s final story also channels Costello: “All my life, music and books have been the refuge of my mind, the means of striving towards something pure and absolute and sublime.”

Barcelona is the collection’s oldest story, commissioned by Kevin Barry for a Faber anthology he edited. “This is 10 years’ work,” she says of the book. “It takes me five or six months to complete a story. Getting the voice right is really important, the right tone, mood, then very precise, exact language. I like writing that’s honest, no tricks or pyrotechnics. A friend was at a John McGahern workshop. Someone said: ‘I’ve used the word illuminate twice in this story. Is that too much?’ McGahern said: ‘Once is too much’.”

“I love the fine anatomy of a perfectly constructed sentence,” says the protagonist of My Little Pyromaniac, a copy editor, who takes revenge on an ex-lover who she sees abusing the family pet. “I suppose when I first started writing it was the Americans I turned to,” says Costello. “John Cheever, Richard Ford, Flannery O’Connor, Ellen Gilchrist. Alice Munro was like finding home, very exacting language. It was that crisp voice – Frank O’Connor’s famous lonely voice – clarity, simplicity. I like long stories that unfold unexpectedly.” Ian McEwan’s short stories blew her away, then she discovered Mary Lavin, McGahern, Edna O’Brien.

“My style would be spare and honest. Annie Ernaux said one of the most important things is to record historical data honestly as it happens. I want no marks of labour on the writing, I don’t want the interference of the writer’s hand on the page, nothing contrived or ornamental. I like stories that are not flashy but slow burners, which have a slight sense of menace or unease, disquiet below the surface.”

Barcelona was inspired by a trip to the Catalan capital, “a beautiful city but I was assaulted by sensory stimuli, birds and animals locked up in cages, the big markets, with trays of tongues and hanging hams”. A woman’s memory of a former lover, an antivivisectionist who died tragically, is triggered by watching her new partner eating quail. Other troubling memories surface, spoiling the city break, reminiscent of Joyce’s masterpiece The Dead.

Deus Absconditus, first published in The Irish Times in 2014, also features a foreign city. Its protagonist Martin, who featured in a story from her first collection, visits his scientist son in Paris and is troubled to learn he is to work for a US government lab, recalling an incident of animal cruelty from his childhood and fearing what his child might be capable of.

Martin reflects: “Travel heightens the senses, makes small, easily forgotten details more acute, significant, imperishable.” The same could be said for fiction. Costello’s stories are studded with sharp observations and elegant descriptions, which she records in notebooks, a habit James Salter describes as “gathering ammo”, and which deliver for her readers what Anne Enright calls “an accumulation of tiny pleasures”. “If I don’t write it down, I might not remember it. A notebook is a very practical, mundane thing.”

“With travel there is a sense of wariness, watchfulness,” says Costello. “Everything is coming at you, I think it was James Salter who said travel is essential, rejuvenating.” The story, which turns on the terror of what scientists might unleash, ends on a rhapsodic note capturing the majesty of the universe, a sublime moment inspired by the author’s imagination taking flight as she drives west on the M6 beyond Loughrea.

“Those moments usually happen in rewrites,” the author says. “Sometimes my characters have glimpses of the sublime. I am very interested in science, astronomy. I don’t know much about astrophysics but I love the thought there is a unifying force, an interconnectedness between everything.

“I want my characters to be rattled by something and come to some small insight. A lot of life happens in your head. A lot of my characters have inner lives that are full of turmoil, they keep secrets, there is shame, they are dealing with moral paradoxes, dilemmas. How do we live with and love people who have harmed us? The issue of forgiveness and compassion, mediating opposites. Conflict and tension are where the growth is. Frances in The Choc-Ice Woman has to deal with a husband who has deceived her and damaged her.

“A lot of stories deal with man’s treatment of each other and our fellow species. A lot take place in small, confined spaces, which are gold to a writer – in a car, in a room, in the suburbs. They get a bad rep but I always think about teeming lives behind front doors. Ordinary people have deep lives. Joyce said of Dubliners he used the ordinary bread of life. What happens behind the brow is what interests me.” The most confined space of all perhaps.

Costello is unafraid to elide the distinction between author and protagonist. In At the Gate, her character observes that she and JM Coetzee’s creation Elizabeth Costello share the same surname.

“Coetzee is probably the living writer that I admire most and who has influenced me most, the integrity of the writing and the man. He deals with substantial issues: life, death, suffering, the lives of animals, our treatment of each other. He wrestles and suffers, I think. We went to see him in Listowel and my boyfriend at the time was unimpressed. That was the germ of the story. Coetzee himself says all writing is autobiographical. [The River Capture’s protagonist] Luke O’Brien’s thoughts which he lets out in his dark night of the soul are my thoughts. I was letting rip. McGahern too said he reimagines and reinvents, has to write life at a slant, paraphrasing Emily Dickinson.”

It has been suggested that Coetzee’s Costello, an Australian animal rights campaigner of Irish ancestry, is his fictional alter ego. Hers too? “A fictional mother,” she replies. “Coetzee does women really well. He writes her with such empathy I can feel her decades of pain. With this character, there’s no escape from the self, no shirking of awkward truths.” The same might be said of Mary Costello’s fiction.

In The Killing Line, Oliver lectures on Franz Kafka’s In The Penal Colony, in which a harrow is transformed into an execution device, its needles inscribing the condemned man’s crimes ever deeper in an eventually lethal tattoo. Such barbarism is mirrored in Costello’s story’s eponymous abattoir killing line, which Oliver visits as a boy.

“One of the tasks of the writer is to imagine the unimaginable, it’s about facing it, not looking away.” Similarly in The Choc-Ice Woman, first published in the New Yorker, the embalming process is described in gruesome detail. “That came about very organically,” she says. “If I’m in the mind of the character, it’s very up close and intimate. In Frances’s case, her brother is going to be embalmed, so she has googled it.” Costello is no stranger to search engines. “I do like to face things. It is somewhat brutal and unpleasant but I don’t like to turn a blind eye.”

Frances discovered long ago from the top seat of a bus that her husband was cheating on her. “In the space of five minutes and five yards her whole life began to slide sideways.” This epitomises what a lot of Costello’s stories try to capture, the turning point of a life.

It feels ironic that our interview takes place on Valentine’s Day. Romance is dead or dying in many of these stories. No space is more confined perhaps than that surrounding an unhappy couple. “A lot of McGahern stories are about men and women,” she says of a writer wrongly pigeonholed as pastoral. “In the same way, my stories are not dealing with the everyday but the hidden lives of women and men, what is unsaid, those tensions and misunderstandings.”

Barcelona is published by Canongate on March 7th