5 december 2014
KAI Presents: Multifarious Author… James Lawless!
Kev’s Author Interviews Presents:
author photo James Lawless
Kev: In a generalized way, James, tell us a little about yourself. Where you grew up, siblings, family life, education, and how you got to where you are now.
I was born in Dublin in the old Liberties for which I have a great affection where my grandmother and later my uncle had shops. I moved to the suburbs when I was six. There was a gap of four years between each of four siblings so in the early years I felt like an only child forming a close bond with my mother. The age differences of course evened out in adulthood. I was brought up in a very nationalist time and was taught all my subjects through the medium of Irish in secondary school. I did a degree in that subject and in Spanish which broadened my outlook and later I did a Masters in Communications. Writing a thesis gave me the discipline later to tackle the novel form.
Kev: How long have you been writing for?
My mother always read to me from comics and later from books. I used to live for Wednesdays as a kid in pre-television days when my maiden aunt Nell would arrive on her weekly visit with the Topper and a Crunchie. I can remember my mother reading the hard words about the Adventures of Rob Roy at the back of the comic.
My father came home from work one day when I was twelve and gave me a Letts page-a-day diary. That’s when I started writing.
Kev: Why do you write?
peelingkindle (1)I was very excited at the idea of filling in the blank pages of the diary. I felt it was like a ritual that I had to complete every evening before going to bed like a recording of one’s existence. My initial writing however was a mere slapdash of quotidian pieces like going to the cinema, doing homework, overcoming a cold or a bout of asthma or sliding on the ice in winter. At university I changed from the diaries to notebooks and began to record ideas more than happenings on which I could put my own dates.
My mother’s sudden and premature death at sixty-three was like a seismic jolt to my psyche and it was that which propelled me into writing my first novel Peeling Oranges which is about a paternal and really a maternal quest through the intricacies of Irish and Spanish politics. I regretted taking my mother for granted so many times. I never thought of death until then. Death was something remote that happened to other people, a construct or myth of Hollywood or stories. Now death informs all I write about as it should do but not in an unduly pessimistic way, more like in an acceptance of its inevitability for which we should be prepared. Unless a death is sudden or calamitous, there should be no outcry.
Kev: What is your genre?
rus cover (1)I write what I hope is accessible literary fiction. But I have also written a book of poems Rus in Urbe with half the poems, as the title suggests, set in the city and the other half in the country. This is because I divide my time between an urban and rural base, I have a cottage in the mountains of west Cork to which I have frequent recourse. But the urban is ingrained in me and I could not reside exclusively in one zone.
I also have penned a study of modern poetry Clearing the Tangled Wood: Poetry as a Way of Seeing the World which was well received by poets such as Brendan Kennelly and John Montague.
I have just completed a collection of stories for children about the adventures of an endearing but sometimes mischievous little girl of eight. It is called The Adventures of Jo Jo. They are based on bedtime stories I used to tell my children when they were small and they asked me to write them down for their children. I got the opportunity to do this when I broke my ankle last year and was immobilised for several weeks.
Kev: Who would you say are your favourite/most influential authors and why?
Virginia Woolf I love for her attitude to the novel as an art form and the beauty and resonance of her prose as in To the Lighthouse. James Joyce of course for stretching our limits and Cervantes for starting the whole thing off. Pasternak for his poetry and the purity of his vision and the sacrifices he made for his art are an inspiration.
Kev: What is your latest (published) book called and what is it about?
My latest and most risqué adult novel to date is called Knowing Women and was prompted by the spate of paedophile cases in recent years. It set me to wonder what would happen in such a climate if a person were tainted in the wrong. Would he survive? Laurence J Benbo, the protagonist of the novel, is a thirty seven year old graphic artist and Dublin bachelor, awkward with women and lonely after the breakup with his girlfriend Deborah. He meets Jadwiga, a lapdancer in the Botanic Gardens and, after winning a lottery, he bestows gifts on her. But his upwardly mobile brother Maoilíosa and his scheming wife Ena, on hearing of his win, try to blackmail the innocent Laurence into handing his money over to them by alleging that he interfered sexually with their daughter Lydia. Laurence seeks out Jadwiga for advice in her lapdancing club. To his dismay, he sees her going into a room with Maoilíosa. He spends the night awake listening to the rain pattering at his window, thinking of Deborah and he imagines little Lydia coming to seek out her uncle Lar to finish the story he had started reading to her. As the rain gets heavier he knows there is going to be a storm.
Here are the opening lines:
A warm September sun shines as Laurence J Benbo, returning the customary smile to the friendly official in the office window, enters through the gate of the Botanic Gardens Dublin. Dapper in his shirt and tie and navy wool overcoat, and wielding his teakhandled brolly, he walks the curving path for his daily lunchtime constitutional. Viewed from the back, one can perceive his grey worsted trousers riding up his short legs revealing thin black cottoned ankles. He walks briskly – for the exercise, but also conscious of his limited time – along the Poplar walk and past the wide canopy of the cork oak under which he often shelters from a shower of rain.
Kev: Which of your works do you like best (feel most proud of) and why?
I suppose my first novel Peeling Oranges because it was so close to the bone and my debut.
Kev: What are you working on now?
Doing the final edits to my new novel American Doll which is just completed (73,000 words) and tells how 9/11 opens a can of worms on an Irish/American family.
When Laura Calane of New York comes to Ireland to further her studies and to live in what her father considers a safer environment after 9/11, she discovers that the land of her ancestors is not the haven she had believed it to be. When she meets social worker Danny Faraday, she is torn between her attraction towards him and the emotional blackmail of her uncle Thady who is domiciled in Ireland and who never lets her forget that he saved her father’s life in a terrorist attack in New York in 1993.
The story is about loss, losing someone as Con the firefighter did with his wife in 9/11; it’s also about hope, never giving up and knowing when to give up and let go, and how the process is in danger of repeating itself in the new generation with Laura his daughter going missing in Ireland, and Danny’s parents who were also lost at sea. It’s also about coming into maturity as in the case of Danny with the help of Laura suffering the grief, and with Laura, herself growing out of her family engendered chimeras.
