James Claffey interview with Meg Tuite
In all three stories, “Small Bites,” “Mangled Fingers & Country Music,” and “Vigil,” you give us that sublime ‘birds-eye’ view of the child who sees all, as it is, without the filters that distort the adults around him. As readers, we are invited to unravel more than the young narrator through this unbiased rendering of conversations and events that occur. Couldn’t have been a better choice of narrator to expose the restraints of societal subterfuge. How did this young narrator come to be in your exceptional stories?
The young boy arrived last fall, right around the time I was getting all these rejections for my first novel manuscript, and the feedback pretty much said the same thing: “Good writing, but I didn’t connect with the material as much as I’d hoped.” Fifty-plus rejections later I thought it was maybe time to begin something new. I wrote some short pieces with my wife and some friends at an impromptu writing group and this young narrator emerged and the voice felt authentic, more honest than what I’d been writing to that point. Maybe I feel this way because some of those pieces got published and started a run of acceptances. The young boy appeared whenever I’d try to remember a detail of my own childhood, and I wouldn’t know where he was going until the piece was written.
All of these stories must be set in Ireland. Do you have an affinity with this young boy who tells the tale of this family?
The stories in question all take place back in Ireland, and I do have an affinity with the narrator, because I was a very shy, introverted boy, who grew up in a house with a father who was larger than life, and who had the propensity to take up all the room in a conversation. There was always a procession of neighbors, relatives, friends coming through the house and I was an observer of these people and their stories. As a boy I had all these notions about life and was afraid to air them for fear of ridicule.
Somehow, I already knew I was going to be a writer, even from a young age, even though I didn’t write a single story until I was well into my thirties. I was gathering raw material then, as a small boy, storing it for later use. I like the narrator because through him I can alter the events of my own past and find answers to questions I had that could never be raised in my family. It’s funny. I write about this only child, a lonely introspective boy, an observer of things, if you will, yet I have three brothers and they don’t feature in my fiction at all. They probably prefer it that way!
I have had the question asked again and again if what one writes is autobiographical or fiction? What do you think of this slippery slope between non-fiction and fiction?
I’m careful not to call most of these stories autobiographical, even though they contain grains of memory and truth. Somehow, I think it’s impossible to divorce myself from my own experience, particularly when writing a story, or series of stories set in a familiar landscape and time. There are real events and imagined events commingled in these stories, and they are “my” stories; my invention from the raw material of my memory, so I avoid the slippery slope and stay away from calling it non-fiction, unless there’s something I’ve expressly written as non-fiction. I’ve got a story, “Spreading the False Fly,” coming out from Pure Slush, and it is about the death of my father, and even though it reads as fictional and almost otherworldly, it is assuredly non-fiction, pieced together from the events leading up to and including his death from a stroke at 83. Most of my other work pushes against truth and involves invention and manipulation of the past to such an extent I cannot term it non-fiction. It also keeps my three brothers off my back!
Have you put together a collection of these mesmerizing stories?
Yes, I have about a 180-page collection of these stories, and also a more experimental version that I like to say is somewhere between Justin Torres’ We the Animals and Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street.I have confidence in the marketability of the manuscript in either format, and it’s been fun to create this world fashioned from the flotsam and jetsam of my own childhood and imagination.
How is it to live in California, in the US? After growing up in Ireland?
It’s surreal. Apart from three years in Louisiana, I’ve been in California for 16 years. Everything here is so big and so spread out. I grew up on a small cul-de-sac with 32 houses and everyone knew everyone else, and we all played together, fought together, fell in and out of love together. I lived in San Diego for 13 years and that tightness of community wasn’t there and I never experienced that “know your neighbors” thing. In New Orleans and Baton Rouge it was better. We lived beside a family in the Garden District of Baton Rouge who’d all been born and raised in the house next-door to ours, (which had a tree growing into the kitchen), and they were all adults, 40s and 50s, four guys and their sister. Every night they’d have a fire outside, play music, drink beer, talk to the neighbors, and that was fun to interact with them and experience their quirkiness. Best neighborhood watch ever, too—nobody went by your house without these folk noticing and letting you know. Now we live in a small town, Carpinteria, outside Santa Barbara, and my wife’s family has been here over 100 years. Can’t walk down the street without someone who knows her, or her family. The first week I knew her, I had dyed-blond hair, really white, and someone told her mother, “I saw Maureen by the railroad tracks near the beach with some man with bleached hair.”
