Interview by Press Literary Editor Jo Ely
Read McMonagle’s story in WTP Vol. III #12.
Firstly, congratulations, Alan, on your recent two book deal with Picador. This is wonderful news and well deserved recognition for your work. You are clearly one to watch. I wonder what first drew you to the short story form. [Alan has previously published two short story collections.] And what caused your later shift toward the novel?
Thanks a lot, Jo, and yes, it’s been an exciting couple of months, and, I suspect, yet to fully sink in (that would be down to the delay mechanism I come with). As to my leanings towards the short story, it was probably the manageability of the form initially that appealed to me. And an early belief that I was chock-full of ideas, and full of ‘look-at-me, aren’t I wonderful’ nonsense every time I thought I had converted one of these ideas into a short story. I also had a tendency to take words like ‘short’ and ‘story’ at face value and so quickly convinced myself that I was naturally prolific. Ha-ha. Of course, I eventually discovered that a short story is neither necessarily short or for that matter prepared to adhere to that age-old ‘once upon a time’ convention. As I developed and acquired some stamina as a writer I began to fathom how a novel or at least how my idea of a novel could accommodate what I was interested in writing about. I have just completed my first novel and having managed to get it done makes me want to try another, and another. That said, I enjoy flitting from one form to another. I have published poems, written a few radio plays, and so long as the ideas keep landing I will always have a yen to convert them into short stories.
Can you tell us a little bit about how you started writing? What age were you when you decided to take your writing seriously?
I started when I was seven or eight (stopped at age twelve for a long time). An early effort was called The Ants who grew into Gi-ants. I thought the title was so clever. It was heavily influenced by the Greek myths and also by horror movies my father would allow me sit up and watch. Over the next year or two, I penned more stories. But I always wanted to get to the end as soon as possible and so acquired an annoying habit of bringing proceedings to hasty conclusions. These precocious attempts concerned inter-galactic wars started and finished within the space of five pages. Ambitiously conceived whodunits quickly descended into four-page bloodbaths. Cliff-hanging three-pagers concluded Flash-Gordon-style with the hero’s rocket about to be sabotaged by the evil scientist intent upon destroying the universe. And on and on…
I started again as an adult in 2003. I had been drifting for several years, taking jobs here and there, traveling when I could, not paying much attention to what might be a viable way to get through my days. Late in 2003, I remember traveling to Uganda – almost on a whim — for a crazy few weeks (I had a good friend based there with an NGO). By now, I was reading extensively and annoying myself with day-into-night monologues about the writing life ahead of me. Upon my return from this African adventure the monologues finally stopped…
I know that you teach writing to young people, which is a very creative act in itself, and I wondered whether this work feeds into your stories or thinking in some way.
I really have only started teaching in the last couple of years. I have a good relationship with one or two Arts Officers and they’ve asked me to put together eight-to-ten week writing courses. It’s good for me in that it gets me out of the house and, crucially, out of my own head. For the most past, students seem to respond to my ‘democratic style’ (as one of them recently put it)!
How do you go about carving out space for your own work? (I know this is an issue which preoccupies many writers.) What would a typical day be like?
As for my own work, by and large it is always going on. Because I have always been so restless, I do not necessarily have to be ankle-chained to a table in order to get something done. Stepping away from the page can work near-instant wonders when it comes to the blindingly obvious. I like to walk, pedal a bicycle, recently I am on buses quite a lot, and journeys to and from places provide precious hours. Motion foments ideas. And it is always surprising how the work accumulates over time.
You live near the River Shannon, in an area of Ireland known for low peaks and wetlands, agriculture, beautiful skies. Has your setting influenced your writing, beyond providing you with a great big space to think in? Has the place crept into your work?
Place has more than crept in to my work. It has insisted on a leading role, taken a hand in direction and very often nudged along my pen with little or no say-so on my part. I grew up in the Irish Midlands, constantly restless and feeling forever pinned in, and passed my days waiting for the day I could leave and really begin my life. Then, when I began to really focus on my writing, I discovered that as the poet Philip Schultz so memorably puts it in his poem Failure, ‘I left town but failed to get away’. On and off, I have been based on the west coast of Ireland for quite a while now. I have also been lucky enough to get to far flung places in the world. As mentioned above, I come with a delay mechanism, and I am still waiting for some of these places to announce themselves to my creative self. I am particularly looking forward as to how my nowadays constant companions, the west wind and barbaric rain – along with the old, narrow streets that comprise my current stomping grounds – manifest themselves in writing to come. It occurs to me that the west wind will enter the fray as a chattering swarm. Names like Gale and Blizzard come to mind. John the Hurricane and Monsoon Mick. The Force Hanlon…
Woven Tale Press readers will be familiar with your short story ‘The Bleeding Boy’, published in December’s edition of the press. The story touches, in a very nuanced way, on the theme of loss, and there’s a tenderness in your artistic treatment of the maternal figure at the heart of it. Do you find, like many writers, that there are recurring themes in your own work? Areas of deep interest or knots you want to keep unravelling?
I still consider it early days for me. And of course what I write about is very much tempered by how I perceive and receive the world around me. In my writing to date I do notice patterns, recurring characters, repeating themes. I like stretching reality. Taking what I know (which is very little) and moving it as quickly as possible towards what I don’t know (which is vast). My characters are outsiders. They have difficulty dealing with the world they are growing into or have already become a part of. Fractured relationships and distorted attitudes abound, an inability to engage in any meaningful way with whom they come in contact. The knock-on effect of this is that, like it or not, they must live with an inability to communicate with themselves. They miss by a fraction as someone said to me recently, and I suppose it is within these fractions where I go looking.
I find the female characters in your work are very empathically drawn, very real, and I think that’s still rare and striking enough to be notable in a contemporary male writer. I wondered whether this comes very naturally to you or whether it’s something you have to work at?
Well you know, there is a line from the Irish poet Paul Durcan goes something like: ‘every child has a madman living on his street’…And in my case it was four women and I am related to them (!). I’ve been surrounded by women since a very young age. Plus, from a writing point of view I find women more appealing. I have a fair idea what makes blokes tick, at least think I do, and it is this not-knowing, I suppose, that attracts the writer in me to women. Two of the three leads in my just finished novel are women. And the narrator of the second novel will be a woman. A misbehaving, unpredictable, unknowable brat of a woman. The challenge then — to make us want to root for her.
Do you have writing habits or rituals? A favorite place where you like to work? Could you set the scene for us a little?
I am, at various times, an instinctive, reluctant, plodding, spontaneous writer. I write at the kitchen table, on buses, in my head while out walking. I pace a lot. I read aloud everything many times. Every day is the first day. For me, writing is a contradictory, mysterious, revelatory pre-occupation. Ideas announce themselves at the most unlikely times. I came a cropper recently (again) on my bicycle because the idea arrived as I was pedaling up a narrow road and I completely forgot that I needed to swerve around the opening driver door of the car that had just parked up. We suffer for our art. I now have the loose elbow bone to prove it.
Which writers do you feel have most influenced your work?
This changes so quickly. But I always make time to return to Samuel Beckett, James Joyce and Flann O’Brien. The brilliant Russian humourist, Sergei Dovlatov. The wonderfully human and playful voice of the Armenian, William Saroyan. The stories and sensibility of Flannery O’Connor.
Thank you very much, Alan, for allowing us a peek into your writing process.