I believe this new novel is of the moment and could appeal to the huge population of Irish Americans and indeed to readers universally in its story of how religion and warped sexuality and pathological loyalties impact on a family. What exile means today and emigration. Who are the new Irish now and how do they differ from previous generations? On the surface the story is a sort of Irish Roots as Laura Calane traces her ancestry back to west Cork and the famine ships of 1847. But, as Danny discovers when he visits New York, Black 47 is a pop group now, so it is essentially new wine in a new bottle, a twenty first century work as it breaks down shibboleths and Hollywood myths and the shackles of deep rooted rituals and family fidelities about Ireland and the Irish, particularly heightened by the 9/11 disaster.
I studied in particular the fire departments of New York where two of my characters worked and I examined contemporary Irish and American perceptions of each other and how they compared with historical perceptions from memoirs and novels such as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Crossing Highbridge, Charming Billy, Dreaming of Columbus and Finding Jimmy. I was particularly interested in the bonding influences exerted by family, religion and love of the ‘old country’ and how these influences were brought to the fore by the 9/11 disaster. So while I hope American Doll will be judged artistically as a novel, I also would like to feel that it will be welcomed for shedding some new light on Irish/American perceptions of each other.
At the moment I am looking for an agent/publisher for this work, if possible in the US.
Kev: Could you give us a little spoiler?
Sure, here are the opening lines:
He first met her in late May at a talk on W. B. Yeats given by Professor Foster in the National Library in Dublin. He knew she was American the moment he saw her, before he even heard her speak. She had that all American healthy complexion of piano ivory sparkling teeth and bright smiling brown eyes. And the way she was so open was American too, he figured, as she made for a vacant seat, talking to everyone around her in a voice a little too loud for Irish decorum. She was pushing her auburn fringe back saying, ‘My bangs are in my eyes’, like someone who wanted to share the world. ‘Imagine, accounts of my ancestors are stored here. Oh my god, and those green shades like one of the forty shades when I was looking down from the Aer Lingus plane. It was so exciting.’
Kev: What new challenges are you facing?
I never realised how difficult it is to promote one’s work. It takes up a lot of time doubly so as a hybrid writer. I am giving a lot of energy at the moment to the translation of my works through babelcube.com. They are translated into ebooks by highly qualified and enthusiastic translators. I am anxious to get them out in paperback. One of my translators, the brilliant Rocio Paula Sanchéz from Spain, who translated Peeling Oranges into Spanish, has set up a special James Lawless Facebook in Spanish link https://www.facebook.com/esjameslawless dedicated to the novel and its historical connections and embracing other translations of my works. I am so grateful to this twenty first century Sylvia Beach and I am trying to help in whatever way I can.
Interview with James Lawless, author of “Peeling Oranges”
November 18, 2014
Interview by Malka of Contemporarybooks.com
1) “Peeling Oranges” is a story rich in historical details, did you have to do a lot of research for it?
When the National Archives opened their doors to the public in the nineties I was able to access previously censored and censured material about the Irish and Spanish civil wars. I also researched early Irish diplomacy in Spain and, as far as s I know, Peeling Oranges is the only novel to treat of this subject as a motif.James_Lawless
2) I have a theory that the characters an author writes about is, to an extent, and extension of the writer. Are any of the characters inspired by you? People you know in real life?
As in a lot of first novels, there are autobiographical elements in Peeling Oranges. Like Derek Foley I was born in the Liberties of Dublin and I studied Spanish to degree level. Also I was weaned on nationalism, Catholicism and other ideologies and all my subjects were taught to me in secondary school through the medium of the Irish language. Having said that however, all the characters, with the exception of cameo appearances of historical figures such as Franco and de Valera, are fictitious.
3) The narrative is pieced together by Derek’s own memories and his father’s diary, as a writer, what was it like to fuse the two together to tell the story? Was it difficult?
The novel started out originally as a short story called Diaries about a child trying to piece together facts about his dead putative father despite his mother’s reluctance to talk about her husband. I made this mysterious man into a diplomat and so I started researching and the more I researched the more the story grew. The child and the dead man gradually and hopefully organically fused into a longer narrative. As Derek attempted to unfold the mystery, his quest took him to Span and finally to Northern Ireland. The difficulty for me lay not in the fusion but in the cutting and culling of the raw research. The novel originally contained 100,000 words.
4) How did you come up with the title of your book?
The original title, which some people still prefer, was Perceiving Oranges. It was based on José Ortega y Gasset’s wonderful saying ‘No one has ever seen an orange’ meaning that an orange, like a globe, cannot be perceived in its totality. It was my way of saying what Derek believes: that a human being can only have a limited perception of the world. It is an anti-totalitarian statement. However, it was considered too obtuse as a title and Peeling Oranges was suggested which has relevance too of course as Derek peeled oranges for his mother to ease her emphysema while simultaneously peeling back the layers of secrets to get to the truth about his origins.
5) Did you find that writing about some of Ireland and Spain’s historical events limiting in terms of creativity? Did it get in the way of storytelling?author_interview
The more I researched, the more the characters grew. Reading acted like a sort of osmosis for the creative side. The only danger was that so much research could swamp the narrative. There came a time to call halt and just write the book.
6) Do you write for an ideal reader or a particular audience?
I write about events that move me and to find out the why of things. My latest novel just completed for example is called American Doll and is about how 9/11 opened a Pandora’s box on an Irish/American family. I was very moved as most of the world was by the tragedy of 9/11 so that prompted me to research. My ideal sentient reader I think will also be moved by such a global disaster as I try to interpret it, not merely statistically, but in deeply moving personal terms in the context of a family. Families are always interesting.
7) Where do you do your writing?
Three places: a suburban room, an internetless cottage in the mountains of west Cork and on the hoof. Walking by water or mountain or woods you carry a pen—whatever way the brain works you can sometimes catch ideas in movement which you may miss when sedentary.
