‘I want to document life as it is now as a source for the future’

Éilís Ní Dhuibhne interview: ‘I am initially, perhaps always, more interested in describing an experience than illustrating an idea’

Your work is often credited for its perceptive insights into the lives of women, and Irish women, in particular. While this is undoubtedly true of the stories in this collection too, it also struck me that the stories are as much about relationships and the complexity of relationships, and how the individual and their individual interests interact or compete or clash with the collective interests of the family, or society, as they are about women alone. I wonder what you think your stories are about?
What is a story? Something happens to someone, and the listener or the reader can ponder on the meaning of this event and its relationship to life. There are two main aspects to good stories. The first is the experiential aspect. The story is like a space, a room or a garden, which the reader enters when she opens the book. The story simply is. It is experience encountered. In the best stories, the main pleasure is just being in the story, a pleasure similar to being in the company of a person you find very interesting, or perhaps to being in a fascinating place. As a reader, you may not want to come out of the space – you don't want the story to end. You love the texture of it, its language, its characters, what is happening in it. You enjoy exploring its depths, its layers, its everything. This is the most important aspect of the story: its being.

It is only when you emerge you begin to consider what it is about. And, if you are like me, you will read it again. And again.

And yet, of course, stories have to be about something. Possibly the earliest and simplest short stories are the fables, which fulfil the modern short story rubric with surprising efficiency, given that they are a few thousand years old and the modern short story not much older than a paltry hundred years or so – Chekhov started the ball rolling. The fables are short, focused on a single incident, observe unity of time and place. They illustrate a point, expressed as an abstract moral at the end of the tale. The narrative is an illustration of the abstract thought: the strong outwits the weak, brain is better than brawn, don’t believe everything you are told, or whatever.

Our short stories, my short stories, are of course not moralistic in the manner of the fables. Heaven forbid! But they have at least one major point and often many smaller ones. If the story has a strong vigorous fibre it illustrates a point, be it ever so subtly. We do not emphasise this but allow the reader to figure it out.

I myself don’t know what the point of the story is about until I’ve written it a few times. I am initially, perhaps always, more interested in describing an experience than illustrating an idea. I figure out what the experience is revealing as I compose the story, find the telling images, and come to the end. It finds its point as it finds its shape, and my sense of writing short stories is that it is like digging up a shapeless rock from the ground and chipping at it until it becomes a coherent statue. In general, by the time the story has been cobbled into shape I am lifting the veil over reality to reveal a deeper truth, but in the early stages of writing I am much more concerned with the reality than with the deeper truth. The details are what matter to me, the concrete things, what people do and say.

For example? Well, Illumination is “about” the conflict between home and away, or, if you like, between the familiar and the exotic, the safe and the risky. But when I was writing it I was describing walks I took in the forest in the Santa Cruz mountains. I loved the walks and the forest, but I was always afraid of the lions – the chances of meeting one are probably a million to one, but… As I imagined the story, I imagined a group of people living in the forest who represented the wild animals of the mountain: the lion, the bobcat, the coyote. They are the other. The protagonist is attracted to them but, in the end, she opts for the safe and the familiar, the soft green fields of home where there are no lions or coyotes. You can read the story without analysing it in this way. You should read it without analysing it in this way. It should work as a story to live in. But all the stories end with a “deeper truth”. The writer always puts her cards on the table at the end of the story. That’s where the veil is lifted and the core revealed. And it is in this space, between the real and the unreal, the ordinary and the other, this world and some mysterious, numinous world that we don’t actually understand, that the short story has its beginning (in the unconscious) and its end (in the last paragraph).

So, my stories are almost always about Irish people. They are usually, although not invariably, contemporary. Place is significant for me and most of my stories are located in Irish settings, Dublin or a city based on Dublin, or Kerry or Donegal, places in the west of Ireland. Even when the physical locations are in other places, the protagonist is Irish and the other places are perceived with Irish eyes.

The stories are set in America and in Ireland but in many cases the stories take place as characters leave where they are from. There is the departure from the urban to the rural, for example, and the effect the country seems to have on the unsuspecting urban interlopers as they enter the countryside. Is this a conscious device you are employing, to unsettle your characters and really get a look at them under pressure?
The stories in this selection often concern people on a journey – The Pale Gold of Alaska, Illumination, Summer Pudding. One definition of story is: a stranger comes to town or someone goes on a journey. A simplification, necessarily, but one which is applied, more often than not. Although I don't set out to write about people going on journeys I am one of the writers who tends to fall into the "someone goes on a journey" camp. I advise my students to go on a journey, even a short journey, even a walk, if they are searching for a theme. Great stories may happen at home, but they are much more likely to happen if you get out of the house. I love moving and travelling and always have so that is probably why my characters are so often forced to pack their bags and head off into the unknown. Every journey is a voyage of self-discovery as well as discovery of other people and other places, and so provides perfect material for the writer or storyteller. Gertrude Bell, inveterate traveller, asks if she is the same person abroad as she is at home – does your personality change according to where you find yourself?

The opening move in most fairytales, according to analysts, is “The Hero sets out on a Journey”. That is, if the hero is a male, as he usually is in traditional stories. But even Cinderella has to go to the ball to meet her fate.

