Cathy Sweeney: ‘I spent so many years in a desperate struggle to do things right’
Teacher-turned-author on her debut short story collection and why she has given up on trying to be ‘normal’
Author Cathy Sweeney in Ballsbridge, Dublin: ‘The way I want to talk about the world is to just say what I say without evasion. I think there’s more dignity in that.’ Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
“Oh, I’m really bad at this.” I’ve asked Cathy Sweeney to tell me about herself. We’re in Avoca Ballsbridge ahead of the release of her debut short story collection, Modern Times. We’ve never met, but it seems she’s done her research, because already she’s recounted a number of things she knows about me. Isn’t that my job? “I’m really nosy,” she tells me, later. But nosy isn’t quite the word. Curious, you might say – sensitive, perceptive. Like many writers, Sweeney seems more interested in seeing than being seen.
The morning we meet, it snows. Before she arrives, I spot her darting through the weather. She’s all bundled up, wearing a blue hat, arms folded across her front, one hand gripping her handbag. The scene almost reminds me of a Russian novel, or a romantic film – we discuss both when we get chatting. But first, photos.
I tell Sweeney the story reminded me of a Picasso painting, and she grows animated. 'That’s exactly correct. I love Picasso. I absolutely love Picasso.'
I introduce her to the photographer. She agrees that we should do the shoot before the interview – “before the lipstick smudges”. It’s a throwaway phrase – a way of making small talk – but it comes back to me later, when we’re discussing her story The Woman With Too Many Mouths. Told from the point of view of a male narrator, the story focuses on a woman who has “a crooked nose, legs marbled with muscle, gulag eyes” and, of course “too many mouths”. She is described as “almost ugly”.
I tell Sweeney the story reminded me of a Picasso painting, and she grows animated. “That’s exactly correct. I love Picasso. I absolutely love Picasso.” She references his Dora Maar portraits, the ones where “the weeping woman” – Yugoslavian photographer Dora Markovitch – appears distorted, her facial features rejigged and askance.
“Some mornings I look in the mirror and that is how I feel,” Sweeney says. “Like, that is how I see my face. And this is not about body dysmorphia or anything, it’s about just having to get your face on, go to work, get into the car, you know, just the to-do list. And modernity, I think, makes us feel very like that. So, the difference between how you feel and how you conduct yourself, or how you see the world and how the world is behaving – the dissonance can be extraordinary.”
I like this idea. It sits beside us as we perform our conversation – lattes on the table, platitudes and politeness passing back and forth. Sweeney’s lipstick, by the way, doesn’t smudge once, though I do briefly picture her in the way she has described: face all askew – multiple mouths, eyes different sizes, sharp angles and features. “Don’t make me seem too mad,” she warns me later, which seems a pity, and besides I’ve probably already failed.
Sweeney does eventually tell me about herself, in bits and starts, though in truth she’s more interested in talking about craft, and she thinks “in some ways it’s very difficult to understand your own self never mind talk about it”. Nonetheless, here’s what I gather. She grew up in Greystones and as a teenager in the 1980s was big into film. Nothing particularly sophisticated – things like Dirty Dancing. “So many moments in our life we compare to the film version. I think it’s a very powerful medium.” Now, she cites film-makers like Joanna Hogg as an influence.
She reads Russian writers like Lyudmila Petrushevskaya. Reading Russian writers in translation and other writers of different perspectives made her feel “Oh, that’s my world there. This isn’t it. And I don’t know why that is.” Sweeney didn’t write until her late 30s, before which her passion was for teaching. She taught English, first in an all-boys’ school in Clondalkin, later in the Institute of Education, and from 2012 to 2019 in St David’s in Greystones. “Teaching was where all my energy went, because I was very committed to it. I did not even really think that much of writing . . . my imagination was enough. And then it just wasn’t enough.”
When 10 years ago she began writing, “I was working full time, so it was slightly to the edges. And I think that suited the way I write. I would send stories off and they’d, you know, go into a journal – maybe The Stinging Fly or The Dublin Review. That’d give me enough encouragement to keep at it.” The Stinging Fly Press is publishing Modern Times, and she says she has editor Declan Meade to thank for the collection. “He selected the 21 stories. He put them in order. He came up with the title.” The journal first published one of her stories in 2011 and she has featured many times since. On The Stinging Fly podcast, Kevin Barry described her style as “a senselessness that makes perfect sense”.
