“I THINK I was always drawn to the short story,” Aileen Armstrong declares at the start of our interview to talk about her debut volume, End of Days, published by Doire Press.
“I’d have come across the occasional story collection at home and I found them very compelling. When you are young you tend to read novels where endings are all tied up but short stories aren’t really like that.
“I didn’t read any for a long time until I did the MA in creative writing at NUIG a couple of years ago and that really re-ignited my love of short stories. During that year I spent most of the time reading and focused a lot of my energies into short stories.”
Armstrong reflects on her writing MA: “What I got most out of the course was the time it gave me to think about writing and to do a lot of reading and to meet other people who were also doing these things. I didn’t really know any writers at all until I did the course, I was sort of out in the wilderness on my own.
“It was the first time I had met professional writers. That’s what I got out of it. I don’t know if it made a huge change in my own writing from the beginning of the year in terms of becoming skilled at the craft, I think that takes a much longer time. But the year was absolutely essential for me in terms of the reading I did and the talking and the literature.”
Armstrong originally hails from Sligo though now lives in Galway with her husband and daughter. She has also lived and worked in France and this experience of travel suffuses the eight inter-linked stories in End of Days.
Throughout the collection we encounter Irish people living abroad or continentals who have landed in Ireland. Yet there is a sense of transience about many of these travellers, none of them has put down roots in the new homeplaces and we see them passing through from one place and one story to another. Some of them have not even picked up the language of the country they have moved to.
“That transience reflect my own experiences,” Armstrong admits. “When you live overseas you come across people like that, they are passing through, working here and there for a while then moving on. It’s a natural progression, especially when you are in your twenties.
“I studied French at college and I did learn it but I met people there who didn’t pick up the language themselves, often because they didn’t have to because they were working or living in Anglophone circles. During the writing of this collection all of that was on my mind and I was putting it into the fiction.”
The characters’ geographical transience is mirrored by the way in which their emotional relationships also seem fissured or distant. Whether it be friends or parents and children the connections between them are often frayed.
“There are fissured relationships,” Armstrong agrees. “I think a lot of the emotional dynamics in the stories are a reflection of what life is like in your twenties. When you are young, the power dynamics in relationships can change quite quickly and I wanted to reflect that. There were recurring themes and motifs that I noticed when I was writing the stories and that’s why in the end I made it into a linked collection because there were these recurring patterns of relationships and I wanted the book as a whole to have a kind of unity.”
I mention the story ‘Today’ which portrays a normal working day in a coffee shop with all its little stresses and strains and concludes with the protagonist Abbie wondering if she ‘can still make something of today’, a closing sentence which acts as a lens through which all that has gone before is reconsidered.
“I’ve been struck by the reaction to that story,” Armstrong replies. “Especially by other women who do the daily toil keeping house or rearing children or they are the brains of the operation as Abbie is in that story. A lot of it is the really boring grind that doesn’t actually amount to anything. I think there is a feeling that it’s not being valued and they feel something else should happen in their lives, something meaningful and worth fighting for, but they are caught up in the grind.”
As a writer of short stories, Armstrong is also understandably pleased at the recent news of Alice Munro being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. She feels it signifies the burgeoning popularity and growing respect for the genre.
“I think there is a revival of interest happening in the short story,” she observes. “A couple of years back it seemed that every interview you read with a short story writer seemed to include a reference to the death of the short story. That doesn’t happen anymore because everyone knows short stories are in flying good health, people are writing more of them and reading more of them.
“Alice Munro getting the Nobel Prize seals the deal for short story writers even more so. I think maybe the re-emergence of the short story has come out of the American creative writing programmes. There was a huge tradition of the short story in America and that has been making its way over to the UK where there has not been such a strong tradition and to Ireland where there has been a tradition but it has been reignited in recent years.”
End of Days is available from good bookshops at €12. See also www.doire press.com