James Claffey is an Irish writer originally from County Westmeath now living in Carpinteria, California, his book of short fiction Blood a Cold Blue has just been released by US based Press 53. I first came across Claffey’s striking, original lyrical work on the peer review site Fictionaut. The writing in this collection has described as combining “stark Irish reality and gorgeous poetic surrealism in short, tight mini-narratives” and has been praised for its methods of “stop-motion photographic realism” and for the “image-rich, compact and fragmented style,” that “nudges Claffey’s prose towards poetry.” I caught up with Claffey to find out more about his new book, his writing style and how Irishness affects his writing now that he’s abroad.
“My family lived in Moate until I was four,” he tells me. “We moved to Dublin and I grew up in Rathgar, round the corner from Joyce’s birthplace, and the house where AE, George Russell lived.” His formative years were in Dublin but he spend a couple of years in London. His experience there was difficult, he was “terribly unhappy there, finding it hard to make friends, working long hours, commuting for hours each day.” When he returned it was to a “variety of sales and retail jobs.” He also “played a lot of tennis, read a ton of books.”
Eventually Claffey applied for a Donnelly Visa “when people were sending hundreds of applications each to the States.” He posted the visa application and forgot all about it, he admits until a couple of years later when “having breakfast at my parents’ house” he received a letter calling him for a medical and interview. He did not make the move straight away. Although he visited the US several times to keep his visa valid, it was three years until he took the plunge and moved there.
In fact Claffey moved to San Diego for thirteen years where he “married, went to college, divorced, met my present wife.” The couple then “moved to her home town of Carpinteria where her family grows avocados.”
Having previously studied English and taken workshops at the MFA faculty of UC Irvine, and then working as a high school teacher, Claffey says that his wife Maureen encouraged him to “give writing another chance.” He was accepted at a fully funded MFA program in Louisiana so they went to live in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, eventually returning to the avocado ranch in 2011.
“The distance is a great thing, isn’t it?” he says. “Maybe it’s a bit like being too close to a picture at an art gallery, nose to canvas, the colors and strokes indistinguishable, and when you move away everything becomes clear.” His own personal issue he says was that “I never felt good enough to write when I lived in Ireland.” While this was partly because “I was too young and naive, unshaped, and my writing rudimentary” he also finds that “living so far away lets me create my own worlds within the very real world of my Irish experience.” Claffey reports that he’s able to “latch onto the specific details and spin them off into less real, more imaginary narratives.”
His wife, believes that his Irish accent, as well as being a man, is an advantage when reading. He agrees that “here in America in 2013, I’m privileged, but only because I work hard at my writing and embrace my Irishness as an advantage.” Interestingly Claffey contends that if he were writing in Ireland he would struggle and be “cowed” as just “one more writer in a sea of writers.” Of the writing life, submissions and rejections he says “of course the struggle is always there the dusting yourself off and getting back in the fray.” For Claffey, part of his Irish heritage is “the ability to rebound” and not to give up in a business where ”where rejection is the staple diet, and only every now and again do we sneak some of that acceptance cake from the table without being seen!”
Claffey believes that his Irishness has affected the style of his writing and the flow of his words. Having done an MFA he feels that he was trying too hard and that there was an artificiality to his writing that “had the stamp of workshop.” The novel he had worked on at LSU was being rejected. He knew that the writing wasn’t “honest”. It was only when he returned to Carpinteria and began writing “from a place of freedom from the critic” that he felt his prose began to sound right. Being Irish made all the difference: “Now, the structure of sentences, the colloquial phrases that appear, the sound of the words when I read them aloud, are honest and born of my Irish beginnings, the teachers in low and high babies, the secondary school priests with their soutanes, spouting John Donne and Yeats, swishing their way around the classroom.”
Reading Claffey’s work I’m taken by his striking cinematic images, the dreamlike associations that upend, startle and discombobulate, leaving you breathless at their strange beauty. His prose seems to take off and lifts us with it. I wondered how his freeform but narratively cohesive style came about.
He’s pleased at the cinematic reference, movies were a big part of his life growing up. “My brothers and I would go to the Saturday matinees at the Kenilworth Cinema in Harold’s Cross, or the Classic in Terenure, and we’d watch all the classics of the time. I remember ChittyChittyBangBang, and Flash Gordon, and Tarzan, and Giant. And later, I would go to the Lighthouse on Middle Abbey Street and watch the foreign movies, devouring the storytelling, the brilliance of Louis MalIe, adn Bunuel, and Jeunet and Caro’s strange movies, like Delicatessen. I’m also reminded of the films of Terence Davies, Distant Voices, Still Lives, and Of Time and the City, and find great comfort in the portrayal of time and place by Davies. I love how he uses music and image to capture the essence of his subject.”
