Greetings, Hero

An interview with Aiden O'Reilly

Joseph Horgan

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Aiden O’Reilly’s short story collection Greetings, Hero was published by Honest Publishing UK in 2014, and launched in London and in Dublin. Aiden lived for nine years in Eastern Europe. He studied mathematics, and has worked as translator, building-site worker, IT teacher, and property magazine editor. His fiction has appeared in The Stinging Fly, The Dublin Review, The Irish Times, Prairie Schooner, 3am magazine, and in Unthology 4 and several other anthologies. His plays have been given staged readings at The Triskel in Cork, and in Dublin. He won the biannual McLaverty Short Story Award in 2008 and an Arts Council bursary in 2012. Here he is interviewed by the poet, Joe Horgan.

Joe Horgan: You follow in the great tradition of Irish short story writers; Joyce, O'Connor, O'Faolain up to contemporary writers now like Kevin Barry, Claire Keegan or Mary Costello. Yet, Greetings, Hero is only loosely 'Irish' in any definable way. Were you conscious of that and do you think the idea of an 'Irish' writer makes much sense in a globalised, internet-world anyway?

Aiden O’Reilly:  There’s way too much raking over the concept of ‘Irishness’ in fiction. Categorising writers by nationality doesn’t interest me all that much. I’m not unique in this. I was at a talk by M.J. Hyland a couple of years ago and she said much the same thing. It’s a bizarre anomaly to me that expectations and notions of what an ‘Irish writer’ should be concerned with have actually narrowed with increasing globalisation. Not surprisingly the concerns and settings of the stories in this collection reflect my own experiences, and I’ve lived in London, Berlin, and various parts of Poland, as well as in Dublin. And in Dublin I have Polish friends and would be familiar with their experiences.
It's only in recent years that I consciously give priority to some Irish writers in terms of my own reading. Before that I would simply read writers who I thought I could learn from. I don’t mean learn how to write, I mean learn how to make sense of the world. Looking in the wrong place, no doubt someone will tell me.

JH: You mention reading there as a way of trying to make sense of the world. In your fiction the settings seem just that little bit off, that small bit awry. Do you think seeing like this, at an angle, is a clearer way of seeing, a clearer way of making sense of the world?

AO'R: Your question has me flicking through the book and trying to project myself into some supposed position of common sense so I can see the skewed angles. For better or for worse those deviant perspectives came naturally to me.  I think there’s something terrifying about putting yourself in another person’s skin. At a visceral level you begin to doubt that your views and your feelings are truly yours and you see them more as a product of the way you’ve been brought up or the hand chance has dealt you.  In the story Stripped Bare, for example, there’s a young boy who is largely neglected, unwanted even, at home. He roams the streets at night and makes a den for himself inside an industrial premises that he’s been able to break into. He’s not actually all that badly treated, he’s not abused as such, but there’s a huge divergence between the image of the world presented to him at school and his own experiences. He hates keeping up the pretence. He has this real insight that he is not going to be able to hold on to the image he has of himself of being a good boy and that the process of becoming more brutal has begun. I tried to erase any trace of sentimentality from that story and just leave the experiences of the protagonist. I tried to maintain a similar surgical neutrality in the story Unfinished Business. It’s about a rather shy 40-year-old man who married at the age of twenty and missed out on the usual experiences of chatting up girls and going on dates. He decides to make amends for this, in the obvious way, by going to a nightclub. Some readers, naturally, find him a bit creepy or make insinuations that I admire him but at least one reader, a woman, said she enjoyed the optimistic ending and how he succeeds in embracing the experiences he missed out on in his youth.  To get back to your question, seeing things from different angles might well make the world more confusing, rather than clearer. I don’t pull down any claim from on high that it’s ennobling.

JH: In the story Contempt the main protagonist works on a building site but also reads a lot about pre-history. He has fallen out of university and working as a labourer lives a loose, undirected life amongst other labourers, immigrants and drifters. There is a line in the story, 'whatever they were, nothing remains of their thoughts and feelings',which comes up in his readings about Neanderthals. That line could also refer to many of the characters that feature in this collection. Did you deliberately set out to offer a record of those whom society and literature usually ignores? The collection certainly seems to have a coherent theme concerning marginalised lives.

