James Claffey Interview with Jonathan Cardew
Thank you, James, for joining us for the September Issue at Connotation Press!
Physical objects—a door in the case of “The Blood is Staunched”—can take on almost psychic resonance. I loved these two short pieces—each of which deal with place, space, and the inanimate so interestingly. Is this something you visit often in your work? What was the genesis of these two pieces?
I am drawn to the idea of objects in time and space, and revisit the idea in quite a number of my flash pieces. I suppose having a life that straddles Ireland and America so obviously pushes me towards an exploration of the physical and its place in my experience. Both pieces came out of Kathy Fish’s “Fast Flash” prompts. Each one springs from actual physical spaces; Ireland and California, and draw on the physical landmarks of each locale to create a sense of time and space. “Dead President,” evokes the journey Lincoln’s cortege took across America, and combines a real-life tragedy that took place on the tracks at Santa Claus Lane, near where I live. “The Blood is Staunched,” evokes my childhood home and the sights and sounds evoked by the writing prompt, “What is Unspoken.” Sometimes, I think the lack of words, the heft of objects, the shadows on a wall, say more than at first glance.
Tell us a little about your flash fiction collection, Blood a Cold Blue, from Press 53 (which, by the way, is an awesome title).
Thanks, Jonathan. The title was a long back-and-forth, as we couldn’t get permission for the photo and were looking at alternate titles and cover shots. I managed to track down the photographer, an Icelandic artist, through a long disused blog of his, and he granted us permission. The collection is a wide swath of my short fiction over the course of a three-year period and represents both previously published work and a number of unpublished ones. It is a little uneven in quality I’d admit, and I could have done a better job going through the content and making sure there was a clearer through-line of work in there. Looking at it in hindsight there are themes and ideas that resonate, such as hawks, owls, and the natural world, and the streets of Dublin and red earth of New Mexico, two places dear to my heart. I was extremely happy with the job Press53 did, having been an admirer of their publications for some time. Kevin Morgan Watson and Christine Norris were great to work with, and the finished product is one of which I’m very proud.
As a flash fiction writer myself, I’m often asked what it is and why I like writing so short. Many times, people ask me when I’m going to write something longer, as if I’m just warming up (Hey, Usain, when you gonna sink your teeth into a marathon?). What’s your stock response? And then make up an outlandish response you wish you’d say—or will say next time.
Stock is, I fell into flash by accident. After returning from Louisiana to California I couldn’t get a teaching job due to the economy, so I ended up working at UCSB doing mundane filing work. The job gave me the gift of time to write, but write in small bursts of activity. I’d write in 10-15 minute increments, between filing and boxing architectural drawings for storage. Over time, two-plus years, I’d written a couple of hundred pieces and had some success placing them in various publications, including Connotation Press. Smart-ass answer, my attention span is so depleted I can’t focus for more than 10 minutes. ADHD runs in the Irish side of my family, and I’m certain I’ve a mild case of it.
Speaking of cliches, you’re Irish—which means you’re funny and good at storytelling. Joyce, Yeats, Wilde...the canon of Irish literature and wit is pretty incredible. What’s your take on the Irish inclination to wit and lit? Who’s your favorite Irish author—past and present?
Don’t know if I’m that qualified to speak to our wit and storytelling tradition, other than to think it might be due to centuries of oppression, starvation, and misery, and how the vehicle many Irish people use to deal with adversity is that of humor. All the way from Sterne to Behan to Flann O’Brien to more contemporary voices like June Caldwell and Kevin Barry, the Irish have a flair for the theatrical, and by extension, the comedic aspects of life. Irish writers past include Joyce and Kevin O’Higgins, a Kildare writer, and more contemporary voices I relish are John Boyne, June Caldwell, Nuala O’Connor, and Colum McCann.
Any projects in the pipeline? Upcoming publications? Can you provide us with any links to published works for those interested or unfamiliar with your work?
Recently, I finally cracked Smokelong with “Sins of Omission,”; also, a piece of CNF, “Steam,” in (b)OINK was a wonderful acceptance, as it’s the bright new kid on the flash fiction block. I wrote a piece in remembrance of New Zealand writer, Sally Houtman, “Staghorn,” over at Flash Frontier. I’ve a novel coming in the new year from Thrice Publishing, that’s in the final stages of design and production right now. It’s a coming of age story set in Dublin, and I’m delighted to be working with Bob Spryszak and Dave Simmer on that book. The novel is something I’ve worked on since 2012, when I produced a number of fictional episodes that I withheld from the Press53 book, with an eye to bringing them together into a more cohesive longer manuscript, and that’s what will appear in early 2018.
Finally, you’ve lived in the States for a while now—what’s one thing that really gets your goat about American culture; what’s one thing you really love about it?
Peanut butter? Can’t abide the cloyingly sticky sensation when you eat it. As for what I love? New Mexico, red earth, Sangre de Cristo mountains, Louisiana, gumbo, cajun music, walking parades at Mardi gras. More than one. So much I love about America.
Thanks so much, James, for your time and excellent fiction!