Billy O’ Callaghan and short stories

Billy O'Callaghan

Billy O’Callaghan was born in Cork, Ireland, in 1974, and is the author of three short story collections: ‘In Exile’ (2008) and ‘In Too Deep’ (2009), both published by Mercier Press, and ‘The Things We Lose, the Things We Leave Behind’ (2013) published by New Island Books, which won a Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Award and which is forthcoming in a Chinese translation from CITIC Press in the summer of 2017.

He has also compiled a non-fiction book, entitled: ‘Learning from the Greats: Lessons on Writing, from the Great Writers’, which was published, in April 2014, by Cork City Libraries as part of their Occasional Series.

His first novel, ‘The Dead House’, will be published by Brandon Books, an imprint of O’Brien Press, in May 2017, and later in the year a novella, ‘A Death in the Family’, will appear as a Ploughshares Solo.

A recipient of the 2013 Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Award for Short Story of the Year, and a 2010 Arts Council of Ireland Bursary Award for Literature, his story, ‘The Boatman’ was recently shortlisted for the 2016 Costa Short Story Award. He has won and been shortlisted for numerous other honours, including the George A. Birmingham Award, the Lunch Hour Stories Prize, the Molly Keane Creative Writing Award, the Sean O’Faolain Award, the RTE Radio 1 Francis MacManus Award, the Faulkner/Wisdom Award, the Glimmer Train Prize and the Writing Spirit Award. He was also short-listed four times for the RTÉ Radio 1 P.J. O’Connor Award for Drama. He also served as the 2016 Writer-in-Residence for the Cork County Libraries.

His stories have been broadcast nationally on RTÉ Radio’s ‘The Book on One’​, Sunday Miscellany and the Francis MacManus Awards series, and have appeared in more than 100 magazines and literary journals around the world, including: Absinthe: New European Writing, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, the Bellevue Literary Review, Bliza, the Chattahoochee Review, Confrontation, the Emerson Review, the Fiddlehead, Hayden’s Ferry Review, the Los Angeles Review, the Kenyon Review, the Kyoto Journal, the London Magazine, Narrative Magazine, Per Contra, Salamander, Southeast Review, Southword, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Versal, & Yuan Yang – a journal of Hong Kong and International Writing.


What means writing for you?

 Writing is my way of trying to make sense of the world and my own place in it.

Most of the time, my mind is a muddle of worries, dreams, hopes and fears. Often, particular aspects of these will come to dominate my thoughts, and my way of gaining a better understanding of them is to use them as themes and try to forge them into some kind of a cohesive story.

Life has its beautiful days and its terrible ones, and familial, romantic and even casual relationships ensure that the equilibrium is constantly under threat. I suppose we’re all, in or own way, fragile, and our story is rarely just ours alone because it has to allow for the presence of others, each one burdened with its own cravings and outpourings of love, rage and dread.

I am not a particularly confident person, and I frequently suffer from a sense of driving blind. Writing is something I have done virtually every day of my life for at least the last twenty years, and has become my guiding light. From 7am until around noon, I sit down and put my thoughts on paper, and this has become the part of the day when whatever mask I feel the need to wear can fall most easily away and I can get somewhere close to the truth of things.


 – In your opinion what is the secret to write a good short story?

 If there’s a secret to it then nobody has every revealed it to me. Short stories can be easy to write but very difficult to write well. I live with constant doubt about what I’m doing, and there’s a lot of missteps before I get the story to where I want it to be. But the trial and error approach is the only way I know.

At a basic level, though, a good short story must tell a good story. This sounds obvious, but a lot of stories I’ve read seem to value this least of all. Language, vivid characters, description, dialogue etc., are all important elements in a story, but it must, first and foremost, be about something, and it must be something worth telling.

For me, theme drives the story, and I’ll form a plot and come to understand the characters from that. It’s not necessary a formula for everybody but it’s how I’ve learned to work.

Also, when I write a new story my hope is that the reader will believe, or even just allow for the possibility, that what they’ve read is true. And the way to achieve this, I think, is to write the story as close to the truth as possible. Put enough of yourself and your own life experience into the work and, if you’ve written well, it’ll hopefully echo through the text. The essence of truth, even when cloaked thinly or heavily in fiction, shines, I think. If I can achieve some level of believability then I’ll feel that the story has succeeded. This, more than probably anything else, is how I measure the worth of a short story.