8) What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
‘To thine own self be true’—a homeless person quoting Shakespeare to me on winter night. Our spoken words in our social milieu are often false and superficial, full of sophistry and dissimulation and frequently inadequate. How many times in hindsight do we say, I should have said such a thing? I find my truth can only come out in the written word when we have time to consider in an unhurried and unfettered way the nature of our own existence.
9) How can readers discover more about you and you work?
Tweets by vanThool
About James Lawless
James Lawless’ poetry and prose have won many awards, including the Scintilla Welsh Open Poetry Competition, the WOW award, a Biscuit International Prize for short stories, the Cecil Day Lewis Award and a Hennessey award nomination for emerging fiction. His story Jolt was shortlisted for the Willesden prize in 2007 and he was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize in 2014. He is the author of a well-received poetry collection Rus in Urbe and of the critically-acclaimed novels Peeling Oranges, For Love of Anna, The Avenue, Finding Penelope and Knowing Women, and a highly-regarded study of modern poetry Clearing the Tangled Wood: Poetry as a Way of Seeing the World, for which he received an arts bursary. His works have been translated into several languages. Born in Dublin, he divides his time between Kildare and West Cork.
We found James’s book “Peeling Oranges” on Cheap eBooks
Read our 5 star book review on James’s book at http://contemporary-books.com/book-review-peeling-oranges-by-james-lawless/
Writing Life Twice Tasted with Wendy Robertson, 4 November, 2014
GUEST POST BY IRISH WRITER JAMES LAWLESS
My Guest this month is Irish Writer James Lawless, whose novel Peeling Oranges I so enjoyed and commented on, HERE on on Life Twice Tasted. Readers will be interested in James creative point of view and many of the points he makes here will chime with both experienced and aspiring writers. He certainly makes me want to read more of his books. W.
“I write what I hope is accessible literary fiction. Normally the initial impulse is the itch of an embryonic character forming, and when I start to work on him or her that dictates the plot. In other words character driven narrative.
In some of my novels that demand historical research, the more I research the more the work seemed to take off like a type of osmosis from my reading. Because I write poetry, thia informs what has been described as the sometimes lyrical style of my writing.
I think good and memorable writing is almost as important as a good storyline and I strive to combine both, often spending a long time on the construction of a sentence or a mot juste.
How about the evolution of style and content in your novels? W.
Peeling Oranges, my first novel, was driven by my quest to understand things that had been inculcated into me like idealism, religion, nationalism and one’s native language. So this novel, as it is with a lot of first novels, had autobiographical elements even though the characters are fictitious.
From there I moved on to a wider canvas. I write a novel essentially to find out something. For example my second novel For Love of Anna explored the devouring monolith of capitalism and when I wrote Finding Penelope I wanted to see the world from a woman’s point of view. I believe to be an artist one needs to be able take an androgynous perspective,
And what about the writing process itself? W.
The writing process affords me the freedom to explore the why? of things. I believe life is not what you make it (which is a luxury for many) but what you make of it. I believe there is an ascetic and spiritual calling to be a writer or artist and, as Virginia Woolf would agree, there is no time for messing about. That is not to say you take yourself unduly seriously, just that you should take your art seriously.
So, how do you see the role of historical figures in your fiction? W.
I used historical figures in Peeling Oranges such as Franco and de Valera and Michael Collins who have cameo roles, and in my latest novel American Doll I use a lot of factual stuff about 9/11 as background. But I don’t believe in recreating say a fictitious Michael Collins as a main character in a novel. I believe such writing is a form of cheating and, while one does a certain amount of re-imagining, it is not a true imaginative creation as a lot of material is ready provided. Besides if I want to learn about Michael Collins, I would prefer to consult primary factual sources, rather than have to wonder what is true in a second hand interpretation.
Where did the original impulse to write come from? W.
The seismic jolt of my mother’s sudden and premature death propelled me into writing. Up to that time death was something remote that happened to other people.
Also there was a lot of insularity and provincialism when I was growing up which I explored in an attempt, as Joyce would say, ‘to escape the nets’. My European travels, particularly in Spain (I did a degree in Spanish), helped to broaden my world view.
And which writers have inspired you? W.
I love Virginia Woolf for her attitude to the novel as an art form and the beauty and resonance of her prose as in To the Lighthouse. I admire James Joyce of course for stretching our limits and Cervantes for starting the whole thing off. I appreciate Pasternak for his poetry and the purity of his vision and the sacrifices he made for his art are an inspiration.
What about the role of research in your writing? W,
Up to now there are have been types of novels that I write: the purely creative and then the creative with research backup. For Peeling Oranges I researched in the national archive which had opened to the public at the time to reveal a lot of previously censored material about the Irish and Spanish civil wars. The research took over two years before I even started the novel. The novel Knowing Women however sprang from the source of the creative well and factual references would have been subliminal and contemporary. American Doll brought me back to research again, which took about a year before I put creative pen to paper, although all along I had the embryos of characters forming in my head.
And what do you particularly enjoy about writing?W.
As I said the opportunity it affords to explore the why of things. Sometimes in conversation, one thinks in hindsight of what one should have said. Writing gives you the time to say exactly what you mean. Also I would find life rather dreary without having a story in its formation to carry around in my head.
Do you have a writing routine? W.
I have converted a small bedroom in my suburban house into a study believing, as Virginia Woolf does, that one needs a room of one’s own to create. The trouble is the internet frequently intrudes and I lack the will power to turn it off. I counteract this frequently by having recourse to my cottage in the mountains of west Cork which is internet free, and therefore is better for forcing one to engage with the written word.
I write best in the morning, but a lot of my time is taken up at the moment in corresponding with translators of my works. I often take a manuscript with me on a sea holiday. Sitting on a chair close to the waves is ideal for editing as well as being lenitive.*
And your latest work? W.
For Love of Anna is my second novel and was originally published in 2009. It is heartening to know its relevance is valued and it is still in demand, prompting a new edition in 2013. There are three main strands running through it. Firstly, it may be read as a poignant love story — Anna is a ballerina with whom the main protagonist, the university student, Guido van Thool, falls in love.
