In conversation with...

In Conversation With is a series of interview I've conducted over the years with many of my favourite writers. The interviews, most of which were first published in The Clare People Newspaper, are generally focused on where that writer is at that particular moment in time but can also stray into more universal ideal such as writing philosophy, themes and processes.

In conversation with... Nuala O'Faolain

In August of 2007, I had the privilege to speak with Irish writer and journalist, Nuala O’Faolain. Unbeknownst to all, four months after our chat she was was diagnosed with cancer and she passed away on May 8, 2008. Ten years after her passing, this is that conversation.   

“I’m not an important [feminist] activist, I never was – not along the lines of Nell [McCafferty] say – but if I have contributed at all, it is through my memoirs and again through the discussion of the personal life. I don’t know whether my own life has mattered.”

In conversation with... John Connolly
Irish mystery writer, John Connolly, has found himself in the middle of a great bromance. A friend’s chance meeting with Stan Laurel set the wheels in motion - wheels that nearly 20 years later have brought him to his latest novel, he.
I think male friendship can be taken for granted a bit. Men leave so much unexpressed but yet there isn’t a man who doesn’t have a close male friend whom they have known from childhood. They will never have expressed what they mean to each other but yet, one of them will die first...”

In conversation with... Ian Rankin
In 2010 Ian Rankin killed his most favourite darling. By retiring hard-nosed Edinburgh policeman, John Rebus, Rankin was effectively putting part of himself out to pasture. I spoke him about this life changing decision and the place crime in the broader world of literary fiction.
“The funny think is that Ian McEwan said he was quite flattered by that. He said he’d love it if that book was thought of as a thriller. I think that he would agree with me that hopefully in a few years we’ll just have good books and bad book and we won’t have this neccessity to bracket everything off.”

In conversation with... John Arden
In late 2009 I paid a visit to the Galway home of Man Booker Prize runner-up, John Arden. Less than three years before his sad passing, he was good enough to spare some time to speak with me about what turned our to be his last collection of stories Gallows - Tales of Suspicion and Obsession.  

“When I say I have given the story a beginning, a middle and an end, I mean I have given it an end to that plot. But I don’t end the stories by giving an assurance to the reader that everything is going to be okay, that everyone who has been in trouble in the story isn’t going to be in trouble anymore. That just doesn’t happen in life, does it?”

In conversation with... Catherine O'Flynn
Way back in May of 2008, I spoke with Costa Prize winner and Booker Prize shortlisted author, Catherine O'Flynn about her debut novel 'What Was Lost'. The conversation mostly revolved around shopping centres which and was much more interesting than it sounds.

“What really started me off writing the book was working in a shopping centre and seeing how many people seemed totally lost there. People came thinking they were going to find something but they just seemed to hang out for an inordinate amount of time, hoping that whatever it was would appear. I was never really quite sure what they were looking for, but I’m pretty confident nobody ever found it there.”


In conversation with... Anne Enright

In March of 2017, I spoke to the Laureate of Irish Fiction, Anne Enright, about the challenges faced by budding Irish writers, her Clare heritage and the inspiration behind 'The Green Road'.

“You live in this state of great optimism and it’s a really privileged life. It’s really amazing to be able to do your own work without interference. It’s a luxurious life in that regard, if not materially.”


In conversation… Danielle McLaughlin

In early 2016 I caught up with one of the rising stars of Irish literature, Danielle McLaughlin.

"I am a very slow writer and my writing process is very messy, so I do end up doing a huge number of drafts. I think there is a number of reasons for that. I have a very slow and messy work process, it's all over the place. I will start everything in long hand, and I might stay with something in long hand for a few weeks maybe, or even a few months sometimes, before it goes onto computer.” 
Read the full interview 


*** Apologies for the mess. I'm doing some house keeping and have decided to sweep all the remaining interviews under the carpet for the time being... But I'll be back shortly to put some order on this section***   

  NOTE: Include Dave Lordon Interview Here

In conversation with... Colin Barrett

The Atlantic seaboard is a magnetic for the imagination. A place where thoughts and ideas crash on the weather worn shore and disperse in a spray of creative energy. It's something in the wildness of the place, the poetry of the Hiberno-English and the feeling of an almost righteous isolation. It's something that Colin Barrett knows well. Andrew Hamilton finds out more.

