In March 2012, at the urging of friends, award-winning writer and journalist Lucille Redmond published her second collection of short fiction. Titled Love (stories of love, Ireland, sex, sea, snow and money), the book anthologizes previously-published material and three new works.
Love is a stunning compilation, a humbling display of wit and weight, of process and voice. “The Sanctuary Keeper” strips a male friendship down to its events and filters them ruthlessly. The best musical comparison here is Brian Eno, no question, until the needle rips across the vinyl with a sudden crash into the fourth wall: “Nothing further occurs.” At the opposite end of her collection Redmond places “Wolf and Water,” which nods in more directions than she lets on. (Kant? Nietzsche? Yeats? Keep reading.) If anything the book cover downplays the violence of the title story, although the brutal core of “Elsewhen” is encased in startling tenderness.
Redmond is the granddaughter of Irish nationalist Thomas MacDonagh and the aunt of Clichy-based composer Laurent Redmond. Find her Twitter feed @Redmond_Lucille, her blog at Heatseekers, and her Amazon purchase page at LoveLucilleRedmondUS. We corresponded by email in early May, on the subjects of reading, teaching and the unraveling of an empire:
You’ve taught in prison, but as far as I can tell there is no word on who the inmates were or what subject. Do you care to elucidate?
In Ireland, the prison services run excellent courses for long-term prisoners, offering all kinds of skills training and personal development. Some of the courses offered are artistic training, and I used to teach ‘creative writing’ – which is to say a basic course in fiction, prose and poetry – along with other writers: Brendan Kennelly, Kate Cruise O’Brien and I generally worked in tandem.
The scheme was started by the Irish Writers’ Co-Operative, which persuaded the Arts Council to come on board, and then the prison service took it up and formalised it. The Co-Op also started the Writers in Schools service, under which schools can get a small grant from the Arts Council to pay writers to go and talk to schoolkids and run workshops with them – very useful for teachers, who can demonstrate (usually) that not all writers are dead, and often handy for those secret writers who discover that what they do isn’t so weird after all.
No comment on the types of prisons, or the prisoners you taught? Can we assume they weren’t all convicted of tax evasion or insider trading?
The Writers in Prisons scheme is part of the Irish prisons’ training schemes, so you can be working with various different types of prisoners. My first group was towards the very beginning of the scheme, and while I obviously wouldn’t be rude enough to ask them what had brought them to this place, they were really helpful when I asked what kind of burglar alarm to get. (“A small, yappy dog” was the answer – “you just go and find somewhere easier, all other things being equal.”) Very funny, witty guys, at that age at the edge between the twenties and thirties when most people get sense and straighten out their lives – usually because they meet someone who’s more important to them than whatever adventures they’d committed to when they were younger.
Later I did a brief stint in the women’s prison, though it was harder to teach there because most women prisoners are in jail for short sentences for things like prostitution and shoplifting, and they won’t be in a writing group long enough to get deeply into it. And their attention tends to be elsewhere, anyway – they’re worried crazy about their children, and being in jail is causing trouble in their lives in all kinds of ways that civilians can’t imagine.
And I did a few sessions in a young offenders’ centre, working with the poet Brendan Kennelly. Rather than get the lads to sit down and write, Brendan liked to get them telling stories and making poems in speech and action – he’d give them a setup and have them work out a scenario, acting it as they went.
All of the prisoners we taught seemed to value the work a lot, and wrote deeply felt and thoughtful poems and prose – often short, powerful fragments.
If you want a strange little fact about the prisons, I asked some guys who were serving long sentences if they found it strange when they were released. They said two things completely threw them: children, which they hadn’t seen throughout their sentence – all these tiny people racing around screaming – and the clatter of someone coming down a bus stairs fast, which sounded like they were back in jail and hearing feet clanging on the big spiral staircases of the prison.
You have taught creative writing in more traditional ways as well. With your own fiction, do you stick to what you teach, or do you find that all bets are off?
I have taught in various ways – at one stage in Galway I was teaching a group of shy schoolgirls to write using the role-playing game Paranoia. They were dancing on the desks and screaming with laughter as one girl read out a line of a story composed by her group: “The teacher walked into the smoke-filled hell of the staffroom”, when the door swung slowly open, the principal looked in and backed slowly out again.
Teaching adults, I currently do a beginners’ course in my local college, with classes on narrative, voice, point of view, dialogue and so on. I’ll set up a blind maillist for each class, and then (if any individual student gives permission for any individual piece of work) send work around for pre-class reading. We generally have a lot of fun.
Do I stick to what I teach? Yes, because what I teach is “follow your hero through adventures”. That’s what I like to do.
I also like to attend workshops given by writers I admire, to pick their brains and see what they have to add – it’s something all writers should do.
You’re writing a short book about your grandfather Thomas MacDonagh. For any readers who might not be as familiar with the events of 1916, do you care to describe?
My grandfather and his friends made a small revolution that destroyed the greatest empire since Rome. The 1916 Rising began the Irish War of Independence, which lost Britain its first colony – the others soon followed us out.
My grandfather was an unlikely revolutionary. He was an adoring husband and father, a poet, ran a scientific and literary magazine, was a professor (in the American sense) in University College Dublin, had published books of poetry and had plays performed in the Abbey Theatre; WB Yeats wrote two of his greatest poems – “Easter 1916” and “Sixteen Dead Men” about his and his friends’ execution by firing squad, and how it changed everything for Ireland. “He might have won fame in the end, so daring and sweet his thought” was how Yeats wrote about MacDonagh.
