Orfhlaith Foyle

Cork International Short Story Festival: Orfhlaith Foyle

Órfhlaith Foyle’s first novel Belios, was published by The Lilliput Press, (2005).

Her first full poetry collection Red Riding Hood’s Dilemma was published by Arlen House (2010), and shortlisted for the Rupert and Eithne Strong Award in 2011.

Arlen House also published Somewhere in Minnesota, her debut short fiction collection in 2011; the title story of which was first published in Faber and Faber’s New Irish Short Stories (2011), edited by Joseph O’Connor.

Her second short story collection titled Clemency Browne Dreams of Gin, was published by Arlen House in September 2014.

John Lavin: You read your Wales Arts Review short story, ‘How I Murdered Lucrezia’, at the festival. Could you tell us a little bit about the piece and the inspiration behind it?

Órfhlaith Foyle: It’s one of those stories that just came from nowhere really. It’s a voice story. It actually began as one of a group of voices each telling a story in a self-help group. Lucrezia’s voice drowned out all the others until there was just her.

I was a bit disappointed that my original story didn’t work out and I tried to get the other voices to keep up but nothing happened with them.

When I finished ‘How I Murdered Lucrezia’, I was surprised at how normal she sounded, how ‘next-door’. The inspiration for her started from my interest in reading and hearing, and watching people who can let go of their respect for humanity. Sociopaths or psychopaths seem to have a detachment that suits them so well and they function just fine in their own universe.

I wanted to ‘see’ a person like that and I wanted to see how human such a person might or might not remain after they have committed a murderous act with such unfeeling calmness.

It was a week of unstinting high quality in Cork, celebrating the continuing rude health of the contemporary short story. Were there any events that particularly stood out for you during the festival?

First of all, the Cork International Short Story Festival is one of the best in the world. Stories and their writers are paramount there and you feel that the stories matter to more than just the writers who have written them.

After the first night, everyone was talking about Richard Ford’s reading and his thoughts on the novel and how he considers the short story to be a lesser art and that in his opinion poetry does not rate.

The short story that he read was wonderful so it was a small shock when he derided everything but the novel.

You are right about the high quality. I was there for only two nights and so I saw only a few of the brilliant readings. Among them, Matt Rader, a Canadian writer, Kristiina Ehin, from Estonia and Rachel Trezise from Wales.

That is the great thing about festivals like the CISS, as a writer you meet and talk with writers from areas in the world you may have never visited but to hear them read from their work is a pleasure and a discovery.

Your second short story collection, Clemency Browne Dreams of Gin, has just been published by Arlen House. The collection is a strikingly original one, full of disturbing and thought-provoking perspectives. Do you think that you could elaborate a little on some of the book’s themes and the inspirations behind them? You said to me before, for instance, that ‘people being afraid of love’ is a subject that interests you?

I have always believed that being afraid of things ought to make a writer brave in their writing. I admit that Clemency Browne Dreams of Gin does offer the sort of perspectives that some people would find disturbing but that’s what interests me because that’s what disturbs me.

The first story I wrote, and began the collection for me, is ‘Husk’, and it just became the voice of a woman now mummified in a glass coffin. I named her Florence. I wanted to know her life, what brought her there and all she wanted was to be brought home again.

I am taken with how people can be so indifferent to love or at least afraid of it. I have seen it happen in my own life and as you know writers use their imagination and their lives in their writing. It is very easy to dwell on the victims of such bad love and it is also easy to demonise the perpetrator and I am fascinated with seeing the workings of each character’s head and heart.

I would never want to meet Lucrezia in real life but I have, in odd degrees in various people. That’s just the way life is, I think.

In ‘Alice Grows Up’, a girl decides to end a near paedophilic relationship. It is not a nice story and the ‘being afraid of love’ degenerates into her realisation that the world is so different and has been so different while all the time she was having sex with her geography teacher.

People being afraid of love can do terrible things. That fascinates me as a writer and as a person. Such fear of love can turn to indifference towards others. That is not to say I don’t write about actual love. I do. It just gets twisted now and again.

‘Soiled Welcome’ is a story of a collection of people living in a hotel. I love that story because one day I was looking through Dorothea Tanning’s artwork and I came upon her Hôtel du Pauvot, Chambre 202. It is made of fabric, synthetic fur, and wool and ping-pong balls. It shows a hotel room with bloated and truncated figures making their way out of and into the room’s walls while other such figures climb from the armchair and plop free of the fireplace.

The story I wrote is different but it was definitely inspired by Dorothea Tanning’s surreal and visceral hotel room.

