Power of Weakness: Mandy Taggart in conversation with Long Story, Short Journal

Part of the interview series by Laura PerremLong Story, Short Journal Contributing Journalist.

austin granger

Photo copyright Austin Granger

 

I’ve always been struck by the power of weakness – how much control a vulnerable person can have over the behaviour of those responsible for them.

 

 

 

 



Long Story, Short Journal
presents the next instalment of our interview series: a conversation with Mandy Taggart, author of our February 2016 story ‘Pride’. Interview series by Laura Perrem. 


 

Laura Perrem: Where are you now? 

Mandy Taggart: At home – which is near the North Coast of Northern Ireland, a short-ish drive from the sea. I’d like to say I nurture creativity with long, contemplative walks on the beach, but I’m a fair-weather walker. When I do go out I usually have the family with me.

LP: What does a writing day look like for you?

MT: Fragmented! Like most people, I fit writing into the spaces between other things. If I held out for an extended stretch of uninterrupted time, I’d never write a word. With the most recent story I finished, at one point I set up a laptop on the kitchen counter and was editing with one hand while stirring risotto with the other. I like to shut myself away for the first draft but, once the words are on the page, editing in fragments seems to work best, creatively as well as practically.

I do have opportunities for more concentrated work. I hope to get down to the Tyrone Guthrie centre at Annaghmakerrig, Co. Monaghan, later this year, and also get away occasionally on mini-retreats with a group of writer friends. The company and encouragement of other writers keeps me going – without it, it’s easy to stop seeing writing as a valid thing to do.

LP: When did you start writing?

MT: Like many/most of us, I wrote obsessively as a child, with great encouragement from teachers who told me I should always keep it up. Unfortunately, I didn’t do this – I gave up at the first setback. In my early teens I wrote a story (about my cat, I think), sent it off to the Reader’s Digest, got the inevitable rejection slip, and decided that this meant I couldn’t write at all. I didn’t attempt anything further for the next twenty-five years, by which time I’d missed all the years when I had fewer responsibilities. It’s really important to encourage young people to write, but we also need to teach them resilience in the face of rejection!

I took it up again about five years ago. I joined a writing group at Flowerfield Arts Centre, Portstewart (led by Bernie McGill, author of The Butterfly Cabinet), and began submitting stories and having them published. Winning the Michael McLaverty award in 2012 was a huge confidence boost.

LP: The theme of re-capturing/re-living runs through Pride, can you speak a little about this? 

MT: The story is full of new starts: Laura’s experiences in Greece, house moves, new jobs, new people – even her DIY activities. Laura sets out as a great beginner of projects, but as the story progresses she loses momentum, becomes less and less able to see things through. She grows older, makes some serious mistakes, and finds that she can’t simply discard everything and begin afresh. Eventually she has to retrace her steps, go back to places where she was before.

Someone who read the story asked me whether there was a Christian aspect to it – these ideas of blood and sacrifice, sins and redemption. That really interested me, because I didn’t consciously put anything like that into the story at all – yet you could certainly argue that it’s there. I grew up in a very devout, Presbyterian part of the world and, although I’m not religious myself, those ideas just soak into you. But if anything, I think the concepts of ‘re-living’ in the story are in contrast with the religious idea of completely fresh starts, that evangelical notion of being washed clean and ‘born again’. It’s a more secular redemption, a way of forgiving yourself while continuing to carry the things that you’ve done, rather than being relieved of them.

LP: There are interesting moments in ‘Pride’ in which you describe Laverty’s lion and Enya in similar terms. Did you want the animal almost to stand in for Laura’s daughter?

MT: Not directly, although they certainly echo each other. I think what the lion does, most of all, is force Laura to look things in the face. I’ve always been struck by the power of weakness – how much control a vulnerable person can have over the behaviour of those responsible for them, just by the fact of their vulnerability. Dependency isn’t a straightforward thing. It can be terrifying – especially if you lack faith in yourself, as Laura does by this point – to look at someone else and think: ‘You are vulnerable. You must be looked after. You are my responsibility. But I might get it wrong.’

