People often ask me why I write poetry and short fiction and novels. The implication is that one form should be enough for anyone. And maybe it is for some people. Journalists and critics seem to have a hard time defining the multiple genre writer. When my novel came out they wrote, ‘Poet writes novel!’, which irritated me — can’t I just be ‘writer’ and let that be enough?
I started life as poet. I came second in a national poetry competition at the age of nine with a poem — in Irish — about Traveller children. Michael Hartnett was the judge and I remember my mother’s awe at meeting him at the prize-giving. The reverence she showed him had an impact on me, and placing in the competition boosted my confidence as a writer.
But then, as now, I had a short attention span, and soon I was also writing stories. These were pointless vignettes that usually starred a girl of my age and some slack adventure involving a car. I wrote through my teens and always kept a diary. It wasn’t until I left my hometown of Dublin in my mid-twenties and moved to Galway, that I became serious about writing. Maybe I needed to remove myself from the constraints of home — real or imagined — in order to knuckle down and really write.
Whatever the truth of it, I met real, live writers in Galway and was encouraged by them. A workshop with Mike McCormack sparked my absolute love for writing the short story and it has remained my favourite genre since then. Around the time I was getting serious about writing short fiction, I read Anne Enright’s The Portable Virgin and Mary Morrissy’s A Lazy Eye. Both books opened up a vista of possibility to me: stories did not have to be about auld lads with land-angst; they could be about young women and European travel and periods and sexual adventure. And they could be funny.
I write a lot — usually every day. I am often accused of being prolific, as if producing lots of work makes its quality questionable. (Dublin artist Harry Kernoff’s retort to the same accusation was, ‘Not prolific, just creative.’) I, in my turn, sometimes wonder what on earth slow writers are doing all the time. But I know it’s a matter of personal pace and my pace is a gallop, as it has been for my whole life. I need the fizz and pop of moving between the genres — each one, it seems to me, complements the other. Like I said, I have a short attention span. So, even during the year-long work of a novel, poems come to me and I grab them. Stories demand to be written and I am happy to put aside the novel (knowing it will wait for me) while I deal with the urgent short story at my elbow.
Anne Enright has talked about the hundreds of things in the writer’s conscience ‘all waiting for their moment on the page’. I seem to be blessed (or cursed?) with thousands of bits of detritus and the only way to get rid of them is to set them free in a poem or a story or a novel. What I write on any given day is a matter of mood; some days all I am able for is the long haul of the novel — I need that horizon to move towards. Other days the contained world of the story is where I most want to be. The short, sweet blast of a poem gives me total satisfaction on another day.
I think it’s a matter of personality: I write across the genres because I am easily bored and I am impatient. It wouldn’t suit me to abandon one genre to concentrate exclusively on another. So if I confuse people with my flitting, that’s their issue not mine. I am happiest when I write and I really don’t mind what it is I am writing, as long as I can get the words out of myself and on to the page.