shining the spotlight on short story collections
How long did it take you to write all the stories in your collection?
I wrote most of Whorehouse over about five years, after I moved to Bucharest in 2000 and began to concentrate on writing. You can exclude the previous six years I’d been writing, pretty much, when nearly everything got binned.
Did you have a collection in mind when you were writing them?
So there I was living in a small apartment on the edge of a collapsing city, and after a couple of years I gave up hope of having a collection published, because all the best authorities told me it was a lost cause, especially now that I was writing about the place I lived and the people around me, which struck the guardians of the Irish short story as perverse.
How did you choose which stories to include and in what order?
I sent the stories to my editor in random order and he wrote back saying he thought I’d ordered them quite intelligently, so I thought, alright then…
What does the word “story” mean to you?
“Dee-dee! Pepe!” That’s a story. My daughter told me it. She’s 15 months and has the hang of it. Dee-dee means horse (to her). Pepe is her word for pepene, Romanian for watermelon. Where her grandparents live, carts pulled by horses go down the roads on summer days, loaded with watermelons, and the drivers shout out “Pepene!” so the whole neighbourhood can hear, and Katia, my little girl, watches them go by, these giant animals, and the men shouting, and she knows all about watermelons too, so this to her is the greatest show on earth. And then she comes along with her two words and tells me all about it and we understand each other perfectly.
Do you have a “reader” in mind when you write stories?
It turned me in on myself, on my own resources, but also freed me, since I didn’t care about success or any audience or what people would think. I was doing what I always did in writing, and still do, which is to pass the time and work things through for myself. I remember pitying people who didn’t write. How did they deal with stuff? Writing seemed the only compensation for much of the shit that happened to me, and now I was committed to sitting in my little room and typing at the edge of a disintegrating brutalised city, and I imagined when I was nearly sixty and had hair growing out of my ears I would have all these wonderful stories and a small press would bring out a collection for my small but devoted underground following. I was perfectly content with that side of things, but I didn’t tell anyone around me that I was writing, because I lived among people who were poor and they already thought I was mad. Because I had little money myself. Actually, looking back, it does look cracked. I’m so bourgeois now. I even play tennis and do yoga. Back then I just drank and typed. So when the book was published it felt strange that other people were interested in what I’d got used to thinking was just a personal matter. Strange that someone thought it was wonderful, someone thought it was disgusting. It was bizarre to give an interview. Then the book started winning prizes, the stories were on the radio, it was being translated. I was pleased. But I still haven’t developed an idea of a readership. Writing is still for me a conversation with myself, an attempt to settle or sort out experience, an attempt at lucidity, to try to save some sense from the nonsense that’s always trying to strangle me.
Is there anything you’d like to ask someone who has read your collection, anything at all?
I’d like to ask them why they haven’t read “The Pleasant Light of Day”, which is a much better book.
How does it feel knowing that people are buying your books?
It feels fine, and then again it feels like bullshit, because I know lots of people bought my first book because it had Whorehouse in the title and because some of the first dizzy female reviewers declared it nasty and disgusting and mysogynistic. But I have to make a living these days, I don’t have another job, and I do hope lots and lots of people will buy my books for lots of eccentric reasons.
What are you working on now?
I’m writing about the destruction of Eastern European Jewry, the holocaust, communism, examining the theme through the lives and writings of a number of Jewish writers from the area – Isaac Babel, Vasily Grossman, Mihail Sebastian. Even Saul Bellow, whose family was Russian and who grew up speaking Yiddish. It’s an enormous subject because I have to get to grips with both the history and the period and the work of these writers. But these writers have registered a historical experience very personally, in writing of themselves and their times, and through reexamining them it becomes possible to imagine, and try to understand, something which is almost impossible to think about and comprehend. The complete disintegration of civililsation in the last century, the genocide. And how the general madness extended to the world of ideas and letters. I want to look at how easily and quickly this experience has been denied and falsified in eastern Europe – where most of the killing occurred. It’s like it never happened. So I’m also examining attitudes to history in the countries that have emerged from communism. I still write fiction these days, sometimes, but I don’t send it out. I’m too harrassed, too confused, too irritated by its irrelevance to the circus outside. I stuff it in a drawer and occasionally sniff it for ripeness.
What are the last three short story collections you read?
I’m with the Russians these days, just because there’s so much good stuff coming out in English now from the last century. It’s a game of catch up with history, as well as with storytelling, and this relates to what I was talking about before, how totalitarianism has disrupted the registering of personal and collective experience, sowing confusion in the mind. Also because for any Russian writer the short story is not considered inferior to longer forms, as is the case in the Anglophone world. Recently read the anthology Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida, edited by the amazing Robert Chandler. Before that, Ivan Bunin’s Shadowed Paths, from the 1930s. Bunin was a Nobel winner but has mostly been forgotten, along with the rest of Russian emigre literature (Nabokov is an exception, because he turned to writing in English and wrote very well about America in Lolita). Before that, The Road a selection of stories and essays by Vasily Grossman, material written between 1930 and 1960. Grossman was out of favour with the regime and his best work was only published in Russian decades after his death and he is only now becoming recognised among English speakers.