Raw Emotion and Fear:

Kelly Creighton's contemporary dystopia

Susanne Stich

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Described by Paul McVeigh as 'a fearless writer with an impressive range', Belfast-born mother of four Kelly Creighton is the author of crime novel The Bones Of It (Liberties Press, 2015), which won the San Diego Book Review award. Prior to that a collection of poetry, Three Primes, was published by Lapwing Press in 2013. Bank Holiday Hurricane (Doire Press, 2017), her debut short story collection, has been praised by Bernie McGill as 'distinctive, powerful and strung … with an electric high-wire tension'. She is also the editor of online literary journal The Incubator.

I recently caught up with her to hear all about the new book.

Susanne Stich: In one of the stories in the collection, 'And Three Things Bumped', a character fantasizes about being a writer. It's a recurring theme, and his particular definition of what it might mean is intriguing: 'making something from nothing or stories from stories. I suppose there are more than two ways of looking at the one thing.' 

Let's start by talking about your roots as a writer. What motivated you in the first place? And how has your understanding of what makes a story, changed over time?

Kelly Creighton: What started me was being an avid reader as a kid. That love for literature either stays with you or it goes away and comes back. I used to dislike reading stories about writers. I thought it was a bit lazy on the writers' part, but yes, there are two writer characters in the collection: one is an American playwright who is long into her career, and then there is this character that you’re talking about who is the protagonist in 'And Three Things Bumped'. He is very much starting off, he is someone who wants to write but can’t, has ideas but doesn’t do anything much with them. We see him over ten years, and this remains the case. I’m interested in this idea of people wanting to be a writer but not wanting to write, or being unable to get the ideas down, or being afraid to send the work out there for publication. And then in comparison we have Stephen Kent, the taxi driver, whom this character meets a few times and gleans a heap of information from each time. Stephen has no trouble putting his story forward. 'And Three Things Bumped' is about storytelling; it’s about the stories we tell over and over to others before we are happy with them ourselves.

Over time I’ve come to realise that story-telling is a complicated process; often the teller is trying to colour your view of a certain thing, persuade you to stay and read, or listen, on. And I have to admit that I like the thought of a story emerging from nothing, which could be scary for some, just as it is for our protagonist who likes clear boundaries. But yet for other writers the blank page excites and gives them freedom. 

SS: You are noticeably versatile as a writer. Prior to Bank Holiday Hurricane you published a crime novel and a poetry collection, and when it comes to the short story you take a variety of approaches. One thing that struck me was that in the majority of these new stories you follow your characters over a prolonged period of time. The title story, for instance, gradually reveals a woman's harrowing personal journey, which has lead to her harming her children and spending time in prison. The story spans many years, considering also what happens upon her release.

'And Three Things Bumped' operates similarly, scrutinizing a marriage by referring to various encounters over the years with the aforementioned taxi driver, who picks up the husband and tells him in great detail about his personal life without later remembering him. Other stories gravitate around specific moments, e.g. 'Ouch', which presents a best man's wedding speech including fragments of the audience's reaction, or 'Friend request', a woman's imaginary letter to an old friend she has come across on Facebook. 

What is it that you love about the short story form, and what do you find challenging? And can you tell us a little about the genesis of Bank Holiday Hurricane?

KC: When I started writing the stories about five years ago (the last one I wrote just over a year ago, so they span over four years) I kept hearing that the short story should be set on a day like no other - a day that changes things - and other things to that effect. Then I read more traditional stories that spanned decades and I really fell in love with that approach. Why should a story be set in one day? When you tell someone a story and they don’t know you all that well sometimes you need to interject with a bit of back story so they can understand better what you’re really saying. There are pivotal moments all the way through life. So I did that. But also, I love the contemporary short story and that it can be a Facebook private message or a best man’s speech. There are no hard and fast rules.

