A Partial Diary of the Cork International Short Story Festival 2019 (25 – 28 September)

Phil Olsen

Like me, the Cork Arts Theatre was established in 1976 (though I was never fondly referred to as the “CAT Club” in my early years). It is here that I arrived on a rainy late September evening to listen to Danielle McLaughlin – the recently announced winner of the Sunday Times Short Story Award 2019. The theatre shares its premises with a grey apartment block near the full to brimming River Lee. In fact, as I pulled open the door beneath the ‘Cork Arts Theatre’ sign – in its heavy serif honky tonk lettering – I noticed there was some sort of overflow creating a moat around the basement.

Inside, the bar area was quiet, and most of the faces (frowning or jowly or both) belonged to painted portraits on the wall. The man behind the box office helped locate my envelope of tickets before disappearing out the back, only to reappear moments later behind the bar. He greeted me anew and started pouring a Guinness. “You’re a Guinness man, I can see that.”

Moments later the theatre doors opened and the bar filled with writers and short story enthusiasts, spilling out from the previous event.

The Cork International Short Story Festival began life back in 2000, and while many of the invited authors are novelists as well as short story writers, the panel discussions and audience Q&As largely focus on the joys and pains of the short form.


Claire Adam & Danielle McLaughlin in conversation with Eimear Ryan
(9pm, Thursday 26 September, Cork Arts Theatre)

Claire Adam and Danielle McLaughlin were paired for an in conversation event with the festival’s Eimear Ryan. Claire read from her Trinidad-set debut novel Golden Child and Danielle read the short story ‘The Art of Foot Binding’ from her Dinosaurs on Other Planets collection before the three of them discussed writing processes as well as Danielle’s big prize win for ‘A Partial List of the Saved’. Of the latter, Danielle was incredibly humble, telling the audience that for the past two weeks she hadn’t been living the typical life of a short story writer at all (she was awarded the £30,000 prize in London on 12 September). The panel talked about crossing between formats and Eimear mentioned that Danielle’s next book will be a novel that carries over a couple of characters from her debut collection. Turns out they were lucky to make it into the novel; Danielle said she writes so many drafts of her short stories that she’s usually sick of the characters by the end of it. Claire suggested there is more freedom to feel your way around a narrative with a novel and Danielle agreed that short fiction requires more structure. A natural planner, she writes out a structure before embarking on a story, but admits by the end, her original structure will have more than likely been done away with (but it still helped her get going). With her forthcoming novel she ended up changing the entire thing from first person to third person and said it really helped sharpen it – it gave her some distance from the protagonist who she had been channelling too much of herself into.

I asked about story lengths and whether they write with publications or competitions in mind. Danielle said she used to write 2,000-3,000 word stories because that’s what a lot of competitions were asking for, but she eventually found her comfort zone with 5,000-8,000 word stories because she could get into the characters. She asked the Stinging Fly if she could send them something longer than their word limit. She told them she had a few stories that met their criteria but she had a longer story that she thought was probably better. Perhaps a growing confidence in her stories ultimately flipped the balance from trying to get them to fit journals to trying to get journals to accommodate them.


Mazen Maarouf in conversation with Patrick Cotter
(7.30pm, Friday 27 September, Cork Arts Theatre)

On the Friday evening, Palestinian-Icelandic writer Mazen Maarouf was in conversation with the festival’s artistic director, Patrick Cotter. Mazen’s Jokes for the Gunmen (Granta, 2019) was nominated for the 2019 International Booker Prize, which Patrick stressed was no small feat for a short story collection. Born in Beirut, Mazen had been desperate to leave Lebanon to escape the violence and political turmoil. So when, in 2011, he was offered residency in Reykjavik, he accepted joyfully before going to Google maps to find out where it was. He was disturbed by how peaceful and polite Iceland was and found it fascinating that for a place with a very low crime rate, there was a really high standard of crime fiction writing. He laughed and said he didn’t know if that was any better… All these peaceful people imagining themselves committing horrendous crimes! Mazen admitted he hadn’t heard of any Icelandic authors before moving there. This was soon rectified as the person they sent to greet him was Sjón, acclaimed novelist and Oscar nominated lyricist for Dancer in the Dark. Mazen then realised that he was surrounded by writers and that something like 10% of Icelanders have published books. An old guy who came round to fix his sink asked Mazen what he did, and when he explained that he was a writer, the man said “Ah, me too” and handed him a novel about a plumber.

