“Writing a story is like sleeping with a stranger in the dark”
The title is the key to any short story collection because it frees the writer’s concerns. For this collection, the titular Marching Season story was strong, but I chose it mostly because it refers to the Orange Flute parades from April to August and is therefore controversial. Evocative and provocative. Marching Season is synonymous in the minds of many with potential trouble, but is a happy musical road trip for others. I love that a sentence can be so divisive and that it sums up Northern Ireland perfectly in a year of Brexit and riots.
Marching Season is my fifth collection and it may seem prolific to some, but compared to the bigger ones, it’s paltry. The short stories I admire were mentally fruitful and make contemporary specialists like Claire Keegan look like dabblers. One of the most exceptionally prolific was Guy de Maupassant who wrote two to four volumes of short stories annually, not to mention his novels. F Scott Fitzgerald has passed away at 44 and still managed to get over 160 stories published. Among Irish writers, William Trevor wrote 13 short stories while the genius Mary Lavin replaced it with 19.
Kevin Barry considers very little of his news to be worth posting: “I would say out of 10 that I try, one or two will come out the door someday,” but even keeping in mind that he may – being said this to sound like a perfectionist (and all of us writers are prone to self-mythology), it surprised me because I’ve found that the more you write, the more confident you become. Let’s be honest: if you only got 10-20% success in most jobs, you would be fired! And why wouldn’t you want to emulate the old masters of form? To be prolific, you don’t have to be too valuable in your job.
The biggest question outside of the choice of title is how many stories a collection should include. Trevor preferred 12 and Lucy Caldwell preferred 11, but I’m not prescriptive at all. The mainstream school of thought is that collections should be thin as poetry, as if to involve a rarefied art form, but I’m all for a bulkier approach. Marching Season has 13 short stories, 13 being my lucky number because my brother was born on the 13th, as was my niece.
This connection is particularly apt because Marching Season is a family collaboration. When I was talking to Alan Hayes of Arlen House last year, I told him that my mother had been an artist. Alan loved the idea of an art / short story fusion, so this collection contains 16 of his paintings and commemorates his talent. The cover is also personal as it was painted by a delightfully mad Russian artist I dated in Prague.
As for the stories, most were written before Covid, but a few, like Irish-Australian and What Happened to You, were written during the lockdown while dreaming of overseas travel. The confinement made me talk to myself more but I often think that the real reward for a writer’s loneliness comes from the invaluable observations that can only be made during loneliness.
Sexual desire is an important theme in Marching Season in different forms and permutations. I am fascinated by hedonism as a form of escape and my characters are often esthetes and epiphanists. Dr Caroline Magennis recently made an ironic observation in Writing After the Troubles that I “could be nicknamed the Belfast Pleasure Laureate” and, oddly enough, I have often thought that I should seek sponsorship from Carlsberg and Durex! The opening story, The a, b, and c of modern life, commemorates the days when we could mix freely in pubs, but one of the darker tales, Life is Short and Fun should be eue, focuses on our cyber-dating lockdown reality. and the paranoid mistrust it engenders. Other stories speak of jealousy resulting from a threesome, a controlling relationship, sexual confusion, lust for youth, and a fantasy gone awry.
So far so universal, but I couldn’t call the Marching Season collection without dealing with the scepter part of this island. In the title story, a drag queen, Marcus, is alienated from those who walk the Queen’s Highway, prompting his last ditch effort to belong. Portrait of a European City is based on a real-life incident where a Sinn Féin MP attended an art exhibition in East Belfast without local paramilitary permission.
The story reflects the current culture wars in which politicians use the arts for their own political gain and also highlights the East as Belfast’s current creative hotbed. In the wave of new Protestant scriptures, I may at times be tempted to outdo other Protestant writers, but I have never seen myself as the spokesperson for one side in particular. For example, The Night They Shot the Journalist is about the Republicans of Derry and is inspired by the murder of Lyra McKee. I don’t have to be anything to write about it; I just need to know and feel something.
The autobiography does not play a role in Marching Season so much as it does a leading role. It is the “little real facts” that allow writing to take off. In Future-Proof Your Life (step 7 of 10), I remembered my excruciating blackouts during a Tedx talk in Stormont. The best thing about being a writer is that you can write about your disasters until they paradoxically become more valuable than your accomplishments. Failure in life should always be exploited for literary success.
I try to write every story as if it’s my first and every line as if it’s my last. Lasting work is what matters and real writers don’t want 15 minutes of fame; we want 15 millennia of glory. Reaching fifty hasn’t made me a better writer, but it has made me a more focused writer and there is nothing that focuses the mind more than the sense of the contraction of time.
William Trevor called the short story “impressionist painting” and “an explosion of truth”. For me, writing a story is like sleeping with a stranger in the dark; you have a vision of what could happen, but you have to work your way through it. Trevor also said that stories are “concerned with the total exclusion of nonsense,” and after I complete a story, I will begin the delicate process of noting words, sentences, or entire paragraphs. To return to Trevor’s analogy with painting, editing is like erasing the traces of pencil from the initial sketch. The final story should be a picture, a bit nebulous around the edges, but utterly transparent and compelling at its core.
Ultimately, I see a short story writer as a prose writer with the soul of a poet, a metaphorist, a symbolist. John Banville made me laugh when he recently admitted that “writing a novel is like wading through wet sand at night in a storm”. I’m happy to say that Marching Season’s writing hasn’t long undermined walking in the sand. Due to the brevity of the form, the short stories are free to write and I took a light step to the end.
Marching Season is published by Arlen House