Even with the best of intentions, being human yourself, I think you can never fully do right by another person. We can all look back on family, friends, lovers – especially after they’ve gone – and drive ourselves mad picking over all the ways that we failed them. That can be a source of immense guilt: and, for someone like Laura, frustration as well, because she’d set out with such high standards. I can recognise her fear and anger near the end of the story, when she tries to reject the lion. She sees how he has flourished under her care, but knows from past experience that this works two ways. In showing her success, he makes her face her failures.

LP: Although you tell us that the little lion is a fiction, in reading ‘Pride’, there is still an ambiguity as to Laura’s complicity in his existence in her life. Is this something you planned for or something that emerged in the writing process?

MT: It emerged as the story emerged. Some of the questions that Laura asks herself came from the very first draft of the story. I was describing the lion investigating Laura’s house, eating her food, disarranging her laundry – but was continually bringing myself up short by wondering what was ‘actually’ happening. The story only really began taking shape when I discarded the notion of an ‘actual reality’ and left the ambiguity there instead. Laura repeatedly comes up against this problem of the ‘Real World’, and other people’s notions of it, which rarely correspond with her own. I was attracted to that as an idea, wondering how much importance we really need to place on objective reality when it comes to how people feel, and see, and react to one another.

Since my teens I’ve had a hallucinatory sleep disorder, which means that seeing and reacting to things that aren’t there is almost commonplace. You can’t spend a couple of decades seeing giant spiders and clockwork machines flying around the room on a nightly basis without developing a sense of different levels of reality! You can state that something isn’t there – and you may well be right – but being right isn’t everything. Even if it’s only a product of your subconscious, in some sense it’s there all the same. And Laura knows, on some level, that she needs the lion to be there.

LP: What does your next project look like?

MT: I’m working on my first collection, which features characters from a previous story (‘Season’s End’, published last year in the winners’ anthology from Kingston Writing School’s Hilary Mantel award). In the immediate future I’ll be participating in #WomenAloudNI, an initiative to mark International Women’s Day on 8th March with a series of readings by female writers across Northern Ireland.


 

Mandy Taggart lives on the north coast of Ireland. She received the Michael McLaverty Short Story Award in 2012, and has previously been shortlisted for the Lightship One Page Prize and the KWS Hilary Mantel Award. Her short fiction has been published widely in print, audio and online. She is currently working on her first collection. Follow Mandy Taggart on Facebookand Twitter.

Laura Perrem is a Fine Art graduate of the Crawford College of Art and Design. She practices in both visual and written media. Her written practice includes poetry, short stories and art criticism. She has had poetry published in the Belleville Park Pages and is working towards her first collection of poetry.

Born in San Francisco in 1970, Austin Granger has worked as a baker, house painter, naval radar operator and camera salesman. He first began to photograph while studying philosophy in college as a way to get out of his head. Preferring to use traditional film cameras, Granger has come to see his photography as a spiritual practice—a way in which to shape his life and enrich his relationship with the world. He likes motorcycles a lot too. View more of his work at Flickr.

 

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Mining for Specificity: Yaron Kaver in conversation with Long Story, Short Journal

Part of the interview series by Laura PerremLong Story, Short Journal Contributing Journalist.

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Photo copyright Walter Nguyen

 

I find it very adolescent to view death through a romantic lens and struggle to reconcile its urgency with the blandness and discomfort of daily life.
–Yaron Kaver

 

 

 

 


Long Story, Short Journal presents the next instalment of our interview series: a conversation with Yaron Kaver, author of our January 2016 story ‘The Dead Soldier’s Sister’. Interview series by Laura Perrem. 


Laura Perrem: Where are you now?

Yaron Kaver: These days I live, write and work in New York City. Well, mostly, I work. Sometimes I write. And I’m starting to suspect the twist ending will be that I’ve actually been living this whole time…

 LP: What does a typical writing day look like for you?

YK: At the Idea-Gathering Stage, I look like just another smartphone zombie, because I use email drafts to store ideas as they come throughout the day. At the Outlining Stage, I look like a TV detective mapping out his serial killer case on the wall (minus the string—I have never used string). The Actual Writing Stage is when it gets really boring. I try to produce about two pages a day, and by “try” I mean “fail”. If I’ve written five pages a week, I count that as a success.