But Anna is also an acronym for Anarchists of the New Age, which brings us to the second dimension of the novel as an ideological story positing ideas in the mind of the philosophy student Guido, in the wake of the collapse of Russian communism and the dilution of oppositional politics, on what alternatives there are to the all-devouring monolith of corporate capitalism.
Anna wants to steer Guido away from this sort of ‘dangerous’ thinking, but his friend, the anarchist Philippe, keeps goading him. Paralleling the lives of the lovers is that of a corrupt judge, Jeremiah Delahyde (the third strand) who literally crashes into the world of Guido and Anna on a fatal New Year’s night.”
You can check out reviews of this book at http://www.amazon.com/James-Lawless/e/B001JOXD96
Opening lines of For Love of Anna
Guido van Thool, blond head downcast with little round spectacles perusing a book, is about to enter the door of Loti’s café in the old quarter of Potence when he bumps into a girl, knocking pumps out of her hands. He apologises, picks up the pumps, lets his book fall in the process, picks it up and rising, reddens slightly, as his eyes are drawn to long shapely legs protruding from a white wool coat.
The girl smiles doe-eyed, and his mind becomes suffused with the idea that he has just bumped into the most beautiful girl he ever saw, and she’s about to walk away….
For Love of Anna
Rus in Urbe
Clearing the Tangled Wood: Poetry as a Way of Seeing the World
NB. These books have been translated into several languages and can be checked out at
The Avenue or Finding Penelope could be good novels to start with.
* A rare thing! I had to look up ‘lenitive’! It is absolutely apposite here. The learning curve continues… W.
A Q&A WITH MEL ULM OF THE READING LIFE 22 March 2014
I first became acquainted with the work of James Lawless when I read and greatly admired his novel, Knowing Women.
Here are some of my thoughts on his work:
Knowing Women by James Lawless made me think of one very good book I read a year ago, and two poems, one I have read several times in the last few months, and one I have not read in decades. That Knowing Women brought these three powerful works to my mind is a very high tribute to its artistic depth and high intelligence.
The central character in Knowing Women is Laurence Benbo, thirty seven, a bachelor getting over a so so relationship, living in Dublin. He is bashful and has had difficulty finding women in the past. He likes to go for walks around Dublin, when he is not at his job as a graphic artist. He notices an attractive woman sitting outside reading Anna Karenina. He is intrigued by her and begins to follow her on his daily walks. Not wanting to give away to much plot, he follows her, she is from Eastern Europe to the club where she does lap dances. He gets to know her, she is not really a prostitute but she does begun to take gifts from Laurence and they do start a romance of sorts. Laurence wins a big lottery prize. Now a subplot begins involving his brother and his family. The brother has always up until now considered the better adjusted and more successful of the two. Something nasty happens to Laurence, caused by his brother and sister-in-law, who I did come to emphasize with. I will leave the rest of the plot unspoiled. There is sex, fascinating plot twists, and it does feel like Dublin is being well depicted.
The first book Knowing Women reminded me of was Occasions of Sin: Sex and Society in Modern Ireland by Diarmaid Feriter. Feriter depicts a culture of sexual repression, of joyless sex, late marriages and old virgins with the church and the state in everyone’s bedroom. I see Laurence Benbo as clearly emerging from this. His girlfriend might as well be a prostitute. Recently I read for the first of now numerous times Patrick Kavanagh’s majestic poem, “The Great Hunger”. Benbo made me think of the men in this poem who never really mature sexually or discover their sexual nature. Men with a hunger they don’t understand. Lastly, and this reaction is probably quite off the wall, I was at once brought to mind by the hesitant character of Benbo, “The Love Song of Alfred J. Profrock” by T. S. Eliot.
Knowing Women is observationally and psychologically acute. It is also a lot of fun. You knew this middle aged graphics artist with an Eastern European bisexual lap dancer girl friend was headed for trouble and I enjoyed observing his tribulations.
I recommend this book very much and hope to read more of the work of Lawless in 2014.
1. Declan Kiberd in his book, Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation, said the dominant theme of Modern Irish is that of the weak or missing father. Do you think Kiberd is right? How does this impact your work, if it does.
Yes, it has been a dominant theme. We saw it with Joyce and Beckett and others who had fraught family relationships. My first novel Peeling Oranges is about a paternal quest, a son seeking a biological father, when he discovers his putative father was impotent. The modern father and indeed males in general are going through difficult times in trying to definetheir role in society. I find the caricaturing of males in many media ads unhelpful. A worrying aspect perhaps not unconnected to this is the rise in male suicides, particularly in young men.
2. How and when did you begin to write?
When my father bought me my first diary at the age of twelve. I had been weaned prior to that by my mother reading to me.
3. Who are some of your favorite contemporary short story writers. What classic writers do you find your self drawn to reread. If a neophyte short story writer were to ask you who to read, what might you suggest?
I like the stories of, Junot Díaz, Edna O’Brien, Louise,Erdrich, Desmond Hogan, Helen Simpson, William Trevorand the undervalued Gillman Noonan. Classically, I likePádraig Ó Conaire, James Joyce, John McGahern, Richard Yates, Katherine Mansfield, Borges, Cervantes, Chekhov andde Maupassant.
4. Frank O’Connor in The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story said short stories seem to be about marginalized people, the lonely, those with with little voice in society. Do you think he is on to something illuminating about the format? Why is there so much loneliness in the Irish short story?
It’s often in the form of a voice crying out more like a poem than a story encapsulating an emotion on the hoof as it were, affording us an epiphany into our hidden selves.
5. I sometimes wonder why such a disproportionate amount of the regarded as great literature of the world is written in the colder temperate zones rather than in the tropics. How big a factor do you think the Irish Weather is in shaping the literary output of its writers.? I cannot imagine The Brothers Karamazov being written on tropical island, for example.
In Ireland we live indoors most of the time staring out at rain, so something like writing prevents us from going mad.Having said that, I still enjoy editing a manuscript on a Mediterranean beach, feeling the heat and listening to the waves lapping.