I know that Measure for Measure had a particularly formative influence on you and the sense that play gives of the world being potentially quite a foul place. The kind of place where you can’t necessarily take things at face value. Would you elaborate on this a little?

I read Measure for Measure when I was about eleven or twelve. We lived in Malawi at the time and television was outlawed, so I read a great deal. My mother was, and is, a great reader and I got my love for books from her. It is an unsettling play. Later when I grew up I learned that it is considered to be one of Shakespeare’s problem plays. Religion and sex, manipulation and love, politics and death, how to show the balance or the quid pro quo between all these emotions and actions? Isabelle’s character has stayed true to her own beliefs yet she has had to play the Duke’s game and in the end, her own self-respect is left in the balance after the Duke proposes to her. The bargaining that went on before – her virtue for her brother’s life, her virtue as a honey trap for Angelo, the Duke’s proxy leader and the sad solution to Mariana’s plight. Once betrayed by Angelo then pimped as Isabelle’s substitute by the Duke, finally and safely wrapped up as Angelo’s wife.

There is so much human deceit in this play and when I read it, a great deal went over my head, but I was struck by Isabelle and the fact that Shakespeare did not wrap up her ending. She was left there to struggle against power, her own sexuality and the Duke’s patronizing lust. What will she choose? How will she live? How will she fight? Above all she struck me as the one person whom although cold-scheming in her absolute love for God, is the most truthful character in the play.

As you say nothing is its face value. It is a good lesson to learn and it always works well with writing.

You were born in Africa to Irish parents, moving to Galway while you were still a child. What kind of influence did this have on the way that you look at the world?

Africa was our home for years and living under certain regimes made us realize how strange and disturbing the world could become. It toughens you up a little. When I came home I was amazed that some girls in school had been friends all their lives, growing up in the same estate. There was a coziness to that, and it intrigued me. Of course, when you grow up, you realize that there are always stories behind the coziness.

You said before that you didn’t start to read Irish writers until you were in your early teens. I believe James Plunkett’s Strumpet City was the first Irish book that really made you sit up. Would you care to elaborate on this and maybe on some other book or authors that have acted as a particular source of inspiration to you?

Strumpet City, I loved for the characters and the story. Also because my father was a bit taken aback that I was reading it so young. That made me read it to the end. I loved the vividness and surge of James Plunkett’s writing. I knew quite early on that I wanted to be a writer and most of my reading material was American and English but one day soon after reading Strumpet City, I found a novel by Walter Macken – I think it was Rain On The Wind, and the ending of that novel made me realize that oh my God, you can end a story just like that, with nothing more than an image and nothing more than a character’s thoughts on the last page.

Other writers include Isak Dinesen, Tove Jansson, Carson McCullers, Arthur Miller, Katherine Mansfield, Jean Rhys, William Faulkner, Samuel Beckett and Graham Greene. There are more but those are the ones on my bookshelf at the moment!

You have a wonderful essay on Jean Rhys in this issue of Wales Arts Review. What is it that attracts you to Rhys?

Jean Rhys has always been a writer that has frightened me a little. Her outlook is bleak and truthful. Her characters are close to her own self but she goes beyond that to the absolute end. I admire her bravery in writing. I love her sharp words and the way she describes things and people that can haunt you. Things and people that you do not want, but you seek them out all the same.

Also her descriptive powers and her stories of Dominica and her own life, full of alcohol and anger and her selfish but absolute drive towards her own truth; and I respect her ability to keep writing even though people assumed she was dead.

You are also a poet and during the festival you spoke about some of the similarities between poetry and short fiction. I think that you can see this from your short stories which often have a sharp-focused brevity and an image-richness to them which is perhaps more commonly associated with poetry. Could you elaborate on some of these similarities between the two forms as you see them?

Thank you for your compliment, John.

I love poetry. It is the need to equal the image to the word that enthralls me, and the need to say something that means something. I suppose all writing is that. However to me, poems and short stories have always seemed the rebellious twins of literary art. I like the way they demand words that work. You sweat when you write a good poem or a good story.

You do the same with a novel but the poem and short story demand something up front, with teeth and in record reading time.

Do you have a particular writing routine?

It changes but it is mostly morning with some hours at night.

Finally what’s next after Clemency Browne Dreams of Gin? Are you working on any new projects at the moment?

Well, I am writing something set in Africa but I am also struggling to finish something set in Australia. I find the juggling difficult but that is how it is now.

Ofhlaith Foyle’s new short story collection Clemency Browne Dreams of Gin is out now from Arlen House 

 original illustration by Dean Lewis