LP: It would be difficult to discuss “The Dead Soldier’s Sister” without talking about the relationship between David and the dead soldier’s sister. Their relationship grows very organically. Can you speak a little bit about how this idea developed for you?

YK: To a certain extent, David’s relationship with the sister follows my relationship to her character as a writer. She started out as a “story solution,” a personification of David’s otherwise solitary obsession. His initial perception of her is similar to my own—it’s all about her functionality. What can he get out of her? What could I get out of her? From that point on, we progress along parallel tracks. What he gets from her is like what a junkie gets from a dealer, a fix, a rush. What I get from her is pushback, conflict. The more time he spends abusing her, the more time I spend creating that tension between what he thinks their relationship is about, and what it actually is. By the end of that process, the story belongs to her. She is the more fully realized of the two of them.

LP: “The Dead Soldier’s Sister” is set within a long-established and complex political/cultural/socio-geographical situation. At one point David’s routine is interrupted by “yet another suicide bombing”. Can you speak a little bit about how you approached framing your story within this context.

YK: As cliché as it sounds, I always thought of this story as being “universal.” I find it very adolescent to view death through a romantic lens and struggle to reconcile its urgency with the blandness and discomfort of daily life. You don’t need to be living in Israel for the idea of mortality to become the temporary focal point of your teenage existence. But for the story to work, David had to feel real, and his world had to be lived-in and precise. So rather than run away from my biography, I mined it for specificity. On the one hand, the setting allowed me to feel confident in the details of the world and its characters, having lived through the 90s as a teenager in Israel. On the other hand, it presented the risk of melodrama (and, as you mentioned in your next question, politicization). I made an effort to avoid sensationalizing the extreme events, not just for artistic considerations, but in order to get closer to the truth. Terror was a part of life, and so was downplaying the severity of its effects.

LP: Are you conscious, while writing, of your own political views and how much they should, or could, come through your writing?

YK: In an ideal world, my stories would never bring the word “politics” to mind. The reality, of course, is that just by being born Israeli or Palestinian you are forced into a lifelong ambassadorship of your country and people. This conflation of individuals and governments is debilitating, inside and outside of writing. If I’m political at all in my work, it’s in the effort to insert private, non-contentious moments into the large, dehumanizing narrative that tends to take shape—good guys vs. bad guys, David vs. Goliath, etc.—polarized views that, to my mind, leave no viable solution on the table save for the utter destruction of one side.

LP: What are you working on now?

YK: After all that, would you believe I’m working on a comedy?


 

Yaron Kaver has written for Israeli television and translated screenplays for hundreds of Israeli films and shows. His fiction has appeared in Cold Mountain Review, Read Short Fiction, Fractal Magazine, MonkeyBicycle and Crack the Spine. His short story “And the Oscar Goes to Jail” won first prize in the 2014 Mark Twain House Humor Writing Contest. He has a BFA in Film and Television from NYU and an MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Read another story by Yaron Kaver (‘And the Oscar Goes to Jail’) at Read Short Fiction.
laura perrem photo
Laura Perrem is a Fine Art graduate of the Crawford College of Art and Design. She practices in both visual and written media. Her written practice includes poetry, short stories and art criticism. She has had poetry published in the Belleville Park Pages and is working towards her first collection of poetry.

 

Walter Nguyen is a French photographer. View more of his work on Flickr.

 

“A Sense of Real Language”: Shane Strachan in conversation with Laura Perrem

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Photo by Alina Hartwig

I always wanted to write stories about the Northeast that could be read by people outside of the area, but without losing a sense of the real language spoken there.

 

 


Long Story, Short Journal presents the second in our series of interviews: a conversation with Shane Strachan, author of our November 2015 issue ‘Gyurd’. Interview by Laura Perrem. 


 

Laura: Where are you at the moment?

Shane: I’m currently on a train heading up to Moniack Mhor writing centre in the Highlands. I was lucky enough to receive a ‘Made in Aberdeen’ council bursary to go on retreats across this year to get some writing done. In a month like this where I’ve been particularly busy in my two part-time jobs, I am so thankful to be able to run away for a few days and get some peace to write! Moniack Mhor is also a great place to meet other writers and find out what’s going on in the literary scene outside of your area, so I’m looking forward to that aspect too.

