The American writer Molly McCloskey is shortlisted for her story, Life on Earth. She talks about the politics inherent in all works of fiction, drawing on her own biography when writing and why comedy is important, too
When did you first begin to write, and why? Do you remember the initial urge to pick up a pen and get words down on paper?
I first began to write in a diary, like a lot of kids. I began to publish when I got out of college and was working at a newspaper in Portland, Oregon. I was sort of a gofer, but I was surrounded by editors who kindly agreed to read my submissions, and occasionally to publish them. My first published short story resulted from my knocking on Dermot Healy’s door one rainy day in Sligo, when he was running a magazine called Force 10. He changed the ending without telling me, and I remember thinking: ‘Is that allowed?’
How would you describe yourself and your work to people who may not know your writing already?
I think one thing I would say is that I like to write both fiction and nonfiction. And I think these two ways of writing have begun to infuse each other in my work, so that my latest novel reads like a memoir, and my memoir – hopefully – reads a little like a novel.
To what extent do you draw on your own autobiography for fiction? Are authors compelled to write about what they know?
Authors are compelled to write about what excites and interests them. My feeling about a lot of novels I pick up is that they don’t feel necessary – I mean first and foremost to the writer. They don’t feel like books that absolutely had to be written. As for autobiography, sometimes I draw on it a lot, sometimes hardly at all. The point is that the story has to stand on its own, and whether it rings true or not bears zero relation to whether things in the story happened in real life.
You draw on the war in Iraq and Afghanistan in your story, Life on Earth. Do authors have an obligation to be political or make an important point, do you think?
I don’t think writers have any obligation other than to write the world as they see it, and to aim to write as well and as honestly as they can. Writers are like people – some are political animals, others aren’t; to pretend an interest in something you’re not really interested in makes for bad writing. As for making an ‘important’ point, it has to be important enough for a writer to spend the time crafting the story and for a reader to spend the time reading it. But it needn’t be ponderous or solemn. Comedy is important, too. And any time you put two people into a relationship, you’ve got politics.
Where did the first spark of inspiration for that story come from? How did the plot and characters develop? Was it an easy process?
In 2013, I moved back to the US – to Washington, DC – after having spent 24 years living abroad. To find myself in America’s capital city was like getting a crash re-entry course in my home country. During those first months in DC, I read David Finkel’s wonderful books, The Good Soldiers and Thank You for Your Service, which are alluded to in my story when the narrator talks about reading a book on the surge in Iraq, and there being no sexier feeling than coming under fire, and the state soldiers are often in when they come home from war. I started to think about the civilian/military divide in American society, and about how we – ‘we’ being liberals and civilians like the woman in the story – outsource our ‘security’ in ways we’d rather not always think about. DC can feel steeped in the kind of vibe that the story attempts to depict: an end-of-days anxiety, power, militarism, surveillance, paranoia. At the same time, the city’s demographic is very left-of-centre, no matter who’s in the White House, so there are really interesting currents in DC jostling and conflicting with each other. The story attempts to enact some of those conflicts in the form of a brief affair between a conservative military officer and a liberal English professor. The female character thinks that the officer represents a form of safety in an anxious age, but of course discovers that the kind of safety she’s looking for doesn’t exist anymore and maybe never did, because it’s not about being safe from a specific threat; the anxiety is something more free-floating and elemental.
Do you always like the characters you create? Is it important to feel sympathy for your protagonists?
I don’t always entirely like my characters, but I always want to understand why they are the way they are and what drives them, and that process involves the development of empathy. I think it’s far more important that you find your characters interesting than that you like them; and if you do dislike them, you can’t allow the story to become a way of beating up on them – which is boring and a very one-sided fight.
Which short story by another author has had the most profound effect on you and why?
About 30 years ago, I discovered the story, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, by William Gass. There was a lot going on it – structurally and narratively – that I didn’t entirely understand, but I knew I was reading something extraordinary: a story that went at its subjects obliquely, and yet in language that was devastatingly precise. I loved its fragmentation, its repetitions, all the beauty and loneliness. It showed me some very important things about the possibilities of the short story form.
And finally, is there anything you’d like to say about being shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG short story award?
It’s a huge honour to have your work recognised by other writers, and to be in company with writers whose work you’ve read and admired. All those clichés people trot out at such times: they’re really true.
Interview by Sophie Haydock
Irish-American author Molly McCloskey was born in Philadelphia and grew up in North Carolina and Oregon. In 1989, she moved to Ireland, spending ten years on the west coast before moving to Dublin. She is the author of two short story collections, ‘Solomon’s Seal’ and ‘The Beautiful Changes’, and a novel, ‘Protection’. Her first work of non-fiction, ‘Circles Around the Sun: In Search of a Lost Brother’, appeared in 2011. Her new novel was published by Penguin Ireland in 2017 as ‘When Light is Like Water’, and in the US by Scribner in 2018 under the title ‘Straying’. Her work has appeared in the Irish Times, Dublin Review, Guardian, Los Angeles Review of Books and elsewhere. She has taught writing at universities in Ireland and the US, serving as writer-in-residence at Trinity College, Dublin, University College, Dublin, and George Washington University in Washington, DC. She has also worked in the field of international development in the UN’s Kenya-based Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs for Somalia. She currently lives in Washington, DC, and recently served as a judge for the DC-based PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.