Yeats knew him well, and had known my grandmother, Muriel, and her sister Grace and their ten siblings from childhood; their father, Frederick Gifford, was the Yeats family lawyer. Grace has become a kind of symbol of gloomy revolutionary romanticism because she married another of the 1916 leaders, Joseph Plunkett, an hour before he was executed. Another sister, Nellie, was a Citizen Army woman who smuggled James Larkin into William Martin Murphy’s Imperial Hotel to address the locked-out workers during the 1913 Dublin Lockout, inspiring syndicalists and socialists around the world.
Going back a bit, the Giffords’ grandfather had been an idealistic Protestant clergyman, personal chaplain to Lady Harriet Kavanagh; he died in the Famine on Christmas Eve 1850; Thomas MacDonagh’s grandfather was a hedge schoolmaster in the west of Ireland – but enough…
I cannot help but think of the final pages of “And the Green Sea Ebbs Away” when I read Patrick Pearse’s quotation: “They think that they have pacified Ireland. They think that they have purchased half of us and intimidated the other half.” Do you agree? If so, was this intentional?
It was. “And the Green Sea Ebbs Away” is set on a sea planet invaded by earth people who have themselves genetically engineered so they can live in the planet’s conditions. But the judicial murder at its centre is based on the murder of the Kearney family by the landlord Ponsonby Shaw in Gleann na Smól. I was intentionally writing about a society riven with political tension and inequality, which swings towards violent revolution because of an injustice. And the character I chose for the centre of it – the person who is decent and kind and loving, but who is caught up in that destruction, was quite deliberate.
This makes it sound like a didactic work of propaganda, but I wasn’t writing at all for that purpose – I was writing a story of hopeless love, like so many of the stories in the collection Love.
Speaking of, let’s take “Elsewhen,” and specifically its lapses out of third-person. It feels almost more honest that way, an admission that the writer tries to keep herself out of the narrative, but often fails.
I used the varying person – the third person for Omurchu, the well-off boy from a Moslem merchant family; the first person for the trafficked prostitute – as a pair of lenses to shimmer your view of them as they fall in love and doom approaches.
Using both third-person and first-person narrators in this very short piece also allowed me to slow the speeding narrative. And to make it funnier.
“Wolf and Water” is alluring for its headstrong female character and timeless theme, but more than anything it’s a page-turner. Again, was this intentional? And which appeals to your more as a reader? As a writer?
Absolutely intentional. I don’t think I could say that I prefer page-turners; I’m greedy – I want both. I love Tana French’s In the Woods, which has an absolutely weird story with a delightfully unrealised ending; I love Clare Keegan’s Foster, a novella that dives straight for its end, but you can absolutely taste every moment. At the moment I’m reading Nadeem Aslam’s The Blind Man’s Garden, about the war in Afghanistan, and I’m torn between greedily gobbling my way through the whole story as it rushes along, and stopping to breathe in fabulous details like a hidden herd of horses rising out of the ground.
I like a clear line of narrative – no question about that.
That’s a fantastic opening paragraph to “Green Sea Ebbs.” Your rewriting of a historical event and then plunging it underwater is easily my favorite plot device in the book. Do you care to comment on this particular choice?
I’m not sure why I did it. That first sentence: “I was daydreaming of sex when I found the axe, on a baking day in August, on my knees weeding the beans at the end of the market garden.” I think it came from a friend of mine, a great-great-grandson of those Kearneys who were murdered in Gleann na Smól, telling me about the bloody axe being produced in a court where the landlord was both the accuser and the judge; he leaned across the woodstove to me and said: “First time a man was ever shot with an axe.”
The person who tells the story had to be at its centre, yet be an outsider; so she was in love with the youngest of the boys accused by the great landowner. The original Kearneys were regarded by the Ascendancy as Fenian troublemakers. It wasn’t such a far leap.
It’s hard to get past Rose’s silence during the last pages of “Love.” You even draw our attention to it: “They were the last words she spoke.” Combined with Moriarty’s bizarre remarks and inaction, it seems like a comment on the silence surrounding all domestic violence. Do you agree?
I do. In fact, those words were taken from a news story; they were the reported words of a man explaining how he had killed his wife. And the refusal of the garda – the village policeman – to help Rose as she runs away from the murderous Coley is part of the silence on ‘domestic’ violence, but it’s also part of the sheer terror in the face of someone in a murderous state. Moriarty’s courage fails him, and he doesn’t dare to take on Coley. Oddly, when I wrote that, the Gardaí – an almost entirely unarmed police force whose motto is that they must maintain the law “not by force of arms or numbers, but on their moral authority as servants of the people” – were facing heavily-armed IRA members with enormous courage.
In one case, an unarmed garda persuaded a homicidal maniac from one of the offshoots of the IRA, loaded down with submachine guns and the like, to get out of his getaway car and come back to the garda station with him; the man then escaped – and the garda recaptured him and kept him, without any use of violence.
But I wanted Moriarty to be an ordinary man who is utterly cowed by insane violence, and simply pretends not to see it, as so many, so often, do.
[Days later I asked about her current listening, to tie the interview back to Fluid Radio. Pardon the indelicate segue.]
The album I played most recently – oh, I’m such an old fogey I kind of keep playing the same stuff: albums like Clandestino by Manu Chao and Pirates’ Choice by Orchestre Baobab and Smaointe by Deirbhile Ní Bhrolcháin, with its stunning version of “Liam Ó Raghallaigh” – and then there are single tracks. A joyous and inescapably catchy 1998 single by the British Indian band Cornershop, “Brimful of Asha”, is going around and around in my head at the moment unstoppably. Brimful of Asha on the 45, Brimful of Asha on the 45…