LP: What does a typical writing day look like for you?

SS: I try to keep two to three days a week free for writing, but it’s not always that simple to just sit down and write when I actually find myself with a free day: I tend to need some time to dwell on an idea or to remind myself of where I was going with a piece, then if all’s good, it’ll flow out for a few hours. I usually escape my flat to write and often end up doing a tour of cafés and libraries across the city – I find the walks in between can really help when I’ve got stuck. Unfortunately, I’m at my most fired up creatively late at night, and would guess that most of my published work was written around 3 in the morning …

LP: ‘Gyurd’ is one in a collection of short stories which you identify as being ‘related to the decline of fishing communities in the Northeast of Scotland’. What compelled you to choose this site and subject for your collection?

SS: I grew up in the fishing towns of Fraserburgh and Peterhead during a big decline in the fishing industry as both stricter regulations and decommissioning schemes were put in place to conserve certain species. This led to a drastic change in these communities as folk faced up to having to find work elsewhere, to their children not carrying on family traditions, and to the sharp loss of local identity and language. Like many other writers before me who have tackled industrial decline in their work both in Scotland and elsewhere, there was something I felt compelled to express before it was too late, before my own memories and the language of them faded with time. This collection of stories is titled Orra Though It Be, a quote from Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song; it’s a favourite book of mine which deals with many of these themes and very much inspired me to write.

I was also compelled to write the sort of book I myself wanted to read. There are very few works of literature currently being published from the Northeast of Scotland in general, never mind about the fishing communities – the closest and best would be John Aberdein’s Amande’s Bed set in 1950s Aberdeen. So it became very important to me to write these stories, and to ensure they avoided being insular, or old-fashioned, or any of the other misconceptions people may have about writing from this area.

LP: In Gyurd, would you say that Diane is a metaphor for this contemplation on the idea of decline?

(Editor’s note: spoiler alert! Read the story before the rest of the interview.)

SS:  I would say that Diane is an exception to other characters in the collection in relation to decline, as while they all ultimately face up to change, she remains much the same person as she was at the start of the story even though life has thrown a lot at her. I think this is down her need to maintain a perfect Christian life and the denial of anything that could possibly disrupt that: the existence of a half-sister, her father’s infidelity, and, come the end of the story, her own failing marriage. In some ways she could be seen as quite cruel or naive at points, but I hope that readers still sense that she is a kind person who thinks she is doing her best. It’s these sorts of contradictions in character I really love exploring in my stories.

LP: It would be difficult to discuss ‘Gyurd’ without bringing your use of the Doric dialect to the conversation. Can you tell us a little bit about the process of weaving Doric into the language of your storytelling?

SS: I contemplated copying and pasting my entire PhD on this subject for a laugh, but I’m sure you wouldn’t want to put anyone through having to read that!

Doric is the Northeast variety of the Scots language, which, in its rural variants, has been described as being the most distinct dialect from Standard English in the UK. I always wanted to write stories about the Northeast that could be read by people outside of the area, but without losing a sense of the real language spoken there. In able to do both, I blend Doric with a more standardised register; this is a writing style known as skaz, a term coined by Mikhail Bakhtin to describe writing which blends different registers into the one voice. Plenty of writers in different cultures and languages have written in this way, including Grassic Gibbon, James Joyce and James Kelman. Other stories in the collection are a bit more dialectal in the narration than ‘Gyurd’, and many of them also bring in other dialects and languages such as Polish, Mexican Spanish and a Filipino dialect.

Readers will see that I’ve kept the characters’ dialogue quite close to how it’s actually spoken, but even that is written in a way that makes it slightly easier for someone unfamiliar with the dialect to sound out. It’s a big ask of readers, but as Junot Díaz said of his use of Dominican Spanish in his stories, ‘what the unintelligible in a book does is to remind you how our whole lives we’ve always needed someone to help us with reading’, so like reading a book as a child, you passively learn new language from context or you find out the meaning from your wider community.