Colin Barrett
A lot happens in Glanbeigh. At the end of every lane in this West of Ireland town lies a life and a story worth knowing. They are tales shaped by love and loss, revenge and hope - stories that scratch at the surface of the conscience mind, somehow demanding to be written and read.
Glanbeigh is the creative home of Colin Barrett. The fictional Mayo town has formed the rich breeding ground for his breakthrough collection of short-stories 'Young Skins' and helped Barrett catapult himself to the head of an emerging breed of exciting new Irish writers. 
"When I started writing about Glanbeigh and writing about that world and the characters who inhabit it, that work always seemed like my strongest work. It seems to have an intensity and a focus that my other work didn't have. Of course I was writing other stories [not set in small town Ireland] but not everything I write gets published. I tried different things, I experimented, but it just didn't have the same energy that those stories have. They just seemed more alive," he says.
"I took things from my own background and, through reading other books, I figured out that other writers were doing the same - and I had this raw material to use. Things like the sensibility of people who I grew up with, their temperament and the language that is used in the West of Ireland. I wanted to tap into the peculiarity of it and the distinctness of it. I had the raw materials there and I wanted to use it.
"The West of Ireland is such a rich place [for inspiration]. It's the paradox of the small town. It's out in the countryside, kind-of isolated, but there is still a town, there is still a contained place there. You could refer to it like the wild west - in a good way. There is a slight lawlessness, you can do your own thing but as well as that a lot of kinship, and people who look after each other. As a writer it's great to be able to play with all these aspects and contradictions that exist in one place. It's a place where you can set almost any story and you can accommodate it."
When Colin Barrett emerged in the wider public consciousness in late 2013, he seemed to appear from almost nowhere - fully formed and ready to write. But the real beginning of Barrett's literary story began much earlier.
"There is that illusion [that a writer emerges overnight] when someone puts out a book of your writing, but it is the end result of a long, long process. I've been writing for years, since I was a teenager really, but all the way through by 20's as well when I was working full time. I would write evenings and weekend, so it was a long apprenticeship," he says.
"You don't think about it when you are a kid but I guess there was something in me that I wanted to express. I liked cartoons and comic books and used to draw little comic book narratives and things like that. It didn't feel like self expression somehow - it was almost the opposite. You could immerse yourself in a different world. It wasn't escapism exactly, because there was nothing I wanted to escape from, but you open out this world and you could reign around in it and discover things. It was an absorbing process of discovery where I was creating a world and adding stuff to it. I think at that age you do it with freedom and with no self conscience. Books in a book store seem like incredible remote things - they are like things that have come from another planet."
Colin is at the vanguard of a host of Irish writers who are bringing the medium of the short story back in from the wilderness.
"There does seem to be a bit of a renaissance and I think, as much as anything else, that is coming from there being more places where you can publish them. It did seem for years that there were very few places - where would one go if you had a short story to publish? I think a culture spun up in Ireland, there are now several good magazines that will publish short stories and the Irish publishers seem to be more interested in it as well. Maybe this is because there is more of an audience - there is certainly lots of people writing them."
After winning hearts as a fresh voice for the Irish short-story Colin is now focussed on his latest challenge - cracking the novel.
"My main project at the moment is a novel. It's a very different form [than the short story], I wish it was as simple as making a story a lot longer but there is a whole lot of different considerations to take into account. I kind of relearning things. I spent years learning how to write short stories. I tried writing novels before so I'm not totally new but I'm having to learn new things about writing novels all the time," he says.
"I can't say too much about it. It's not that it's top secret or anything but it's still at its early stages so anything I tell you about it could end up being totally misleading.
"There is a certain intensity in the short story that you just can't import to the novel form. You have to approach things differently - things like characterisation and narrative. I'm just going to try my best with it, trial and error, that's what I did with short stories. You do get that impression with writers that they do arrive fully formed but I had to learn everything about the short story incrementally by trial and error. I enjoyed doing it and I intend to enjoy doing the same for the novel. There are no guarantees but hopefully it will turn out okay."

