Claire Keegan in Dalkey: ‘I can’t say I’d cry if I was never nominated for the Booker again’

Acclaimed Irish writer doles out beautifully worded nuggets of wisdom during a sold-out Saturday-night appearance at the festival

Claire Keegan in conversation with Rick O'Shea at Dalkey Book Festival. Photograph: Conor McCabe

The name of acclaimed Irish writer Claire Keegan is not one that appears often on literary festival programmes, so it’s no wonder her Saturday-night appearance at Dalkey Book Festival sold out.

Keegan was interviewed on the night by broadcaster Rick O’Shea, who opened the conversation by implying she was no stranger to ad-hoc venues such as the Cuala GAA hall where the event was held.

“Did I say that?” she said with a deadpan expression.

A few beats pass before she conceded that, yes, she would be used to community halls and such, “but I’m sure this will be memorable,” she said, before gazing to the ground and adding: “we’ll see”, prompting a laugh from the audience.

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From that point on Keegan’s dry tone and wit had the bookish audience hooked, as she doled out beautifully worded nuggets of wisdom on her work and process. She commanded the room with the authority possessed only by the most engaging of teachers – she has taught creative writing for 30 years – and embodied the attractive and rare trait of being wholly comfortable in her own skin.

“I stay out of the whole literary scene,” she said, “but people have been really good to me because they like what I have written.”

Asked whether the hype around her sole novel, Small Things Like These, being shortlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize was something she “enjoyed or endured”, Keegan said it was overshadowed by the death of her mother in August of that year.

On the possibility of being shortlisted in the future, she said: “I can’t say I’d cry if I was never nominated for the Booker Prize again.

“I’m able to make a good living – my books pay for my horses,” she said to the delight of the audience.

“The prizes aren’t my dream. I’m not competitive. I’ve always been someone who goes out on my own.

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“I’ve never felt jealousy ever in my life,” she added, although she does on occasion experience envy, giving the example of a beautiful cottage garden, saying: if you’re envious of it you go to the garden centre and try to find the same plants, whereas if you’re jealous, you hope the garden burns down.

“[Once] there are great books in the world, I’m delighted,” she said.

Of the protagonist in So Late in the Day – her short story published as a stand-alone hardback this year – whose ingrained misogyny stands in the way of his happiness, Keegan said: “to me he’s comical, but I’ve a funny sense of humour,” and later added: “I’ve a tendency to think my work is funnier than anyone else does.”

However, the audience’s mirthful response to the author’s animated reading of dialogue between the protagonist and his girlfriend prompted O’Shea to ask if the reaction brings the work to life for her.

“No,” she said, “[it comes alive] on the page.

“It’s when you print a page that’s decent, that’s saying something about what it is to be alive.”

Asked by an audience member if it was difficult to hand over Small Things Like These to Enda Walsh to adapt for film (starring Oscar-winner Cillian Murphy, release date yet to be announced), Keegan said: “it truly wasn’t, not in the least.”

She hopes it will be a great success, she said but portrayed indifference regarding its reception, because, as she puts it, no matter how the film turns out, “my book is the same as it ever was.”

When O’Shea asks Keegan how she feels about celebrities such as Sarah Jessica Parker, Natalie Portman and Stephen King championing her writing, she replied drily: “I just think it’s all very pleasant.”

And in response to King pleading for a sequel to Small Things Like These in a post on X, she said: “They say you should leave them wanting more.”

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