Blog Archives

Catherine Dunne interviews moi about Room Little Darker

This feels slightly weird but in the run-up to the launch of Room Little Darker next Wednesday, 31st May (Hodges Figgis, 6pm, all welcome!) I wanted to post this author interview Catherine Dunne did with me on her website as it discusses some of the stories in the book as well as wider themes. So excuse the narcissism, and enjoy!


1 – ‘SOMAT’ is also part of this new story collection. Narrated from the point of view of a foetus, it is, among other things, a howl of outrage against the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution which can reduce pregnant women in Ireland to the status of incubators. But it is the irreverent inventiveness of the language that really grabs the reader by the throat. Can you give us an insight into how you gave life to this particular voice?

Marlise Munoz

J.C.: – There were two Frankensteinesque stories of women held captive in monstrous situations in 2014 that really smashed me in the gut and made me angry as hell. A woman from Texas called Marlise Munoz, who was 14 weeks pregnant with the couple’s second child when her husband found her unconscious on their kitchen floor. She’d suffered an pulmonary embolism. Though doctors pronounced her brain dead and her family explicitly said they didn’t want machines keeping her body alive, officials at John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth felt differently.

The law in Texas is very like ours in Ireland. It required them to maintain life-sustaining treatment for a pregnant patient as long as there was a foetal heartbeat. Keeping a woman alive against nature’s will (her body was essentially rotting and she had to be drowned out in ‘somatic’ medicines to keep her ‘technically’ alive) as a human incubator when the baby/foetus is in no way viable was such a hideous scenario.

Her family fought their own grief and powerlessness for eight long weeks, having to go to court several times, before she could be taken off the machines. Think of the trauma of that? And the law is supposed to be there to ‘protect’ you?

Her husband, Erick Munoz, argued that sustaining her body artificially amounted to ‘the cruel and obscene mutilation of a deceased body’ against her wishes and those of her family. That was at the beginning of the year.

june caldwell - room little darker - invitation

June Caldwell’s stories are the roar of fury and clarity that Irish fiction has been needing – no really, it has. You haven’t read anything like this before. You haven’t had anything before like the headspin that these stories will give you. And it doesn’t hurt that they’re gaspingly, gutsily hilarious, as well as formally brave and unbothered with the rules. Just brilliant – Belinda McKeon

At the end of the year, an almost identical situation happened in Ireland. A woman who had suffered a spontaneous ‘brain’ trauma who was 18 weeks pregnant, ended up at the mercy of bonkers legislation in an ‘unnamed’ hospital, being fought over by medical staff, legal eagles and the Catholic church. The hospital refused her family’s request to discontinue artificial life support, citing ‘the country’s strict abortion law’ as their guideline. Then there was the usual circus offerings: lawyers representing the rights of the woman and of the fetus, but not her family, said they accepted the ruling from the country’s second-highest court.

Pro-life organisations saw the lingering horror as a kind of triumph in real-time and the men in dresses were issuing statements from stained-glass windows on God’s law over woman’s fate.

It was insane and really upsetting to read about. One doctor commented that the fetus was essentially “facing into a ‘perfect storm’ from which it has no realistic prospect of emerging alive.”

Even the most cogent argument couldn’t alter the facts, the ‘baby’ had nothing but distress and death ahead. The hospital was afraid of being sued for negligence or having to face murder charges under a 1983 constitutional ban on abortion, the strictest in Europe. Keeping her deteriorating body functioning only with the help of machines and drugs deprived her “of dignity in death”.

It subjected her father, her partner and her young children to “unimaginable distress in a futile exercise which commenced only because of fears held by treating medical specialists of potential legal consequences,” the court decided.

And of course, Government officials said the ruling would be studied for possible exceptions to the blanket ban on abortion. We live in a time where we are contemplating colonies on Mars and yet there are women left lingering in this freakish state in our hospitals, with their families suffering ridiculously.

It boiled my piss.

I wanted to write a story that reflected the trajectory of horror and I felt that it was best told from the fetus’s perspective, to highlight the hideousness. After spending years in journalism and being restricted on what you could say and how you could say it, I firmly believe that fiction can be more effective, more politicised.

wrote the story in a fit of anger to the 3,000 word brief (which was hard to do and sent it into Sinéad Gleeson, who was editing The Long Gaze Back anthology).

I was really nervous about how it would be received, if it came across as offensive, if it would get people talking. It turned out to be one of the most talked about stories in the collection.

The Open University now want it on their MA in Creative Writing (fiction module) and have asked permission to use it for the next nine years. That gave me hope that I have it in me to make a difference. Up until that point I had no idea if I could write a short story or not. Writing the story helped me understand the stupidity of our laws and the need to Repeal the Eighth Amendment and go for a referendum. I hope it happens. It needs to happen.

June Caldwell’s writing is audacious, wicked and profoundly funny; her prose cracks and sizzles. The stories in Room Little Darker are literary electrical storms and Caldwell’s voice is a genuinely fresh, bold and welcome addition to the Irish scene – Nuala O’Connor

2 – The characters in your stories often inhabit a nightmarish world, such as that wildly imagined one in ‘Imp of the Perverse’. They are frequently transported there by the ferocity of sexual desire:

‘In the garden I watch the guests through the heat of amber eyes. Grasses bristle and jostle. I stretch forward to lie flat in the flimsy sunshine of early evening. The clouds are hungry and my mouth waters. Wind tears at itself as I pull layers from the sky to lay over me. Laughter grey and mocking. They do not know the danger love carries.’

