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An Interview with Claire Keegan, Celtic Studies Writer in Residence

Claire Keegan was raised on a farm in County Wicklow, on the southeast coast of Ireland. The youngest of a large Catholic family, she left home at the age of seventeen to study English literature and political science at Loyola University, New Orleans. She has also earned an M.A. in the teaching and practice of creative writing at the University of Wales at Cardiff, and an M.Phil. from Trinity College, Dublin. This interview took place at 11a.m. on March 19, 2009 in the meeting room at the Celtic Studies Department in Odette Hall. Kate Van Dusen currently works at the Kelly Library, St Mikes College.

Kate Van Dusen: You grew up in Ireland but have travelled widely. Does geography have any impact on your writing?

Claire Keegan: Yes, I think so. I think setting is central to a characters psyche. If you are in the desert and you are too hot you are not going to feel the same way about life as if you are comfortably situated in front of the fire with a good book and some jazz. So, where you are will to a great extent determine what you feel.

K.V.: How do you feel your family upbringing influenced your choice of vocation? Were you encouraged to read and write as a child?

C. K: Well, I was left very much to my own devices as a child. I mean I was sent to school. I loved the national school, primary school, and I had wonderful teachers there, really extraordinary teachers. I used to be sad when I got my summer holidays, because I knew I couldnt go back to school for another three months. I was encouraged as a child in that school to be creative. We had a teacher called Miss Grant who used to ask us to write poems and encouraged us to imagine our lives. I was very fond of her. All of the teachers there were extraordinary so I had that going on in my childhood. In the house itself my mother always read. In my family the women were the readers, are the readers, although I do have one brother who reads. My fathers never really read anything except for the newspaper which he read from cover to cover, the local newspaper and then the national Sunday newspaper.

I spent a lot of time outside when I was a child. I had a pony. It was a cross between a thoroughbred horse and a Connemara pony. We called it a skewbald, a paint you might call it, a brown and white horse. I had no saddle for this pony. She was fabulous and I used to spend my summers on her, go everywhere on her. I lived up a lane though a wood and all of the land was surrounded by woodlands so there were lots of paths and tracks and byroads that you could ride through.

I learned to read when I was very young. I remember learning how to read and feeling the freedom of it in the way that, when you learn to ride a bicycle, you realize that you can go anywhere. Once you start there is really no end to it. You can just go. There was a freedom in it.

I remember reading a book, quite a thick book, when I was really young. It had three different books in it. One was Heidi, another was Black Beauty and the last was What Katy Did. I remember feeling confident at that time that there would be nothing that I could not read, because you just couldnt stop. As I said, there was just no end to it. Was I encouraged? I think I was really left alone a great deal of the time, which is not to say I was not minded, I was. I was left to develop an interest in whatever I was interested in. It wasnt a literary home a house full of books but that is not to say it was not a place for stories.

K.V.: When you are at home, do you have a particular room where you work most often? Could you tell us what attributes of the physical space make an impact on your work? Are there any rituals that enhance your writing?

C.K.: Well, I move a lot, so I dont have one room I associate with writing. When I move into a place I usually find that a small bedroom turns into a study, which is what I have done in the house Im in now. And I live in quiet country places. I rent a small place. Where I live now is about a mile from the sea in County Wexford. I have a quiet room with books and a desk; but I usually have a small table that I put beside a window, because I love to feed the birds. I like to look out at the birds or kind of know that theyre there when Im writing. I have bird feeders hanging out of the spout at the moment underneath my window. And I kind of like it, strange thing, I kind of like the light to come from the right. I dont know why that is; a strange, silly thing perhaps.