I was writing a novel and taking an evening class in creative writing, so the short stories, or the ideas for them, first started at class exercises, and in between drafts of the novel I would write a short story. After some time, I was able to put them together and hear how they spoke to each other. I would see a character in the background of one story and realise I’d written about that person in more depth somewhere else, and that’s when I decided that the collection would be loosely linked stories. The rest of the stories I wrote were about characters in the collection that I picked out because they intrigued me and I wanted to develop them further. 

I find everything about writing to be a challenge and I get bored very easily. What keeps me interested is exploring the many possible ways in which you can tell your story.

SS: In addition to the fact that the stories are interrelated, relationships and their challenges loom large in Bank Holiday Hurricane: between romantic partners, parents and children, work colleagues, strangers, but also, and especially, between friends who have known each other for a long time and come through all kinds of changes. 

Some of the stories feature large casts of characters, and you slowly reveal the deeper, darker and often perplexing nature of their connections, the things they remember about each other and the things they have forgotten. There also is a sense that while these people spend time together there are multiple chasms between them, a compulsion almost to alienate each other and sabotage the possibilities of authentic connection. Here are a few quotes to give a flavour:

My mother never told me who my father was. Les was my step-dad. When I was three, Les came on the scene, they met when they worked together in the bar. There was a robbery one night and they, with a customer, were kept hostage. In a spasm of bravery Les tried to wrestle the gun away and was shot in the arm. My mother brought Les to her house to look after him. My sister was born a year later.

My mother never loved Les. A bat could see that. My mother told me he used his bad arm as an excuse, he clocked all day, did nothing, had her ironing shirts and cleaning boots as if he had somewhere to wear them. She told me if it wasn’t for the fact he didn’t pester her for sex anymore, she wouldn’t have been so tolerant of him. She told me, Marry a man you fancy the arse off. ('Bank Holiday Hurricane')

After a sleep and a homemade meal at my mother’s I visit Hanna. She pours that drink and tells me that story that, at first, seems as though it is about Suzanne but really it is about Keith. It is an old film I can’t remember watching until the final scene: they are having a drink, a laugh, Keith is pulling Hanna’s hands over his straining crotch. She pulls away. Keith has repulsed Hanna. In turn she now repulses herself. ('Matrimonial Agencies')

We like our choices to be valued, perhaps, higher than our friends’, like one day we might find that there is a rent to pay on our friendships and first we’ll have to know the cost, and if they’re worth it. (Ibid.)

How do you go about creating the dynamics between your characters?

KC: There is an element of self-preservation with a lot of the characters; they are weary of being vulnerable in front of each other and therefore put up barriers so no one can get through, and I find that sad. When a relationship is new we see someone’s best face, the one they put forward, but in the relationships that we have had for a long time, things are far more complex. I am interested in the unsaid, the ‘between the lines’. These are things you notice over the years: like competition between so-called friends, and misogynistic undertones in people (men and women), the advice that adults give younger people that are based on their own regrets. I’ll hear a remark in the middle of an otherwise ordinary speech and it will jar from me, and it’s a little spark, really, for me to wonder, why did they say that? I can’t leave thoughts like that alone. They will work their way into my writing at some stage. 

SS: It is often raw emotion that feeds the compelling narrative voices in these stories as your characters find themselves caught up in webs of their own and other people's lies, assumptions and disappointments. Good intentions and hope for a better life are frequently expressed, but mental hostility and hopelessness have become ingrained in many of the characters. In fact, some of the stories read like protocols of coping mechanisms, revealing a contradictory underbelly of behaviours, thoughts and emotions. When it comes to plot, this makes for dangerous undercurrents, frequently leading to (further) tragedy and isolation. Here is another selection of quotes:

When it rained I would get an ache in my heart I couldn’t explain to anyone. Aidan wasn’t anyone to talk to. He barely said anything unless it was about people who pissed him off. He would wait till I was happy about something then he would launch into a tale about someone he once hated. He said he was happy for me, that I had him, because if anyone ever treated me badly he’d make sure they were sorry. He said, sure wouldn’t I do the same for him. I said I would. ('Bank Holiday Hurricane')

A new salon to work in... in a better place. Fucken sunshine! Charmaine shook her fists victoriously at the chandelier above them, closed her eyes as if it was the closest thing they had to a sun. She let out a laugh.