Can you talk to us about this – about ‘the danger love carries’ in your stories?

J.C.: – Well, yes, in adult life we are obliged to be ‘civil’ always, aren’t we, to be well behaved?

We’re not marauding teenagers anymore.

But sometimes we can’t or don’t choose our desires and the people who counter-inhabit them. They choose us. They untangle us. They sweep in from the unconscious and take us over, eat us up, make fools of us, flood us. Crazy behaviour can only follow. Desire as the invisible puppeteer. And these desires are often strongest where hierarchies exist, where taboo beckons, where warped lust lurks. In this story I wanted to look closely at two stereotypes: the randy professor who has more choice than sense, and the love-struck MA student who at first is overwhelmed by a genuine admiration for him and his work, but pretty soon that morphs into a dangerous longing.

The longing takes over and acts as Theatre Director in the drama, leading into murky corners, embarrassing come-ons. He, of course, plays with this at first, before becoming sickened or appalled by her. He is used to seducing women with his mind, ‘pinning’ with his eyes, flinging provocative sentences, lassoing.

He sees himself as a Gingerman type character and everyone is fair game.

Until the game goes wrong.

His character is quietly psychopathic. He’s addicted to the pleasure he gets from luring people in, of women wanting him, lasciviousness. He pulls the strings, the wires, he cracks the whip. His position also allows for this. It is the milky environment of emotional cancer, the alkaline is missing. He has a vast brain and deeply abusive psychological patterns that direct him. He’s also a fail-safe opportunist.

She’s not a victim though.

She’s also very clever and plays the ‘little girl’ around him a lot, knowing he likes the dynamism of that. But then she loses control and spills overboard, along with her sanity, ending up in the freezing cold sea. The only way she can cope with the idea of him is to turn him into an animal in her head, where he is predator and she is [willing] prey.

All well and good, but the game goes wrong when she realises he has no interest in her. She cannot compete with what he normally goes for. She unravels. Self-annihilation and destruction consume her. It’s all a bit disgusting and shameful. On the surface she seems to be the gudgeon, the martyr.

But then she examines his behaviour inside the kaleidoscope of power and realises that he can behave as he likes. The expectations on her, in the ‘lower’ hierarchical role, are more demanding and rigid. She gets angry and this perpetuates even more destructive behaviour. It’s a no-win. Going back is futile, revenge is futile, going forward is futile. She is straitjacketed. He will never like her, consider her, want her. His available pool of lovelies who admire him endlessly is so large, he drowns in it. They both drown, but in different ways. In the end she wanders into the ‘den’ and has a breakdown. What will happen when she emerges from that desolate place and sees more clearly? Sees that he’s just a man (how boring!).

What then? Will she feel remorse, will she feel sorry for him? Will she learn important things about herself? He doesn’t care however, and formally complains, consequence pours in regardless. She’s punished severely for her ‘transgression’. He’s every right to do what he does.

He’s also every right to bob along never scrutinising his own behaviour because he never believes he causes damage. It’s all just light-hearted ‘stuff’ to him. Maybe he is the ‘victim’ here, maybe he did nothing wrong.

She could be just relentlessly nuts after all. I want the reader to consider the macro, to like and hate and understand both characters. The meaning of meaninglessness! I use Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘Imp of the Perverse’ as a type of metaphor or structure for the story. In his original short story, which Poe wrote in part as an essay, he first discusses the narrator’s self-destructive impulses, embodied as the symbolic metaphor of The Imp of the Perverse.

The narrator describes this spirit as the agent that tempts a person to do things ‘merely because we feel we should not.’ He talks about how we are compelled to ‘commit acts’ against our self interest in life, that this is part of our intrinsically destructive impulses as human beings. The guilt that’s produced afterwards (even if we ‘confess’ to our ridiculous behaviour, our sins) is also futile. No one cares! Poe’s character eventually commits murder, gets away with it, but the overwhelming desire [triggered by an ‘invisible fiend’ pursuing him, the conscience] to confess leads him to the hangman’s alley.

I thought it would be the perfect metaphor to look at destructive desire and the crippling lonely lows it can lead us into.

I use some of Poe’s text in the story, sneakily.

It’s there in some of the sentences, but the modern context of the setting submerges the original text.

The moral of the story is that desire can be as treacherous as love is relative. We need to know how to handle it, how to bury it, how to accept defeat and walk off, how to forgive ourselves. Ultimately how to accept that sometimes we have no control. Perhaps it’s the only way we can truly learn.

This story could also be written about a priest and one of his congregation, a paedophile and a child, an alligator zig-zagging towards a juicy deer strolling aimlessly by. Ying without the Yang, sexual chemistry in a cul-de-sac.

Poe’s theory of the Imp of the Perverse is an early notion of the subconscious and repression which would not be fully theorised until Freud.