AO'R: In a roundabout way, yes. I felt the urge to write about people and predicaments that I didn’t see much written about. And I tried to do that in a kind of ruthless, surgical way. I don't make assumptions that stories should warm your heart, increase your love of humanity, etc. and I don't write like that. I follow Chekov in that approach. But I wouldn’t call my characters marginalised. A young Polish immigrant in Dublin is hardly marginalised, nor an unemployed person, nor even an alcoholic. Unless the only ones not marginalised are journalists and TV presenters. Instead the coherent theme – of most of the stories – is of people who have stumbled into a situation where received beliefs and wisdom are not much use to them. ‘Lift not the painted veil that those who live call life’ kind of thing. In ‘Lost and Found’, for example, a rather middle-class, middle-everything man gets his umbrella stolen. Later, he finds the culprit on a bus, a 13 year old boy. Something like that happened to a friend of mine. I don’t want to give away the story but he’s plunged into a situation that really tests who he is. I’d go further than that: he has entered a boundary situation where he is forced to create who he really is. No advice column, no psychology lessons, no ten commandments are there to guide him. From the outside we speak of ‘characters’ with characteristics more or less fixed. But from the inside there is only the world. A character drags a whole world along with him or her. To get back to the story Contempt you mention, the main character Ruben has marginalised himself. He’s in a long line of outsiders from Diogenes to Mersault to Beckett’s rambling tramps. But even to put it in that way is to nudge the reader to a particular interpretation and I don’t want to do that. The reader is going to have to decide for himself/herself whether this guy needs a dose of Zoloft, or whether he just stopped believing in something the rest of us never bothered questioning. That's a core theme, but the story is also intended to be an accurate vignette of a construction site in Dublin during the boom. I can even point to which one. 

JH: Do you think your literature is political? These stories aren't cosy or comfortable though, that is not to say, they are not comforting. Still, they are likely to make a reader question the soft assumptions. Is that political? Are writers political?

AO'R: Your question catches me by surprise. I’d never thought of my work as in any way political. Yet, when I look at the settings of the stories, I see that they are post-communist Poland, Ireland during the boom years, and Ireland as a post-Catholic place. All of these deep-reaching shifts in society were undeniably political and driven by, well, the absence or abandonment of an ideology rather than any codified ideology. I think books, or fiction to be specific, occupies a less political role than it has in other decades and other countries. When I lived in Poland I caught the tail-end of an attitude that said writers were outside ‘the System’ and would tell truths that you don’t get in the ‘official’ version. That notion is far remote, almost meaningless, against the backdrop of being a writer today. One editor, when I touched on this subject, actually said, ‘what is there to rebel against?’ Clearly not a Marlon Brando fan.

JH: This is a collection with mainly male characters. In fact it might be one of the most sustained examples of mainly young(ish) male voices I’ve come across in a collection for a long while. Was that deliberate or did it just work out that way?

AO'R: It wasn’t deliberate. A lot of my stories have a strong central character and a narrative perspective that is close to being first person. I was focused on situations, fracturing of beliefs, the fault lines in the world that I mentioned earlier. I wasn’t focused on explorations of masculinity. In the final selection for the book, other stories I had written, without that intensity of perspective, didn’t tend to make it in. They didn’t get included just for having a male central character.

JH: The story The Laundry Key Complex seems to me to encapsulate many of the ideas that run through the collection. Is there one story that you think acts as a representation of the whole or does a short story collection not really work in this way?

AO'R: I hesitate to say which story is most typical. On that point, the critic John Boland named five stories which particularly impressed him. Then in The Examiner review Val Nolan briefly described five ‘standouts’. These two lists don’t have a single story in common. I’m quite pleased with that. What are the odds of that happening by chance? And the one you mention, ‘Laundry Key Complex’, isn’t on either list.

I love ‘concept’ stories which take an idea and unfold it. The kind of story where if you’re on the bus with a friend you end up saying ‘I’m reading this brilliant story by so and so and what happens is..’ and you repeat the whole story in summary. Ballard has plenty of these. Will Self as well and he’s definitely an influence on my work. And more recently I admire the work of Mike McCormack and Adam Marek and Pawel Huelle. The Laundry Key Complex is a one-off story like that. It’s about an unlikely friendship between an imaginatively limited science student and a psychology student who is a towering apotheosis of introspection. The latter eventually reveals a secret: he is undergoing psychoanalytic treatment for his complex, a superiority complex to be specific. As with all my stories, the reader’s sympathies will, hopefully, be divided. It’s quite short and thinking on it I can agree it captures a skein of themes that run though the book. How would I phrase it? ‘The incongruity between the immensity of consciousness and the rather mundane tasks assigned to us.’ It’s one of the earlier ones and was written when I was in Poland. I changed the location in the story to Ireland because some early readers were dissatisfied with the unspecified location, something which I was completely blind to. That’s interesting, don’t you think?
I love other types of stories too. I don’t think any writer is capable of sticking solely to concept stories. One story, which felt very different when writing it, is the title story. I wrote it quickly and it has an expansive, picaresque style. It was great fun to write. One of those that flow out from the pen. Only at a later stage did I begin to think about how it might appear to a reader and so begin to put a tighter structure on it. When Honest Publishing got back to me with a tentative ‘yes’ I said, ‘look, that submission I gave you was my idea of what goes together, but there’s actually another 5 or 6 stories that you might think fit in better.’ I didn’t know how to judge my more humorous and offbeat pieces, for instance. You hear that unity of theme is valued in a short story collection but on the other hand, personally, I love to read a collection that has one or two short ones or experimental ones. And also there was the temptation to include a story just because it had been in a prestigious publication. It’s hard to resist that and put in an unpublished story that you, the author, think better merits inclusion. I think I really wanted my editor to make the decision. I couldn’t get any perspective on it, beyond the core group of six stories. So it took a while to settle on a final selection and of course other factors come into play then. Even business reasons such as the length of the book and the cost of book production. That all came into it too.

