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Your Mixtape Unravels my Heart: Máire T. Robinson

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Alison Wells

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maire_coverYour Mixtape Unravels my Heart is a new chapbook of ten stories by author Máire T. Robinson. This was the winning entry of the Doire Press International Fiction Chapbook Competition 2013. The stories are based on titles from bands such as The Smiths and Radiohead and are presented as Side A and Side B on this mixtape of stories.

The Book

This is Máire’s debut collection but her unique writing strengths are immediately evident. There is keen detail and psychological insight, her characters are realistically rendered and we see and feel clearly their hidden concerns. In the opening tale Ship out on the Sea she evidences the sometimes slightly surreal pre-occupations of our nation. A town tries to win a Tidy Towns competition “it’s a strange reward for a town” says the narrator. Robinson, like Kevin Barry, expertly exposes the small town angst and the ‘stumble drunk.’ Two girls desperate to escape their fate, try to up end the town’s bid for the winning prize in a half-triumphant gesture but soon the boat of flowers they liberate ends up back in the same place. This theme continues throughout, the conflict of a yearning for passion and excitement with the inescapable realities of life. In I started something I couldn’t finish the narrator’s girlfriend is the embodiment of that split reality, the Mad weekend Edel is replaced by responsible Edel in the weekdays. This chapbooks is full of sharp insights: “Love and hate are the same thing but just a different temperature”, new landscapes (the Japan of a poisoned village).  Poetic phrasing and visual imagery are the hallmarks of this book. In the Weight of my words a man feels that he can taste words, and although the taste in this collection is of the bitter-sweet reality of hope and ambition versus circumstance, the strength and delight of these words will make you want more from this writer in the future.

Releasing your debut is a fabulous time for any author. I spoke to Máire about the book and her experiences of bringing out Your Mixtape Unravels my Heart.

Process and Person

AW: Your collection of ten ‘mixtape’ stories is set out on Sides A and B? Do the sides have there own particular flavour or theme and was there a conscious ordering of the stories.

MTR: I’ve been writing short stories for the last five years or so, but I didn’t really have a grand plan for how they could work together as a collection. I think when you’re starting out, you tend to try a lot of different approaches. It’s interesting to experiment with voice, tone, length, point of view, etc., which means you end up with a body of work that’s quite varied.

When I started to look at ways of putting the collection together, the idea of a mixtape took hold. I’m very inspired by music, so I’d written a number of stories based on different song titles. I decided to include ten stories and to divide the book into “Side A” and “Side B” as there is a tonal shift between the five stories in each section. The aim was to create a sort of mixtape in written form – to fashion these individual stories into a cohesive whole.

AW: A major strength of your writing is your ability to depict the gray and uncertainty in people’s motivations and emotions, we come face to face with human truths. What for you is the strength of short stories in general. What can and should short stories do that other kinds of fiction might not? 

MTR: I’m interested in ambiguity, both in life and in fiction, and I like to consider things from all angles. Life is messy and chaotic and oftentimes scary, so I understand the need to put labels of “good” and “bad” on things. It’s a form of simplification, an attempt at control, but things are rarely that straightforward. I think the short story is the perfect vehicle for exploring those kinds of uncertainties and gray areas.

I also love the brevity of short stories, that they can contain an entire world in just a few pages. That also means that there’s less room for error. No matter how skilful a writer is, it’s nearly impossible to write a perfect story. All you can do is keep trying.

AW: The setting of one of your stories We Share our Mother’s Health is Japan. What inspired the story and the setting? 

MTR: I lived in Japan for a year in 2005 and it made a big impression on me. I haven’t made it back there since, but I’m still interested in anything Japan-related so I watch a lot of Japanese films. One was a feature documentary called Fish: A Japanese Obsession where a British journalist travelled around Japan to explore the country’s relationship with fish. Through watching that I learned about the mercury poisoning that took place in Minimata years ago and the division that occurred in the village when some of those affected tried to bring it to light.

In Japanese culture, there is this sense that each individual should contribute to the harmony of the group; sometimes referred to as wa (和). In some ways that’s a beautiful concept, but in others it can be problematic. If the needs and rights of society at large outweigh those of the individual, how can one person speak out against injustice? It becomes both an internal and an external struggle because it’s in direct opposition to that ingrained ideology of quietly getting on with things. That’s what I was interested in exploring with that particular story.

AW: Your stories display an understanding of and great sympathy with the ordinary and sometimes marginalised characters facing varied life challenges. The characters are also very vivid and real. What in your own background do you think has given you this insight and interest in such characters? 

MTR: Thank you. I don’t think it’s anything specific in my background that makes me interested in writing about ordinary or marginalised characters. If anything, I just have a preference for character-driven prose. For me, that’s what fiction is for.

I remember reading this book once where there was a scene of two characters going into a forest. What followed was pages and pages of tree descriptions. Seriously, it went on forever and it was frustrating as a reader because it was redundant. Even by reading that one word: “forest”, I already had a clear picture in my mind of where the scene was taking place. All I could imagine for those many, many pages was the two characters standing off to the side yawning while the author rhapsodied about moss and twigs.

Don’t get me wrong – descriptive language is great, setting the scene is wonderful, but it can’t be just that. Without characters at the heart of it, that’s all window-dressing. It’s a flat landscape painting the reader is scanning for signs of life, praying someone interesting will pop out from behind a rock.

AW: Tell us a bit about your journey to the publication of Your Mixtape Unravels my Heart and what does it mean to you to have this collection published? 

MTR: It came about through winning the Doire Press Chapbook Competition back in February. It’s an annual short story competition and first prize is publication of a chapbook. It’s a fantastic opportunity for fiction writers as chapbook opportunities are usually more centred around poets.

Working with Doire Press on this was a great experience. Sarah Moore did a fantastic job of working with me on the edits. Lisa Frank (who runs Doire Press along with her partner John Walsh) did the final layout and was on-hand to make sure the whole process ran smoothly. I was delighted with how it all turned out.

For more about Máire T. Robinson and her terrific book and to purchase the book see here

Máire is also a founder and editor of the wonderful new short story review and info site Short Story Ireland. See her article on the site here.

Máire’s Chapbook is published by Dóire Press.

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