Molly McCloskey was born in the United States in 1964 and has lived in Ireland since 1989. She won the RTE/Francis MacManus Short Story Award in 1995 and her first book of stories, Solomon’s Seal, was published by Phoenix in 1997. The Beautiful Changes, a collection which includes a novella and short stories, was published by the Lilliput Press earlier this year.
MB: You’re American, from Philadelphia originally. What made you decide to move to Ireland?
MMcC: I never really decided to move here. I came to Ireland in 1989 for a month and I’m still here. I came because I thought I would love it. I did from day one and that feeling has never really changed. I suppose what I like about Ireland are some of the things that many people who leave here hate about it. I love the size and the fact that you have an entire country – with all of the history and idiosyncrasies and neuroses that go with that – but all within a small space, one you can traverse in the course of an afternoon. That adds a wonderful sort of density to things. I really enjoy the web of interconnections that I imagine other people find quite claustrophobic. Sometimes I feel like I’m in a play. The psychology of the place interested me for a long time – the psyche of the Irish is quite different from Americans. These days, I’m just more used to Irish people. Although I’m definitely foreign – I certainly don’t feel Irish.
How would you characterise the difference between the Irish and American psyche?
With Americans, when they’re relating person to person, it’s very much what you see is what you get. There’s an ‘upfrontness’ that can be very refreshing. Whereas dealing with Irish people can be much more labyrinthine. What you see isn’t what you get. I think there’s a layering in the Irish psyche which you don’t get in the American. It’s intriguing, and makes relating to people a lot more interesting.
At the same time, it can sometimes be a real pain. People can seem sort of paranoid, or at least lacking in trust. I know there are social and historical reasons for these attitudes on both sides of the Atlantic-it’s not a mystery why things should be thus.
But now that I’m used to the Irish and have spent enough time reading the map, so to speak, I feel that I’ve come to know the code, even if it’s not my code.
What do you mean by ‘the code’?
The interesting thing about the code is that it both is and isn’t something. The best way to explain might be to use the example of what happens with Irish taxi drivers. When they hear an American accent they immediately think you’re a tourist and ask you how long you’ve been here. And when you say, 10 years or 13 years or whatever, they look at you differently and say something like, ‘Oh, right.’ You can see something going through their heads, something like, ‘So you’re in on it.’ You know what they mean-and they know that you know. But there’s no ‘it’ exactly.
Was one of the reasons you came over to Ireland because you thought it would be a good place to write?
No, I wasn’t really writing at the time. I was doing some journalism and wanting to write fiction, but I didn’t really know what to write about. And like I said, I only came for a month-or so I told myself. So how did you get started as a writer? I worked as a freelance features writer for a newspaper in Portland, Oregon, and that’s how I started out, really. I wrote my first proper short story when I ended up, for reasons not worth going into, at my mother’s house in Ocean City, New Jersey, for six weeks. It’s on an island where there are no bars, my mother was away, and I didn’t have a car. So I found myself writing a story.
After that I returned to Ireland and wrote off and on – not in a totally committed way – and started submitting to prizes. I didn’t really know that many magazines to submit to, whereas I seemed to hear about a lot of competitions. I just started sending into them. The story I’d written in New Jersey was about four years old when I entered it in the Francis MacManus Competition and won. I don’t know why it took me four years to submit it anywhere, but it did.
That same year, 1995, I got a letter from David Marcus who had just been hired by Curtis Brown in London to look for Irish writers and he asked if I had a collection of stories. I sent in what I had, and that’s how my first book of short stories happened. I think I had to write two more stories for the collection, but the others were pretty much written.
How do you see the stories in Solomon’s Seal today?
Those stories feel young to me, which is fine. That tends to be the case with first books; there’s no reason it shouldn’t be so. When writers look back on previous work, they often just cringe. Sometimes it’s justified, sometimes not. But one shouldn’t disown one’s previous work. And I wouldn’t want to do that.
I thought much less about the work then. I don’t think that I was aiming at any theme. I think that’s true of most people when they’re starting out; they’re not conscious of thematic concerns or anything, really. You’re just sort of writing. Looking back, certain themes emerged, but I wasn’t aware of them at the time.
What themes are you talking about?
[Laughs.] I’m not telling you. In fact, they’re themes that I’m tired of. I’m very tired of what I know.