I write by hand sometimes and I do a lot of work on the computer. I print out things in the morning and look at them when I make coffee. I suppose (if you can imagine thats a ritual) I make coffee and then I print out whatever it is I wrote yesterday and then I spend about an hour going over that and then I go back to work on it. I keep working on a thing until its finished, which takes me a long time. I write slowly. I believe that you can get tired of a piece of work long before the piece of work actually gets tired of you. I think of the country song You left me just when I needed you most and I think that, at some point, the text is asking you not to leave; theres an awful lot of work yet to be done, so I try to be patient. I usually write in the mornings. Im not very good at night. Im not a night person. The joke in my brothers house is that theres no use asking me to think about or do anything after about 11 oclock at night because my brain doesnt function.

K.V.: How does a young Irish writer begin to deal with the modernist heritage of Yeats, Joyce and Beckett etc? Is this history at all intimidating or is it a positive thing?

C.K.: I dont find it intimidating. I dont necessarily find it positive. I dont think anybody can help you. Or intimidate you. Youre on your own. And we have a rich literary history, a literary past. But Yeats is dead. Youre just there trying to compose a paragraph on a page and make it as fine as you possibly can. And then do it again and keep on doing it. I dont feel the shadow of any great literary figure over me when Im writing Im just trying to concentrate on the emotional dynamic of the emotional dilemma of my central character and try to follow that to its logical conclusion. I think that the joy of coming out of such a rich literary tradition, for me, is in the reading of it. I do not take pleasure in their being there through my work or lose any pleasure because of them. It is a separate thing.

K.V.: What is it that attracts you to the short story form?
C.K.: Its very difficult. Its very challenging. Its intense. The level of intensity is very high. Youve got to leave most of what could be said, out. Its a discipline of omission. You are truly saying very little. People say very little anyway. We talk a great deal, of course, but we actually say very little to each other. I think the short story is a very fine place to explore that silence between people, and the loneliness between people and the love that is there. And I think they all come organically out of the short story. Its a very difficult form.

One of the things that is most difficult about the short story is that it seems easy. People think because its short, its minor. Frank OConnor said this in a book called A Lonely Voice, that the short story, because of its brevity is mistaken for a minor art, but if you take up your pen and try to write one you will find that it is otherwise. It is not a comforting genre. Its not a comforting read. Often it can be quite a disturbing read. So, as Frank OConnor said, there is something train-journey-ish about a novel, you can sit back and get into it, but the short story is more about holding your breath than breathing.

K.V.: One of the short stories in Walk the Blue Fields is a tribute to the Irish writer John McGahern. How did you come to write the story "Surrender"? Had you read McGaherns memoir when you wrote it? What do the oranges in the story represent for you?
There is a footnote at the end of the book to explain this or to make reference to it. It was inspired by something in the memoir. John McGaherns father, before he married, sat on a bench in Galway and ate two dozen oranges. I thought the eating of the oranges was very revealing. If I knew that a man sat on a bench and ate twenty four oranges before he married me, I would run. It was indicative of him believing that if he marries he will have to go without. Hes glutting himself. Hes not going to share. It was deeply revealing of a man who was very dark. So I thought it would make a fabulous story. What I did with the story (that would have actually happened in the 1930s) was set it in the 1940s because I thought it would be much more interesting if it was set during what we call the period of the emergency, during the second world war, when it was very hard to find bread or oranges or flour. I like the idea of the sergeant having to buy the oranges on the black market, which he did, from the local grocer woman, and then going home and secretly eating them. In the story he eats twelve oranges, not twenty-four, which seems more plausible in a story; and then he goes off. Apparently John McGaherns mother sent back the ring to him. He was gone away a lot and she sent him back the ring and thats the story also. But if you dont know what his eating the oranges like that before his marriage means, I cant explain it.

K.V.: What other writers have been important to you?

C.K.: Chekhov, mostly Chekhov, now. But also the Southern writers. I did my undergraduate degree in New Orleans, so people like Flannery OConner, Eudora Welty, Faulkner. Then I read many of the American short story writers before I ever read the Irish short story writers. I read people like John Cheever and Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, and I also read Canadians. Alistair MacLeods stories I think are second to none. I think his work is so stylish and quiet and honed. He never explains anything or moralizes, and I love his work. Ive read Alice Monro, of course, and Atwood. I really like the work of Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Bishop. I liked Chaucer when I was in college. I liked the idea of everyone going off on a pilgrimage, having a story to tell while they were on the way. I thought that was lovely.