Indeed, her stories are wacky, bold, form-bending. Some are less than a page long. The Chair, a three-pager, Sweeney says she wrote on the Dart. Her structures are loose and playful, as if she has left things purposely unhemmed. Reading Modern Times is a bit like being in a strange dream. The world is arranged differently. You might run into a man who makes films without a camera, or a woman who keeps her child in a freezer to save on childcare, or characters who are turning gradually blue. There might be meaning, but how can we possibly deduce what it might be?
“I mean I don’t always know,” Sweeney says. “I would be absolutely honest I get to the end of my stories and I say: What is that? But I have to just let that be.” Some of her characters are particularly grotesque and mean. “I do think that human behaviour is very much dependent on the availability of resources. It’s not very palatable but I think it’s real. And what people do or don’t do in particular situations is, to me, beyond judgment, much of the time.”
Sweeney’s late 30s was a time when her world view changed profoundly. She doesn’t want to go into the personal details as to why. She’s not particularly precious or guarded, but she is sceptical of what women are sometimes expected to give of themselves. “I think that some women writers almost feel that they should be accessible in a way that I don’t think male writers feel they should. There’s something about being female and accessibility that I think is . . . almost as if: if you’re not accessible you’re perhaps aloof. And I’m not aloof.” In fact, she’s warm. Slightly vulnerable. “I would think that what happened to me was I ran into issues that turned the mythologies I had been trained to believe, and wanted to believe, into exactly that: mythologies.”
Much of our conversation seems to be about this theme: the stories we live by versus the truth of who we are. Sweeney thinks that in Ireland our storytelling tradition is something to be proud of but “at a primordial level our stories haven’t been allowed to shift. Some of us are kind of choking from telling the same stories for a long, long time”.
“I’m sure a lot is changing,” she muses. “We’re sitting here just after the election and so on. But I’m not sure that our ability not to swallow stories has changed: beginning, middle, ends, you know – happy endings, sad endings.”
She talks about how she spent much of her life “concentrating on adapting to try and be a normal person”. “Luckily,” she says, “I’ve given that up.”
“I have learned at this stage of my existence – I’m going to be 50 this year – that there aren’t right ways to do things. Which I didn’t know until I was nearly 40. I spent so many years in a desperate struggle to do things right. To have a right job and a right relationship and a right house and right kids and I’ve really ended up with absolutely nothing right.”
I’m not so sure about that. The slim but powerful collection on the table in front of us seems proof of at least one thing right. Its publication has also given her the freedom to leave her teaching job and write full time. Not only that but her daughter, Lucy Sweeney Byrne, published her debut collection last year. Paris Syndrome was the first book to be published by Banshee Press. To those of us who like to think of Banshee as the daughter press of The Stinging Fly, this seems kind of apt.
It was Cathy who submitted her daughter’s first story “simply because I could see she was so good. My encouragement to her was to put the foot down on the gas and just leave it there. Don’t look left or right. Because if you start thinking about what people will think etc, etc, you’re . . . you know . . . that’s not what writing’s for.”
I ask whether she’d give the same advice to herself, though the answer seems obvious from the words on the page. The very first sentence of Sweeney’s first book announces her as someone who’s not afraid to go full throttle. “There once was a woman who loved her husband’s c**k so much that she began taking it to work in her lunchbox.” It’s quite the way to enter the literary room.
'The extreme vulnerability is in me, and in the characters, I hope. As well as brutality. Because it’s the full range'
Sweeney smiles when I bring it up. Meade, she says, was responsible for that sentence’s placement on the front line. Still, she wrote it, along with all the other daring sentences within. We talk about the topics she covers – from sex dolls, to special needs, to domestic violence. She doesn’t go gently, no matter the subject.
“The way I want to talk about the world is to just say what I say without evasion. I think there’s more dignity in that. And I would hope that I don’t feel anything harsh or cruel. I come at every story from the position of: ‘it’s just such a flawed mess’. I feel the tenderness of how vulnerable and deeply pathetic we all are. The extreme vulnerability is in me, and in the characters, I hope. As well as brutality. Because it’s the full range.”
The snow has turned to spitting rain by the time our conversation ends. We shake hands and she sends me on with words of encouragement like the teacher she still is. Then I head out into the weather while she stays to mooch around a bit longer, and maybe write. On a Tuesday, during term time. Which might seem mad to some, perfectly lovely to others.