Natalie considered the laugh, the fidgeting, this glut of remembering. Before, everything had been for tomorrow with Charmaine. Always living in tomorrow till tomorrow came. ('The World's Getting Smaller All the Time')

You know when there’s a spider dangling in front of you and you try to flick it away but the thread just gets longer till the spider’s just hanging there? No? Have you never seen that? Well, it’s awful bizarre the way it happens. Sure you probably wouldn’t flick a spider away like that. You look like a nice woman. Must be thinking I’m a bad bitch, but I didn’t hurt the wee creature. ('The Thing about Spiders')

What shaped your particular version of contemporary dystopia, if you don't mind me calling it that?

KC: I don’t mind that term at all. Fear is what I think it boils down to. So many times people act out because they are fearful, or maybe they try to appease others because they are afraid of what will happen if they don’t, or maybe they try to appear happy because they are afraid to be looked at as hopeless. This leads to different coping mechanisms that can seem contradictory, and in turn I suppose that can lead to tragedy and isolation, absolutely. But fear is where a lot of that starts. There are characters in Bank Holiday Hurricane too, but not all, who are closed off emotionally, especially with the people they should be closest to. They are hostile and emotionally guarded and again I think that has to come from fear; fear of being rejected or ridiculed. That is a raw emotion and it’s hard to get past for a lot of people.

SS: On a related note, can we talk about the impact of Northern Ireland on the stories? You were born here, lived away for a while, in Australia and England, but then returned, and now reside in North Down. Your novel The Bones of It, a crime thriller told from a young male's perspective, explored how the Troubles and their legacy play themselves out in the male psyche across the generations, a son's who was born on its periphery, and a father's who witnessed the conflict first-hand. Picking up from there, Bank Holiday Hurricane features men, women and children of different generations, and, while not all of the stories are set in Northern Ireland and there is little direct reference to concrete events, the aftermath of conflict is palpable. Not unlike Lucy Caldwell in her collection Multitudes (Faber & Faber, 2016) and Jan Carson in Children's Children (Liberties Press, 2016) you home in on layers of interiority, highlighting the imprints of a violent past on your characters' mental state. What role did Northern Ireland play in the planning and writing of the collection?

KC: I did write a few of the stories around the same time as The Bones of It so that could be a part of it. But not only that, when you are from a place where there is such conflict and you grow up with it, you have an understanding of how it has impacted you and how it has impacted on the people around you. I don’t think there is any getting away from what it has done to the mental state of people here. The Troubles aren’t mentioned in the collection but their shadow is there, undeniably.  

SS: The women in your stories struggle as much as the men. You write equally convincingly from both male and female perspectives, and your narrators are often flawed and unreliable. Considering a current trend in writing towards amplified female standpoints and complexities, your collection introduces its fair share of female characters that fit this bill (e.g. the narrator of the title story), but it also complements these with equally intricate male ones. How did you approach writing men and women into the stories? 

KC: The lasting legacy for children of the Troubles (who ultimately, according to most statistics, grew up to be men) is devastating. In The Bones of It Scott, the narrator, notes this and ponders to himself if women weren’t affected. This is, of course, far from the case. That invisibility of women’s stories and a lack of genuine interest in how conflict has affected girls here is insulting to me. 

Ultimately, I write what I am compelled to write. In the last few years I have written a lot in the female perspective, and the novel I am writing at the moment is a mixture of perspectives. Gender in and of itself is fascinating to me. I’m interested in all of its complexities. I don’t think any of us have it easy, and that’s what I was hoping to show with Scott in the novel; he was really struggling with what society’s view of masculinity is. 

I’m glad you think I write convincingly from both sides, that’s a great compliment. Thank you.  

SS: You're welcome.