When people meet they’ve no real idea what private psychologies they’re banging off. It’s why we have boundaries in life. Rules. When we ignore them, or evade our own splurging instincts, we get into trouble. It was too tempting to have the student protagonist ‘win’ in the end by ripping him to shreds for hurting her, but that’s not realistic. The end is deliberately anti-climactic. Maybe they are both still out there and have learnt nothing in their separate dusty cubby-holes. That’s what I imagine anyway. Love, lust, desire, even the ugly deluded kind, are potentially traumatic and betraying to the delicate self. There is no midway point, no resolve, no understanding. We become marked, spoiled, swinging off the rope forever. Tread carefully and make sure there’s rubber soles on your slippers to cope with the rain.

June Caldwell’s stories are savagely inventive, full-throttle snapshots of the creepy, pitiable world it seems we all now have to live in. If the ghost of Angela Carter and a hungover George Saunders ever got together, they might turn out tales as full of the righteous ire and strychnine wit as the uproarious stories in Room Little Darker – Colin Barrett

3 – Your writer’s imagination seems to me to be a heady mix of hilarity and horror. In the visceral tale ‘Upcycle’, a daughter recalls the chilling abuse of a now-demented father. Yet the tale is leavened with a hearty dose of black humour, such as the mother’s futile attempt, long ago, to ‘poison his stew’. There are many times when the reader laughs, and then feels uncomfortable for laughing. Can you talk to us about the role of humour in your stories?

J.C.: – I always see the funny even in the horrific or even just in the ‘every day’.

Maybe it’s a feeling of healthy dislocation, but I find a lot of life ‘unreal’, and that also includes how we cope with memory. I’ve never grown up, essentially. We forget too that there are always two in a tango, that everyone bears the weight of responsibility, for their relationships, for their actions, and most tellingly, for their lack of action.

The crime of nonchalance, of missing the point of life. The ‘wife’ character in ‘Upcycle’ is portrayed first of all as a bit of a victim but really we have to ask ourselves, what’s in it for her staying with a man like that? Is it societal pressure of the time (the story swings back and forth from the 1970s and 1980s to the present day where the ‘husband’ is in a nursing home)? Again it is a story about the shifting sands of power: a man who is a bully in his marriage but is now out of control with the mites of madness eating his brain, behaves accordingly.

He loses control but tries to regain some of that control by haunting his family. Is he really haunting them or is it their own conscience playing havoc in the aftermath of a traumatic situation? The house becomes a metaphor for the man’s strong seething will and starts to break up all around them (the wife and daughter).

I guess there’s unintentional humour in that.

In the scenario itself. Fun in the absurd. We expect justice in life, appeasement, release from hard situations. It often doesn’t arrive, it doesn’t grace our doorstep.

Life tells us, ‘You picked this shit, deal with it, smell it, stick it right up your nose.’ Humour is sometimes our only saviour. Without giving too much away, by the end of the story, the protagonist realises that the father was always terrified of them, while they lived it in real time the other way around. Humour in hopelessness, the wrangle for reason.

What else is there to do sometimes but laugh? I hope that there is fun and humour is most of these stories. In ‘Leitrim Flip’ for instance, the scenario is horrific, but again the couple’s predicament in the cage is a consequence of not thinking things through clearly. There’s buffoonery in the role reversal: the ‘submissive’ character relents and accepts her fate. The ‘Master’ continually fights their predicament and refuses to accept it. Yet in his traditional role he’d expect her to handle anything he’d dream of dishing out.

In ‘The Man Who Lives In A Tree’, the tree is seemingly a ‘friend’ but Rashi soon realises that he’s a malevolent git. A Facebook friend who was sent a review copy wrote to me today to say she had ‘nightmares’ after reading the story.

She dreamt Liam Neeson turned into the tree and chased her.

I couldn’t stop laughing at that image. If I give people nightmares or make them laugh, I’ve done my job as a writer.

My 83-year-old Ma asked me why I wrote about ‘a tree who could talk’, and I said, ‘why not?’ Hippies believe that trees whisper and have voices. Maybe they do. And we, as people, as wreckers of the environment must piss them off no end. But all we feel is pity for ourselves, not for the havoc we wreak. The tree doesn’t care too much for humans, even ones like Rashi who are homeless and desperate. Why should it? That shouldn’t be funny, but maybe it is. I also feel guilty sometimes about using humour in inappropriate ways.

In ‘Dubstopia’ we should feel nothing but concern for the heroin addict character, but we end up laughing at the pointlessness of his day, at his own lack of control, at a city sizzling in menace. When I worked at the Irish Writers Centre, I remember one day standing outside in the porch to get some air, and I saw this really dishevelled junkie, he looked in a terrible state, really emaciated… and he stopped to read the menu outside Chapter One (you know, that really posh expensive Michelin star restaurant!). He looked like he’d emerged from a crumby bedsit, woken by the pains of hunger that pulled him out onto the street. He was reading the menu out loud driving himself mad! I knew it wasn’t funny per se, but I couldn’t stop laughing.

I felt bad but laughed for two days over that.

I felt ugly for my own immorality of being able to find this funny. It made me uncomfortable. I want my stories to do the same. Humour, laughter, to just plomp your face in your hands and say, ‘For fuck’s sake!’, is a great balm. We laugh uncontrollably from the time we’re babies and everything is hideous and new and distorted, to the hilarious cartoons of childhood that calm and teach us, to our mortifying teenage romances, right up to the myriad of things that can and do go wrong for us as adults. Humour is also a close colleague of pain. There is so much in life that is privately hellish or impossible to cope with. If we can take a moment to laugh, then isn’t that great? We’re all strolling towards the crematorium anyway. Imagine taking any of this shit seriously?

