The long and the short of the short story

Acclaimed short story writer Claire Keegan will read at Cúirt this Saturday alongside poet and author Ron Nash.

Keegan’s first collection of short stories, Antarctica, was published in 2000 to great acclaim, picking up a slew of awards including the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, the William Trevor Prize, and the Martin Healy Award, and it was named the Los Angeles Times Best Book of 2001. Walk The Blue Fields, her second collection, cemented her place as a literary force, winning the 2008 Edge Hill Award.

Her most recently published work, Foster, is a long short story, published in book form in 2010 and securing the Davy Byrne award, among other accolades.

“It’s just the luckiest story,” Keegan recalled. “I wrote it and sent it in for the Davy Byrne award. It was subsequently published in The Stinging Fly. It was published in a book called The Davy Byrne Stories, and I sent the text to the New Yorker. Deborah Treisman approved the story in the New Yorker, then Faber published it in book form. Then it was chosen to be on the Leaving Cert.”

Foster tells the story of a young girl, sent to live with relatives while her mother awaits the birth of yet another child. Though longer than the average short story at 81 pages, its sparsity of language, the use of inference and imagery to convey an almost unspoken narrative of neglect, love, loss, and regret, is characteristic of the short story form, a form which Keegan appears very comfortable with.

“I don’t know that I’m comfortable with it, but I am drawn to it,” she explains. “The intensity is much greater. William Trevor said something interesting. He said a short story begins as late as it dares. You have to know how people came to be in the situation they are in before it starts on the page. I would hope that it works on the level of suggestion.”

Does she think the short story is underappreciated as a literary form compared to the novel? After all, though the short story is a more intricate storytelling form, it is rare that a short story will receive the kind of publicity that novels often enjoy.

“I don’t know that it’s underappreciated as unread,” she muses. “But Frank O’Connor said there is something train journey-ish about the novel. You are going through a considerable piece of time and ending up elsewhere. In a short story you are seeing the consequences of something that has happened, and you’re landed in it.

“The story by necessity is based in a piece of problematic time and you’re asking people, with very little notice, to step into that troubled time. We are interested in other people’s trouble because part of us knows it could be us, and part of us likes to be prepared for it. The novel prepares you for that.”

Keegan grew up in Clonegal on the Wexford/Wicklow border, and Wexford is the setting for Foster, which uses the rural environment, its ways and its characters, shopping excursions to town, to weave a picture of rural life in the county during the early 1980s. Similarly, her other collections are set in the many places she has called home. Do places inspire her, then?

“For me that’s the difficult part to make up because to picture a place, for me, grounds the story,” she explains. “Then I can make up the characters. I can visualise the characters and the trouble they get into and how it develops. I don’t write about any of my experiences but I do use places I have been as settings. It’s useful.”

Her inspiration comes from images, she explains, in her mind’s eye, which she shapes and develops into a narrative as a means of understanding them.

“I had a picture in the back of my mind for a long time about a girl with her hair over the surface of water and it wouldn’t go away,” she recalls of the inspiration for Foster. “I think I write about what won’t go away, to make sense of it.”

Claire Keegan will read at an event alongside writer and poet Ron Nash this Saturday, and the readings will be followed by a joint discussion. Keegan is currently working on a new collection of short stories and her first novel, though what she will read on Saturday has yet to be decided.

“I haven’t decided what I’m reading from,” she said. “I never do it in advance. I might read from something new, or one of the other two collections. It’s lovely to be going back [to Cúirt — she previously read at the 2010 festival]. I have new stories, and I have a novel drafted, but I might wait until I am ready for publication before I read something new.”

We will just have to wait and see.


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