Aphrodite’s Kiss came about when I sent Hugh Odling-Smee from Whittrick Press some short stories. In recent years, I’ve been more known as a playwright but I’ve been writing stories for much longer. Though dialogue and prose are wildly different, there’s a real connection between plays and short stories in that what isn’t openly revealed is often the most important. Both call for a kind of oblique restraint while knowing exactly what you’re trying to say. That said, there’s no way I could constantly switch between the two forms as my brain would explode – they are completely different mindsets; the first more spontaneous, the second more contemplative.
Most of the stories were written in the last few years but there are two main times in my life that I keep returning to. One was when I taught abroad and the other was when I returned to Belfast after 15 years away. I remember the “Big Return” at Aldergrove International Airport even now – the homely whiff of slurry that always hits you as you step off the plane, and the huge Harp sign on the terminal, and how thrilled I was to be back but (and there’s always the “but”) my parents and brother didn’t live there any more.
The great thing artistically about living abroad is that it enhances your outsider’s perspective. You’re excited about the new country but totally on your own, so you’re on this constant edge of elation and desolation. I taught English in Athens when I was 22 and the longing for physical warmth is outlined in the title story. I went abroad to teach again at 30. Poronin was a sleepy village in the foothills of the Tatra Mountains and I loved going there when I taught in Warsaw. Silent Giving grew out of a spell teaching in Bydgoszcz. Both stories come from a bit of a screwed-up time when in four years I taught in six different cities. I couldn’t settle anywhere and it was like I was collecting cities – once I’d lived in one, got to know it, made some new friends, I would go off to the next and try to conquer it, in the same kind of addictive way you do with sexual encounters as in Scenes from an Empty Attic.
Shadow of a Brother was inspired by a trip I made to Palestine. I stayed in Nablus and it was a total eye-opener as to how difficult daily life is in Balata refugee camp, so I had a real impetus to write that story. To me, it also belongs with the other stories where I’ve put myself in the shoes of those who’ve fought for republicanism and loyalism.
I freely admit I’m totally obsessed with Northern Ireland’s history and, when you talk to ex-terrorists/freedom fighters, you’re always aware of their own sense of isolation from others. After the Peace is set in Maddens and the book also features Kelly’s Cellars, both staunchly republican bars I love to go to. When I first arrived in Belfast after all those years away, I had to make new friends and, although I’m Protestant, most of them were Catholic and republican, so I added that to my own bias and it gave me a really balanced perspective. Banter and booze – you can’t write about Belfast without them but the best thing about using Belfast as a backdrop is that the city is a threat - it can’t help it because of its past. What other city would be overlooked by a hill as menacingly named as Black Mountain?
Licence to a Black Limousine probably differs from the other stories in that it was the only one influenced by newspapers. 1997 saw the murder of LVF leader, Billy Wright, by the INLA inside the Maze and later inquiries suggested state collusion.
The New Staff Officer reflects my time working in the Department of Social Security in Belfast. It was a mind-numbingly boring job as an administrative assistant – the AAs of the story – and we might as well have had computerised bosses. I left in 2004 as I’d just been commissioned by Rough Magic Theatre Company and thought I’d better finally knuckle down and try to be the writer I’d always planned on being but had kept deferring under the supposed notion of gathering life’s experiences.
I’m a natural short story writer, not a novelist. I think the difference lies in personality: short stories are for promiscuous commitment-phobes; novels are for monogamists. I’m a thrill-seeker and I always want to move on to the next literary buzz. It doesn’t really matter that short stories aren’t commercial – a bit like the writer in Marie=Finbar I don’t write to make money, I write to make waves! Besides, my favourite short story writer is Bruno Schultz and one paragraph of his is worth ten novels.
I think that publishers and reviewers prefer a very easily categorised collection where, say, there’s one location but, personally, I find that incredibly dull. Short stories shouldn’t be as consistent as a novel or else you would write a novel. The only real unifying factor in Aphrodite’s Kiss is that the stories Hugh selected are in the third person, as he wanted them to be different from the immediacy of my plays. Most of the stories mean something autobiographically to me and, while you could say the overriding theme is loneliness, it’s not a conscious one.
The final story, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, is one I wrote a couple of years ago. At the time I was mostly in bed because of a rare neurological disease called Tarlov’s cysts and I was terrified that it would be one of the last stories I ever wrote, so it came from a place of trying to accept and even embrace my illness. Ironically, the act of sitting and writing which had always been the biggest source of pleasure had turned into a pure source of physical pain. Fortunately for me, I managed to get an operation which improved things. I really appreciate the ability to write now more than anything and it’s given me an even bigger fire to make up for lost time.