There is a seriously charged imagination at work here. Line by line, page by page, Caldwell brings a dangerous new voltage to the Irish short story – Mike McCormack

4 – Your stories deal with characters who find themselves ‘unmoored’ in a strange and hostile parallel universe. Although dark and terrifying, the world that you create is kept vibrant and somehow optimistic by the sheer energy of the language that you use – your metaphors are arresting, startling, illuminating. Is language or character the starting-point for you?

J.C.: – I love language!

I listen to how people speak, not formally, but how, you know, we have conversations in the pub or even in our heads (have you ever taken time out to listen to your head, it’s terrifying!) With ‘Natterbean’ for instance: that came about one day in a taxi. A junkie walked out in front of the cab and the taxi driver said, ‘I hate them fucking Natterbeans’. I asked him what he meant. ‘Every time they get into the car, they’re all ‘I’m natterbean up at the clinic and yer man said…’ and so on. It was his word for ‘I’m after been’, said in a frenzy. I thought, ‘I’m robbing that!’ Language straight off the street, right from the gob of a taxi man, you can’t get more Joycean than that.

Taxi men are the modern-day carriers of all things Ulysses.

Their warblings are a great example of how language is used to best effect in ordinary ways, in storytelling. Taxi men always tell you stories and they do it brilliantly.

We learn how to write ‘essays’ in school in Victoriana English. Short story writing is the opposite of that, in any fiction, we’re trying to mirror reality as we live and experience it. In SOMAT the foetus is not really talking like a foetus (we all know they can’t talk, right?) and the voice is peculiarly adult and ‘knowing’, but at the same time it breaks up/away into baby speak sometimes.

I wanted to give a flavour of ‘what if’. Voice for me is the most important thing in any writing. How that character inhabits their own reality. I admire writers who use language in subtle beautiful ways, but that’s not me.

My heroine in this regard is Eimear McBride, what she does with language in ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’ is off the scale brilliant.

She knows how language is formed in the brain through her study of linguistics and she worked with that. It floored me. Seeing it performed on stage shook me to the core. It’s the best example of stellar use of language I can think of. I’m not in that league at all but I take inspiration from her.

I love reading a book where the character (and the writer in their role of occupying that character) seems almost possessed. Ross Raisin in ‘God’s Own Country’ or even ‘The Lovely Bones’ by Alice Sebold.

I hope that I use language effectively to make each of the stories different from one another. I’ve read short story collections where ‘the voice’ is the same throughout and while there’s great skill involved in achieving this, it’s not for me. I want each story to be so separate and identifiable from the next.

The average word usage for anyone using spoken English is between 20,000 and 35,000 words, but the Oxford English Dictionary lists at least 171,476 words with thousands of obsolete ones no longer in use. Look how much language has changed since the advent of social media? All those new buzz words and vowel-less offerings?

Language, like sexuality, is fluid, and it’s the writer’s job to exploit this to the best of their ability.

It’ll be interesting to see if some of the language in my ‘Oirish’ stories carries to an audience outside of here. Will it work or will it bore? Writers like James Kelman and Irvine Welsh have done Scottish street language proud. How will we move with the high-tech languages of the future and still stay true to our own unique way of expressing ourselves?

5 – After this blistering collection Room Little Darker, what’s next for June Caldwell, Writer?

J.C.: – I’ve a few short story commissions to write now (for The Lonely Crowd Welsh literary journal and Winter Papers here) and after that it’s time to return to an abandoned novella: a murderous tale about one of Ireland’s missing women, told from the dead, with a twist.

I was obsessed with the ‘triangle’ of missing murdered women that happened in the 1990s, but my story moves on a bit in time and looks at the idea of murderous intent and how so many men get away with the ultimate violence against women, and how as a country, we are still utterly unprepared to deal with that scenario.

I began the story on the MA in Belfast, but I’d never attempted fiction and it was very disparate and all over the place. That’s the next job at hand. After that, I may go for a ‘big’ novel. I also love hybrids: mixes of non-fiction and fiction. I feel like I’ve spent two decades in an incubator ‘waiting’ to write.

I can’t understand why I didn’t do it earlier. So I want to have all my babies now in quick succession. Then I’ll retire to the countryside to have as much sex as I can and look at the sea endlessly before I die. Well, hold on, I’m only in my forties so maybe there’s plenty of time to write a whole slew of disturbing books where I’ll be labelled a lunatic but one day someone will say ‘Yer one, she was a difficult narky character alright, but she could string a sentence together OK’. That to me, would be a life well lived.

Author Profile: Maeve Brennan, by Eleanor Fitzsimons

Photograph of Maeve Brennan, contributor to The Long Gaze Back, published in September 2015 by New Island, with her story: ‘The Eldest Child’.

It sometimes takes an outsider’s gaze to capture the essence of a place with an authenticity that lies beyond the sight of the indigenous observer. For this reason, it should have come as no great surprise to readers of The New Yorker when the Long-Winded Lady, columnist and faithful, if eccentric, documenter of life in the eponymous city, was unmasked as Irishwoman Maeve Brennan, an immigrant who had arrived in her mid-twenties. John Updike, among others, realised that this watchful interloper ‘brought New York back to The New Yorker’. In her whimsical contributions to the exalted ‘Talk of the Town’ column, Brennan was rare in establishing a distinct persona, and unique in ensuring that this voice was a female one. Stylish, ambitious and armed with a waspish wit that conjured up recollections of Dorothy Parker, her personality contrasted violently with that of her passive, suburbanite alter-ego.