The informal passing back and forth of books became a feature of the festival too. There weren’t formal queues to book signing tables – there weren’t book signing tables – if you wanted an author’s scribble on your title page, you grabbed them in the bar. And if you missed the opportunity before the bell rang for the next event, you could probably find them after the next one… It was heartening to see so many of the invited writers attending each other’s readings and sticking around for the whole festival.


Seán O’Faoláin Prize Reading & Southword 37 Launch
(3pm, Saturday 28 September, Cork Arts Theatre)

Saturday brought torrential rain and the final day of the festival. While it was tempting to remain in the B&B cosying up with the owner’s cats, the CAT club was calling and I was more than happy to hole up in the theatre for four back-to-back talks. First of the afternoon was the Seán O’Faoláin Prize reading and the launch of Southword issue 37. Prize judge Billy O’Callaghan tried to gesticulate how big a pile of 900 short stories is, before admitting to being horrified to discover that winner Mike Allen had seen off the other entrants with what was his first ever submitted story. Even more sickening then was what followed – Mike stood at the Perspex lectern and gave his first public reading like a seasoned pro – calmly paced, with pauses for effect and contemplation.


Julian Barnes in conversation with Nadine O’Regan
(4.30pm, Saturday 28 September, Cork Arts Theatre)

At 4.30pm, latecomers climbed over limbs and laps to reach the last remaining seats for the festival’s headline act, Julian Barnes. Nadine O’Regan, Arts Editor at Ireland’s Sunday Business Post, had the daunting task of introducing and interviewing him. After mentioning that Julian was at an advanced stage in his writing career, Nadine was teased by a straight-faced Julian pretending to be upset by this. While inescapably English, Julian told us that he feels European and France is his second country, having holidayed there annually as a child. One of his first jobs after graduating was working for the Oxford English Dictionary. Working as part of a team tasked with finding the earliest use of words, his focus was on sports terminology and dirty words, and he worked on letters C to H with a bit of B, “which, if you think about it, covered quite a lot of swear words.” While working as a journalist he wrote a few novels and then he felt he could tackle a short story. Three short story collections were published over a period of about 15 years (Cross Channel, 1996; The Lemon Table, 2006; Pulse, 2011) and he said he hasn’t had an idea for a single short story since. So when it was time to take to the lectern and give a reading, he chose an old story, ‘The Story of Mats Israelson’, which originally appeared in The New Yorker in 2000. He explained that he considered various possible locations for the story before settling on Southern Sweden, 1898. He doesn’t Google places because that’s the view of a place now; he likes to look at old Baedeker Guides to get a view of the place then.

Asked about his own favourite short story writers, he put forward Helen Simpson as our best short story writer at the moment, Hilary Mantel for her ability to cover jumps in time without losing the reader, and William Trevor for being great at both novels and short stories.

When discussing his writing process, there is some alignment with Danielle McLaughlin, who talked about discarding her structures part way through. Julian said his process varies greatly in terms of whether he knows the end of a story before he begins… “You don’t always end up with the ending you think you might get.” He went on to say that John Irving starts at the end of his novels so he does know what he’s going to get, but for him, “in a way, the book tells you how to write it.”

Writing awards was a recurring topic of the festival, and when asked for his take on them (Julian won the Man Booker Prize in 2011 for The Sense of an Ending), he said: “Prizes are for the encouragement of the young and the consolation of the old. In the middle you just get on with the writing.”


Nicole Flattery & Lucy Sweeney Byrne in conversation with Sarah Byrne
(7.30pm, Saturday 28 September, Cork Arts Theatre)

The penultimate pairing of writers came from the ‘encouragement of the young’ end of the spectrum with Nicole Flattery (winner of the White Review Short Story Prize in 2017) and Lucy Sweeney Byrne (twice awarded a literature bursary from the Arts Council of Ireland). Journals The Stinging Fly and Banshee Press nurtured Nicole and Lucy after their short story submissions impressed them, and became publishers of their respective debut collections.

After Lucy’s reading of ‘Montparnasse’ from her collection Paris Syndrome, the authors discussed writing comedy as ‘millennials’. Sarah observed that Peep Show and Flea Bag both reveal their characters’ inner thoughts to the audience and that Lucy has similar fun with inner monologues in her writing. Lucy said she enjoys the solitude of a writer and often feels like Mark Corrigan from Peep Show, who winds up in a nightclub and tells himself he is just Louis Theroux studying human behaviour.

