McVeigh: Mary, I love the story of how your collection The China Factory came about, would you share that with us?
Costello: Thanks, Paul. I never had any dreams of being a writer when I was young. I grew up in the west of Ireland and came to college in Dublin when I was 17. I studied English in college and was a moderate reader. When I was 22 something began to gnaw, some indefinable pang took hold. One sleepless night it just dropped down me out of the blue: I want to write. I have no idea where that came from, nor did I know where to start. I enrolled in an evening class in a local school, then later went to Listowel Writers Week where I discovered the names of short story writers – the Americans mostly – who, when I read them, sated an ache, big-time.
I sent out my first two stories and they were published, and one was shortlisted for a prize. I wrote one or two more, but had no luck placing them. And then I gave up sending work out. I had gotten married when I was 23 and moved to the suburbs, and I was teaching fulltime and I couldn’t seem to accommodate everything. Writing began to slip in the list of life’s priorities. But it always hung over me, a shadow, a burden, a half-secret. I did try to give it up – I didn’t write for long periods. I just wanted to be ‘normal’ again.
Of course it wouldn’t go away. Stories would push up and plague me until I had to write them.
The marriage broke up after ten years and I continued to scribble away. And then in 2010 I sent two stories to the literary magazineThe Stinging Fly. Both the editor Declan Meade and the writer Sean O’Reilly, who was guest editing an issue, liked them. Then Declan – who also runs Stinging Fly Press – asked if I had more. And I had, and he liked them well enough to want to publish a collection.
McVeigh: When you look back at your journey as writer is there anything you would change?
Costello: No, I don’t think so. I’m a relative late-comer to publishing, but I don’t think I could have done it differently. I don’t have any great facility to do a few things simultaneously, to multi-task. I suppose it took this long to surrender to writing. I’m writing fulltime now and this is a gift.
I’m a great believer in fate, too. Maybe things happen as they’re meant to happen. I don’t like to interfere too much or tweak fate’s buttons. And I don’t have regrets either. I feel very fortunate, incredibly grateful that people are reading these little stories of mine. When I think about this, it floors me.
McVeigh: From the first story, The China Factory, I was sold. You have a natural storytelling voice, weaving through time, emotions, lives, as though they fell from you, as though they wrote themselves. I think this is the mark of a great writer – you see a work of quality but you aren’t aware of the joins. How much do you edit your work?
Costello: I edit a lot in later drafts. I read the stories aloud and I know when something is false or faulty. I cannot bear to come on words or lines that jar, that hamper flow or hurt the story. I feel I owe it to the characters to deliver them as well and as truthfully and as simply as I can. I don’t know where they come from, and I don’t go in search of them, but I’m grateful that they arrive and so I strive to get them right … this matters terribly to me.
It takes several months to write a story. I love the later stages – that total immersion when you are entirely given over to the story and suffused by the characters, subsumed into them. There’s no hurry then, you want to wait, hold still, linger. If you’re lucky something is constellated then to bring the story home.
McVeigh: There’s a confidence in your voice, your storytelling, yet this is your first collection, where does that confidence comes from?
Costello: I don’t feel at all confident! I start each story with great uncertainty – fear and trepidation – that I won’t be able to deliver it as I envisage it. This is every writer’s experience, I’m sure. Finding the voice – a cliché, I know, but for me finding the voice early on is crucial. The voice sets the tone and atmosphere. If I get it, it gives me hope – and confidence probably – that allows me to press on. With some stories the voice comes easier. With others it’s agony and you have many false starts. You go back and forth, in and out, mulling over it, wrestling with it. But it’s critical to find it or the story will collapse. And you know it when you find it, you do – you recognise it immediately and slide into it. Of course it might chuck you out in the next line! Pitch you overboard. It’s a constant challenge to control it. Some days you just have to sit it out. Stare out a few windows, make a few notes.
McVeigh: There are lot of characters who have returned in some way. It reminded me of something someone told me when I first arrived in England – “the Irish always go home”. Have you ‘returned’? Or does this thread come from your observations?
Costello: I’ve never lived abroad. I’ve lived in Dublin since I was 17 so the only geographical returns I make are regular trips back to Galway.
In the stories, yes, I suppose some of my characters do return – the patio man, Suzanne in ‘Charon’. Mostly though, their returns are less physical than psychological – to the scenes of earlier events, pivotal moments in their lives. They are casting back, reflecting, striving to decipher them. Some are reaching back across long lives but others are returning to scenes not long past.
I suppose, to some extent, this theme does come from observations, like so much of writing. It’s primarily the character that leads, and it’s his thoughts on the ‘crisis’ into which he’s plunged within the story that causes this trawling back, this return.
McVeigh: I’m a city boy, and a Northerner, as a boy I formed an impression of the Republic of Ireland as the countryside and the people being of that environment. Your stories reminded me of this and I wondered how much that idea had come from literature and how much of it was true?
Costello: Many of my stories are set in rural Ireland – though some are set in the Dublin suburbs. Many of the characters, though living in the city, have their roots in the countryside and often look back there, perhaps with longing. The longing is not necessarily to do with the landscape or the people but to do with that metaphysical ache, that archetypal longing for ‘home’ that we all experience to some degree, where the actual physical home is symbolic, the vessel which holds or contains the archetype.