First published in the Clare People Newspaper in March 2015

In conversation with... Donal Ryan 

Donal Ryan is not your typical It-Guy. The Booker Prize long-listed author may be one of the most interesting writer to come out of Ireland in recent years, but no-one seems has told him that. Andy Hamilton spoke to the Tipperary man about his constant struggle for confidence, his recent surges into the world of the short story, and finds out if he is finally ready to give up his day job in Shannon and become a full time writer.

One of the first things that strikes a readers about the work of Donal Ryan is the simple confidence of his prose. The language is direct and unforgiving, flowing easily from a page that appears to have been crafted by the character itself, and not during late night labours over a script. But Ryan, like so many of us, struggles desperately with his confidence.
If anything though, the knowledge of this battle make the Tipperary author more appealing. The details of his personal struggle somehow manage to give even more weight to the work that he produces.
“It took me 20 years to get a level of confidence in my own ability to actually send something that I had written out into the world. A breakdown in confidence assails me all the time, pretty much every day. Sometimes half way through a sentence. A sentence might start well and then I would struggle half way through to close it. It would break down on me. I think it is something that you constantly have to fight with. Everyone is the same, no one is perfectly confident. You have to work at it. Sometime I have to try and be somebody else. Sometimes I have to pretend to be somebody else just so I can get to the end of a paragraph,” said Donal.
“I think I have to make myself be confident. Even when it comes to the demotic and the course language that people use - I have to tell myself that this is the way that people talk and there is a truth in that. I saw a review of my book recently enough in America. It was a terrible review now, she said it was a bloody awful book. But she made the point that there was no achievement in writing in the demotic - that it was the slang and grit of my own language. And she is right I suppose, but I never saw it as an achievement. To present language in a believable way is all I was trying to do.
“It is nearly impossible to be confident as a writer. As soon as something you write goes out into the world it is going to be criticised. Even if you get an overwhelming positive response to something, it is just your nature to focus on the negative. It is just so easy out there now to be  critic.
“At least once every day I do searching [for reviews online]. It is looking for trouble, I’m just inviting misery into my life. I’ve seen the Spinning Heard described as the worst book ever written. Something like that can be upsetting, it is upsetting. To think that somebody paid money to read your work and then they have this awful negative reaction to it. But I do it, I go looking. It is a horrible self flagellation.
“I have to stop myself from contacting people. I do it all the time. Another writer, who I wont name, had a go at me on Twitter a few weeks ago. Now, I don’t even have a Twitter account, but I opened one that day just to defend myself. At the last minute, just before I pressed ‘send’ I got some sense. This person has 50k odd followers and had a real nasty pop at my work, right out of the blue. I looked at it and I said ‘Fucking Hell, I’m not taking this’. I had my account all set up and thank God I got sense.
Donal will read alongside Martin Sixsmith this Sunday in Glór. Instead of extract from his latest novel, he may just have a special treat for his Clare audience.
“Do you know what, I was thinking of reading it [The Thing About December] but I have a collection of short stories coming together so I might end up reading something new,” he said.
“It’s a different challenge from writing a novel but I love it [writing short stories]. For years and years I couldn’t do it. But I suppose for years and years I didn’t think I could write a novel either, because I would always loose confidence in whatever I was writing within the first few days or weeks. Even after I finished those two novels I still couldn’t [write short stories], I though that I just wasn’t a short story person - it wasn’t me. But I got so busy with readings and engagement I didn’t have the time to sustain the thread of a long narrative. So I put aside the novels I was working on and started writing on short stories.
“It can be hard [to adjust to writing short stories]. Once or twice I’d show something to Anne Marie, my wife, and it wouldn’t make and sense to her. To me, it made perfect sense but then when I go back and re-read it it seems a little incoherent. I remember one story in particular, an editor read it and said they he didn’t understand the story at all. He had no idea what I was was talking about and I thought it was crystal clear. Sometimes you can’t see the wood from the trees.”
Having worked his writing around his full time job in Shannon for years, Donal is on the verge of taking the plunge and becoming a full time writer. At least for awhile.
“I’m going to take a career break in April for a year. M first job at that time is to get my short story collection finished and after that I’m getting stuck into a third novel. I have two first drafts at the half way point. Either way I’m going to be under huge pressure. I was working on these before things got mad but I had to put them aside when everything got so busy,” he said.
“I’d love to be able to write every day. When I wrote The Thing About December I was able to go home every day and write. Anne-Marie was pregnant with our first child. But now it gets pushed back later. If I do write on a night it’s usually between nine and midnight. Sometimes I take a day off work just to write.
 “I’ve never taken a long time off work to be a writer. I’ve never been a full time writer, not even for a week. I got a taste of it about a year ago when I was asked to adapt the Spinning Heart for the stage. I gave myself two weeks to go it. I those two weeks I worked from nine in the morning to the evening and I really enjoyed it. I also found that I got a bit grumpy. Sometimes you don’t know what form you are in until you meet somebody. Anne Marie would arrive home and I’d realise that I was in a really bad mood and I don’t know why. I love writing so there was no need to be grumpy but maybe it was the isolation or something. I’m not sure.”