How did you find the experience of getting published for the first time?
It was an anti-climax, really. It’s nice to be published, but I don’t find it particularly pleasant: publicity, readings, all that. When I was young, I thought the best thing about being a writer was that it would be like handing in your homework. The image in my head was that you’d slip your writing under the door and somebody would be on the other side and they would read it and you’d never have to stand up in front of people and say anything. But you would still be able to command attention even though you were absent. I still feel that way.
The best moment in writing for me is when I first conceive of an idea and start thinking of things that are going to go into that piece – whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. It seems like it’s going to be something really great and it’s before any disillusionment with my capacities or the capacities of language or any other disappointment sets in. That’s the best time. Everything else is work.
So you’re not writing to get your picture in the paper?
[Laughs.] Depends on the picture, you know?
You divide your time between Dublin and Sligo, places that both have reputations for their literary scenes. How would you categorise the difference between the two?
I don’t really know what a ‘literary scene’ is. Certainly there are lots of writers in Sligo: Pat McCabe, Eoin McNamee, Leland Bardwell and Dermot Healy are all there, among others. But I don’t view it as a scene, or even a circle – though someone recently described it as a literary parallelogram.
I was talking to two American writers last week about this thing with writing circles, and I told them that I feel there’s only a limited amount writers can teach each other about writing. Most of your learning comes from reading and doing.
What I have learned from other writers is the art of survival: both financial and psychological. Surviving the solitary nature of writing, and how to live with that, and strike a balance.
And how do you strike that balance?
Well, it’s changed over the last while. For the past few years, living in the city, in Dublin, has provided the balance. When I was living in Sligo, I spent a lot of time alone, and I was OK with that. But I require much more outside stimulus than I used to, so the city suits me. If you live in the city, you can have the balance very easily: you finish work and you walk down Nassau Street. That jars you out of your own head.
I was talking to a writer recently who said that writers live in two places: in whatever they’re writing and in the real world. And yes, there is that kind of cordoned-off place where you’re writing from, but when you think about it, everybody’s living inside their own head they’re just not making up stories about it.
So you think writers can be too precious about their vocation?
Sometimes. But the general population isn’t even aware that writers are being precious about themselves, so it doesn’t really matter. It’s a closed loop.
You open your novella, The Beautiful Changes, with a quote from Thomas De Quincey on how we can’t foresee what’s in store for us, both bad and good. That’s certainly true of Henry, the main character.
Yes, and I think we tend to trust in unhappiness more than happiness. We’re quite willing to look at happiness as something that’s going to pass, but whatever it is about unhappiness, it fools us into thinking that it has always been with us, and will be for the rest of our lives. Henry, despite being unhappy for quite a lot of the time, manages to access some sliver of something that offers the way out.
Why did you decide on the novella length?
It was originally written as a novel, but it didn’t work in that format, largely because of pace. It’s a very concentrated, interior piece that doesn’t really have any kind of traditional plot structure. It’s largely two characters obsessing, each in their respective ways, and corning together in the end. That was the story I wanted to tell – the story of the two of them – and I didn’t want to artificially open that up. The novella or short story format lets you sustain an intensity and an interiority that you can’t do with the novel.
Are you on a trajectory, from short story to novella to novel?
I certainly hope so, since I’m working on a novel now. But I admire writers who go back and forth, returning to stories even though they’ve gone on to the novel. I admire it both because the short story is not a very lucrative undertaking and because once you’ve crossed into the novel, it can be difficult to switch back into the form. I suspect a story seems like child’s play to a lot of writers after they’ve written a ‘big book.’ But I think it’s heartening to see people go between novels and short stories. The short story is something worth preserving, it’s sad that some writers view it as nothing more than a stepping stone.
So you’ll make an effort to keep writing stories after this novel is completed?
Nah. [Laughs.] It’s like something I heard recently, that something like 98 percent of Americans feel that other people should use public transport. But seriously, I hope I will keep writing stories.
Your stories often focus on the fraught interdependence of children and adults. Is that an important theme for you?
I think so. It’s one of the primary building blocks of who we are. Strangely enough, I’m very interested in the mother-son relationship, and I keep finding myself writing about that.
Like the stories ‘Snow’ and ‘Dust’ from The Beautiful Changes, one of which is written from a son’s perspective, the other from his mother’s?