 – When start writing a book of short stories how do you organise the main ideas, organise the writing process, make the decisions about the selected stories?

My first two collections, In Exile and In Too Deep, were written as individual stories. I wasn’t thinking about them in terms of a collection; I never anticipated having the opportunity to publish them that way. But I find that, over long stretches of time, a lot of what I write draws from certain dominating themes. When it came time to publish the first collection, In Exile, I had a lot of stories, probably ten years worth of them, but certain stories seemed to fall together, and those were generally the best ones. The same was true, mostly, of In Too Deep.

My third collection, The Things We Lose, The Things We Leave Behind came together in a slightly different way. After In Too Deep was published, in 2009, and failed to sell many copies, I began to focus on a novel. I had an idea and spend a couple of years working on it, really just feeling my way along, not really knowing yet what I was doing. But every now and then, I’d interrupt myself to work on some idea for a short story. Then, in the winter of 2011, I got an email from the editor of New Island Books, asking if I had anything new that he could read. I told him about the novel but he said he was more interested in a new collection. At the time, I had five or six of the stories written, and another couple enjoying a slow gestation. I put the novel aside and began to consider the stories. It was pretty obvious from the beginning that they all shared certain themes. Over the next year or so, I set about finishing the two work-in-progress stories and writing some new ones, and in many ways it was easier than before because now I had a very clear vision for what I wanted the book to be and I knew the themes that I felt I wanted to explore. Unity is important in a collection, but you also need a certain amount of variation.

In terms of its creation, though, The Things We Lose, The Things We Leave Behind was, I think, the exception rather than the rule. Most collections (as was the case with In Exile and In Too Deep) are constructed after the fact, rather than written to actually be a collection.


 – And about the novels, are you the type of writer that leaves everything to improvisation?

 No, I’ve found that improvisation, where I am concerned, rarely works. Almost every time I’ve tried it, the story has ended up unfinished. It think this is because I’ve started writing on a whim, and I have not invested or committed enough of myself to be able to sustain the narrative. I prefer to move more slowly. Meat that’s cooked longer tends to be more flavoursome.

My way of writing is to usually start with theme, something that’s been on my mind for quite a while. I am never in a hurry to begin.

Some people like to carry notebooks around with them but I tend to think of stories like spring water, something that rises up slowly from great depth and that clarifies itself on the way to the surface. Once I start writing, I’ll have carried it around with me for weeks, months and sometimes even years. Bob Dylan has a line in ‘Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’, “And I’ll know my song well before I start singing,” and that’s largely what I adhere to.

With a short story, all of this is done in my head, but with a novel I will lay it all out on a page or two as a rough plan. Not too much, because I don’t want to kill the book before it’s written, but just something to keep me moving forward. I like to have the plot in place before I start, and to know the characters as well as I can. I want to have lived with them a while so that they are not strangers to me. And this way, I can concentrate on smaller details – language, dialogue, description, setting, atmosphere – the things that really bring a story or a novel to life.

 – In your book The things we lose, the things we leave behind, we found people with difficult situations, that took bad decisions, or simply were victims of the circumstances. Do you think that people are responsible for their own decisions, in general?

I think, generally speaking, that yes, we are responsible for our own decisions. But nothing is ever just black and white, is it? Circumstances play a part, and environment, and there are times when these things can shape our decisions. We all know that stealing is morally wrong, and most of us won’t do it, but if we were hungry, or a family member was, who can say what we’d be willing to do.

And even more than the decisions people make, what interests me is how they deal with the aftermath, how even in the face of terrible occurrences or laden down with the baggage of mistakes and regret, they somehow pick up the pieces and move forward. The ability to endure, despite everything that life can throw at us and even when the outcome can only ever possibly result in failure, is a subject eminently worth exploring, I think. We all deal with situations in different ways. Some fight, others surrender. Both directions, and all those in between, can lead in fascinating directions.


 – Do you think that finding love or something similar is one of the great problems that we have in developed societies? If not, what it is?

 I don’t know, and I don’t really like to generalise or to imagine I have the answers to all of society’s problems. But it does seem fair to say that love, which I hope includes empathy and compassion, is a major part of what makes us human. Living without some form of love in your life would, I think, be akin to a kind of living death, a zombie or vampire state. Love is, I’d dare to say, the essence of us. Without it we’d be something far less worthwhile.


 – One of your stories talk about maternity (We are not made of stone) we suppose you are aware about the different ways of thinking about maternity that in our society, what do you think about breaking topics?

