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Introducing our longlisted authors: Leo Cullen

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Leo Cullen

Meet the authors longlisted for the 2020 Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award

Introducing our longlisted authors: Leo Cullen

Leo Cullen is the author of a collection of short stories Clocking Ninety on the Road to Cloughjordan and a novel, Let’s Twist Again, both published by Blackstaff Press, and is a frequent contributor of New Writings to Sunday Miscellany, RTE Radio. His short stories have also won prizes, including PEN Ireland, and he has been the recipient of writing grants from Arts Council of Ireland. He enjoys conducting workshops for creative writing and has done so in New York and Sydney as well as in Ireland. Originally from a farming background, Leo has lived in Dublin for most of his life. He is married to Carole, an artist, and they have three children and grandchildren. Regardless of the season he begins each morning with a sea swim – the perfect antidote to a day of writing. He is presently working on a collection of interlinking short stories; Brown Ford Cortina is the title story of the collection.

He is longlisted for the short story: Brown Ford Cortina

A young widow collects a teenage boy from his care home to work for her on her farm. As the years pass and their relationship develops, they tread an ambiguous path between kindness and exploitation, employer and friend, and maternal love and sexual tension. When decisive action is taken, who will benefit? This is a vivid, moving and unusual coming-of-age story about the complexity and vulnerability of growing up.

What inspired you to write the story? Is it drawn from personal experience?

Yes. My mother died when I was six and when I was eight my father did something that I thought strange – he got married and presented me with a step-mother. Olive Brett (widow), one of the two main protagonists in Brown Ford Cortina, is loosely based (or inspired) on my step-mother. I sometimes think of my growing up under the tutelage of my step-mother (along with four siblings, four step-siblings and after that two half-siblings) as growing up in a children’s home or an orphanage. The second main character in my story, Patrick Tierney, was brought up in such a home and was taken out of there by Olive to become the ‘hired hand’ on her farm. He develops very strong feelings for Olive. She is undemonstrative in her affection towards him – as he also is towards her own children. However, a relationship builds up between Olive and her hired hand; it is complicated, hard to pin down, in some ways stronger than love... as the story’s surprise ending shows.

How does writing short stories differ from writing full-length fiction, and what do you enjoy about writing in the genre?

I like the way you can go in at the middle of the story and leave it before getting bogged down. Cuts out a lot of palaver. Allows you give your attention to a single relationship. Is very suited to the process which suits me: the building up of relationships through ‘show, don’t tell’. You never let go your focus with the short story – I like the game of hurling (the national game in Ireland): in the game of hurling, the player must always watch the flight of the ball. Not to is fatal – in the blink of an eye the opposition will surely score a goal. It’s the same with writing a short story: you must watch the flight of that story. In fact, also, in terms of time, the writing of a short story is like a game of hurling, while the writing of a novel is like a war. (I am writing a novel at the moment, which is in a way a series of interlinking short stories – not the ideal prospectus for the writing of a novel maybe, but it makes the war more bearable.)

How do you write? Longhand or typed? Why does your chosen method work for you?

Typed, though I constantly scribble notes that I later type. There is a huge amount of rewriting. The writing is often a puzzle, the proper places must be found, the sequence. I usually trick myself into writing each morning by going over the previous few day’s work. Hence the rewriting.

What’s your favourite short story of all time?

Foster by Claire Keegan.

Which short story collection by another author would you recommend?

By Elizabeth Strout, Anything is Possible (though it might be called a novel).

Who would you cast to read the story you have entered?

Barry McGovern (Irish stage and screen) or Jim Norton (Irish and English stage and screen).

What are you reading now?

Julian Barnes, The Man in the Red Coat.

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