Yes. And in the novel I’ve just started there are already two mother-son relationships. Never having been either a mother or a son, I don’t know where it’s coming from, but I feel comfortable writing about that dynamic.
All the stories in Solomon’s Seal were set in America, but your latest collection included a couple of stories set in Ireland. Is that a trend that will continue?
Yes. The project I’m working on now is a novel set in Dublin. For the first time, as soon as I conceived of the idea, I didn’t question whether it would be set here or there, it just seemed perfectly natural that it would be here. Which suggests to me that I have crossed the Rubicon and Ireland feels more natural to me than America. Which is a relief, because I was beginning to worry that I had lost that place without having gained this one.
It’s very difficult to write about a place that you’re not from viscerally without having it sound contrived. It’s really hard. One solution is to approach a locale as an outsider, as I did in my prose poem [‘Here, Now’ from The Beautiful Changes]. That’s what Diane Johnson did in Le Divorce. She’s an American who lives between Paris and America and in that novel, which is set in Paris, she does the outsider thing, in which you kind of scratch your head quizzically at all the idiosyncrasies of the foreigners you’re living amidst. She does that very well.
But I don’t know if that’s the solution I’m looking for. I feel that after thirteen years, I’ve lived here long enough that I understand the place fairly well. Anyway, Ireland – particularly Dublin – has become more and more Americanised over the past few years. If you hear twenty-somethings talking, they sound a lot like their counterparts in the United States. Which isn’t surprising, since they’re the first generation raised on American television.
Can you say a bit more about the novel you’re working on now?
It’s very new. I’ve only been at it for a couple of months, though I conceived of the idea a while ago.
It’s set in the near future, and it plays with ideas and themes that are already affecting our lives, ones which I think will become even more important in the future: neuropharmacology, biotechnology and neuroscience. Some of the science is coming in overtly, as part of the story, and some of it is just the world through which the characters move, it’s part and parcel of their lives.
It also has a lot to do with memory, something I’m very interested in. How we construct it, and how it constructs who we are. Which is kind of touched on in the novella as well.
I can see how the memory theme is an ongoing one for you, but have you always been interested in science?
No, in fact I hated it in school. My philosophy was that I didn’t want to know about anything that required yes-or-no answers. But in the last few years, I have become very interested in all of this stuff. It’s a response to the times we live in. If you ignore science, you do so at your peril.
Why will this latest project be a novel-because it’s a theme that demands that kind of scope? Or do you just want to write a novel?
I think it’s a story that requires space. I also find the challenge of writing a novel appealing-the idea of creating whole worlds. Plus, I love reading novels.
What’s the toughest part about writing a novel?
The hardest thing about writing a longer piece is sustaining faith in the project. And there’s not much outside help, because it’s difficult to talk to someone about what you’re doing. Trying to talk to someone about your novel is like trying to get someone to listen to your dreams. You find that within three to five seconds, their eyes begin to glaze over. If you tell a story, people will listen, but if you say, ‘This is a story I’m writing,’ it seems to put things in a completely different category, one that people can’t connect with. You have to carry it alone. And I think that’s hard.
When the book finally comes out, if you’re lucky, some people do want to talk to you about it, at which point it’s a completely dead issue for you. By that stage, it’s difficult to remember and re-engage with your book.
In Anthony Cronin’s Dead as Doornails, he quotes Brendan Behan as saying that the difficult thing about this writing business is that you have to do it alone. There’s no way to get around that, really. I think all you can do is try to balance it so that isolation doesn’t spill over into the rest of your days and nights. That’s the kind of thing you can learn from other writers, how to do that.
So how do you muster the faith required to complete a long work? Is it having a track record? Having a publisher beating you up?
I don’t know. [Laughs.]
William Faulkner compared writing a novel to walking a tightrope: you can’t afford to look down; you just have to get to the other side. Is that the approach you’re taking?
That’s very much the approach I’m taking, for the moment at least, since I’m working on a first draft. I asked Eoin McNamee recently for his one piece of advice on writing a novel and he said, ‘Just keep typing.’ That’s that tightrope thing. If you begin to let doubts in, you’ll become paralysed. All those doubts and questions and criticisms will come in during the editing anyway, so as much as possible, leave them till then.