First Published in the Clare People Newspaper in April 2014 

In Conversation with... Julian Gough

In June of 2007, Julian Gough was on the cusp of a wave. Ahead of that year's Galway Arts Festival I spoke to him about winning the National Short Story Prize for 'The Orphan and the Mob' soon to be released novel 'Jude Level 1' and his surprising (considering his recent comments), positive outlook for the future of the novel.

WHAT would Charles Darwin have made of Julian Gough? The great thinker, master of evolution and natural selection. Would he have found a room, a paragraph or even a foot note, in the Origin of the Species for the likes of Gough?
If so, it would most likely have come in a chapter titled, ‘Thoughts on the Random Mutation’. Not that I’m suggesting that Ireland’s latest trailblazing avant garde author is some sort of literary missing link. On the contrary, Gough represents an alteration, an almost radical change of direction that is absolutely essential for progress, whether social, biological or indeed literary.
The only question left is one of genetics, dominant or regressive.
“Because it’s an unusual mad kind of book we had trouble getting shops to understand what we were doing or getting publishers to understand what we were doing in the first place. But when I won the National Short Story Prize with the prologue to the book then that changed absolutely everything.
“People began to look at the book in a different way, all of it’s vices suddenly became virtues - the little grey fella turns out to be a swan after all.
“Nobody want to be the fool who stands up and says ‘this is brilliant’ and be the only person saying it. So when a few Booker Prize winners say it’s good then it becomes safe.
“I understand the publishers position, they know how to sell thrillers and they know how to sell a bit of chic-lit but if you give them some-thing completely unusual then they have trouble selling it.
“It’s like, if you ask people what they want they will always say they want what they have had already, cause that’s all they know. But what they really want is something they couldn’t imagine themselves and that’s a hard thing to market.
“By nature I am sort of cantankerous, if someone else has done it already then I don’t want to do it. But that can be a useful thing in a novelist. I definitely had that with Jude, I wanted to reinvent the novel and at the same time reinvent and broaden the meaning of ‘Irishness’.
Jude: Level One tells the story of a young boy, growing up in Tipperary and then moving to the ‘Sodom of the West’ in Galway before setting out to discover the world. It’s a story that hold’s many parallels with Julian’s own life and in many ways continues the work started by his ‘80s and 90s band Toasted Heretic, in challenging traditional Irish values and the very notion of Irishness itself.
“It’s totally a work of fiction, it’s set in a sort of cartoon universe that is more like The Simpsons than Dubliners. But there is also lots of autobiography - I mean it’s about a young fella, growing up in Tipperary, moving to Galway, having adventures and seeing the world.
“So there are lots of pieces of my own story in there but there are so many filters that it goes through that it is changed drastically before it appears in the book. But there is a lot of myself in there,” he said.
“I think that Ireland, in the past certainly, suffered from a narrow definition of Irishness, the De Valera definition. It left out a lot. You can’t just isolate things that happen in the 26 or 32 counties. It includes an awful lot of things that are not Catholic and nationalist.
“We are a strange bunch of people and it’s more complicated than that, it’s more international than that.”
Having spent 10 year trying to be a rock star, and 10 years preparing his emergence as an author, what next for Julian P Gough.
“I guess I’m a guy who writes and I suspect I’ll continue to write into the future because I find it so deeply satisfying. I mean novels are great, there are so many places that you go with it. It’s like an immense forest, and there are only a few roads carved through it so far.
“So there is plenty left to explore.”