Between 1954 and 1968, Brennan documented a city in flux, a place where the wrecker’s ball swung in perpetual motion as residents embraced a post-war transience. She too drifted: a self-confessed ‘traveller in residence’, she hopped from short-lease apartment to anonymous hotel suite, or borrowed summer houses from glamorous friends like Gerald and Sara Murphy, Fitzgerald’s models for the Divers in Tender is the Night. In her wake she left little beyond a miasma of cigarette smoke and a trace of expensive scent. As one-time editor at The New Yorker Gardner Botsford observed, Brennan could, ‘like the Big Blonde in the Dorothy Parker story … transport her entire household, all her possessions and her cats – in a taxi’. In her story ‘The Last Days of New York City’, published in The New Yorker in 1955, Brennan confessed: ‘All my life, I suppose, I’ll be running out of buildings just ahead of the wreckers’.

Although rarely absent from New York State, Brennan used fiction to return to her native Ireland, which she had left while still in her teens. In The Visitor, her posthumously published novella, she explains why: ‘Home is a place in the mind,’ she writes, ‘when it is empty it frets’. Yet, her memories were never those of a misty-eyed romantic. Born within a year of the failed Easter Rising of 1916, to a staunch Republican father who was in prison at the time but was later appointed Secretary of the Irish Legation to Washington, Brennan was tangled up in political turmoil for much of her early life. The precariousness of her existence and the ever-present threat of displacement seep into stories shot through with anxiety and unease. In ‘The Day We Got Our Own Back’, from The New Yorker in 1953, Brennan documents how she watched wide-eyed as her family home was raided:

One afternoon some unfriendly men dressed in civilian clothes and carrying revolvers came to our house, searching for my father, or for information about him.

Throughout her life, she had a horror of being pinned down and she rarely made firm arrangements.

COVER_Springs of AffectionConventional boundaries between memoir and fiction are rarely observed in Brennan’s revealing Irish stories, many of them collected posthumously in The Springs of Affection: Stories of Dublin, a book compared favourably to Joyce’s Dubliners. Although these tales of lower-middleclass Dublin life appear superficially innocuous, they revealed an unfamiliar malevolence to second– and third-generation Irish-Americans who hankered after a mist-shrouded holy land. Her characters operate furtively, seeing out their thwarted lives in the shadow cast by a stultifying and spiritless Catholic Church.

From the safety of cosmopolitan New York, Brennan time travelled back to darkened confessionals where guilt-ridden children cowered under the gaze of a vengeful deity, and to the ante-chamber of an enclosed convent where a bereft mother strained to discern the voice of a lost daughter who sang in praise of her unearthly spouse. Teaching nuns, capricious in their accusations, note that the young Brennan was headstrong and wilful, traits that are inappropriate in Irish womanhood. Decades later, in ‘Lessons and Lessons and More Lessons’ from The New Yorker, Brennan described how, in a city where the ‘three-martini lunch’ is commonplace, she hid her glass instinctively when two nuns entered the Greenwich Village restaurant she frequented.

In New York, Brennan embraced her ‘otherness’; as one colleague observed, ‘She wasn’t one of us. She was one of her!’ To strangers, she could appear hard-edged and watchful, yet friends found her warm and generous, voluble and funny. Everyone agreed that she was beautiful. Barely five feet tall and beanpole slim, she looked younger than her years and compensated with vertiginous heels. She tottered along the robustly masculine corridors of The New Yorker offices at West Forty-Third Street, make-up immaculate, hair neatly coiffed and carefully chosen costume exquisitely cut, with a fresh flower in her lapel, generally a rose. She had the ceiling of her office painted Wedgwood blue and threw open her door while she tap-tapped away on her typewriter, a curlicue of smoke rising from the ever-present Camel clenched between her fingers. Her language was defiantly fruity, and the mischievous notes that she slipped under the doors of her male colleagues elicited great explosions of laughter: ‘To be around her was to see style being invented,’ recalled her friend and editor William Maxwell.

An ill-fated stint as fourth wife to fellow New Yorker writer St. Clair McKelway – a hard-drinking, mentally frail man – took her to bohemian Sneden’s Landing, a community of artists and writers that nestled alongside the Hudson in upstate New York. Brennan recast it as ‘Herbert’s Retreat’, a rarefied enclave where privileged New Yorkers partied under the watchful gaze of their derisive Irish servants. With an insider’s familiarity, Brennan used her stories to juxtapose the prudent Catholicism of her countrywomen with the flagrant immorality of their employers. As the beautiful and sophisticated daughter of a diplomat, Brennan enjoyed a status that allowed her to pass in society, yet she had rubbed shoulders with girls who would enter domestic service and must have felt a sneaking solidarity with them. As a former fashion writer with Harper’s Bazaar, it apparently amused her greatly when the trappings of Irish peasantry – shawls and tweed and tealeaves – were adopted as status symbols by wealthy American women.