LP: You also write for the stage. Would you say that your drama has the same concerns as your creative writing practice?

SS: I feel like I’m still really learning when it comes to playwriting and that it’s a very different process from story writing. When I’m working on my own drama, it tends to have similar concerns as my writing and be about the Northeast, but on many wider projects, I’ve been pushed to step outside of these concerns and work a lot more collaboratively. For example, I was commissioned to write a play on maternal health in Zimbabwe for a global research initiative called Immpact, and I’m currently part of a script team for a National Theatre of Scotland production based on the true story of a granite quarryman travelling from the Northeast to Odessa in the 1860s.

LP: What is your next project?

I’m currently working on my first novel. I say “first novel”, but I’m sure it would really be my 4th of 5th if you include a few dodgy attempts before I really found my style through short story writing. Moving from shorter forms to a larger piece has been a bit of a challenge so far, and I can’t say I’m the biggest fan of the novel form in general, so it should prove interesting what I ultimately come up with. At this point, the novel is set in Aberdeen, the wider Northeast and the North Sea, but I’m tempted to take my characters to places much further.

I’m also working on another project for Immpact which will involve running writing workshops with new mothers in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, in the hope of gathering a collection of stories which reflects different experiences of childbirth in the country. I visited Bulawayo just last month, and had the best time experiencing its fantastic arts scene, linking up with a great publisher called AmaBooks, and meeting the hardworking staff at the local maternity hospitals, so I really have high hopes for this project.


strachan
Shane Strachan
’s work has appeared in Stand, Gutter, New Writing Scotland, Northwords Now, Causeway/Cabhsair, Freight’s LGBT anthology Out There, and many more publications. He holds a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Aberdeen after creating a short story collection related to the decline of the fishing industry in the Northeast of Scotland. He has also had theatre worked staged in Aberdeen and has led writing projects in Germany and Zimbabwe. Find out more at shanestrachan.com
laura perrem photo
Laura Perrem is a Fine Art graduate of the Crawford College of Art and Design. She practices in both visual and written media. Her written practice includes poetry, short stories and art criticism. She has had poetry published in the Belleville Park Pages and is working towards her first collection of poetry.

The November 2015 contributing photographer is Alina Hartwig, a freelance photographer from Germany. Since finishing secondary school two years ago, she has been making her way in the movie business and works additionally as a photographer and artist. View more of her work on Facebook and atFlickr.

“Wary of backstory”: Claire Hennessy in conversation with Laura Perrem

Photo copyright Marianna Santikou

Photo copyright Marianna Santikou

I sometimes feel all writers should take a turn going through a submissions pile. It makes you so conscious of how to grab a reader’s attention and how to avoid clichéd openings or endings.


The Long Story, Short Journal is proud to present a new interview series which is the initiative of the journal’s Publicity Manager, Laura Perrem. First up is a conversation with Claire Hennessy, the author of October 2015’s story ‘Small Rebellions’.

Laura Perrem: What are you working on at the moment?

Claire Hennessy: I’m working on two ‘big’ projects right now: revisions on a young adult novel and putting together a collection of short stories. I’m also trying to write a couple of personal essays – short things that are finishable within a shorter time frame, basically.

LP: What does a typical writing day look like for you?

CH: There’s honestly no such thing as a typical writing day. Part of me would love to be one of those people who could get up and go for a lovely walk and then sit at the desk for several hours, perhaps stopping to light candles or meditate or whatever. But I think I’d probably end up putting a lot of things in alphabetical order and not actually getting much work done. I write in between other work commitments (I co-run a creative writing school, teach workshops there and elsewhere, and also do some editorial work), and sometimes I’m lucky enough to get a couple of mornings a week to slot in writing (or revising). There’s usually quite a lot of tea, too.

LP: What would you identify as your influences?

CH: I find it really tricky to identify influences – I’ve been writing since I was a kid, so there wasn’t one book or author or ‘literary movement’ that made me decide I was going to Be A Writer. I suppose I’m definitely conscious of Irish women’s writing of the last 15 years especially – both ‘commercial’ and ‘literary’ (my three big favourites are Marian Keyes, Emma Donoghue and Anne Enright) – and American YA fiction.