Ireland is so much who I am though, my heart and soul, the place where my family live, where they are buried, where I went to school as a small child, where I couldn’t write from insecurity, from fear, from proximity. I think back on growing up in Ireland, so Catholic, so sheltered, so paralyzing a place, so provincial. But aspects of that narrowness are quite wonderful. I recall singing a song in school called “Welia, Waile.” It’s about a woman who stabs her baby in the head and hangs for her crime. I can’t quite believe we sang it in primary school with gusto! Now, we sing it to our daughter, Maisie, and I’m sure people are horrified. I do love that fine line we Irish tread between comedy and tragedy.
What was your experience while working toward your MFA? Do you feel that it enhanced your writing?
Oh, sure. It’s like Virginia Woolf’s “a room of your own,” only with a custom-built community of fellow-writers. LSU was very good to me. I had such great mentors and colleagues. Jim Wilcox, the head of the program, was a wonderful mentor/father figure. My first workshop, first story, I wrote this horrible, period-piece mess and turned it in, completely abandoning my own voice. It was dishonest writing—contrived, forced stuff. I stopped by his office to chat about it before workshop, and he spent an hour going over it line-by-line, the red marks, the generous comments, the negative comments. I have those pages still and I look at them every now and again to remind myself to write what I want to write, not what I think others want to read.
The great thing about the MFA was the gift of time. Time to work on my writing without the day-job interfering, time to read, and read, and write, write, write. I read more during my MFA than I thought possible. And Jeanne Leiby, the editor of the Southern Review, became my real go-to mentor for my thesis. We spent so many hours going over my writing—oh, I remember how she’d read my metaphors and roll her eyes—even that statement “roll her eyes” would have her off on a rant about how impossible it is to roll your eyes, like a damn game of craps she’d say! She told me once, “You can write the hell out of a sentence,” and that’s as good as it gets for me. She was brutally honest, but a staunch supporter of her students, and devoted to giving women writers a fairer shake in things. When the Vida numbers thing hit she was incensed, but looked at the Review and her own figures, too. She was a fearsome editor, a generous friend, and a sensitive soul, despite her detractors. Underneath the gruff exterior she was as insecure as any writer I know. But did she know writing and editing.
Jeanne introduced me to Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy and that book struck a real chord with me. Also, Mark Richard’s House of Prayer No. 2, and Jeanne’s own book, Downriver, are books that urge me to keep writing and revising and crafting as best I can.
Between Jim and Jeanne I had immense experience and wisdom to call on. Hard to believe she’s no longer with us and I can’t tap into her vast knowledge of writing and publishing.
I would love to get a micro-fiction piece from the amazing James Claffey. One paragraph of a universe that includes the words: latent, orbit, disturbed, beef and ransack.
The Bird, according to the Old Man, was a latent homosexual, despite the fact he courted Mam when she was younger. Back then he orbited our family’s lounge bar and drank pint after pint of Guinness until the day he was discovered in the phone box on the Dublin Road doing terrible things to a taciturn German shepherd and they took the Bird off to Grangegorman Lunatic Asylum in the Black Maria. The social worker called on him every fortnight after his release, and he’d answer the door to her, “Naked as a side of beef in the butcher’s window,” Mam said. “And didn’t the poor social worker come running in here crying, ‘He’s after trying to ransack me!” Mam took a drag on her cigarette, almost choked with laughter and continued. “The poor mite, sure all he wanted was a bit of compassion.”
I am prolific, partly because I didn’t write for so many years, and now as the years pass there’s an urgency to the process that drives me onward. My goal is to live a successful writing life. I want to publish my novella/collection. I’ve got a project of short fiction I’m working on that includes about thirty photographs, and the plan is to write a flash piece for each photo, all of the pieces connected by a common theme/character/tragedy. At the moment the project is in the brainstorming stage, but I’ll begin writing soon. I’d love to give more readings, but right now that’s one area where things are quiet, though I’ve a number of audio stories out there in the world. I guess seeing the book published is the greater goal right now.
Thank you so much, James, for sending some of your pure brilliance to Connotation Press. Tell us a little bit about your precious bambino, Maisie, and how it is to be able to spend time with her?
Maisie, our new daughter, and my son Simon from my first marriage, are the joys of my life. I didn’t get to spend those formative weeks and months with Simon because I was in the process of divorcing my wife when he was born, but with Maisie, it’s a wonderful experience to watch her change on a daily basis. She’s the happiest of children, wakes up with a beaming face, and really is joyful. One regret is that my wife, Maureen’s, writing and art have suffered since Maisie’s birth, and we’re working to change that. She’s a marvelous writer and artist! It’s an all-encompassing, wonderful undertaking to raise our little girl on the ranch.
Thank you so much for sharing a part of your world with us, James. I love those avocado trees. Paradise. And I’m very much looking forward to reading your collections when they come out.