6. (This may seem like a silly question but I pose it anyway-do you believe in Fairies?-this quote from Declain Kiberd sort of explains why I am asking this:” One 1916 veteran recalled, in old age, his youthful conviction that the rebellion would “put an end to the rule of the fairies in Ireland”. In this it was notably unsuccessful: during the 1920s, a young student named Samuel Beckett reported seeing a fairy-man in the New Square of Trinity College Dublin; and two decades later a Galway woman, when asked by an American anthropologistwhether she really believed in the “little people”, replied with terse sophistication: “I do not, sir – but they’re there.” In general how do you feel Ireland’s extensive mythology impacts the literature?
In my new novel just completed American Doll, Con the firefighter dreams of the bean sí on the Cliffs of Moher warning of the 9/11 disaster. So I think the other world is always near our consciousness, maybe not as evident now with all the technologies bombarding us.
7. Do you think the very large amount of remains fromneolithic periods (the highest in the world) in Ireland has shaped in the literature and psyche of the country?
8. When you write, do you picture and audience or do you just write?
Initially I tend to just write. The audience comes into focus in the edits.
9. Assuming this applies to you, how do you get past creative “dry spells”, periods when you have a hard time coming up with ideas or when things seem futile?
Read and research; if you do enough of that the writing will seep through.
10. how deeply is the Irish short story impacted by the Famine years? The diaspora ?
The famine in its displacement of people impacted perhaps,but as regards the diaspora, it is too soon to say, except maybethat there is more of an international flavour now to some of the stories.
11. What are the last three novels you read? Last three movies? do you have any favorite TV shows?
I write book reviews for the Sunday Independent, BooksIreland and the Croatian Istros Books, so recent books I have read tend to be those I reviewed: A Handful of Dust by Marinko Koscec, The Eloquence of the Dead by Conor Brady and A Possible Life by Sebastian Faulks. In my recent personal reading, I have enjoyed The Dead Eight by Carlo Gébler, Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje and Shadowstoryby Jennifer Johnston.
Films: Doubt, Winter’s Bone (I love Woodrell’s writing), The Wolf of Wall Street.
I find a lot of TV insipid except for the odd drama, quiz or nature programmes. I’m inclined to watch it (with the sound off) when my brain has gone dead from books.
12. William Butler Yeats said in “The Literary Movement”– ““The popular poetry of England celebrates her victories, but the popular poetry of Ireland remembers only defeats and defeated persons.” I see a similarity of this to the heroes of the Philippines. American heroes were all victors, they won wars and achieved independence. The national heroes of the Philippines were almost all ultimately failures, most executed by Spanish or American Rulers.. How has the fact Yeats is alluding too, assuming you agree, shaped Irish literature? In America it seems somehow the best short stories writers like Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, and Carson McCullers, all writers admired by Irish authors, had their sensibilites shaped by the defeat of the south in the American Civil War.
I think a lot of that stuff applied to past generations of writers and maybe even warped them a bit, but I’m not so sure it applies to writers of today. I agree with Martin Amis when he said something like the contemporary writer should write for the near future.
13. If you could live any where in the past for six months, or forever, and be rich and safe, where would you pick and why?
I write some of the time in the mountains of West Cork without Internet access. But the pull of the city is always there. I’m an urban man with a rural soul as reflected in the title of my poetry collection Rus in Urbe. I also wouldn’t object to a quiet villa overlooking the Mediterranean.
14. when out of Ireland, besides family and friends, what do you miss most? What are you glad to be away from for a while?
I miss the stability of home, but I’m also glad when I’m away from noise and too much proximity, characteristic of suburbanliving.
15. Why do you think the short story is so popular in Ireland?
I think myths are generated about the Irish short story as indeed they are created about the Irish character. Sometimes we get carried away with ourselves. The cuento or short story is popular in many countries. Cervantes wrote the first shortstories in his Novelas Ejemplares.
16. A while ago i read and posted on a long biography of Hart Crane, author of the Bridge-few read it but many known of his life style as one of the first Gay poets living out a life of rough trade and wealthy older benefactors-he lived a very chaotic life and died young from suicide by jumping off a cruise ship. His father invented Life Saver Candy and wanted Hart to go in the Candy business with him-so if Hart had done this and died at 75 rich living in ohio fat bald and married would he still be even much thought about let alone read? One of the most referenced poets by Irish writers last year was Arthur Rimbaud who likewise had a short and chaotic life. Does a poet need or naturally tend to a chaotic life? why so much seeming admiration for writers like Jack Kerouac and others who died way to young from alcohol abuse. If Ezra Pound had not gone mad, would he still be a role model for the contemporary poet? (I know this is long, please just respond to it as you will.). Some of this may just be a story about a poet with a stable marriage, a job and no substance issues may seem dull compared to wilder lives.
I think in the past writers like Brendan Behan were chaotic and often inebriated, but some of the writers of today are cuter and pragmatic and not necessarily more endearing. I tend to go with Flaubert’s idea of the writer as merely bourgeois in his outward daily life while his mind is contending with unfettered imaginings.
17. Please explain to total outsiders like me how important government grants to writers are to Irish literature? who decided who gets a grant?
It’s an area that perhaps could do with more transparency. I got a small bursary for a study of modern poetry Clearing the Tangled Wood: Poetry as a Way of Seeing the World, but bigger bursaries are rather elusive. When sometimes the same people repeatedly wind up getting awards (sometimes by the same grant givers every year), one again wonders if you have to be in the know. As it is a very subjective procedure, in the interest of fairness, I think the people who award the bursaries should be changed regularly.
18. Have you attended creative writing workshops and if you have share your experiences a bit please.
I remember attending one creative writing class some years ago which nearly destroyed me. It was conducted by amilitant feminist and misandrist who never lost an opportunityto ridicule me for daring to be male. In hindsight I should have complained about her, but I let it go. Recently I have conducted some workshops myself. They can be good for the writer in that they force engagement with others and helpclarify what one thinks on the process of writing. Whether they achieve any good for neophytes is not for me to judge, although I did get heartening feedback on workshop efforts that had done well in competitions.