But Ill have to say that now, nobody really moves me as much as Chekhov. The work is warm and compassionate and almost frail. He never seems to labour over anything. He trusts in his readers intelligence; and understands, I think, that the human heart is broken, or at the very least brittle and fragile. His work is so fine.


K.V.: I discern a very poetic sense of language when reading your prose. Does poetry have any influence on your prose style?

C.K.: Oh, I think it must. I think that I came to love literature through reading poetry. I remember at one stage, as an undergraduate at Loyola, taking a collection of poems by an unknown author out of the library every week and reading it very closely. This wasnt part of my course work. I read many of the American poets and then took a very good class called Reading Poetry where I could examine how poetry was constructed and all of the different forms and the different types of sonnets and the villanelle and the difference between a trochee and a dactyl and I loved all of that and fell in love with the whole construction of it, and thought that it was marvelous that there were names for such things. And so I think that maybe my ear developed as a reader then. I wasnt writing then, but I was studying. And so I think that was the doorway in. I remember reading people like Roethke and Galway Kinnell and John Donne and Herrick. I loved reading poetry and I still do.

K.V.: Do you enjoy teaching writing? Do you find that the teaching has any effect on your own work?

C.K.: Well, I dont know, its what I do on a part time basis. You cant sit in a room all day long on your own. Even if Id wanted to Id make myself do other things and I dont want to. I like my students. Usually my students like me. We seem to get along fairly well. I like helping people. I feel that Ive been given some kind of a gift, which I know Ive had to work on, but I feel very willing to share that as much as possible with my students, so if there are any people who genuinely want to work to make it as fine as they possibly can and I can help them, Im really more than happy to do so. Its harder than it seems, and I think some students find that difficult but to make anything that is unique and original and to say something fresh about what it is to be human and alive at this point in time or at another point in time is bound to be difficult and I think once you can make people understand it is difficult, then you can go from there, you can talk about the difficulties and make it somewhat easier. But, yes, I do like teaching and I think its a fine way to make money and I dont have to worry about my bills because I earn money from teaching and I dont think I really dislike anything about it. It is not something I would want to do full time. I want to write first of all, and I also want to teach.

K.V.: What projects are you currently working on?

C.K.: At the moment Im working on a very long story, which I wrote earlier this year. Its something thats been going on in the back of my mind for a very long time. I first had a version of it before I went away and now I know that it needs more work. Its the story of a girl who in the 1970s in Ireland goes to live on a farm for the summer.

And I have notes taken for another story set in Dublin about a man in a clinic, and then Im going back to work on a novel, which Ive already drafted and thats set in the mountains in County Carlow.

K.V.: Do you have any advice for those who would like to begin writing? How does a writer find her or his own voice?

By working. You find your voice by working. Having infinite patience. Forgetting about yourself. Entering into the spirit of being someone else, at a different time and place. Thoroughly imagining what that is like. And finding the compassion and the words for that state of mind.

Anne Sexton gave a piece of advice. She said Be careful who your critics are. Tell almost the whole story. Put your ear down almost to the ground and listen hard.

Bibliography:

Claires two collections of short stories are available at the Kelly Library:

Antarctica, Claire Keegan

Antarctica, Faber & Faber (UK) Grove/Atlantic (US), 1999

Walk the Blue Fields, Claire Keegan

Walk the Blue Fields, Faber & Faber (UK) Grove/Atlantic (US), 2007

Claire KeeganTORONTO, March 19, 2009 -- Claire Keegan is an Irish writer of short stories who is writer in residence in the Celtic Studies Department at St Michael's College for the month of March 2009.