Cork International Short Story Festival, 16th −20th September 2014.
Richard Ford kicked off the Cork International Short Story Festival with a mesmerising reading of his classic early work, ‘Optimists’. The piece was a long one – Ford read for over forty minutes in all – but he held the Triskel Arts Centre in the palm of his hand with an easy command of the story’s rhythms and flashpoints. Indeed it was more of a performance than a mere reading, the kind of rare rendition by an author of their own work that actually tells you more about what informs the piece than an in-depth, Paris Review-style interview might. Writers shouldn’t have to be – as they are so often called on to be these days – live performers, but when they are as good at reading their own material as Ford clearly is, it is an illuminating experience.
The story itself was a classic example of the magic that the short fiction form can exert. And by magic I mean the way that it can seem to show the nub of a person’s entire life in twenty or thirty pages. The way that it can seem to show time actually passing.
William Trevor has a character in one of his short stories wonder whether or not ‘it happen[s] in other people’s lives… a single event [that] alter[s] all subsequent time?’ ‘Optimists’ follows this maxim (although it replaces the ‘single’ event with several). Here is its exceptional opening line:
All of this that I am about to tell happened when I was only fifteen years old, in 1959, the year my parents were divorced, the year when my father killed a man and went to prison for it, the year I left home and school, told a lie about my age to fool the Army, and then did not come back.
The piece, however, largely retells the single event of the narrator’s father inadvertently killing a friend during a dinner party. The action then plunges forward into time, to a period where the three central characters of father, mother and son are all significantly older and all significantly estranged. Ford doesn’t show us what has happened in between, he just shows us his characters as they are in this new period. We can only be sad for them really, and marvel at how, in one swift blow, a seemingly sturdy structure such as the narrator’s family can unravel all at once. So that, by the time he meets his mother again, years later, that structure barely even exists anymore.
Afterwards, Ford, caused a minor furore (or at least a popular talking point throughout the week) with many of the writers at the festival, by claiming that the novel was more important than the short story, simply because it is ‘bigger’. There was a sense that his choice of words was deliberately flippant and provocative but at the same time, it was also quite plain that for Ford, to write a large, multi-layered novel like The Sportswriter is clearly a harder thing to do because there is so much more complex detail involved than in a short story such as ‘Optimists’. Therefore he would naturally consider The Sportswriter to be a greater artistic achievement than a more-or-less perfect short story such as the one that he had just read to the Triskel. (All of this interestingly suggests that Ford approaches short stories in much the same way as he approaches novels – it is as though he sees them as mini-novels, as novels on a small scale).
To me (even being the short story aficionado that I am) this does make some sense but on the other hand, it hardly seems right to pit one short story against an entire novel, anymore than it would seem right to pit an extraordinary poem like ‘The Second Coming’ against the entirety of Ulysses. It is, in fact, a patently ridiculous thing to do. Pit a novel like The Sportswriter against a peerless contemporary collection of short stories such as William Trevor’s After Rain, however, and we can see that things stand on a much more even keel. A short story or poetry collection is comparable to a novel in a way that individual stories and poems are simply not. And then there is the obvious fact that if an artist is great, in no matter what form they work in, they will produce works of importance.
The second day began with readings by Orfhlaith Foyle and Valerie Sirr to a packed crowd at Cork City Library. Foyle read her imperious Wales Arts Review short story about a dead-eyed killing, ‘How I Murdered Lucrezia’, while Sirr read the haunting, Bergman-inspired ‘The Beautiful Rooms’ from her greatly anticipated debut collection.
That evening, the Triskel played host to two joint readings. The first by Nuala Ní Chonchúir and Matt Rader, the second by Kristiina Ehin and Rachel Trezise. Ní Chonchúir read her wonderful short story, ‘The Boy from Petrópolis’, inspired by Bishop’s time in Brazil. Rader, meanwhile, read from What I Want To Say Goes Like This; a debut collection that, in the author’s own words, ‘juxtapose[s] contemporary life in the Comox Valley with stories from roughly 100 years earlier set in the same landscape.’
Sara Baume, who recently won The Stinging Fly’s annual Davy Byrne’s Short Story Prize, interviewed the authors afterwards in a stimulating discussion about creativity and inspiration. The conversation also couldn’t help but touch on Richard Ford’s by now infamous comments. General consensus: Ford is a brilliant writer but on this occasion he got it wrong.
After a thoughtfully paced interval (the kind of interval, in other words, in which you can actually drink a glass of wine), Rachel Trezise read one of the most striking compositions from Cosmic Latte, the gritty, witty, highly poetic ‘Hard as Nails’ (for much more about this see my interview feature on Trezise).