19. Make up a question and answer it please.
As a student in college I asked is there such a thing as a universally accepted work of art.
The professor winked.
20. Not long ago I was sent several very hostile messages from Irish writers demanding to know why I had posted on the works of other writers and not them. Some suggested I had been influenced by some sort of shadowy group to ignore their work. I was informed there is a small elite group who decides who gets reviewed, published or receives grants and it was also suggested they had sent me negative feedback on writers I should ignore. What in the Irish literary scene is behind this? Is there anything like an “Irish Literary Mafia”?
There could be some truth in that. Maybe we could do with a literary ombudsman and a few literary whistleblowers to clear the air, like they have in the gardaí. There is cronyism; itseems to apply to all walks of Irish life —a case of who you know rather that what you know. It could have something to do with our tribal past; there is a tendency to group together,be part of the winning team, and if you’re not in— tough. In my view such behaviour is the opposite to that of an artist who must cultivate solitude to be true to his craft. That of course makes one vulnerable, but I see vulnerability as the hallmark of a true artist. The sad thing about the club mentality is that some talented writers who may not be cute or as adept as others in handling or being sycophantic to the media, do not receive the recognition they deserve. Some of the holders of literary power remind me of priests of yore who kept harping on about your original sin and how you wouldnever be worthy no matter how hard you tried. As a race we don’t always speak well of one another and often onlygrudgingly acknowledge talent after it is recognised outside the country. There are some self-appointed celebrity’authorities’ on literature who command the media and who have never written any creative work themselves. There is a perception that if you get in front of a camera or microphone it somehow confers status on you, and it is worrying to think that some people go along with this idea. It’s like if you shout loud enough or are seen often enough in media circles you become a guru. I read an interesting comment from Jeanette Winterson recently advocating a refusal to take ‘advice’ on how to write from anyone who has not written and published a significant piece of work.
21. Do you think poets and short story writers have a social role to play in contemporary Ireland or are they pure artists writing for themselves and a few peers? One of the characters in Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano, set in Mexico city and centering on poets, says that the main reason poets, nearly all male in Bolano’s book, read at work shops is to meet the way disproportional number of women who come to them in search of a tortured soul to nourish. is this just stupid?
The act of writing is social in itself. You make your statementthrough your characters and your art. Leave the politics to the politicians. Otherwise you are diminishing your writing with agitprop.
22. Tell us a bit about your non-academic non literary work experience please
Tell us something about your educational background, please. ,
Worked as a pools collector, a screen printer, an encyclopaedia salesman, a TEFL teacher, a library assistant before becoming a secondary teacher and lecturer. Worked voluntarily with the Simon Community for a number of years. Did an arts degree in Irish and Spanish and later a Masters in Communications.
23. Why have the Irish produced such a disproportional to their population number of great writers? Or is this a myth?
See q. 15.
24. Quick Pick Questions
A. tablets or laptops?
B. E readers or traditional books?
Both have their uses, but I like the feel and indeed the smell of a physical book.
C. Synge or Beckett?
D. Cats or dogs?
E. best city to inspire a writer- Paris, London, Dublin, or?
Seville among others.
F. Walt Whitman or Willam Butler Yeats?
Both have their moments.
G. RTE or BBC?
I. Would you rather witness opening night for Waiting forGodot, King Lear, Playboy of the Western World or Ubo Roi?
I like the idea of attending a drama where nothing happens twice.
25. Do you think Irish Travellers should be granted the status of a distinct ethnic group and be given special rights to make up for past mistreatment? Are the Travellers to the Irish what the Irish were once to the English? I became interested in this question partially through reading the short stories of Desmond Hogan.
With Simon I sometimes visited their camps. I was disturbed by their early mortality rate and seeing children from a very young age being conditioned to beg. Most of the beggars and homeless on the streets now seem to be multiethnic. If you are nomadic it is hard to live in a settled community, so I wouldn’t try to force a change of culture on them, rather I would try to provide more facilities and places for them to live in their own way.
26. Death, natural and otherwise is a central factor in the Irish short story and it seems to me to play a bigger factor in the Irish short story than other cultures-can you talk about this a bit, please .
See q.15. For me life is an enquiry. It is not what you make it—which is escapist, but what you make of it.
27. How important is social media in the development of the career of writers? Do you have your own web page and if so why? Do you think it is good business savvy to post free samples of your work online?
I am learning to do this. I feel anything that helps to get your work read is worth trying. Ireland is a small island with limited opportunities and the Internet opens up exciting possibilities globally. My work is being translated at the moment into Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and French. Emails are so quick and a website gives a nucleus for one’s work which can be easily accessed internationally. I have a website: www.jameslawless.net
28. I recently read Strumpet City by James Plunkett (the 2013 Dublin One City One Book Selection). It presents a culture whose very life blood seems to be whiskey. Drinking seems much more a factor in Irish literature than Indian, Japanese or even American. What do you think are some of the causes of this or is it just a myth?.
29. related to question above, recently Guiness sponsored a creative writing program and set up a grant system for writers and artist. A number of my Irish Facebook friends said they would repudiate a grant from Guiness and art festivals and programs should refuse their sponsorship. This was in part because of the perceived terrible social cost of alcoholism on Irish families. It was also stated that Guiness was trying to get people to see drinking as associated with creativity. Would you refuse a grant from Guiness? Are their sponsorship efforts insidious? When I facetiously suggested I would take on the burden of these malicious grants, I was taken to task as an outsider who needs to mind his own business.
Many of the people of the Liberties in Dublin where I was born were grateful to Guinness for setting up the Iveagh Trust flats which took a lot of them out of slum dwellings.Guinness’s made money but they were philanthropic. I don’t see too much philanthropy from the present day new rich.
31. In his book The Commitments, Roddy Doyle has a main character say, as if it were something commonly seen as true, “The Irish are the niggers of Europe and Dubliners are the niggers of Ireland”. There is a lot of self loathing expressed in Irish literary works from Joyce on down to Doyle. Is this just a family fight where one might say something terrible about a father, mother or brother or wife and then attack an outsider who says the same thing or is it really how people feel? I do not see this level of self hate in other literatures. There is nothing like it, for example, in the literature of the Philippines. Talk a bit about how you feel or think about this.