JH: Just to ask a very basic question now but one that I think often gets ignored. Why write? What's the impulse? You certainly won't get rich and you'll more often than not get ignored. And then once you have a book out the work has only just begun. You have to spend time answering questions from the likes of me for a start. Isn't being a writer a lot like being self-employed but with really bad pay?

AO'R: We are into territory here where you can either sound megalomaniac or resort to clichés. (It’s what I do, spoken in a flinty tone.) I can tell you that when I studied science I wanted to understand the fundamental nature of the world, the hard-core stuff, not any faffing about: quantum mechanics. Writing is very, very different. At least one part of the motivation, maybe not just for me, maybe for all writers, is dissatisfaction with the ordinary nine-to-five working life. And a need to achieve something beyond the merely personal. So you end up writing about characters who are dissatisfied with the ordinary nine-to-five working life … it all gets to be very self-referential and tail-chasing.
In the sequence of events that constitute a real person’s life, significant experiences are left unfinished, not fully recalled, and not properly examined. Yet a story based on that experience, if it’s done well, has a unity and completion to it. It’s a bit of a con job really, isn’t it?  It’s fantastic though to have the book out. Unbelievable. Having work and deadlines, commissioned stories, reviews, teaching, festivals, come on, this is great for a writer. I’m in the privileged position that there are people actually waiting to read the first draft of my next book. With all that, who’d want money on top?

JH: The book has received great reviews, including in the review pages of all the main Irish papers, which is no mean achievement itself. When I reviewed it I was immediately taken with it, with the freshness of voice and the territory it explored. It really brought to my mind Breece D'J Pancake's amazing work and I can assure you that is high praise. Why short stories, though? Why that particular form? And what's next? I'm not going to make the mistake of asking a short story writer if they plan on writing a novel as that always seems to be the assumption, as if the short stories were just the warm-up act.  But what is next?

AO'R: Well, in April I have a story in The End: Fifteen Endings to Fifteen Paintings, a collaborative project involving the artist Nicolas Ruston and fifteen writers. We were asked to respond to a painting and explore in some way “The End”. I think about ten writers interpreted it as an end of a relationship or phase in life, while five went for a more apocalyptic vision. That should come out in May with Unthank Books in the UK, so that is literally what is up next.
I had actually written two or three novels before I started having some success with the short stories. And I’ve also had a couple of plays given staged readings in Cork and in Dublin. So I’m not just a short story writer anyway. There’s a lively scene with short stories though, with lit magazines and then places like 3am magazine, so there’s that extra motivation: you know there’s somewhere to send it, and that if it’s good enough, you'll find a place to accept it. (Unless it's over 4,000 words.) I’m working on a novel now. I hope to be able to go at it full-time soon. It’s been a frantic past year. But I’m continuing to write new stories, as well as rework old beginnings.
In all my writing I’m attracted to what’s elemental. M.J. Hyland asserted she wanted to write ‘stories that might have come from the cave: written in a single voice belonging to no fixed era, place, gender, or race.’ Looking over my stories, I seem to have followed the same principle. Partly it’s a reflection of the fact that I’ve lived in different countries, speaking different languages. Sometimes I recall what someone said, some memorable or revealing thing they said, and I can’t recall what language they said it in.  The difference between people as individuals far outweighs any national differences, at least within Europe. So I might base a story on a Polish immigrant in Dublin but it’s not the general status of immigrants that interests me so much as the situation that one person got into. And in this book, in Greetings, Hero, it’s generally a situation that veers off the map of all “official” advice, of all the self-help manuals and the psychotherapy guidelines. That’s the territory I like to explore.

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