No escape from reality in atmospheric fictions

 IN SHORT:  "The biggest advantage of the short story to the writer is that you can see the size of it. You can see the whole thing in your mind but the novel is unwieldy, there's no end in sight, you'd drive yourself mad." Picture: Larry Cummins

The Things We Lose, The Things We Leave Behind
Billy O’Callaghan New Island; €13.99

BILLY O’Callaghan says there are two things he wants in his stories. “I want an atmosphere, a feeling that you retain even when you’ve forgotten what the story was about, and I want people to think that the stories are true.”

Succeeding on both counts, the 13 pieces collected here range freely over Ireland and beyond — from Chicago to New York, from the south of Spain to the South China Sea — and across time from the current day to the era of horse-drawn carts and stony grey fields.

It is a book which reads as both modern and traditional: a bereaved parent sleepwalks through life, a lost love is glimpsed on a Windy City L-train, a boy is hired out to a farmer only to find that his hopes and dreams are valued less than a cow in calf.

O’Callaghan’s protagonists may have a “predilection for melancholy” but nevertheless there are touches of hope in how they seek to take control of their lives, moments of action which serve as valuable counterpoints and contribute much to the texture of the volume.

“People in their everyday lives suffer terrible things,” O’Callaghan says. “They have their lives and they have their regrets but they find a way to move on. And most of my stories do kind of get on with it. For instance, there’s a story here called ‘Icebergs’, a husband and wife on the outs when the wife is diagnosed with cancer. She’s convinced she’s going to die and he’s trying to make the best of it until they see children in a restaurant who are so full of life. It’s about the comparison; it emphasises one’s own situation.”

Nowadays the Douglas, Cork native speaks about writing with the authority of a seasoned author and critic, but he says he “never knew any writers” when growing up. “They never seemed like real people. When I was 10 or 11 I used to read Steinbeck, then Hemingway just after that, and even their names didn’t seem real to me. Though Hemingway remains my favourite writer. I like the idea that, even in a very still story, there’s a lot happening.”

Indeed, their influence, as well as that of Louis L’Amour (“You learn everything you need to know about plot and characters from Westerns”) and Ray Bradbury (“He wrote beautiful sentences. They’re like music”) is still evident in O’Callaghan’s prose today.

Since his first publication in The Holly Bough in 1999, something which still brings him genuine delight, O’Callaghan has become one of the country’s most prolific writers with over 70 published stories and two previous collections, In Exile (2008), and In Too Deep (2009), to his name. Comparing those volumes to The Things We Lose, The Things We Leave Behind suggests a definite arc to his development. Gone are the occasional surrealist tendencies and the younger writer’s recourse to physical violence. One feels the heft of the words themselves is now much more in synch with the worldly weights threatening to crush his characters.

Equally, as his style has developed his stories are getting longer. “The longest piece here is about 11,000 words and they average at about five or six thousand. In fact, they’re almost all too long to publish in magazines in Ireland. I find that a pest, to be honest, a big frustration when we’re always being told how great the Irish are for supporting the short story… it just has to be very short.”

Such local constraints mean O’Callaghan usually sends his stories abroad for publication. “The internet is great for that,” he says, keen too to praise new home-grown initiatives online such as Long Story Short. Even so, he sees a disparity between those producing fiction in Ireland and those consuming it with “the only people reading literary journals being the people who want to get in them”.

Short fiction’s reduced prominence seems particularly troubling for O’Callaghan considering the form’s versatility — clearly apparent in this volume — as well as its accessibility. “The biggest advantage of the short story to the writer is that you can see the size of it. You can see the whole thing in your mind but the novel is unwieldy, there’s no end in sight, you’d drive yourself mad. A short story, being much more compact, feels more manageable. Maybe we’re less afraid of the short story? As a writer, I can never understand why readers don’t love short stories more because they seem perfect for the world we live in.”

Certainly short fiction meshes well with O’Callaghan’s own world, and the stories here, he says with a laugh, are “partly truth and partly fiction. Even people who know me sometimes read the stories and they feel that there might be things in them that are true but they can’t put their finger on what they are. But I don’t think it’s really that important to know what parts are true as long as it feels true. Theme, character, plot… to me everything is interchangeable. I don’t see any separation of these things. Sometimes you can know too much about a story. You don’t need to spell it out.”

Still, it seems that he can no more keep his experiences from seeping into his work than Steinbeck or Hemmingway could. The life of the writer informs everything here from the “light-polluted veil” of Cork at night to the echoing spaces of a Seville bullring he once toured. In fact the story based on the latter, ‘The Matador’, provides something of a thematic centre around which this collection pivots, offering readers the prototypical O’Callaghan protagonist: a broken character desperately in search of agency. “I think they’re in all the stories,” he says. “It comes back to the title. People that are full of regret and carrying a lot of mistakes, whether they were of their own making or not.”

So is this collection a response to the Celtic Tiger’s collapse? The suggestion catches O’Callaghan off-guard. “People will see things in your writing that you don’t see yourself,” he smiles. “But, yes, they were all written over the last four years, maybe half of them in the last two years.” They reflect the way in which we, as the matador learns, are “all boxed up in our own little catastrophes” and yet they also acknowledge that “everybody makes mistakes, everyone is allowed the odd wrong road”.

Gifted with a near anthropological eye, O’Callaghan uses his stories to interrogate not just the post-Tiger zeitgeist but also the “sacred” nature of love and marriage, along with the long-standing Irish relationship to landscape and the sea. His narrative technique is as varied as his subjects, with The Game of Confidence a “very plot driven” story, while We’re Not Made of Stone is built around the refrain of ordinary observations such as 41 was not that old. Farmed Out serves as a dark mirror to John McGahern’s Christmas (in this case the boy does not destroy the letter from the orphanage and so suffers through his failure to act) while Keep Well to Seaward, probably the finest piece here, derives its title and thematic undercurrents from Homer’s Odyssey.

“I would have written every one of those stories even if they weren’t going into a book,” O’Callaghan says. “They still would have had to have been written. They’re insistent, even if some took over a year to finish; they just had to unfold and figure out what they were trying to say. You have to put the work in if you’re a writer, of course, but there’re only two things you need to do: you need to read a lot and you need to write a lot. And I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.”


The ribbed fabric is having a fashion moment, says Katie Wright.Get on board with cord: 5 of the best pinafore dresses and how to style them

Columnist and trained counsellor Fiona Caine advises a woman whose future mother-in-law isn’t happy with her decision not to have kids.Ask a counsellor: ‘Why can’t my fiancé’s mother accept that I don’t want children?’

Vincent Thurkettle, author of The Wood Fire Handbook, talks to Luke Rix-Standing about one of our best-loved simple pleasures – the log fire.Burning love: Why are roaring wood fires so endlessly appealing?

Students have nothing to be anxious about with their CAO 2020, just follow this easy video guide with Trish McGrath, Principal of Hewitt CollegeTen tips to completing CAO 2020 applications online, plus a short video guide for students

More From The Irish Examiner