I think it is a silly slogan.
I thanks James for taking the time to provide us with these very interesting responses.
James Lawless has very kindly sent me a short story in observation of ISSM4 so look for that soon.
I hope to read all of his books.
A Conversation with James Lawless by Joanna Celeste, 29 March 2013.
I had the opportunity to interview James Lawless, a poet, literary author, teacher and philosopher. It is fascinating to explore other points of view in this vast literary universe and for those readers who enjoy more textured writing than is commercially available, they may find a kindred spirit in Mr. Lawless.
(I would recommend readers check out his ebooks and read the samples; it’s easy to get a sense of the flavor and rhythms of his work from the first few paragraphs.)
Interviewer: Joanna Celeste
Q: You’ve referred to Finding Penelope as your “wry glance” at the genre of chick lit. Please elaborate.
A: Just as Cervantes’ Don Quixote was a send-up of the proliferation of novels of chivalry of his time, I attempt in Finding Penelope to send up the chick-lit genre and show it for what I believe it is: a fatuous and formulaic comfort read with no claim to art. Part of the development in the character of Penelope is centered on this realisation. She starts off as a romance novelist with her de rigueur happy ending demanded by her readers and her unflappable agent Sheila Flaherty. However, after she endures various vicissitudes, she comes to realise that life is not always happily ever after and she resolves from then on to be true to herself and her writing.
Q: That’s a fascinating approach. As a poet, scholar, short story writer and novelist, you chose to play with form in Finding Penelope, switching tenses frequently. What inspired you to weave your story this way?
A: Virginia Woolf and James Joyce are great influences on me particularly in their steam of consciousness techniques. Nineteenth century narrative styles are no longer adequate to address the multimedia and high-tech world of the twenty first century. The weaving in and out of Penelope’s consciousness of past, present and future hope is in keeping with modern living varying from its frenetic texting and emailing to the deeper revelations of the solitary reverie or epiphany as Joyce called it.
Q: How refreshing that you’re bringing that “flavor” back into our present-day literature. What was your writing process for this project?
A: I tried to be disciplined although it didn’t always work. I showed up like a clerk most mornings in my little office, petit bourgeois as Flaubert would say but dreaming subversively — my dreams are my freedom. I am more productive when I go to my cottage in the mountains of West Cork where I have no Internet to distract me. For Finding Penelope I travelled to Spain to do research on the Costas particularly on the expat way of life and on the drug culture and the criminality associated with it. I also consumed a high octane level of chick-lit.
Q: What a range of research! Share with us your affinity with the Spanish culture. What about it speaks to you?
A: When I was in secondary school, an enlightened Christian Brother introduced some of us to Spanish extracurricular studies and it opened up a new and polysemic universe to me. I delighted in learning of a different culture in an Ireland which at the time was rather insular. Spanish of course stretched beyond Europe to the great South American continent with its powerful potential and also to the huge Hispanic population in the USA. I enjoy the literature not only of Spanish writers like Javier Marías but also Borges, Márquez and Carlos Fuentes. So Spanish has huge significance even from its scale and global representation. Having a second or a third language equips one with extra keys to unlock different ways of seeing the word. Perhaps what I learned most— and this probably helped my story writing— was to try to see the world from the point of view of the other to get a different angle on things. I think that’s beneficial not only artistically but also for our understanding of world peace.
Q: Thank you; as someone with a multicultural heritage, I agree. In your book Clearing the Tangled Wood: Poetry as a way of seeing the world, you explore how poetry opens up worlds within our present experiences. How do you consider your background as a poet and an author of short stories (which I count as a poetic form) has shaped your life and your writing?
A: I studied Gaelic in university. As an undergraduate, one of the most impactful compliments I received from a lady lecturer was ‘tuigeann sé cad is filíocht ann’— ‘he understands what poetry is’, based on some creative work I had submitted. This encouragement inspired me to delve deeper into poetry. I read poems from anthologies in Irish and Spanish and English and some of the great Russian poets like Pasternak in translation wherever I got a chance: in between meals, stealing moments to read like Francis Copeland did in The Avenue, on a train or a bus, in a bar, in a dentist’s waiting room; when ill or down, poems could pick you up as they opened windows on the world. This poetic affiliation, I would like to feel, sharpens my prose writing.
Q: It certainly invokes a rhythm in your work, from what I’ve read. What do you love the most about poetry?
A: Matthew Arnold claimed that poetry would replace religion in the world. What I like about poetry is that it has no boundaries and the best of it has no agenda; it involves some of the best minds using the best language to attempt to interpret life in an unfettered way in so far as is humanly possible.
Q: Capturing the inexpressible, as many artists endeavor towards. You’re an arts graduate of the University College Dublin and you received your Masters in Communications from Dublin City University. As an author of accessible literary fiction, how has your education assisted you?
A: Some artists and autodidacts believe the university is anathema to creativity. Perhaps there is some truth in this as I remember when starting my first novel Peeling Oranges soon after I had finished my MA thesis (which later with additions became Clearing The Tangled Wood) and found myself with a mass of research information about the old tenements of Dublin and about the Irish and Spanish civil wars—I had all these footnotes and appendices written in jawbreaking, academic jargon. So I soon realised that in order to write fiction I had to unlearn the methodologies which I had employed in academe—that is not to say an academic or non-fiction text is not also creative; it is just that like Clearing the Tangle Wood it has different parameters to a novel or poem. But notwithstanding, the university did help me in at least two ways: it gave me the bottle to finish a project and it taught me how to research, which hopefully I have learned to do now without getting too bogged down now as I attempt to introduce it as seamlessly as possible into fictional narrative.
Q: You’ve also been on the other side, as a teacher; what did you enjoy most as an educator?
A: The act of teaching itself I enjoyed, sharing with people who were open to learning. However, as an artist I felt hemmed in by the institution. The souls and the institution don’t blend. Teaching is also a great way of articulating and clarifying what you want to say within boundaries of course. The boundaries are the problem, so teaching is not really a free act.