At times, Brennan grasped onto the trappings of Irishness with a fervour that suggested desperation and displacement. She drank tea obsessively, and although her rented homes rarely featured a kitchen, she insisted on an open fireplace, considering a fire to be a living thing, company almost. When her marriage failed in 1959, she embraced a solitary life, borrowing houses in the Hamptons and walking the Atlantic beach with her dog, Bluebell before returning to the twin comforts of a scalding hot cup of tea and a roaring fire, which she shared with several cats, ‘small heaps of warm dreaming fur all over the furniture and the floor’. In summertime, when the Hamptons filled up, she would return to New York City or travel home to Ireland.

During her chaotic, alcohol-soaked marriage, Brennan wrote little of any worth. When one devoted reader requested more Maeve Brennan stories, she had her editor write to explain that she had shot herself when she was ‘drunk and heartsick’. However, the 1960s heralded a period of intense productivity. Several of her finest stories, set in Dublin and Wexford, feature Rose and Hubert Derdon, a couple who endure a dispiriting marriage: she is furtive and priest-ridden, while he ‘wore the expression of a friend, but of a friend who is making no promises’. Carefully crafted, these stories represent a stingingly accurate documenting of the disappointments that ambush even the most virtuous at every turn. Many of the stories from this period were published in In and Out of Never-Never Land. A number of stories from this collection are set in Forty-eight Cherryfield Avenue, in the well-to-do Dublin suburb of Ranelagh, the home she occupied as a child; William Maxwell described it as her ‘imagination’s home’.

AUTHOR_Maeve_Brennan

Photo of Maeve Brennan © Yvonne Jerrold

Brennan’s story ‘The Eldest Child’ was selected for Best American Short Stories 1968. Yet even as her writing elicited fresh acclaim, her life began to unravel and she drifted, physically and mentally, becoming unkempt, erratic and paranoid. Homeless and debt-ridden, she took to sleeping on a couch in the ladies room at The New Yorker offices, and she grew paranoid that her toothpaste had been laced with cyanide. When she was institutionalised for a time, one friend testified that she became very Irish, as if the years had fallen away, and with them the carefully crafted veneer. She was discharged once she had established a pharmaceutically induced equilibrium, but she could not be relied on to take her medication and drifted once more, losing touch with friends and colleagues. She was nervously tolerated at the offices of The New Yorker as a legacy of affection and with respect for her talent, but her behaviour grew erratic: she once nursed a sick pigeon in her office and, in a more sinister episode, wrecked the offices of a number of colleagues. Sometimes, she stood outside, handing out cash to bewildered passers-by. Inevitably, she produced little that was worthy of publication. Yet ‘The Springs of Affection’, her longest and, arguably, most powerful story, appeared in The New Yorker in March 1972. Although it is almost entirely autobiographical, Brennan twisted the facts in such a fashion that one aunt was prompted to write the words ‘greatly changed for the worse’ on a photograph of her brilliant niece.

Although Brennan continued as an occasional contributor to ‘Talk of the Town’, her offerings arrived out of the blue with no indication of where she was when she wrote them. In her final outing as the Long-Winded Lady, in January 1981, she described how, walking along Forty-Second Street, she had sidestepped a shadow that she recognised as ‘exactly the same shadow that used to fall on the cement part of our garden in Dublin, more than fifty-five years ago’. That year, she turned up at the offices of The New Yorker, grey-haired and unkempt, and sat quietly in reception on two consecutive days, but no one appeared to recognise her. Maeve Brennan died of heart failure in a New York nursing home on 01 November 1993; she was seventy-six. By then, she had descended into an imaginary existence in which she appeared unaware of her status as a celebrated writer.

Excluded from the canon of important Irish writing for years, she has enjoyed a posthumous revival. Two collections of short fiction, The Springs of Affectionand The Rose Garden, and her revealing novella, The Visitor, are still in print, as is a collected edition of Long-Winded Lady pieces. Jonathan Cape published Angela Bourke’s biography Maeve Brennan: Homesick at The New Yorker in 2004. Since then, several new plays and collections (such as The Long Gaze Back) have referenced or published the work of this significant Irish writer.

**This blog post was published today on the Thresholds international short story forum

 

Lane In Stay, a short story by Eimear Ryan

eryan

This story of how a widow deals with her grief is taken from The Long Gaze Back, An Anthology of Irish Women Writers edited by Sinéad Gleeson

She felt that she should do something to mark her husband’s passing – a personal project, some self-improvement – so she learned to drive. It was harder than she imagined. Her husband had made it look easy. He drove while consulting the map or groping under his seat for the Al Green CD he loved, one hand stroking the wheel, open-palmed. She drove with her hands clamped firmly at ten and two.

She got lessons from a boy forty years her junior from the local town. He always stared straight ahead, avoiding her eye, even when she pressed a fifty euro note into his hand at the end of every lesson. She knew it wasn’t personal; it was just her husband’s death, lingering like an awkward joke at a party. Nobody knew what to say to her.

The interior of the car looked different from the driver’s side. The seat was moulded to the contours of her husband’s body. There were remnants of him everywhere; the door pocket stuffed with music and chocolate bar wrappers; tangy traces of tobacco from his rolled cigarettes. She couldn’t bear to vacuum them away.