What’s your one piece of advice for aspiring writers?
Read others and trust yourself.
Who are your favourite authors?
I suppose one of my favourite contemporary short story writers would be Alice Munro, but that’s hardly controversial. There’s not much debate about her talent. When I was giving a talk to some college students from America the other day in Limerick, I mentioned Alice Munro and l recommended three books: Edmund White’s The Farewell Symphony, Underworld by Don Delillo and The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker. I’m also a big admirer of Nabokov and the way he revels in language, but I haven’t read him in a while. What I think all the authors I’ve mentioned have in common is attention to detail and accuracy of observation. It’s hard work to do that, to keep your writing at a certain pitch.
You continue to write non-fiction, don’t you?
Yes, I enjoy it. I’ve done a few essays for the Dublin Review, and some journalism and reviews, and I’d like to do more. I enjoy writing non-fiction, because there’s a paradoxical freedom in having all the facts laid out for you. You don’t have to worry about the story being plausible, because it actually happened. It leaves you free as a writer because you just have to look for the most lyrical and interesting way to present the facts. Whereas in fiction, you keep having to ask if people are doing things that are in character and whether situations are plausible.
In your writing, you tend to focus on small but telling details: the way the earth looks after the rain, quirky bumper stickers, fireflies flying up into the air, how posture reveals things about character.
Yes, well, I tend to notice, and be very interested in, nuances rather than seismic shifts. Short stories generally focus on nuances: you can have seismic shifts, but they generally arise out of minor epiphanies. A story’s just twenty or so pages, so you can’t overload it with world wars and things like that. And I’ve learned to write through short stories.
At lot of your characters, especially the ones in The Beautiful Changes, are struggling to figure themselves out. Is that something you’re interested in writing about?
One review-it was a very nice review-described the characters as all being crippled by self-consciousness. Which was strange, because I don’t think of them as being crippled. And also, I assume everybody’s like that. [Laughs.]
I mean, I certainly wouldn’t set out to write a book in which the characters were all painfully aware of themselves. But any thinking person must have periods when they’re painfully aware of themselves; it’s part of the growing-up process. Maybe my characters are painfully aware of themselves because they’re depicted at moments of change.
I guess my characters do tend to be neurotic and to think about their thoughts. That’s probably a bit of a reflection on me and the way I move through the world. You tend to forget that the way you view and interact with the world could be radically different from the way other people do.
It seems to me that most of your characters are trying to determine their place in the world. Would you agree?
Yes. I’ve only realised it recently, but the movement in my fiction is always from one sort of fantasy world – whether it’s childhood, or alcoholism, or some sort of unsustainable love – through disillusionment to a new, more realistic acceptance. The movement from fantasy to reality is one we all have to make. Some people just make it: the only thing they have to move out of is childhood. Other people take a lot of side roads before they arrive at reality.
In closing, can I ask where you think the urge to write comes from?
Like certain psychological afflictions, it may be a predisposition combined with experience. Maybe the best way to explain it is to mention a certain summer. I was with my nieces, and they were having a lot of problems in the family at the time, though up to then they’d had fairly idyllic childhoods. I could see in the faces of my nieces – the eldest one in particular, who was thirteen at the time – something I’d never seen before. She never verbalised it, but I imagine that she was realising that her position was not one of total safety, that things fall apart. And I thought well, if she is predisposed to be a writer, then this is the point at which that will open up. She may not write anything for fifteen years, but that summer marked the sort of fracture that can make a writer.
It’s not just writers, though. I think everybody reaches some point of fracture when you realise that you are not the centre of a safe world. The question is, how do you deal with the deep insecurity which is the human condition?
Julia Kristeva, the French psychoanalyst, said that there are three ways of dealing with the human condition: art, psychoanalysis or religion. I think there’s something to be said for that.
If you’re predisposed to be a writer, you see the world in terms of potential stories. And you feel the desire to put a shape on reality. There’s no exact correlation: it’s not like I don’t like my house, therefore I write a story about living in a nice house. It’s much more oblique, but there’s a relationship.
When Lorrie Moore was asked about writing as therapy, she said there’s only one anxiety that writing alleviates: the anxiety of not writing. That suggests that for some of us there’s an inherent need to write. If we’re not doing it, we feel deeply uncomfortable.