Martha Deegan, the unhappy wife and mother in The Forester’s Daughter, from Irish writer Claire Keegan’s second short-story collection, Walk the Blue Fields, has an easy facility for a yarn. “She has no idea what she will say but the story is there; all she has to do is rake it up and find the words.” For Keegan, it’s a different matter.
“I think it’s the absolute opposite,” she says on the phone from County Leitrim in northwest Ireland (“close to Sligo, Yeats country”), ahead of her appearance at the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival next month.
“For Martha, storytelling maybe was a gift and for me writing is not a gift. Writing for me is work. And I don’t really believe in it anyway for anyone [who is writing] as a gift. Because one of the things I learnt when I read the Paris Review interviews when I was in my mid-twenties was that everybody – whether it was Elizabeth Bishop or Ernest Hemingway, it didn’t make any difference – everybody who was any good found it very difficult.”
Keegan has more in common as a writer with the “simpleminded” brother of the girl who gives The Forester’s Daughter its title, of whom she writes: “He has a capacity for wonder, sees great significance in common things others dismiss simply because they happen every day.” A quality that shines through her stories is that she’s a noticer – in Walk the Blue Fields (2007), in her first collection, Antarctica (1999), and in last year’s standalone 85-page story Foster .
“It is valuable in anybody to be able to notice,” she says, “that is, to go outside oneself and one’s own feelings, and to realise how perhaps life is for someone else. I do think that capacity for wonder is tied also to our capacity to appreciate.
We can’t really live a good life if that life is not appreciated. So I would say that one of the ways – apart from time and its passage, of course, which is central and central to me as a fiction writer, because fiction is a temporal art and based on time – that I would gauge life is, ‘How much can you appreciate?’ And if you cannot appreciate, what it is you’re doing or using your money for or whatever it is, is it worth doing?”
Being a writer was never an ambition of Keegan’s. She wrote the stories in Antarctica after returning to Ireland from six years at university in New Orleans. It was 1992 and the middle of an economic depression. She applied for 300 jobs and got 300 rejection letters. Then she saw a writing competition advertised on afternoon television, entered and came in the top 10 of 10,000 submissions. She decided to write something else. “And I’ve been doing that ever since.”
Being a writer still isn’t an ambition. “My ambition is to write well, which is an entirely different thing and it’s a private thing.” As opposed to all the public things – workshops, festivals – that mean, even though she’s “somebody who doesn’t find it particularly difficult to say no … to get three days at home is a long time”.
The stories in Antarctica – described by the UK’s Observer newspaper as “among the finest collections of stories written recently in English” – were marked by their virtuosic range of perspectives (both male and female) and settings (Irish and American).
“It takes me a lot of time to write and find the voice for somebody,” says Keegan, “because I realise I have got to honour my characters and respect their lives as much as one would wish one’s own life to be respected, because you are representing somebody. You’re saying something about their lives and in a way that’s quite an arrogant thing to do, but I think the writing itself, once you enter into it, is quite an experience of not so much humiliation as humility.”
For Walk the Blue Fields eight years later – the gap partly attributable to the stories being written in tandem with a novel that didn’t work out but has not been abandoned – Keegan focuses, apart from one story, on Ireland.
The stories are less virtuosic, but are richer and often longer. “I knew that something different or deeper was going on … I took more of a risk in the book in that it isn’t such a clever book or such an obvious book as Antarctica.”
She does again write from male perspectives, “but that never troubled me. I think,” she says, laughing heartily, “Irish women are taught how to think for the most part from a men’s point of view.”
Foster, Keegan’s longest story yet, was selected by Richard Ford as winner of the Davy Byrnes Irish Writing Award, the world’s most lucrative short-story award. It is the story of a young girl taken in for a summer by a childless couple as respite for her pregnant mother and feckless father.
One of the story’s many achievements is its depiction of the quiet decency of the couple, the Kinsellas. (Another Keegan story, Burns in Antarctica, achieves something similar in a story of children relaxing towards their new stepmother after being abused by their birth mother.)
“It is quiet,” Keegan says of the Kinsellas’ decency. “Decency is a quiet characteristic, and I think almost all things that are fine are expressed quietly and don’t want praise or any kind of adulation.”
Much like Keegan’s writing. Which is precisely why it deserves all the praise and adulation it has received.
FOSTER, by Claire Keegan (Faber and Faber, $24.99); AUCKLAND WRITERS & READERS FESTIVAL, May 11-15.