A selection box of my favourite stories: John MacKenna on picking from a lifetime’s work

The Kildare author reflects on his love of the short story and four very different collections

John MacKenna: Even as a teenager, I had a sense of the absent, the unwritten and unspoken in the short story and that attracted me.

John MacKenna: Even as a teenager, I had a sense of the absent, the unwritten and unspoken in the short story and that attracted me.

 

When my agent, Jonathan Williams, suggested a selected short story collection, I thought of childhood boxes of Black Magic chocolates. Visiting the houses of my parents’ friends at Christmas, out would come the Black Magic. If I was lucky, most of the top section or all of the bottom section would be available and the moments of anticipation added to the excitement. What to have? Something creamy, something nutty, something with toffee or caramel at the centre? Inevitably, I went for the toffee, on the basis that the box might not appear again or, if it did, an hour might well have passed.

It was Jonathan, too, who suggested 15 stories – following in the numerical footsteps of Joyce. And so, last spring, I set to rereading the four collections from which the selection would be made. The task took me back to 1992 and the publication of my first book, The Fallen and Other Stories, by Blackstaff Press. The title story, which opens the current book, was inspired by a grave in a corner of the old cemetery in Athy, a Great War grave. It sent my mind off in pursuit of two people – a man who had volunteered as a way of escaping and a woman who waited for his return.

Short stories have long been a part of my life. As I grew up, the bookshelves in our home held the volumes of O’Connor, O’Flaherty, O’Faolain, Mary Lavin and Edna O’Brien (although hers were in the locked section of my mother’s writing desk. The key was hidden but we all knew where to find it); Maupassant and Chekhov. There was something in the work of those writers that drew me in. Even as a teenager, I had a sense of the absent, the unwritten and unspoken in the short story and that attracted me. That room for the reader to invest his or her own experience in the story, room in which to breathe life into the possibilities that lay before the characters.

It was only when I got to secondary school and came into contact with Ray Kearns, an English teacher who set my imagination on fire, that I first read Frank O’Connor’s Guests of the Nation and, even as a 13-year-old, I was stunned by what I found in that short story. Ray Kearns, in time, opened the doors to the work of Hemingway and other contemporary writers – far from the stolid prose which was on the Leaving Cert course in 1970. From those experiences came a lifelong interest in the form.

Several of the stories I chose for We Seldom Talk About the Past are from that first collection and were inspired by events in south Kildare where I was born and grew up. The Unclouded Days drew its inspiration from the ostracising of a group of travelling preachers; Hewer and Laburnum had their roots in my less than happy experience with a particular teacher in primary school and were, in a way, my attempt to deal with the bitterness left behind.

A number of the stories – including The Unclouded Days and a later story, Over the Rainbow, began life as works for theatre but, once they’d been staged and toured, I saw further possibilities in them, subtexts that hadn’t been fully developed in the stage work.

Three of the stories in the new book come from my second collection, A Year of Our Lives, published by Picador. I can still, very clearly, recall one review which suggested that all the stories in the collection were retellings of the same story. I didn’t think so but what they did have in common was a unifying sense of failure. The collection grew out of a two-year period spent living alone, in a cottage on the edge of a wood, in the wake of a failed marriage. Revisiting that collection, to choose work for We Seldom Talk About the Past, was difficult but, as far as I was concerned, the stories stood up and earned their places.

The works taken from my third collection, The River Field, are all grounded in the landscape of my youth. Each of the stories in that book was set in the same field and over a period of almost two hundred years.

Breathless, from that collection, was inspired by the disappearances of a number of young women in the south Kildare/west Wicklow areas. What I wanted to do in that story, originally published by New Island Books in 2007, was to give a voice to the voiceless. In its way, Breathless is a ghost story but the ghosts who inhabit it are four vibrant young women – fictional creations – who have things to say and stories to tell and scores to settle with the men who are responsible for their deaths.

The remaining stories in We Seldom Talk About the Past are taken from Once We Sang Like Other Men, published by New Island Books in 2017. That collection was a retelling of the stories of 11 men and one woman whose lives had been changed forever by a charismatic holy-man known as “The Captain”. It’s not accidental that The Captain’s influence lives on after his death or that the 12 followers find it impossible to shake off the memories of the influence he had on their lives. Set in contemporary times, the stories are a reimagining of some of the men and women who people the New Testament. Among them is Absent Children – one of four stories I’ve published over the years sharing that title.

Which brings me right back to the first short stories I read in boyhood and adolescence and the sense of the absent and the unspoken within them. Hopefully, the tales in the current selection leave that space, that time and that silence for the readers to find their own voices and recognise their experiences within them.
We Seldom Talk About the Past: Selected Short Stories by John MacKenna is published by New Island Books

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