Mark Jarman

Interview with Gerard Beirne

Gerard Beirne

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What to say about Mark Anthony Jarman? Maybe something like Douglas Glover said:  “Mark Anthony Jarman is a short story writer without peer, heir to a skein of pyrotechnic rhetoric that comes from Joyce and Faulkner and fuels the writing, today, of people like Cormac McCarthy and the late Barry Hannah.” That seems pretty good. Or how about A.S. Byatt when selecting 19 Knives as her book of the year: “It is brilliant.  The writing is extraordinary, the stories are gripping, it is something new.” This after describing a conversation with her friend Martin: “we were trying to think of the greatest short story ever.  We agreed enthusiastically that it was Henry James's "The Beast in the Jungle."  Martin then said reflectively, "Unless it is 'Burn Man on a Texas Porch'” – the story in question, a Jarman classic. The Globe and Mail described another of his stories as perhaps the greatest Canadian short story ever written. A writer could live with that. His latest collection of stories, Knife Party in the Hotel Europa, is already one of the most anticipated books for Spring release in Canada (and hey, don’t say I’m not good to you, I have one of those hotly anticipated stories for your reading pleasure:

Some readers may already be familiar with Mark’s work, or even his company, as he has made many visits to Ireland in the last few decades. How could he have stayed away? - His mother was born in Dublin, after all, and lived beside 15 Usher’s Island, the famous setting for Misses Morkan’s Epiphany dinner party on January 6th 1904 in Joyce’s The Dead. His grandfather drowned on the same day Michael Collins funeral. I had the pleasure of moderating a discussion between Mark and that other great Canadian short story writer much beloved in Ireland AlistairMacLeod at the Cork World Book Festival 2011. A couple of years before that at the West Cork Literary festival, I hosted an Irish-Canadian event featuring Mark amongst other itinerant Canadian writers I had cajoled into accompanying us. That being said, Mark’s work is nowhere near as well-known in Ireland as it ought to be, and I am thrilled to be able to introduce him here. Alongside the aforementioned story, I invited Mark to my house in the aftermath of a severe winter storm where we gathered in my library (with Johnny Cash, Justin Townes Earle, Marianne Faithful, and John Hiatt for company - Mark plays a mean harmonica) I asked Mark about his Irish connections and the appeal to him of Irish literature.

Mark Jarman: It was a mixed family. My mother was Irish from Dublin, from Usher’s Island on the Liffey, and then she went as a nurse to England during the war and met my father who was English. He was from Oxford. When I was younger I was probably not that aware of the Irish side. If we had visits, it was from my English granny and my English aunt and uncle and cousins. It may even have been a thing of money. The Irish weren’t travelling as much then as they are now. I don’t know when that changed. But I was always aware of Irish relatives in Philadelphia and New Jersey. Uncle Marty would come and visit, and he was always a favourite uncle. He still had the Irish accent even though he had come over in 1927 when one of the relatives in the States had agreed to take one of my mother’s sisters because my grandmother was a widow because my grandfather drowned. They had eleven kids; so one of relatives in Jersey said we’ll take, you know, one of the girls and then my grandmother said, well you have to take Marty in a package deal (laughs). So we were pretty close to the relatives in Philly. Marty visited every second year. He’d go to Ireland one year and Edmonton to see us one year, off and on. He’d take the Greyhound all the way from Philly to Edmonton smoking the whole time. Then in 1980, my cousin Fran from Dublin needed a summer job, and so he came to Edmonton because Alberta was booming. We got him a job, and he stayed with me in my parents’ house. So then the next year, I was in between doing a B.A. and then going to Iowa, and I decided to do the big trip to Europe and that included Ireland. I flew initially to England. Because I already knew Fran, it was kind of nice. I had a group I could hang out with. When I was in England I was not as comfortable. You know, I felt like I was a hick with a real twang accent. It was probably in my head because my father was English and a very nice person, but I always feel more judged in England. I went to Ireland on the night boat, got over there and got on this double-decker bus and was driving in from Dun Laoghaire to Dublin, and there was someone on top passing around a bottle (laughs) and people drinking from it, including someone in uniform, and I thought, this is not England! It’s really different, and I really liked it. I am still amazed in Europe, you can go to these places that are not that far apart and have been there for thousands of years, and yet they don’t seem to have homogenized. They seem to stay separate and distinct. So I am always interested in that, but yeah I felt really comfortable in Ireland. I liked it.

You said that your Mom was a nurse. What did your Dad work at?

He was a physiotherapist. They were both in the navy and they met in the war. He was a petty officer, spent part of the war in Ceylon.

How did they end up in Canada?