She practised every day; she had time, in her widowhood. Driving even infected her sleep: she dreamt of hill-starts, of endless three-point turns, of cars driving towards her in the wrong lane. She awoke with handbrake precision. When the time came she sailed through her test, and drove home feeling reckless and free.

*

In the last few weeks of her husband’s short illness, he told her not to be lonely. Go out, he said. Meet new people. Have a life. That’s what he would’ve done had she been the first to die. But then it was different for him. He was on parish committees and hurling backroom teams; he could hop onto a high stool at Kennedy’s and talk to whoever was beside him. The pure ease of him.

She loved him, but by no means had he been a perfect husband. There’d always been indiscretions – even a love child, about ten years into their marriage. The other woman had been local; though she didn’t know who it was, she fretted that it was someone she knew, someone she liked. When she went into town, she sometimes scrutinised the faces of twentysomethings, looking for the shadow of her husband.

She tried to honour his deathbed request. She developed a routine: every Saturday evening, she readied herself, got into the car and left. It took her two hours to reach the coast, driving in any direction. She would make for a city or a big market town. She’d wear every piece of jewellery she owned, a long dress, a shawl. She would go into a hotel bar, order a Jameson on the rocks, and wait. It was never long before a man approached, looking for company, asking if she was OK for a drink. She usually let them buy her one.

She knew she was a point of fascination. She drank steadily but was careful to never appear drunk. Men who were young enough to be her sons approached her, asking what was she doing out on her own, at her age. Their eyes skimmed over the curves of her body, the clinging swirls of fabric, her neat cap of downy grey hair. Some of them told her she reminded them of their mothers.

The men would drink themselves to the point where they had the courage to reach out and touch her face. Her skin was creased, but still soft. Sometimes she pulled back in a kind, maternal way, and they would splutter and apologise and blame the drink. Other times, she went home with them.

*

She thought she saw her husband, sometimes. A man coming towards her on the street, smoking a cigarette, would turn out to be a woman eating an apple. She stared at strangers who shared a trait with him: a beard, a dark coat. She began to harbour a belief in ghosts.

She willed him to reincarnate. She was alert for the way a crow might turn its head, or a cat yawn with its whole body, the way he used to. She looked into young mothers’ buggies and expected to see his knowing eyes smirking back at her. She was the one who hadn’t wanted children, and now she cursed herself for it, for failing to hold on to even a piece of him.

*

Tonight’s candidate watched her from across the room for two hours before summoning the courage to approach. He was in an armchair, hunched over a low coffee table, pretending to do the crossword. She bided her time.

He was a bulky man, but so was her husband. They bore it differently, though. Her husband’s heft was like a bulwark against the world; he seemed insulated inside it. This man wore his weight apologetically, like a ratty old coat. She felt a pang of pity; she allowed him in.

Later, at his apartment, all shyness melted away. When he bent her over the couch, the blood rushed to her head. She had the phantom sensation of hair tumbling, tugging at her scalp; the long hair of her youth. It was different from sex with her husband – there was no way she could pretend it was him. But she still enjoyed it.

*

Grief was like a creature from folklore, sitting on her chest while she slept. Her excursions began to leak into midweek. She tried to pick a quiet time when there wouldn’t be much traffic, when her only company would be the wildlife: the slink of small animals on the narrow country roads, or a flock of dark birds in the evening sky, like fragments blown from a fire.

She would enter the city in the murky dusk, the street lights just beginning to spark up, reminding her of the glow of her husband’s cigarettes as he smoked out the kitchen window before bed. It hadn’t even been the cigarettes that killed him, in the end – it had been some other, stealthy mutation. It could have happened to anyone.

Her lovers would ask her to stay till morning, offering to cook her breakfast, expressing concern about the long drive.I don’t mind, she’d reply. I like long drives. I can listen to music. Actually she did mind, travelling in the dark from Cork, from Galway, from Kilkenny, from Limerick. She minded being trapped in the dark capsule of her car, hurtling into blackness. She couldn’t see her hands on the wheel; the night seemed to invade the car. Her eyes were tricked by tail lights and she’d hallucinate hitchhikers, heavy machinery, trees blown into the road.

After every journey she’d arrive home, climb into their old shared bed, and whisper into the pillow what she’d done, and who she’d done it with. I’m meeting new people, she’d say. I’m living my life.

*

Six months into widowhood, she made the mistake of becoming attached. He was a tall, stringy Corkman, a businessman who told her he had no time for relationships. He said he found it hard to talk to women – except for her.

He talked about everything: how he really wanted to be a doctor but didn’t get the points; his mother’s early death; his disabled younger brother whom he worried about constantly. In return, she told him about the hotel bars, the men. How she’d been a virgin when she married. How she’d become convinced that her teeth were about to fall out; they tingled as if preparing to wrench themselves from their roots. She tongued them when she drove, daring them to make a crone out of her.

When they went back to his place, he only ever wanted to lie down, hold each other and talk. Sex was something he paid for, she gathered. She was irritated by the way he compartmentalised his life, but then, wasn’t she doing the same thing? Still, she liked him for his staccato accent, and because he reminded her of her husband – his directness, his sardonic humour.

Though she rarely saw the same man twice, this one became a habit. She would drive down midweek, or whenever he could meet. She would feel her pulse quicken as she drove through the tunnel at the outskirts of his city, with its puzzlingly inverted instructions painted on the tarmac, commanding her to LANE IN STAY.

