Carefully choosing her words


Claire Keegan, whose second short story collection comes after a gap of eight years, talks about the use of English like someone would talk about mastering a difficult foreign language, writes Rosita Boland.

'It takes me a long time to make those stories short." It is eight years since Claire Keegan published Antarctica, her award-winning debut collection of startlingly assured stories with pristine sentences, and characters that muscled themselves into memory and stayed there. Walk the Blue Fields, her second collection of stories, has just been published: seven stories to Antarctica's15.

Although there's a cold breeze blowing, it's just about warm enough to sit outside. The hotel garden on the outskirts of Gorey, Co Wexford, close to where Keegan has recently moved, is quiet and still, apart from an abandoned cardboard box that scuttles about nearby in the wind at intervals like a restless dog. Keegan is talking about the process of writing the stories in the new collection, all of which she drafted "probably 30 times. That's why I find early drafts so crippling, because the language is inexact, the way speech is. But meaningless in a way speech is not," she explains. "It's really exciting when you get to eight or 10 drafts and begin to see the story that is there. And then at some point, the story you thought you were writing burns away, and the story you need to write emerges."

If you're writing up to 30 drafts on a story, at what point do you know it is finished?

"The whole thing is glazed over with emotion when it's finished. Glazed over with a dominant emotion. You start tinkering with paragraphs and you realise you're not improving them. The time has passed for it to be any finer than it is. I think you are only given a certain length of time to finish any story and then it begins to set, and when the story begins to set, that's when it's dangerous to start doing anything with it, and maybe when it's past the point of rescue."

THE MORE KEEGANtalks, the clearer it becomes how carefully she regards language, both written and spoken. It reveals itself in her thoughtful, articulate sentences, punctuated at times with a sudden ellipsis of a laugh. It reveals itself in the way she speaks of how she meticulously puts together written sentences, paragraphs, stories. All writers, by definition, value the flexibility and possibility of language. What's unusual about Keegan is that when she talks about the use of English, her fluent native tongue, it's like listening to someone talk about mastering a difficult foreign language and who thus never takes the hard-won acquisition of it for granted.

Claire Keegan grew up on a farm in Clonegal, Co Wicklow, the youngest of six children. Recalling her childhood there, in a short piece of memoir seven years ago, she wrote: "I was a strange child, even as children go. I followed ducks who were laying out, wearing the hood of my anorak so they wouldn't recognise me, but they never led me to their nests. I cleaned the tom-cat's nails with the blunt end of a darning needle, sat on the Nowlans' ditch with salt and pepper and seasoned their lettuces, their scallions. I ate green gooseberries, blackcurrants, rhubarb stalks, blackberries, sloes. I got belly-aches. I walked naked through the streams of Newry wood with hens' feathers stuck in my plaits."

The stories in Walk the Blue Fieldshave rural Irish settings, apart from Close to the Water's Edge, which arrives out of context, like a message in a bottle to the collection, set as it is on the Texan coast with a millionaire character who eats oysters and drinks champagne - wildly at odds with the lifestyle of the simple-living, stout-drinking farmers that populate the rest of the stories.

She chose the title for the new book because she liked the sound of it. "The picture of it, the image of it. It's very seldom you see people walking the fields now. Unless there's stock in the fields. You very seldom see people walking the land, even though we're supposed to have a love of land in this country. I sometimes can't help thinking: is it a love of ownership, rather than the land itself? And that's what the priest in the story wants to do - walk."

KEEGAN HAS LIVEDin the US, and will return there again in January, when she takes up a six-month post in the Irish Studies department at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, teaching the short story and a fiction workshop.

"I'm not teaching people how to write. I'm teaching people how to read, and I don't mean their own work. I mean reading to find feeling, rhythm, purpose in a paragraph. What metaphor is. Looking up symbols. Just because we're literate doesn't mean we know how to read."

Despite her time spent living in the US, it's her rural upbringing that seems to have defined her work most.

"I think the place I grew up is the well I keep going back to," she admits easily. "I keep dropping the bucket down into that. But it's not just home, not just the place I was reared in. It's the whole parish."

The family farm she grew up on has since been sold. Was that hard? She doesn't even pause. "No. No. No, I didn't really mind. I don't really believe we own anything anyhow. I can go back up and walk around the wood whenever I like."

She mightn't mind that the specific homeplace is gone, but all the same, the place of Clonegal is important enough to Keegan that she asked specifically to be photographed there, rather than her home in Wexford, where she now lives near the sea.

The reviews for Antarctica, on both sides of the Atlantic, praised the stories highly. Did such reviews give her confidence? "How did I like the reviews? I thought it was wonderful, it was marvellous," she says simply. "But no review has ever made me feel as happy as a page I've printed out that I've written and I think is good. Mind you, the review stays good and the page may not seem so fine tomorrow."

One of the stories in the new collection is entitled Surrender(After McGahern). It comes from a story John McGahern told about his father in Memoir, when he ate 24 oranges before he got married. Does she see it as her tribute to McGahern, a writer whose work she admires greatly?

"The thing about poetry is that you can write a poem for somebody," she says. "But with fiction, you wind up writing it about someone. So I wound up writing a story about McGahern's father, before he married. I certainly meant it as a tribute."

THE CHARACTERS INKeegan's stories do not, as a rule, have happy lives. Their relationships with lovers and with family are often complex, painful and secretive.

"As Frank O'Connor says, there's something train-journeyish about the novel. You can go in and get lost. A short story doesn't make any attempt to comfort the reader. I don't see my stories as being at all gloomy," Keegan says decisively. "Maybe dark. In places. But happiness is its own expression. It happens in the present tense. It happens almost without warning and when it's going on, it's barely noticeable. But it's articulate. Pain, on the other hand, is inarticulate. When we are in pain we don't know what it means. It's incoherent. That's why I think it's one of the reasons why it writes fresh on the page. Because it feels fresh. It's about grappling always with what reluctantly wants to be told."

In between writing the new stories, Keegan has been drafting and redrafting a novel. It started out being about a maid in 1940s Ireland who worked in an old house for a Protestant man, and who hid in the house for the duration of a pregnancy. That "burnt away" to what it is now: "about a woman who marries a farmer and lives in Mount Leinster, in Bunclody, set in the 1970s."

She says she moved to Wexford specifically because her novel is set there. It's impossible not to think of Synge when she says this, setting off to the Aran Islands, to place his ear to the floorboards and listen to the sound of the language being spoken there. "I wanted to hear the speech. The rhythms of the speech. There is enormous difference in the sound of speech from place to place - the syntax, the speed, the pace and the metaphors are hugely different between one place and another. There's a huge difference between, say, Wexford and Sligo, and the way people speak. Or between Cork and Monaghan."

What about the fact that one in 10 people in the State were born overseas and are now contributing to the patterns of speech in all counties? "Oh, it's wonderful, it's really rich. But you can't confuse rich with pure."

Walk the Blue Fields , by Claire Keegan, is published by Faber, £10.99.