LP: The first issue of Banshee has just been released, how do you feel that being an active writer affects your input as an editor?

CH: I think it makes you both more critical and more sympathetic, depending on the day. More critical because you know what early-draft stories look like, where a writer hasn’t quite pushed themselves to the next stage (as opposed to a ‘ah sure you’re great for finishing something!’ mentality), and more sympathetic because you know how much work people put into their writing and that sinking feeling you get when an email pings into your inbox with a ‘no thank you’ response.

It impacts more the other way around, though – I sometimes feel all writers should take a turn going through a submissions pile. It makes you so conscious of how to grab a reader’s attention and how to avoid clichéd openings or endings.

LP: You write both short stories and flash fiction. Could you speak a little about your feelings on the specific merits of these individual practices for you as a writer?

CH: Flash fiction is intense and precise. It’s like poetry. It’s easier to try out new things – either content wise or stylistically – in flash. It’s a quick punch and it’s done. Short stories are really hard. They’re miniature worlds and everything matters and you need an awful lot in there, but not too much. It’s such a tricky balancing act. But it’s very satisfying to whip one into shape. You’ve made a thing. That’s a pleasing accomplishment.

LP: When you sit down to write a story, do you sit with a clear map of where your characters are going to go, or do you start at a point and see where it takes you?

CH: It really depends. With ‘Small Rebellions I knew exactly where the end-point was – I think endings are important and I usually have a clear sense of what they need to be at an early stage. You’re always working towards an ending.

LP: Being an Irish person reading ‘Small Rebellions’, I found a familiarity in the use of language that really hit home, especially in the dialogue. Do you consider the ‘Irishness’ of your language as you’re writing or in the editing stages?

CH: I don’t ‘consider’ it but it definitely creeps in there. I’m probably more confident about the Irishness of my work than I used to be – it can feel a bit parochial to capture a particular dialect but on the other hand, all of our characters can’t be earnest Brooklyn hipsters.

LP: ‘In Small Rebellions’, the information that we receive about the characters, especially Lucy, is very much contained to what is happening within the time-frame of the story. Is this a conscious effort re backstory that you made when writing? 

CH: Being wary of backstory is probably one of those things that comes from having an editor-eye on other people’s work. I think it’s a really common thing to see too much backstory, especially on the first page or two of a story, and it always raises the question of, well, if all this interesting stuff happened to the character before this story begins, why are we starting it here? The question of ‘when to start’ is an important one. And then the background information needs to be relevant to what’s happening ‘now’ – so, for ‘Small Rebellions’, it felt like we definitely needed a sense of Conor in his element, to help contextualise their relationship. I think most other things can be implied.


A note from Editor-in-Chief Jennifer Matthews: Thank you to Claire and Laura for what will be the first in a fantastic series of interviews. Writers who are interested in contributing work to Long Story, Short Journal should note that the submissions period ends 31 October 2015. Guidelines here.


Claire-Hennessy-1

Claire Hennessy is a writer, creative writing facilitator, and editor based in Dublin. She is the author of several novels for young adults and children, and is currently working on a collection of short fiction for adults, supported by an Arts Council bursary. She can be found online at www.clairehennessy.com or on Twitter (@clairehennessy).

laura perrem photo

Laura Perrem is a Fine Art graduate of the Crawford College of Art and Design. She practices in both visual and written media. Her written practice includes poetry, short stories and art criticism. She has had poetry published in the Belleville Park Pages and is working towards her first collection of poetry.

The featured photo from the October 2015 issue of Long Story, Short Journal is by Marianna Santikou. Marianna Santikou is a 19-year old photographer, living in the suburbs of Athens, Greece. Her interest in photography began in 2009, when she started taking simple photographs mostly of still life and nature. She quickly discovered her passion for portraiture, which she has been practicing ever since, focusing on self-portraits. She has been featured in many magazines and blogs, and her work has been accepted in PhotoVogue Italia. Greatly inspired by the works of Steven Meisel, Tim Walker and Alex Stoddard. View more of her work at http://mariannasantikou.wix.com/msphotography