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