 When I am writing, I refuse to let myself believe that the story I am working on will ever be read.

This frees me from any need for self-censorship, and I can freely explore whatever issues might interest me, with no subject being out of bounds. In this way, the stories are entirely personal to me, and they focus only on the fears and yearnings that exist within me. The fact that those fears and yearnings are largely universal ones mean that they can also hold some appeal to readers, but this is often more by luck than judgement. Ultimately, my writing strives to be emotive and instinctive rather than intellectual, and as a result my characters tend to concern themselves less with the world itself than with their own small place in it.

‘We’re Not Made of Stone’ deals with the subject of a miscarriage, but it’s also about the connections between people, especially those who find themselves on a cusp. And of course, it’s about dealing with a deep loss, in many ways the deepest loss imaginable, and coping with the aftermath. It is a subject I have broached in other stories, too, because it’s one that looms large in my thoughts. I write about it to try and make sense of the things I am thinking about. There is little or no room in this thought-process for society’s views on the issue. These are my stories, I write them for me and they reflect some part of myself.

Such questions as this, and also the previous one, I prefer to leave to academics to ponder. Fiction should portray rather than preach. In a short story, I concern myself only with the hearts of my narrator or main characters. I suppose, in its own way, if their issues are sufficiently universal then that’s depicting the world in microcosm.


 – In the short story “Keep well to seaward”, we can find this phrase “we’re not much more than the scars we wear”. Where does it come from?

 It’s just something I made up. I was considering my life, and the things I have come through to reach this particular point, and that seemed to me a way of summing it up most clearly. Life, as I have come to see it, is a journey, and every battle or celebration leaves a mark. In short, our history defines us, both our background and the lives we’ve lived.


 – Do you feel that we are feel /free or it is only a superficial sensation?

 Ah, that’s one for the philosophers. Freedom is relative, but by and large (at least in the Western world – we can’t be blind to the fact that large parts of the planet are nowhere near as fortunate) we’re free. The shackles we forge, we probably forge for ourselves, through choice. Mortgages, jobs, marriages, families, responsibilities – these are situations that we enter into (for the most part) willingly, and happily, even if society also takes a hand in steering us in such directions. But I’d still class that as freedom because there are people who resist such a life, who take off for some South Pacific island and play at being Gauguin or Brando or Robert Louis Stevenson.

The option is there, for anyone willing to pay the price. But it would probably be a mistake to assume that this kind of freedom necessarily equates to happiness or contentment.


 – Which things do you think we leave behind in life?

 It will be different for everyone, I suppose. Mostly, it’ll be people. We pass in and out of one another’s lives then drift off in different directions, and relationships, apart from the most tightly hewn ones, can be difficult, even impossible, to sustain. Add to each of us the consequences of living – new connections that strain the bonds of older ones; physical and mental fatigue due to work or circumstance; new interests; maybe the desire to escape and a need for change – and it becomes clear that we are, each of us, constantly evolving. The best friends we had when we were ten or twenty years old, people who deeply mattered to us once and who knew us in a variety of ways, including intimately, people we maybe even truly loved, are often times strangers to us by the time we reach forty. Crossing paths again later in life stirs interesting feelings of awkwardness, embarrassment, happiness, regret, guilt, and even sadness at what we might have lost or missed out on, had we taken alternate paths in life. But that’s what life is, I suppose, a series of stopping-off points on a longer journey.


 – What was the book that one changed your life?

 To name one would be impossible. As a small child the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm certainly captivated me, and the Arabian Nights stories, and probably by the age of ten, Steinbeck’s novels, and Ray Bradbury’s. Steinbeck made me realise how big and rich and – at times sad – the world was as well as all the things it could be, and Bradbury’s language just lit me from within. As a young teen, I devoured Louis L’Amour’s and Stephen King’s books then found my way to the likes of Norman Mailer, John Updike and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The book that made me realise just how powerful writing could be was Hemingway‘s The First Forty-Nine Stories, and Hemingway even now remains my touchstone.

But the stories that actually changed my life were ones I didn’t find in books at all; they were stories told to me by my grandmother, sitting with her at the fireside at the age of four or five, and it was these, told to me on cold white days in an otherwise silent house in a voice old as dirt and full of weather, that instilled in me a passion for narrative. I write today because of those old stories, and I carry that voice inside me, always.


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