First published in the Clare People Newspaper way back in June 2007. To listen to an audio version of the interview including a few Toasted Heretic Tunes, visit the CPI Archive HERE

Tomorrow, October 15, Colm Tóibín could be Ireland's latest Booker Prize winning author. In this interview, which took place way back in 2006, I spoke to a refreshingly funny Colm about his writing process, his struggle with short stories, and the joys of walking around in mental pyjamas.

EVERY walk of life has its unique lines of etiquette. Thin lines, almost invisible to the oblivious eye, but there nonetheless, lurking ominously in the long grass.
Never, no matter how tempted, reach to brush away an avalanche of dandruff which has collected temptingly around the collar of a nightclub bouncer.
When speaking to a member of An Garda Siochana, never follow the word ‘listen’ with either ‘mate’, ‘boss’ or ‘pal’ and expect to get away unscathed.
And never ever, when speaking with an author, ask how the new book is looking.
“It’s looking awful, now that you’ve asked,” said Colm Tóibín with a smile.
“I mean, I’ll give you the draft of it and you can re-write it for me if you like. I wrote the first chapter a good while ago and then just left it. Recently I’ve found a way to add to it but not by much.
“After Cúirt, I’m going to Spain and I can work on it there. Unless, of course, the election happens in the meantime and I’ll have to come back and vote like a good citizen.
“The plan is to try and finish the novel early next year or maybe a bit after that. It’s set in Ireland and it’s not too exciting at this point but we’ll see what happens.”
Spain has been the longtime refuge of Colm Tóibín. A creative exile, when the business end of a novel arrives, he locks himself away and pours into it virtually uninterrupted.
“I have a place in the Pyrenees. A house — well, two rooms really. Nothing much really happens there. Well, the sun comes up in the morning, which is a big event, and a few birds pass by. But other than that, nothing much happens. The aim there is to get work done.
“When you’re in the grip of it, it does take over — I suppose it has to. But you wish you were doing something else. If you see someone digging the road, you ask yourself ‘why don’t I have a proper job?’
“There’s no satisfaction. Once the book is finished, it’s no longer your own, it’s gone. I suppose the satisfaction come from not having a boss anymore. Not having to get up in the morning and face into the day. You can be in your mental pyjamas until lunchtime when you’re writing a novel. You don’t even have to wash yourself, there’s no-one looking at you. You can mooch around the house and wonder what to do today. It’s good in that sense.”
Tóibín appears alongside South African author of The Good Doctor, Damon Galgut, as part of the Cúirt International Literary Festival in Galway later this month.
“I’m going to read a story called ‘Priest in the Family’. It’s about a woman whose son turns out to have been a paedophile priest, but nobody has the heart to tell her. She’s a woman of about 80 years old, she’s very independent, drives her own car and she thinks everything is fine. She doesn’t understand why everyone is looking at her funny. And eventually they tell her. And she reacts in the way you would expect.
“I read The Good Doctor, which is a really good book. If there are parallels between us, it’s that we both try and write good, clear sentences. It might sound like nothing but it really is quite a lot. I can see from his work that he has a rhythm in his mind when he writes.
“I’ve never met him and I don’t know him but he’s someone I think writes really well and really clearly. And it’s good to be put together with someone who’s not Irish. It’s probably a good match in that we don’t ostensibly have anything in common but I think we do in terms of the way we write...or the way I try to write and he succeeds in writing.”
Tóibín has most recently turned his hand to the medium of the short story. Though his 2006 collection Mothers and Sons has received critical acclaim, he admits that writing short stories presents its own unique set of challenges.
“Yeah, it’s different alright. I tried to do them in my 20s and couldn’t. People just sent them back to me. It was only when I started writing novels that I could really get into my stride in any way. But over the years, a few ideas have occurred to me that wouldn’t become a novel, that wouldn’t have the meat for a novel. So I just fleshed out some of them and then I had a book.
“It’s liberating in a way. When you start a short story, it’s not like the next three years have just gone down the toilet. You can say, if I work hard this weekend I can have it finished next weekend or the weekend after. You can’t say that about a novel.
“The challenge is to get an awful lot of information across in the opening few paragraphs, which is strange. That’s the problem I had before: how do you let the reader know who, where, when and how in the first few paragraphs. You can ruin the rhythm. You have to work at it; it almost comes like a song or a tune. But I’m not going to enter anything for the Eurovision or anything.”