He was offered a job. They were in England after the war and they already had three kids living in Oxford, and he converted to Catholicism because of my mother and you know they were prepared to have more kids but they thought post-war England is not the place to do it. There were still rations. It never really recovered from the war for decades. Someone he knew moved to Alberta to start up a clinic with the Workers’ Compensation Board and asked if he wanted to come out for a job. I think he didn’t really want to. I don’t think he was that adventurous, but he was probably pushed into it by my mother and maybe some other people in the family. His father, my grandfather on the English side, didn’t want him to go, but he eventually did and settled in Edmonton for the rest of his life. Most of my grandparents died before I was even aware of them. I only remember Granny on the English side who brought me a Rupert the Bear, and I have very nice memories of her, but my Irish grandfather drowned during the Irish Civil War so he was not around at all.  My Irish grandmother died in the Fifties, and my English grandfather died before I was aware of him, so I just knew the one. There wasn’t really a sense of a big extended family. And there wasn’t a sense of, “Remember boy you’re Irish, or you’re English.” You were in a new world… I mean, I knew my parents were from somewhere else, but in Edmonton everyone was from somewhere else, which is so different from the Maritimes where people can trace their name back to two brothers who landed here in the 1700s. But I knew that my mother lived in Dublin and lived on Usher’s Island. When I got older, like say in high-school reading James Joyce, I recognized that there’s a connection here.

So you knew the name “Ushers Island” was connected to Joyce?

Yeah. I definitely was interested in that stuff…the story of “The Dead”.

Do you think it was just you, or were your brothers and sisters interested in it too?

No, I think it was just me. In fact my older brother who was born in Oxford, he won’t even go to Ireland. He has no interest at all, and I’m compulsive. I go every second year like my old Uncle Marty. I don’t know why that is…. We’d hear about it. I knew that they all played musical instruments and sang and danced and rode bicycles to dances out in the country. You just heard family stories…you know, “it reminds me of the times the Black and Tans came and took Uncle Marty, and he didn’t even wake up he was such a good sleeper.”  I was told that Marty apprenticed as a cooper for Jameson because he was the son of a cooper and the guild wanted to take care of him, but Marty said he wrecked more barrels than he made and the man he apprenticed with was picked up for being in the IRA and that was the end of that career.  There were many stories like that. Maybe even because of that, they were very political. You know, it was about the Black and Tans banging at the door. I suppose a safe house where they were hiding rebels, so that kind of piques your interest…. The very early time, the IRB, the IRA back when they were almost athletic organizations (laughs). It was a very political family, and then in the Civil War they were divided because half the family worshipped Michael Collins and half the family was anti-Treaty. So they were very divided, but it happens to lot of families. I can’t remember when I became aware. I definitely was not drilled in that stuff. But I always remembered the name Michael Collins and knew that my grandfather drowned the day of his funeral and that led to me writing the Irish book, to find what happened to both of them.

I’m interested in that, the book, Ireland’s Eye, a memoir of sorts. Do you want to talk a bit about that?

Yeah, it started really modestly. As I said I did the trip in 1981 because my cousin Fran had come over in 1980, so I knew someone there and had a very comfortable spot to just kind of parachute in and to hang out with people close to my age.

How old were you at that point?

I was probably in my twenties. I had finished my B.A. So it is not right out of high-school or anything like that. I finished my B.A. ‘76-80 and then I went to Ireland…in fact I found out I was accepted to Iowa while I was in Ireland and had to phone them from Ireland to say I’d like to come to Iowa, and I think they thought I was going to go to Trinity (laughs), so it was really a good position to be in. So I did that trip in ’81. I don’t want to generalize but at the time it seemed that things hadn’t changed much for decades. All my cousins lived at home with the parents. No one had a car. They’d have to borrow the parents’ car and they used to use me for that. They’d say, “Mom, Mark wants to go to Howth, can we borrow the car?” And I was like, “What?” (Laughs) No one had stereos or disposable income, and they’d go to Boston for jobs or they’d go to Edmonton to us for a job. I just really liked Ireland, I had a great time there, and I thought I’d be back very soon, but then it turns out I wasn’t. I didn’t come back until ’97. And then I was coming in on my own on a bus from the airport ‘cause I figured I could find my own way, and I was looking and there were Mercedes Benz and BMWs, and I thought what has changed here? Everyone now has heard of the Celtic Tiger, but in North America in ’97 that wasn’t well known at all. I wanted to write a travel piece or an article, not a book, just an article, on the changes. I couldn’t believe how different it was - money flowing and a different attitude. I thought this is really good material. I wanted to tell this story and give my relatives a way to show this was how they were a decade or so before and this is how they are now. My cousin had come out of the closet and was renovating his brick house down town, an area that people wouldn’t go into before. Another cousin lived in the suburbs, a policeman. I thought, wow, they’re really showing these different sides of the new and old Ireland. I also wanted to know more about my grandfather’s drowning.  With my cousin and aunt I found the spot on the Royal Canal at Lock #11.  No one had tracked it down before.  He was a cooper, made barrels for Guinness, a very good trade, but there was a Cessation of Work Order, they had the day off for the funeral.  My theory is that my grandfather wanted to get out of town to avoid the Collins crowd flocking Dublin for the huge funeral, so he went walking out past Phoenix Park with some friends.  It was a hot day, they went for a swim in the canal and he went under.  The man who shot Michael Collins led to the death of my grandfather Michael Lyons.  So back in Canada I wrote a piece about Ireland and it ended up winning a contest and I thought, well, I’ll try another one, and they just kept placing in contests. Then, I guess, I got accepted to the Banff Centre to work with an editor on the Irish stuff… I had done the book of stories, 19 Knives, and because I had published a couple of the Irish pieces I pitched it to my editor- would you be interested in a book, you know, taking these and trying to make something of the separate pieces? She checked with her boss and said, yeah they would be, so I ended up getting a two book deal out of that. So it started really randomly in small parts… But having relatives there was such an advantage. I went over one time with a film crew and it was not Hollywood or anything, but we stayed in a small hotel in town. I hung out with the crew. We had to do it really fast in just a few days, and I thought this is what my impression of Ireland would be if I didn’t have my relatives. I would just be downtown. The hired staff we met were all from Poland or Norway. We didn’t meet any locals, and then we’d go to a pub and look around, and maybe at night there’d be people throwing up in the streets. I just had such a different view from my other trips, and I thought I couldn’t have written the book without having the relatives to hang out with, pick their brains. They fed me stories, they thought I was writing about my roots, older stuff, but I was also interested in contemporary Ireland, I wanted them.