Q: How valuable do you think a university education would be for writers today?
A: East Anglia and other ‘creative writing’ universities are in danger of churning out homogeneous writers and sometimes give the impression rather arrogantly that they are the only ones, the real McCoys of writers. While there are some of these writers I admire such as Ishiguro and McEwan, art is, like dreams by its nature, anarchic and therefore I would be wary of restricting it with rules and regulations.
Q: You touched on this in your blog entry “Creative Writing Schools”. What is your philosophy as a teacher?
A: Similar to my philosophy of life in general which is that life is not what you make it but what you make of it. Opening minds, including one’s own in a mutual process to learn about the world without dogma.
Q: As a fellow reviewer, how do you find your treatment of other stories influences the way you approach your own writing?
A: I grew up believing in the canon of literature and although we have developed interiorly since the time of Dickens and Hardy, we have not improved on their story telling or plot making skills. Indeed I believe the modernists may have discarded that quality and thrown out part of the baby with the bathwater in their attempt sometimes to be ultra-clever. I think writers of today should return to the methodology of Dickens with the benefit of hindsight of course and repair the tear made by the modernists between popular and highbrow fiction. For me the criterion is just good writing illustrating a style and narrative skill with an insight into the human condition. A writer like the undervalued Richard Yates in Revolutionary Road is an example of a modern artist who was able to span both these bridges.
Ironically, I believe the division has done more harm to good novels than to bad, because with the proliferation of mass market popular fiction, the average person (whose ancestors consumed Dickens classlessly) nowadays tends to frown on anything deeper, deeming it snobby writing. So what I look for when I review a book is something to aspire to, something I would have liked to have written myself and maybe to encourage others to consider also. Like the appreciation of good music, the appreciation of good literature is something cultivated.
Q: As someone who has been taught writing in the age of “make it tight” and “massacre all adverbs where possible” it’s interesting to consider that point of view. What are other experiences, places or people who have influenced your work?
A: I think it was Graham Greene who said nothing much happens after twelve. So like many writers, my childhood was my source: my mother reading to me as a child, my aunt’s visits with comics, a long gap in years between me and my siblings, family banter and tales, my father buying me my first diary— these were seminal experiences and later my travels to Europe and America provided many writerly insights. But I suppose the most important experience is a cultivated solitude, a condition and ability I have trained myself to do over the years while simultaneously not turning my back completely on a social life, to maintain a mental balance if such a thing is possible.
Q: I am amazed you could achieve a mental balance while publishing seven books in the space of approximately five years. How did you organize yourself?
A: With discipline, as I say going to the ‘office’ most mornings and the cultivation of solitude and believing most of all that what you are doing has value.
Q: You’ve also published different ways—as an academic, small press, etc. What has been your favorite method of publication?
A: No one in particular. Each publication is a hurdle and sheer hard work to promote.
Q: Marketing is one of the hardest aspects to being a writer nowadays. Your website [https://jameslawless.net/] is nicely put together and you are widely available through social media. What do you find is the best marketing strategy?
A: I manage my own website. I’m only learning how to blog and would like to generate comments. I send my blogs to Facebook which seems to elicit more responses. As regards marketing, I’m prepared to give any media a try as a means to an artistic end. It’s all about being known and valued. The great thing about the Internet is its global dimension— people from all over the world reading or downloading your work in seconds and then just as easily being able to communicate with the author. We are living in exciting times with great artistic possibilities.
Q: Yes, for every difficulty we seem to have great opportunity. What advice would you give to writers just starting out on the path to publication?
A: Ask yourself are you serious about your work; are you prepared to bleed for it, or are you just a dilettante? Is your work really good and original or merely imitative of a million others? Are you an artist with all of what that entails? Do you believe passionately in your art? If that is the case, you persevere, you take the inevitable rejections on the chin—editors are human; they can’t always get it right. Believe in yourself.
Q: Thank you. Your fictional work seems to carry a theme of cross-culture (particularly between Ireland and Spain), politics and threaded with a romantic/poetic atmosphere. What would you say is at the heart of all that you write?
A: What I write about is not what I know but what I want to find out, things that impacted on me: in my education for example being taught through the medium of Irish, the place (or absence as in the case of Derek Foley in Peeling Oranges) of religion or ideology in our lives such as the civil wars in Spain and Ireland; the all consuming monolith of capitalism obsessed me in For Love of Anna; what suburbia (being a product of it ) was about was my preoccupation in The Avenue; and what true writing strives to be in Finding Penelope and so on. A reviewer said the romance in some of my novels tends to be more than a mere love interest, but that it is sometimes strewn with history or politics such as with the extreme nationalist Sinéad in Peeling Oranges; and even Anna in For Love of Anna ,which is considered the most romantic of my novels, is also an acronym for Anarchist of the New Age. As regards the poetic element, I think I have alluded to that already.
Q: Yes, I like how you define your work as “accessible literary fiction.” By the way, what is the latest on The Avenue becoming adapted to film?
A: Still ongoing, under consideration.
Q: Your latest novel, Knowing Women, just released this month. Please tell us more about this project.
A: Knowing Women is about a vulnerable man, Laurence J Benbo, who is wrongly tainted sexually. With all the paedophile cases going on at the moment— and there is no doubt most of them are justifiable—I wondered what if opinion and the law were to get it wrong. Benbo is perceived as a weak character particularly sexually, but he is no paedophile and when he stands accused, how will society judge him in the hue and cry of vindictiveness?
Wow, that’s quite a challenge to take on, but I’m sure your treatment will make for a fascinating read. I wish you all the best and thank you for this interview.
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ONE THOUGHT ON “A CONVERSATION WITH JAMES LAWLESS”
Joanna Celeste says:
March 30, 2013 at 4:34 am
Reblogged this on Joanna Celeste and commented:
My interview with James Lawless has been posted to You Read It Here First.
My interview on the ezine minusninesquared.
http://issuu.com/minus9squared/docs/minus_9_squared_volume_one (2011 interview: copy and paste)