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Meet the longlist: Caoilinn Hughes, Author of 'Prime'

Between now and the shortlist announcement on Sunday 28th July we will be putting the spotlight on each of 2019's longlisted authors in turn.

Today's author is Caoilinn Hughes, author of 'Prime', a story about Miss Lynch and her class, navigating their way through loss.

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

I started out as a poet, but when I moved from Belfast to New Zealand in 2007 (where I lived for seven years) I struggled to write poetry because of culture and landscape shock. So rather than not writing, I decided to try my hand at prose. I started with the novel form. I wrote three novels before ever writing a short story, which is not recommendable! But the upside of that odd trajectory was that, when I did find my way to the form, I immediately saw what it could do, in contrast to the novel. The spirit of ‘Prime’ had been in me for a long time but it had no way to get out … I didn’t have the form to embody it. As soon as I wrote my first short story (‘Psychobabble’), I could feel ‘Prime’ agitating too, finally. It was the second story I wrote. I never draw directly from personal experience, but sometimes something happens that—for a writer—almost immediately gets transformed into something else; as if you glimpse a whole other reality / confluence of lives from one incident or encounter or image or gesture or line of dialogue. The inciting moment for me was a religious studies teacher in my convent secondary school who guided our class through a meditation exercise. My fourteen-year-old self (already mitching school to write poems) registered that there was something … not inappropriate, not sacrilegious, but … left field, let’s say, in this. It was not a catechism. The seed for a story was planted then, but it became something entirely separate from the inciting incident, as usually happens when I write. I write into the dark, not knowing where a story will take me. I hope the reader experiences that as a pleasure—because that discovery is the biggest pleasure of writing, for me.

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

Neoliberalism has corrupted the book world just as much as it has every other aspect of our socio-economic and cultural production, widening the divide between 0.01% and the remainder. One response from the publishing industry is to try and find ‘crossover’ books that appeal to very wide audiences, but artists aren’t trying to reach the widest possible audience: they’re trying to make the best possible work (excellence and audience aren’t mutually exclusive, but marketability in no way indicates an artwork’s merit). This is not an inspiring dilemma for a writer, and it shouldn’t be our business. Unfortunately, it is, because it’s about whether or not a book can become a book at all. When I’m writing stories, I’m going into debt. It feels good and defiant and rebellious, but only because I have a lot of privilege. I can afford to spend time making something that is increasingly difficult to publish … for thisyear, at least, thanks to an arts council grant (my first fiction grant), thanks to the pure luck of my being born in a country that has some funding for the arts, and into a body that (for the most part) is working and (for now) doesn’t have others relying on it. It’s a privilege to be able to write stories and I feel that as I do it. I try to make them count.

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

I always have a notebook open when I’m writing. It’s open beside my laptop if I’m at a desk. I often need to work longhand if I’m at the very early stages of something – later, once I’m a few pages in, it’s all on a screen. I take a very long time to get started on a story, because so much of the story is determined by its first paragraph: you’ve already set the tone, chosen a point-of-view and narrative mode; you’ve pinned at least the opening to a time and place; you’ve chosen names for the characters—names come along with a whole other set of specificities … so much has already been done with the first sentence. I try and delay that opening gesture—a bit like taking a huge axe to a piece of marble—to let the feeling or sensibility of a story live in me before making such a decisive, costly move. I don’t write drafts. I write extremely slowly and edit as I go, unpicking and unravelling if I’ve done something dishonest or taken a wrong turn. By the time I get to the last line, it’s always the last line of the story. I do some polishing, but that’s about it. So if I’m writing full time, a short story can take the equivalent of two or even three months (again: not a way to make a living!) all the while having no clue as to where I’m going, if anywhere. To get to do it is the dream.

Which short story collection by another author would you recommend?

Recently, I was blown away by HEADS OF THE COLORED PEOPLE by Nafissa Thomspon-Spires. If I’m buying you a birthday gift, it’s probably BIRDS OF AMERICA by Lorrie Moore. A masterpiece.

What’s your favourite short story of all time? Who would you cast to read it?

I can’t answer this question, as I’m already an insomniac and answering this would deprive me of all remaining potential sleep!

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

My sister, Donnla Hughes, who is an actress who worked for the BBC doing radio plays some years ago after drama school. She’s the business.

What are you reading now?

It’s never one book—I usually have six or eight on the go. I’m starting Elaine Castillo’s novel America Is Not the Heart after hearing her speak at a literary festival recently. I expect the novel will be as gobsmacking as she was to listen to. Stephen Sexton’s forthcoming book of poemsIf All the World and Love Were Young and Eoghan Walls’ cracking collection, Pigeon Poems. Just as soon as I can get to an English language bookstore, Regina Porter’s The Travelers. And I’ve just been sent Jing Jing Lee’s novel How We Disappeared, which I read in proof form and is more than worthy of a reread.

Please read on for a preview of 'Prime':

'We’d only just entered Miss Lynch’s classroom the summer after Johnnie died. Mister Lynch left, mid-funeral, on a boat. On the Atlantic too, but not face-down. He got on a boat and left. We thought Miss Lynch would do the same. Or be let go from the school to spare her the torture of our easy continuation. But she didn’t.

In Cliften town, she swapped her wedding ring for a Border collie that could fetch rabbits for supper. You can teach a Border collie sign language. How to tie a tourniquet. How to separate the dill from the fennel. But you lot? She wanted more from us. We wanted more to give her. We made a bonfire on the beach of Johnnie’s desk and chair. Splinters festered in us. The dog ate a feast of deadly web-cap mushrooms in the field and died. Are there snakes in my hair? she asked, on her ragged knees. It wasn’t our place to act, besides rising above her expectations....'

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