When they were apart, she would text him from under the covers, curled up, the smartphone glow flooding her tired eyes, and thought of reading by flashlight as a child, her mother scolding her: You’ll ruin your eyesight.

He asked her to stay the night once, and for him, she broke the rules. He made her breakfast with charming nerves, checking that she had enough juice and coffee, forgetting where the spatula lived. It was a pleasure to watch him move about the kitchen, quiet and smiling, like a tall sturdy geisha. Her husband used to make her breakfast too, but with a flourish, as if conjuring French toast from the midmorning ether. This man, by contrast, made humble scrambled eggs, pouring in entirely too much salt. But she ate them with gusto, savouring the shrivelling saltiness on her tongue and lips like a kiss.

Something changed between them that morning, and they found themselves undressing again and going back to bed. The sex was warm and straightforward, like him. Afterwards, he cried in her arms and told her he’d never felt such intimacy in his life. She rocked him, dismay seeping through her. She’d thought he understood that this wasn’t about him. But he was coming undone in her arms, and she knew there was no way of explaining. She left as normal, giving him a kiss at the door, and drove home. In the tunnel, she weaved around the other cars, ignoring the directive to LANE IN STAY. As she was passing over the Blackwater, she pitched her phone into the river. She didn’t trust herself not to text him again.

*

She fell back into her old routine – Saturday nights only, different towns and cities, different men. She drove home from Kilkenny one night, slightly drunk, knowing she was tempting fate, that she’d be put off the road if she was caught. She wouldn’t know what to do with herself then, sitting at home, trying to distract herself with bad television, or the death notices on the radio, or by staring into the fire until her vision blurred. The things widows were supposed to do.

There was someone thumbing on the outskirts of the city, on the road that pointed home. He stood in the faint wash of a streetlight. She slowed down and squinted to make sure he was really there; most of the hitchhikers she saw turned out to be trees, or wheelie bins. But this one was real. When she saw who it was, she almost laughed – it was the boy who’d taught her to drive, whose name eluded her. He looked tired, unsteady on his feet. She stopped the car, skimmed her mind for his name. It was a new-fangled name – Darcy or Bradley or Cassidy – more a surname than anything.

Davin, she called, easing down her window. He looked shocked that someone had stopped for him, even more shocked that it was her. He ducked his head and peered in the window, and her heart quickened, keeping pace with the tick of the indicator.

She’d only ever really seen Davin in profile before, sitting sullenly beside her during driving lessons, deliberately not looking at her. But his eyes, the cast of his brow – they were achingly familiar.

I’ll take you home, she said. He got into the car.

He made small talk, though in her jolted state she’d have been fine with his usual silence. He’d been at a college friend’s birthday party, he explained. But there’d been a fight. Something stupid and drunken – he could see that now – but he’d stormed off, and it would just be hassle to go back. He’d been planning to walk home if necessary – all the way back to their sinkhole town in the midlands. It would have taken all night. She smiled at this. Aren’t you lucky I came along?

She looked at him; no longer the boy from the driving lessons, but a revelation. His arms looked coiled with strength. His jawline, dark with stubble, revealed no acne. He couldn’t see her watching him in the dark.

You’re a good driver, he said, but you’ve been drinking. He must have smelled it on her.

When they were nearing home, he turned to her and looked at her in a way he never had through all those lessons. He said he was sorry for his gruffness before; that he hadn’t known what to say to her. I don’t know if you know this, he said, but your husband – he was really good to me.

The turn for their town was coming up. The night sky spattered onto her windscreen; she flashed the wipers.

He was friends with my mother, he went on, and I suppose he was always kind of like an uncle to me.

They stopped at a set of lights. There was no other traffic this time of night. He seemed unaccustomed to talking about emotional matters and he stalled, puttering out of words like a broken engine. She put her hand on his knee, the way she used to with her husband when he drove.

Do you want me to take you home? she asked.

He didn’t object when she pulled up to her house, not his, and unlocked the front door. He followed her mutely. Inside he was nervous, asking for a cup of coffee – if it’s not too much trouble; it might sober me up.

When she came back from the kitchen, steaming cup in hand, he had taken off his jacket. He was crouching beside her husband’s CD storage tower, running his fingers over their spines. Her eyes lingered on the hollow between his shoulders, a space that would fit the flat of her hand exactly. He stood, holding up a CD. Sly and the Family Stone, he said. I love this record.

She took it from him in exchange for the coffee. His shy smile as their fingers touched nearly undid her. Davin, she thought – the one she’d brought home. She wondered if her husband had named him. She shrugged off her own coat, inserted the CD in the stereo, and pressed play.

Eimear Ryan’s stories have appeared in The Stinging Fly, The Dublin Review, Town & Country (Faber) and Young Irelanders (New Island). She is co-editor of the literary journal Banshee. From Co Tipperary, she now lives in Cork

Banshee**This story was published in The Irish Times today. Eimear Ryan’s stories have appeared in The Stinging Fly, The Dublin Review, Town & Country (Faber) and Young Irelanders (New Island). She is co-editor of the literary journal Banshee. From Co Tipperary, she now lives in Cork The Long Gaze Back – An Anthology of Irish Women Writers is published by New Island, €19.99