Have they read the book?

Some of them did. I really kind of kept it away from them ‘cause I felt I was writing to a North American audience. I didn’t want to suggest that I was an expert on Ireland because I’m not at all….but when I came over with the film crew I had to let them know that the book had actually come out. Before I went to the airport I left a couple of copies (laughs), and the next time I came I was very paranoid that they wouldn’t like it or me. Some people were fine, some people I felt were a little cool. Others didn’t even get around to looking at it.  There was some talk though, “I never said that” and “we didn’t do that.” “Where did you get this from?” And of course when I write, it can be considered non-fiction, but I keep changing stuff all the time. If I have got three pub scenes, I’m going to squeeze them into one scene. I am not going to write three different scenes. So it heightens it, but it is also false. But none of it wasn’t true…Unless you write you don’t know what it is like to pick up material and change it. It’s kind of cold in a way to say, This is really a good scene, I’ve got to use it, and I didn’t realize, “Oh this is going to hurt this cousin that I forgot about”. I made one relative sound not very pleasant because all the stories I heard about her were not pleasant, so I thought this is great material (laughs) and put it in the book and find out later that this side of the family was very hurt…oh, so that was their mother…(laughs). It was kind of stupid of me in a way to not realize, but a part of me was gobbling it up and going this is really great.

Were you at all influenced by Irish writers? Were you reading Irish writers?

Oh yeah…It is hard for me to remember exactly when. You know, I was a bookworm when I was a kid, so I was reading lots of stuff. To me nations didn’t matter. I loved Catch 22. I remember reading Kafka, Isaac Babel and probably not even knowing what countries they were from. I think I stole the collection Dubliners from my high-school library (laughs). My poor high-school library. I stripped half the books from there, but it was a good education. I remember reading Dubliners in high-school. I think we had to do some of them, and I just didn’t get them. I’d get to the end of each one and I’d go, “What the hell was that one about? Is that a story?” It didn’t fit what I thought of as a kind of O. Henry or a gotcha ending, and then later I looked at them and thought, “God these are genius, and the guy who was doing them was so young.” So Joyce was always definitely on the radar. I used to even think we might be related because my mother lived on Usher’s Island where The Dead takes place, her last name was Lyons, and Joyce had some aunts who lived on Ushers Island…that’s where they would go for the goose dinner (in The Dead) and their last name was also Lyons. It was two doors down.  My Uncle Marty may have taken music lessons from one of Joyce’s aunts.  I like to think that I am related to “Sunny Jim”, but there is no scientific evidence (laughs).

It’s good enough for me!

I did an Anglo-Irish course. I had a really good teacher, Paddy Grant, take me through Ulysses and through Yeats… and a bunch of other writers. I think on my own I really got into Flann O’Brien. The Poor Mouth is one of my favourite books in the world. It’s just so funny. It makes me laugh out loud. And then Edna O’Brien, and then even non-Irish things that were Irish in a way, like Heinrich Böll’s Irish Journal. And then I had a book about Dublin by V.S. Pritchett, so it was always kind of on the radar, but as I said I could be reading Tom McGuane from Montana or someone from Prague at the same... I was just open to all of them. I’m a bit of a sponge.  But Ireland has that pull.