Nicole read an excerpt from ‘Abortion Love Story’, the longest story in her collection Show Them A Good Time, before conversation turned to building characters. “I’m not looking for linear or chronological stories,” Nicole told us, “I’m more interested in the frame of mind of a character, so it’s going to be more fragmented.” Lucy confesses to writing a lot of autofiction, so she likes to give bad things to characters – all her anxiety dreams and worst urges. She also loves making something out of the mundanity of life in the present day – like being eighth in the queue at Lidl and saying “Fuck my life!”

Lucy asked Nicole if all her stories were finished when she came to put her collection together and she laughed. No, only about five, so she had to hurry through getting some more written. Lucy explained that she also wrote three brand new stories for her collection, including one that ends the book in the same place that the opening story is set.


Kevin Barry & Peter Murphy in conversation with Nadine O’Regan
(9pm, Saturday 28 September, Cork Arts Theatre)

With just ten minutes before the final event of the festival, it was helpful that the friendly barman remembered what (he had decided) I was drinking. “Ah, the Guinness man. Coming right up.” Kevin Barry blames drink for him not getting serious about his writing until his late twenties. He was living in Cork at the time and enjoying the nightlife too much. He decided he needed more discipline than to be satisfied with jotting down a few drunken sentences after a night out. Peter Murphy explained that he got into music journalism while he was in bands and the review writing gave him discipline. Kevin used to freelance too (from ages 17 – 37) and found that it helped take the preciousness out of writing. “You just have to write.”

Both Kevin and Peter agree that the trick lies in writing lots and then carving back. Kevin gave up his flat in Cork so he would have his rent money to spend on a timeshare caravan in West Cork to focus on his writing. “I wrote 60,000 words of rubbish but then I knew the graft of it.” Host Nadine asked if they subscribed to the idea that you have to write 100,000 words before you write one good one. Kevin said yes before he and Peter joked about the annoying writers in their twenties who come out fully formed and successful from the off. “I think we’ve got a few of those in the audience, haven’t we?” Peter said, squinting into the crowd. He wrote a lot of wordage before honing his technique – peers would say “Peter, this is lovely writing but where’s the story?!” He loves Flannery O’Connor’s ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ and Ted Chaing’s Stories of Your Life and was grateful that Lucy Caldwell invited him to write something for the anthology Being Various: New Irish Short Stories, as he hadn’t published anything for five or six years. Peter read from ‘Downtown Queen’, his story inspired by a transsexual person with whom Lou Reed had a relationship. Nadine compared this to Kevin’s novel about John Lennon, Beatlebone, and the idea of inserting a real person into a work of fiction. Kevin said he watched lots of YouTube clips and US TV show interviews to try to capture John Lennon’s tone. “Never again will I insert a real person into one of my books,” he joked.

Kevin then performed his story from the Being Various anthology, ‘Who’s-Dead McCarthy’, set in his hometown of Limerick. I say performed, rather than read, because it really was more of a one-man play, complete with hilarious accents. Afterwards, while the rows of red seats were still rocking with laughter, he told us that acting out a story is a fundamental part of seeing what works. He quoted Don Delillo who said he didn’t care about the meaning of a sentence as long as the rhythm was right. Kevin said “I cut a lot, like a sculptor finding a shape. Cutting it will always make it better. The fun part is taking away the scaffolding and seeing if it will still stand.” Asked if his ideal format might actually be radio drama, due to his strong use of dialogue, Kevin answered writing in one form can help you solve a problem you might have in another form. He doesn’t have a preference but he does often ask “can I make this work as a short story?” as a first impulse.

On tips for aspiring writers, Kevin said it is important for him not to go online in the morning. His brain gets too jittery and distracted. “Get to the desk as quickly as possible after waking up. We are all brilliant at narrative in dreams, and then we can’t do it, or we’re embarrassed by it.” He kids himself: “there is a god who pulls a lever at 12 noon, allowing the Internet to exist.”

Good short stories have long lives and Dark Lies the Island, Kevin’s collection that contains his Sunday Times Short Story Award 2012 winning ‘Beer Trip to Llandudno’ has now been adapted into a film. Featuring characters from the stories, it will be the closing night screening at this year’s IndieCork Festival.

I exited Cork Arts Theatre and walked across the River Lee, completely full to the brim.


Phil Olsen

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