The sentences are precisely punctuated, crafted and rhythmic. Lots of commas, colons, semi-colons, ebbs and flows. They are brimming with detail. I wonder who your influences might be?
I am concerned with concrete details, tables and chairs, clothes, flora and fauna. This is a spontaneous interest – some writers hate concrete detail. I believe I can only convey emotion through images. I believe in the madeleine effect. Like most short story writers, my sensibility is not a million miles away from that of a lyrical poet. The abstract thought, the idea, or the nuanced emotion, finds its most profound and concise expression in description. That is the difference between artistic writing and journalism or scholarship.

I am also a scholarly writer, with a background in research – and I carry out research and scholarly writing as well as creative writing. A strong influence on my writing was my teacher and husband, a folklore scholar who practised a rigorous empirical method: everything must be evidence based; woolly writing is an abomination. If the writing is fussy and unclear it is often hiding either unclear, foggy thinking, or, at worst, nonsense. Bad punctuation can render a sentence meaningless. My husband’s comment on writing which was illogical and didn’t make sense was “This is not English”. (He was not a native English speaker.) When I am writing English I like to write English. (This doesn’t mean that I never write colloquially or in dialect… that’s fine.) On the other hand, I am obviously very fond of the dash and the colon, the sentence in which one thought flows on and gives rise to another, almost as a tree puts out shoots. I try to control this.

Despite the stylised prose, the tone of the work is often quite spare, matter-of-fact. Controlled, even. This seems to create an edge to the writing, to make the reader feel that something dark is lurking beneath these controlled and detailed narratives. There's a definite edge to them. Were you conscious of this contrast? Do you try to write like this or is this just how it comes out?
You see, I have already answered that question, above! Yes, my style is sometimes described as forensic, anthropological, spare (and of course we should not forget that is also ironic and humorous). That's just my voice. My style. It is no doubt influenced by writers I admire, and perhaps especially by those I loved when I was young and soaking up influences. Richmal Compton. GK Chesterton. Saki. And later, William Trevor, Alice Munro, Chekhov, of course. I am matter-of-fact and dreamy, as a person and as a stylist. La style c'est la femme.

In The Flowering, you write, or the character says, “Archaeology, history, folklore. Linguistics, genealogy. They tell you about society, not about individuals. It takes literature to do that.” This line jumped out at me and I wonder is this something you believe too, or is this just Lennie speaking?

It is Lennie speaking, and when I wrote it I agreed with her. If I want to find out what life was like in the 18th century I will need to consult the novels of the time and place, if they exist – at least in conjunction with historical accounts. Literature is the history of the emotion. Fiction gets inside people’s heads; it does what is impossible: it reads minds and hearts.

This also throws light on one of the things I want to do as a writer: I want to document life as it is now, as I have experienced it, as a source for the future. We – who are alive right now in this time and place – are the only ones who can provide a reasonably full picture of what it feels like to be alive here and now.

A few lines later, we get this: "You too can transform yourself. Must transform yourself. Utterly." That diction here has a certain Yeatsian feel to it. Is this intentional? And secondly, like Easter 1916, is this alluding to ideas of transience, of key moments in life that forever alter our worlds? Is there a sadness in this?
It is so long since I wrote the story that I can't remember. I may have been consciously quoting Yeats when I wrote these lines, or the reference may have been unconscious. But his poetry is always with me and I know plenty of it off by heart. I often find myself quoting him – my work is full of Yeats ideas and lines which I have absorbed.

Lennie, in The Flowering, mirrored aspects of me in my thirties. I used this story, and some others from the early collections, as the basis for a play I wrote in the 1990s, Dun na mBan Tri Thine. This was performed again this year at the Taidhbhearc Theatre in Galway. When I revisited the play, and Lennie, she seemed alien to me. I thought, this is a woman in the throes of a nervous breakdown; she is half mad. It was strange to go back to that story and that time. The nervous breakdown was like Sally’s, in The Flowering: desperation at the difficulty Lennie faced in trying to develop as an artist – to write – while holding down a full-time job and being a mother and housewife. Is there a sadness there? Anger and desperation, I think, more than sadness. And a determination to overcome the circumstances and survive as an artist, perhaps? Here I am.

Finally, I'd like to ask you a question about form. The short story form presents the writer with many challenges. What do you think makes a good short story, as opposed to a novel? Other than being shorter, what's the difference between a short story and a novel?
What's the difference between a short story and a novel? Dorothy Brandes, in her great work, How to Become a Writer, says that if you are the sort of person who likes to write down your dreams, you are more likely to be a short story writer, whereas if you are the sort of person who likes to eavesdrop on conversations on the bus and write them down, you are a novelist. The short story is more inward looking, the novel more extrovert. The short story writer is more interested in herself, the novelist in other people. As a writer, you can of course write both short stories and novels, and lots of other genres too. But at heart you are probably one or the other. And I am a short story writer, without any doubt. I seem to take to it naturally, whereas with novels, I have to work hard and against the grain.

Typically, a short story is about a moment in a life. It explores that moment in depth. The moment may affect an entire lifetime but the details of that lifetime are, mostly, outside the framework of the story. The novel covers more ground, biographically, and also as a rule has more characters than a short story.

But all these remarks are generalisations and there are plenty of exceptions. I can think of many novels which are rather like short stories, and plenty of short stories which are rather like novels – even my Pale Gold of Alaska looks a bit like a short novel, to me. The Banana Boat is closer to my idea of what a short story should be like, or The Day Elvis Presley Died. A little stone in a pond, rippling out, or a world in a grain of sand: that's the good short story.
Selected Stories by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne is published by Dalkey Archive Press at €13.50. Martina Evans reviews it in The Irish Times on October 14th