Let's look at style for a moment. I enjoyed the authenticity of the dialogue as much as your characters' distinctive inner voices. Here's an example from 'The Thing about Spiders':

She’s no dozer, my sister Emma, take when Mum went to prison. No! I mean heaven. Sometimes I go to say heaven and I say prison instead. That’s mad, isn’t it? You’re laughing now. Everyone in the hairdressers says to me, You’re a laugh, love. They like me there. It is good craic, you know... What was I talking about? My sister Emma? Oh. My mummy dying... Yeah.

I also liked how you often evoke an almost filmic atmosphere and complement it with interiority, thus leading to a sort of epiphany. Here are two examples:

Mum shouts at me to remember to lock the front door. Dad lurches over to his car. He has a grass stain on the back of his shirt he doesn’t know about. He sits in the car, ducking his head to give me a smile and a wave. He’s trying to be happy because he won’t know if he doesn’t try. ('The Parent Trap')

A thump landed on the window. There Brandon stood, looking in. Just as suddenly as the past meets the present Tanya’s face changed. She no longer looked good. She looked sadder than I’d ever seen her. It was understandable. You are only as happy as your least happy child, to use a phrase of my mother’s. ('The Floodgate Effect')

What are your thoughts on style? Is it something you plan, or does it evolve organically? And what are some of your influences?

KC: I wish I could plan style but when I have tried that in the past it hasn’t worked out how I pictured it. I’ll think I want to write a story about this particular theme and I’ll know a few things that I want to include. First person is more comfortable for me, then I can just hear the voice and get it on the page. Because these stories have been around for a long time now I will have edited them numerous times and probably wound up removing a longer ending to make it punchier, more insightful or more ambiguous; it depends on the rest of the story. 

My influences are poets, novelists, memoirists, fiction writers, but I can’t look to them for ideas on style because it won’t work in my stories, I have to rely on instinct. 

SS: You are also the editor of well-respected literary journal The Incubator. How does this role inform your writing, and vice versa?

KC: I was really interested in showcasing the contemporary Irish short story, where it is at nowadays. It has been interesting, no doubt, and informed the writer-me on so many levels: firstly how to interact with editors myself, how to stick to guidelines, how to make sure that the piece I am sending is as well edited as I can get it. Also, how to not take rejection personally. This is a biggie! 

When you are putting a journal together as the editor you need to have a good mix of themes, voices, points of view. The selection process is very subjective, of course. Sometimes when I’m editing I see that something that would have gone in on another edition can’t be included solely because we’ve just had a very similar piece. And a good editor will not make their journal 90% male, you’d think. 

These days we get so many submissions that it is hard to keep up. But it also gives me a flavour of what people are writing, and that’s really exciting. When you come across a great writer and have this excitement about their talent, it’s an honour then.

SS: Any recent reads you admired, and why?

KC: Bernie McGill’s new novel The Watch House is a really beautiful read. Sharon Dempsey’s Little Bird is a fantastic dark new crime novel, and I’m reading David Park’s latest short story collection Gods and Angels; also great. 

And not so recent, but a recent read for me, is Clare Boylan’s The Collected Stories. They are unforgettable tales told with pluck and a cool humour that I appreciate; the characters are flawed and real, I adore her truthful writing. The collection has brought me to seek out Boylan’s back catalogue of work which I would love to see reissued. 

SS: If you had to pick a story to read and discuss for the New Yorker fiction podcast (any story in fact), which would it be?

KC: That’s a tough one! I would say 'Brokeback Mountain' by Annie Proulx, although I am not just as awed with it as I first was; it reads a bit stilted when I reread it now, but there is so much scope for discussion. It is visceral, stunningly descriptive and what a storyteller Proulx is to evoke such frustration, sadness and longing in one story, that is actually set over many years. The story is so detailed that it was made into a movie, and with very little ‘padding out’. Also, most of the dialogue has been unchanged from page to screen, which is practically unheard of and goes to show how much a writer can express succinctly.

SS: Thank you Kelly for giving this your time and thought. It's been fascinating to hear your take on things. Best of luck with your future writing!