Many urban Irish people – in a very general sense – are not long off the land, not long severed from nature. Even three or four generations of urban living is nothing really, a short journey in the whole scheme of things. So in a sense we are still, psychologically, a rural people, we have rural souls that may carry a vague ache for the natural world. There may be a feeling of severance in the soul, a mourning for what was lost, for its mystery.
Growing up I wasn’t especially attuned to the natural world or the rhythms and routines of the countryside and the people. Nor am I now, really. Yet I am told – and I haven’t always welcomed this, but it’s probably true – that my stories have a rural sensibility, that many of the characters hark westward. I suppose it’s in the bloodstream, the word-stream, and there’s no escaping it, even in fiction.
McVeigh: Some of your stories seem to me like a lake. As you wade in the stillness you become aware of how deep it has gotten so quickly. What creates this for me is the weaving of time and back story, a seamless slide into a whole world, that keeps growing as you read. Does that come naturally to you? Or is that something you have to cut out the pattern for in advance?
Costello: That’s a lovely analogy, thanks. No, I don’t plan or cut out a pattern in advance at all. To be honest I try not to think about the process too much, or unpick it or parse it in any way, in case the whole thing comes crashing in around my ears, and I never write another word again.
The easiest way to explain it is that the story somehow rises; it emerges. That probably sounds a bit precious, but it doesn’t feel precious. It feels more like a niggle, a gnaw. Some stories come easier than others, they’re born easier – they walk out of the swamp upright on two legs – and are raised easier. The characters seem to know where they’re going. I don’t mean by that that they write themselves – far from it! But when I come upon a character he is usually fully formed and situated in his life, and I have the trajectory of that life in my head. I have the images and the events, the story – mostly. But it has to be written and that’s the challenge, the awful dread. Pulling that off.
I think stories probably incubate in us for years, and don’t show themselves until they’re ready. Long gestations. Lengthy hopes.
I write my way into a story, hoping that the walls of time will slide open and admit me. Time transitions can be hard but I kind of deny them, I don’t give them any great weight – at least not until late drafts. I don’t labour them or let them interfere with the character’s course – because they’re secondary, they matter a whole lot less to me than what’s in hand – staying tight to the character, maintaining the tension. Anyway, if we’re lucky, it often happens that time somehow moves along with the character, loyal and obedient, without too much manoeuvring or engineering on the part of the writer.
McVeigh: I felt sad during a lot of your stories, a sad that attracts me rather than pushes me away. I don’t know if that is an Irish thing? Do you think there is a love of the melancholy or an appreciation of the sad tale in Irish culture? Do you see it in your own work?
Costello: An air of melancholy definitely attaches to many Irish short stories. I don’t know if it’s a conscious thing on the part of Irish writers – certainly, in my own case, it’s not… I never set out to create a sad story or insert sadness. Perhaps this sense of melancholic reflection is just there, something innate in the Irish imagination, part of our nature, our psychic makeup. Why that should be the case I don’t know. Perhaps a sense of loss to do with our history maybe – loss of land and language – has laid itself down layer upon layer, generation after generation, in the collective unconscious, and this loss leaks out into our stories. Ultimately though I think it’s the individual writer’s own inner landscape that gives tone and mood to the writing.
I don’t know that it’s confined to Irish writers. I think American stories drip with a certain sadness – a very particular shade of sadness that we recognise as American. Maybe each nation or race has its own colour wheel of sorrow.
It’s hard for me to ‘see’ or identify elements in my own writing. People have said my stories are sad – someone said a ‘pall’ hangs over them. Writers delve into their characters’ interior lives and in the process they’re sure to dislodge loneliness, sorrow, grief. It certainly seems to be the case that sad lonely characters, outsiders, are destined for short stories. Maybe the form lends itself especially to them, that the tone and intensity and brevity of the short story all draw out sorrow. Or sad characters just find suitably sad imaginations to deliver them. Perhaps short story writers are mere pawns for outsiders, conduits for lost souls!
McVeigh: You’re about to make your UK reading debut at the Word Factory alongside your Stinging Fly brother Kevin Barry. How do you feel about reading your work live and about the current buzz around live readings in general?
Costello: I’ve read with Kevin a few times and it’s always been a pleasure. He’s a fantastic writer, reader, raconteur – and very relaxed too, so sharing the bill with him tends to wash one clean of any performance anxiety.
There certainly seems to be a buzz and vibrancy around readings lately, even apart from literary festivals. Good delivery is everything. Reading to a live audience brings a slight feeling of endangerment, a certain frisson or tension that probably enhances delivery. I do get a little nervous, as I’m sure most writers do. I think the body takes charge at those times, and it’s the best judge, the best calibrator: it winds itself just so far – like a wind-up clock – just taut enough… and then lets the story unspool into the waiting silence with the pulse and pace that’s needed. Or so we hope anyway!
You can watch Mary read her short story ‘Barcelona’ at Word Factory.