Kristiina Ehin, like Rader, has just released her first collection of short fiction, Walker on Water, having been a highly revered poet in her native Estonia for some considerable time. Having taken an MA in Estonian Folklore, this influence is evidently never far from the surface in a collection of modern-day fables that tells us a great deal about the varying degrees of detachment we have from the reality of our situations. In the best stories in the collection there is genuinely something new at work: a fusing of fable, poetry and magic realism into something that, against all the odds – because there is a very real danger that these pieces could fall over into whimsy – produces something melancholic and contemporary.
The following day again began in Cork City Library with readings from Jon Boilard and Brendan Mathews, Patrick Chapman and Jaki McCarrick. Boilard read an insightful piece of dirty realism, written from the point of view of an ex-con as he almost kills a man in a bar. The story was read convincingly and with great subtlety. It was also notable for being the only occasion on which I can ever recall having heard the word ‘cunt’ delivered loudly – and, indeed, repeatedly – through a microphone in a public library. Brendan Mathews’ story about a love triangle between a lion tamer, a clown and a trapeze artist; the exceptionally titled, ‘My Last Attempt to Explain to You What Happened with the Lion Tamer’; then followed, deepening the sense of otherness that had descended upon the library.
Patrick Chapman read two extracts from his book, The Negative Cutter. With a bearing that couldn’t help but remind one a little of Dylan Moran’s portrayal of Bernard Black, Chapman – also a poet and with a poet’s gift for metaphor – was no less funny, delivering insightful, deliciously witty insights into male and female relationships. Jaki McCarrick, meanwhile read two extracts from her altogether darker collection, The Scattering. Even though she is already justly feted, McCarrick was probably the discovery of the festival for me, as I hadn’t read her work before. The extract she read was full of poetry and detail and the book as whole is certainly a must read.
Friday was National Culture Night in Ireland and appropriately CISSF took the opportunity to celebrate local authors on a delightful evening of consistently high quality at Cork City Hall. The evening included readings by too many promising authors to mention all here, but highlights certainly included the the poetry of the highly promising Doireann Ní Ghríofa as well as a beautiful memoir piece by Liadan O’Donovan, reminiscing about her father, the festival’s abiding spirit, Frank O’Connor. The evening was also notable for the award of the annual Sean O’Faolain prize for Best Short Story. The award has been given to many writers who have gone onto become successful over the years and this year’s winner will surely be no different. Susan Maier-Moul gave an extraordinarily accomplished reading of winning story ‘Pleasure’; the fact that she has never read her work in public before making her confident performance all the more impressive. The story begins perhaps a little too strongly in the linguistic vein of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing but nevertheless builds to an excoriating denouement whereby the narrator manages to break the link to her abused childhood that she has found in her violent husband. Finally escaping into an environment in which her identity is not the subject of malignant exterior forces. Everyone in the room was left visibly moved by the end of the piece.
Saturday continued with this trend for that rarest of things: prize-giving ceremonies which reward deserving authors and which are entirely enjoyable, thought-provoking experiences to boot. Sara Baume & Danielle McLaughlin, winner and runner up in The Stinging Fly’s annual Davy Byrne’s Short Story Prize, each read their respective short stories ‘Soulsearcher1’ and ‘The Dinosaurs on Other Planets’, to highly deserved acclaim. (As though to confirm the rightness of proceedings, McLauglin’s piece had only just recently appeared in The New Yorker.)
The festival drew to an appropriate close with the Frank O’Connor Award for the short story collection of the year being presented to Colin Barrett. If you have read my Wales Arts Review piece on the collection from earlier in the year, you will not be surprised to learn that I wholeheartedly agreed with the decision. For all that, it was clearly still something of a surprise (see Barrett’s reaction in our interview section) that the award be given to a new young writer for his debut collection. Barrett read extracts from his long, almost-novella-length story ‘Calm with Horses’ either side of an illuminating interview with Festival director Patrick Cotter. The story, like all of the pieces collected in Young Skins, has the feeling of classic mythology to it. Yes, Barrett may evoke contemporary County Mayo with a poet’s eye, but at the same time there is the sense that these stories could happen anywhere, at any point in history. As Barrett himself says in the aforementioned interview:
He [Arm, the story’s central protagonist] has so much good in his life, but he throws it all away, because he thought the universe was getting personal. But the thing about the universe is it is never personal.
The festival ended in a haze of alcohol and goodwill. Many writers – and indeed writers and their readers – who would perhaps not have met otherwise having formed firm friendships. The Cork International Short Story Festival is a unique event in these terms, in that it actively encourages interaction between authors, as well as between the authors and their readership (very often aspiring writers themselves). As such it serves to create and foster creative dialogues that, in many cases I am sure, inspire and provoke new art. It is, in other words, a very good thing. Long may it prosper.