On my blog today, I welcome guest author Mary Byrne, whose Irish heritage shines forth in her lush prose. She writes “to discover, to understand something, usually about people but also about myself.”
Mary Byrne’s prizewinning short fiction has been published/broadcast and anthologized, in print and online, in Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand. Mary has taught English in universities in Paris and Normandy, and has also worked as an editor and a translator. Currently collating collections of short fiction set in Morocco and Ireland, she lives in Montpellier, France.
- How do you come up with book titles?
I’ve only one [pubd!] book so far. The title, Plugging the Causal Breach, is from one of the stories in the collection. It’s an idea that inspires a lot of what I write, the whole question of what makes people act, I find the question of what motivates characters fascinating. I’ve noticed that even if those observing other people’s actions don’t know the reason, they invent one. There’s a breach which the mind fills. I think our brains are hard-wired to do this, but it’s also an important aspect of what a writer does. I stole the idea from an essay by Roland Barthes on the minor news item, what the French call the fait divers. My original interest in the idea was to use it for crime fiction, but it’s useful for any fiction. As Barthes says, a god prowls behind the fait divers. That’s where the writer prowls too.
- Why do you write?
My answer to this follows from the one above: I write to discover, to understand something, usually about people but also about myself. This probably explains why I tend not to prepare a detailed outline, often heading into the writing (especially of a short story) with just a starting and a finishing point. This might also explain why I enjoy writing flash fiction, those very short pieces which go straight to the essential and for which there is a well of growing enthusiasm at the moment.
- Where do your characters come from?
They’re usually an amalgam of aspects of people I’ve encountered or heard of. If you notice a writer suddenly paying quiet but rapt attention to an anecdote someone is telling, that’s because they can see possibilities in it, something has triggered a hook for a story. At the moment I’m exploring the idea of using historical facts and characters – as a starting point at least. We’ll see how that works out. The last time I used history I finished up with a fat hybrid novel that is still in a cyber drawer.
- At what moment did you decide you were a writer?
I remember writing a story when I was six and inventing names for people that were really just twisted pronunciations of real names (the names are clearly important, I see a parallel here with your discussion with Judy Crozier. No one paid much attention to me or my story. I enjoyed school writing and later the reading involved in studying English Lit (a former fellow student once confided that he hadn’t been able to read for years afterwards). Although it would be a very long time indeed before I had the time or the impulse to write a story, I began keeping notebooks when travelling – some of which emerged in a recent cleanout – and I now regret not being more systematic about this.
Anyway, one day when living in Morocco I sat down and wrote half a dozen short stories (set in Ireland) which I sent to the late David Marcus for his opinion as to whether he thought it worth my while continuing. He published two of them in the Irish Press New Irish Writing. One received a Hennessy Award. But after that life took over again and I only ever had time to squeeze in the odd story during holidays from teaching and other work.
- What does your writing space look like? Do you have a crazy mess of a desk full of notes and post its? Or is it a quaint chair at a coffee shop?
In recent years I have, at last, an assigned room for work which tends to be a mess that only I can deal with. It doesn’t disturb me – and very possibly reflects all those years when I had little privacy and often had to vacate a spare bedroom for visitors. Now the mess is all mine, and I’ve kept the lock that the previous owner had installed on the study door – so I can hide the chaos at the drop of a hat, although it occasionally creeps out to cover all other surfaces! I don’t think I’d ever be able to write in a coffee shop and am disturbed if there’s someone else at my place even temporarily. The writing muscles repressed over long years take time to unwind…
- What feeds your process? Can you listen to music and write or not… can you write late at night or are you a morning person… when the spark happens, do you run for the pen or the screen or do you just hope it is still there tomorrow?
Now that exterior constraints have mostly disappeared, I’m discovering other aspects of myself, for example that I can work late into the evening (although a lot depends on the season: here in the south, hot summer afternoons are totally unproductive). Music works sometimes but in the heat of writing and serious reading must be turned off. I used to put on Mozart if I wanted to get through an editing or translating chore fairly quickly, but I’ve stopped that: Mozart may help cows produce more milk, but he can be exhausting. As for where things get noted: in notebooks in bed early mornings, on the mobile phone where they are rarely consulted again, in innumerable computer files with incomprehensible names like ‘chick pea brain’. If anyone has suggestions about dealing with the mess of stuff in physical notebooks, I’m all ears. I’ve been tempted to dump them, but haven’t had the courage. Yet. How I wish I could sketch or paint in those notebooks too.
- If you didn’t write, what would you do with that time? Do you feel compelled to write or choose to?
I have no idea what I’d be doing if I weren’t writing. Perhaps looking for amusement like many of my acquaintances. Writing and reading (reading takes time) have become my main occupation, more a way of life than a choice or a compulsion. The only other thing these might give way to would be cultural tourism, when Covid finally leaves us alone (she said, optimistically).
- What’s the hardest part of writing or publishing?
I just don’t possess that gene.
- Do you neglect personal hygiene or housekeeping to write? Or vice versa?
Not exactly. What I notice is that whenever the writing has gone well, I find myself doing a huge clean-up, cooking, making lists, plans. Otherwise I try to keep those muscles slack, repressed (a reversal of what I had to do when teaching).
- If a movie was made of your book, who would the stars be?
A delicious and arrogant notion! A movie of the story ‘What doesn’t choke will fatten’ might have Armin Mueller-Stahl as the elderly German ex POW and Fanny Ardant as his French companion Marguerite, with Juliette Binoche and Ulrich Mathes for their younger incarnations…
Romain Duris or Mathieu Amalric for the main character Mr Pierre in ‘Mastery’
Eric Elmosnino as the Spanish immigrant Jose in ‘Old wood best to burn’, with Javier Camara for the younger Jose.
I’ll stop now because this is addictive.