 ... ENDS...

West of Ireland writer Kevin Barry was yesterday shortlisted for the prestigious IMPAC literary awards for his novel City of Bohane. In this interview, first published in February 2012, he speak about the novel and the impact that the language of Limerick, Clare, Galway and Sligo have had on his ward.

In conversation with... Kevin Barry

Spend five minutes in the company of a Pat McCabe novel and you are instantly transported to the border counties – to the sights and sounds of Cavan and Monaghan. The same could be said for Roddy Doyle, whose portrayal of the sounds of working class Dublin was so realistic that they had to make Dub-to-Yank dictionaries to allow some American audiences to decipher The Commitments. Creating this contemporary voice for the West of Ireland is a key aim of Limerick novelist and short story writer Kevin Barry, as Andrew Hamilton discovers.      

There are stories in the West of Ireland. John B Keane knew it, so does Martin McDonagh, and so too does Limerick-born novelist and short story writer Kevin Barry. It’s in the way we live our lives, the way we manage to survive in this half forgotten land on the Atlantic seaboard and, more than anything else, it’s in the way we talk.
“I grew up in Limerick City and I spent my holidays each year off in West Clare or up in Connemara. Now in live in Sligo and I cycle a lot around the small towns of the West. It definitely feeds into the work. It’s not really the landscape though but more the way that people speak and the way we manage to mangle and bastardise the English language - in a really glorious way,” says Kevin.
“I think the Irish language plays a role in that as well. Even if, like me, your Irish isn’t great, it definitely plays a big role in the way that we speak English. There is always an undertone of Ireland in the way we form our sentences and I think it helps to give a poetic feeling to the way that English is spoken in the West of Ireland. I think it is a real advantage for writers from Ireland. It puts our English into a strange kind of odd contortion and we can get some interesting results out of it.
“Quite a few of my short stories in particular have small town settings and often that comes from just passing through somewhere in Clare or Galway, let’s say, and getting inspiration from that. I was living in the UK when I wrote my first book of stories and my experience of Ireland was going back during the summer and going around to these small towns. There was definitely something snagging on to me in these towns, making me want to write about them in some way.”
Having started his career as a freelance journalist – covering, among other things, the district court in Limerick - Kevin’s first literary love was for the often overlooked medium of the short story. This was to change last year, however, with the release of his debut novel, City of Bohane, which offered readers a futurist take on a city in the West of Ireland.
“They are very dissimilar forms in many ways [novels and short stories]. The novel is simpler in many ways, because it is looser and you can go off on tangents more, whereas in a short story, every sentence and every line really counts. You can’t go wrong with a single line. The novel is a more forgiving form,” continues Kevin.
“I have a huge interest in both but short stories are probably my first love. When it comes to the novel, my interest is really about creating something new, something that has not been done before. It is an old form but a very capacious form.
“I think with City of Bohane what I wanted to do was draw an image of an Irish city from the middle of this century. That was never something that was going to work as a short story. I think Bohane is really in a parallel universe. I think from the way they speak, you can tell that it is based on Irish people but I wanted to give the impression in the book that their past isn’t necessarily our present - that they come out of a whole different set of circumstances to us.
“When I tried to build the city, it was fundamentally built on the way that people speak in small, demented, Irish cities.”
Kevin will read from his latest collection of short stories, Dark Lies the Island , at this weekend’s Ennis Book Club Festival.
“It is another collection of short stories. It’s funny, if you are in the habit of writing short stories you will pretty much have a collection of stories there every four or five years. It is hard to get books published but it is even harder to get collections of short stories published,” continues Kevin.
“It is 13 or 14 stories written over the course of the last four to five years. It is similar to the first collection but with a bit of darkness creeping in here and there. It isn’t a recession collection, not directly anyway. Everything I write is comedy at its core but things are definitely getting darker this time around.”

This interview was first published in The Clare People in February of 2012.

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