‘And poured out the imagined shapes, observed that place and made it familiar’ –the short stories of Jim Mullarkey

THE ABOVE quote comes from the preface to And, the debut collection of short stories from Galway-based author Jim Mullarkey which will be published next month by the Doire Press. It’s a quote that accurately reflects what Mullarkey achieves with the stories, in which the reader is frequently immersed in the fluid thoughts and sense-impressions of his various characters, creating distinctive and vivid portraits of their lives and predicaments.

A native of Donegal, Mullarkey has long lived in Galway, where he served as a Labour member of the City Council from 1993 to 1999. He currently works as a psychotherapist and teacher and has been writing fiction for the past 10 years. His story Heaven was runner-up in the 2002 RTE Francis McManus Award. Mary up in Donegal was shortlisted in the same competition in 2005 and First Love was longlisted in the Raymond Carver short story award in 2004. All three stories feature in And.

Over a morning coffee, Mullarkey discussed his forthcoming collection, beginning with an account of how he began writing in earnest: “Around the end of 2001, I went to a writing class run by Susan Millar DuMars,” he reveals. “She got us to read a piece from Molly Bloom’s soliloquy and that gave me the stimulus to start writing using the connective ‘and’. The connective ‘and’ is like a permission to just let the thing flow. The word ‘and’ is also an alternative to the words ‘but’ or ‘if’ and I grew up with a lot of ‘buts’ and ‘ifs’ [here Mullarkey laughs]. So the word ‘and’ was the liberation, as I say in the preface, it released the words in me.”

Once the words were released, Mullarkey found the style of the stories followed naturally. “I found it came readily,” he observes. “It was as if I had already internalised the world in a particular manner so when I started writing it was more or less about perceptions I already had myself. The characters were simply means of allowing a language out. For instance, Mary Up in Donegal has a language that I’d connect with my own parents; their language came from rural Ireland of the early 20th century and some of that idiom is in that story and some of the attitude from that era as well. There’s a kind of fatalism there because right up until the 1960s, fatalism was more or less the ideology of the country. Whatever happened to you was the will of God and there wasn’t an awful lot you could do about it. We were very disempowered and how does the psyche live in a disempowered space? In a way that’s what the protagonist does in Mary Up in Donegal; he is allowing himself to live –and there is a religious context to that as well. He goes to Lough Derg at one point and there is a bit of confusion as to whether he is renouncing the body or really wanting to have a physical relationship with someone. And this is a private world that each of us would have had in Ireland then which wasn’t talked about. Sex might be giggled about but it wasn’t a legitimate topic for conversation. So it’s written from that time when the Irish psyche had to survive in this oppressive space and yet managed to survive somehow and in a way it was surviving through the imagined world rather than the real world.”

Heaven powerfully depicts the bewilderment of a small boy whose mother has just died and he finds himself surrounded by grown-ups who have come to pay their last respects.

“He kind of has a sense that his mother could just be asleep but of course she’s really dead.” Mullarkey notes. “People are talking about her as if she is not there anymore but to the child she is there because her body is still physically there. So you have this child hearing all these conversations and wondering what do they mean and ‘heaven’ is the word he sticks it all onto because he’s told that’s where his mother has gone.”

One character, Murph, crops up in several of the stories and Mullarkey explains his importance; “In Murph’s Advice Johnny, who’s the ‘I’ character, and Murph are basically two parts of myself. Murph was the part of me that was more outspoken, more able to say what he thought spontaneously without worrying about what people might think. Whereas Johnny is more reserved; he has the words alright but he doesn’t necessarily say them publicly. Murph’s advice to Johnny in a way is to create a character and let that character say the things you want to say. So I’m really giving myself advice there via Murph. He talks about this cave in his head where the doors have been locked by his mother with a ‘keep out’ notice on them. And with Murph the ‘Keep Out’ notice is like saying to keep out of his own unconscious, stay with the Ego in the safe world and keep out of that dark underworld. Once he opens the door into that underworld intially it’s a kind of liberation but there’s also a lot of darkness and anxiety there. A lot the stuff in the book comes from the unconscious space, there are a lot of dreams in it and Murph’s Advice has associational thinking which is also unconscious.”

And will be officially launched at Galway City Museum at 1pm, on Saturday, September 17. The book retails at €12.

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