Couples counselling: me and my story collection

Like any relationship, creative projects need work. You can’t just throw your idea a casual peck on the cheek and expect her to pleasure you insanely then pay you for the privilege

Mia Gallagher: the deeper I go into the murky silt-bed of a piece of writing, the bigger the chance I might – just might – say something worth saying. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne

Mia Gallagher: the deeper I go into the murky silt-bed of a piece of writing, the bigger the chance I might – just might – say something worth saying. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne

 

After my second novel (Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland, 2016), I hadn’t intended to bring out a short-story collection. My plan had been to return to the ‘new book’: a still-unbaked novel I’d been working on since 2004. Last April, I was awarded a bursary and was all set to roll up my sleeves, when something happened: I was appointed Writer-in-Residence at Farmleigh.

I knew the residency would offer me fantastic experiences in a nurturing, splendid environment. But also that it would involve a lot of curating and public appearances—things that I enjoy but, like many writers, often find hard to reconcile with the quiet concentration needed to write something new. Over an Easter Sunday lunch with my friend, writer/coder Ken Carroll, an idea surfaced: what if I collected a bunch of my short fiction first and put that out?

In Beyond the Centre, Lia Mills has a beautiful essay about writing, likening it to an affair. You catch a glimpse of a fascinating Idea, shining across the crowded room of your busy mind. You give chase, you grab, you tumble into love. Then reality hits. What do you do? Stick with the one you’ve chosen, or go after fresh meat?

The Idea of a collection was immediately, enormously, attractive. Many of my stories had been published before, and I’d edited a special ‘Fear & Fantasy’ issue of The Stinging Fly the previous autumn. What could be easier than assembling already proven work, sticking it into an order that made sense, doing a few little copy-edits and whizzing it off to a publisher I love working with? I could do it while programming my residency, have it in the bag in jig-time and be nicely warmed up to tackle the novel by midsummer.

My agent ran the suggestion by Dan Bolger, New Island’s commissioning editor. Dan was keen. Brilliant, I said. I’ll have the manuscript with you in a month. God, I thought, I’m slick.

Some context: I first started writing stories in the mid-1980s. I wrote them in bursts, usually in response to other people’s requests. After college I produced, unprompted, a decent tranche of work—six or seven stories, two of which were published, and a novella which almost became a first-draft novel. Then in 1992, convinced I was wasting my time, I binned everything. The only words on paper I have from that time is Departure (published by The Sunday Tribune in 1990), which my mum had photocopied and kept in her filing cabinet.

In the early 2000s, I returned to fiction. By 2002, I had enough stories for a 45,000 word collection, with a few rougher bits on the side. No publisher made an offer, so I decided to submit them individually and concentrate on writing novels. Between 2004-2016, most of these stories got published; often after I’d tweaked, reworked or significantly edited them down. In that time, I wrote only four new, or half-new, pieces; nearly all prompted by editors, nearly all tiny to fairly short.

You may have guessed where this is heading. I’m a compulsive totter-upper with a filing cabinet in my head listing story titles, versions and wordcount. When I mooted the Idea of the collection to Dan, I must have known, somewhere, there would be a problem. Days after starting that supposedly light copy-edit, I figured it out. If I gave New Island all the completed pieces written since 2001 that I was happy with, and nothing else, I would have barely 25,000 words. For a book, I needed at least double that.

With most writing problems, there’s an obvious fix. I had more stories lurking on my PC, in various stages of readiness. I had some earlier, longer drafts of published pieces, and ideas for a couple of new ones. If I spent more time on the project than I’d initially planned…

And just like that, my Idea’s allure began to crumble, revealing deeper flaws, the problems that went way beyond wordcount. I’d written my stories either as standalone works, or as part of a collection that, 16 years on, I’d grown out of. The world had changed, and so had the Irish short story. A myriad of writers—Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Mike McCormack, Danielle McLaughlin, Seán O’Reilly, Claire-Louise Bennett, June Caldwell, to name only a few—were setting an increasingly high bar. Writers may write alone, but they’re always part of a bigger dialogue: with readers, their environment, other artists.

What was I contributing? Why did each—or any—of my stories deserve to be in that dialogue?

Inside the work, there were issues too. Actions and characters I didn’t understand, big time-lags between the pieces and constantly recurring themes:  misguided desire, madness, self-damage and loss. I had no idea if the stories I had yet to write—if I wrote them—would work. How could I ensure the strength and integrity of each piece, bring some kind of overall intention and meaning to those unconscious divergences and recurrences, and still deliver a manuscript to Dan in the timeframe?

What had possessed me to shack up with this impossible, demanding notion? I berated myself for wasting my time, my agent’s, Dan’s. Yet, even as I moaned and self-recriminated, the writer part of me, the bit my conscious mind always lags behind, was already sitting down with my Idea and starting to discuss couples counselling.

Like any relationship, a creative project needs work; ‘intention and honest effort,’ as Lia Mills puts it. You can’t just turn up when you feel like it, throw your Idea a casual peck on the cheek and expect her to feed you, pleasure you insanely, then pay you for the privilege. I’m long enough in the tooth to know that the deeper I go into the murky silt-bed of a piece of writing, the bigger the chance I might—just might—say something worth saying.

On Easter Sunday, encouraged by a friend, I’d locked eyes with an Idea and given her the nod. Two months later, we were at loggerheads, screaming at each other in a full-blown dommo, but I still hadn’t let go. Were we toxic? I met another friend, the writer Philip St John, and started bitching about the Idea, blaming her, talking about ditching her for the new novel again. Ah, get over yourself, said Philip, in not so many words. And then I got it. This—Shiftwas the new book.
Shift by Mia Gallagher is published by New Island

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.