His love for the movies is evident but he’s grateful to his wife, Maureen for introducing him to many writers and poets “working against the grain,” such as Jean Toomer, Bhanu Kapil and Anne Waldman. Their “off the beaten track” and “fearless” writing encouraged him to “give up writing the book the agent wants to read.” He’s passionate: “I can’t do that. Or, I don’t want to do that. I write from a deep imaginative seam inside me, fifty years of material in my hands, and from there I take an image, or a memory, and let the narrative unfold wherever it wants to go. I read this in Steven Elliott’s daily Rumpus email the other day and it resonated with me:
“What I learned from Richard Hugo, which is probably different from what he was trying to teach me, and different from what I’ve always thought before: There is no reader. There should be images in every piece of writing that only the author understands. Don’t write to communicate; use the telephone instead.”
Claffey says “I have images in my writing that only I “get,” and that’s a good thing.”
Because of Clafffey’s visceral and startlingly imaginative prose, I asked him how he approached his writing or whether it approached him.
“Good question. The short fiction/prose tends to approach me in the form of images I see either out walking, or maybe reading about in the news. Sometimes I’ll look at a tree branch, or a signpost and in my mind it turns into something completely different, and that transformation is the genesis for a piece of writing. The cinematic, snapshot quality of some of my prose springs from my own attempt to be more experimental and risk-taking.” Interestingly he talks about how his process works for a longer form. “With the novel I’m working on it’s the opposite, and I have the framework of the story in place before the filling in takes place.” In revision this involves “strengthening parts of the plot, adding more narrative sections, completing the building, so to speak.”
Claffey’s collection Blood a Cold Blue comprises 83 fictions. I wondered how he went about collecting such a large number into a coherent volume. “I began with about 150 pieces, and a good many form the building blocks of the novel, so they didn’t get included in the collection.” He says that the pieces were placed mainly organically and linked stylistically rather than thematically and have a “consistent pattern, voice and rhythm.” He describes the collection as being “kaleidoscopic in nature, bits of imagery, colors, sounds, floating in the air, and every time you see a new configuration.” Claffey says that the nature of “flash fiction, short prose, prose poetry” is that each piece can be easily consumed, re-read and ruminated on. For Claffey, Killarney Clary, Lydia Davis, Alex Pruteanu, Susan Tepper, Meg Tuite, Kathy Fish, Bonnie ZoBell, and other fine writers capture this beautiful form best.
While a couple of presses were interested in publishing Blood a Cold Blue he fixed on Press 53 mainly because of the admiration he had for other writers they had published such as Meg Pokrass and Nahal Suzanne Jamir. Editorially – since many of the pieces had been published already – there was not much to do. After rejecting some cover suggestions, Kevin Morgan Watson from Press 53 sent him the bird image which he loved but it wasn’t until a last ditch search he found an Icelandic email address on an old Live Journal blog that he was able to finally track down the photograher and use the image he loved.
James Claffey has had a fantastic track record in having his short fiction published in mags and zines, which are his favourties? “I love Connotation Press and the work they do, and Literary Orphans is a stellar new site where I now do fiction editorship work,” he reports. “Other great spots are Cease Cows and Pithead Chapel, too, and Thrice Fiction, who produce a spectacular full-color magazine. I was thrilled to be published by Word Riot, Necessary Fiction, FWriction, and Spittoon.” In terms of print publications he is most proud of his inclusion in The New Orleans Review. He looks at his experience of writing and publishing as a journey marked by “setbacks, rejections, acceptances, small victories and defeats.” His view is that, as writers we “take the steps every day to live this writing life, not from choice, but because we must.”
A difficult task for any author is to select his own favourite works and James Claffey is no exception, pressed, from Blood a Cold Blue he chooses “Birdcage, because the image of a boy having a bird trapped in his chest came to me out of the blue, and I feel there’s a longer narrative to tell there, maybe a novella.” He also favours The Cane Flays Bare and Jam Jar are favorites for their musical, imagistic writing at sentence level and “Cane Flays Bare is a bit of a tip of the hat to some of Joyce’s writing.” He also loves the title story “for its strangeness, the girl whose head turns into a seagull’s, and the welter of detail from my time living in Sandymount just before I moved to the States.”
As for favourite writers? Joyce is mentioned but also “I love Ron Hansen, particularly Mariette in Ecstasy. Also, McGahern, and Belinda McKeon, and Claire Keegan, and Kevin Barry, how brilliant he is, too!” He says “Ethel Rohan, another Irish exile, is doing great things in the Bay Area, and there’s a super writer named Sheldon Lee Compton who should be better known.” In terms of what he reads, Annie Proulx is up there “All Marquez rocks, and the stories of Breece D’J Pancake are stunning, as is Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock, and Tom McGuane’s work, and the undertaker, Thomas Lynch!”
His energy and enthusiasm for all things writing are evident and Blood a Cold Blue has already had very favourable reviews, what’s next? “My novel, untitled so far, is coming out next year. Thrice Fiction are publishing it and they produce one of the finest magazines for fiction out there. I’m delighted to be working with the editor, RW Spryszak, and the art director, Dave Simmer, on the project, and I know they’ll do it justice.”
Blood a Cold Blue is published, Oct 4 2013, by Press 53 411 W. Fourth St., Suite 101, Winston-Salem, NC 27101.
The paperback is now available on this side of the water on Amazon.
To find out more about James with links to his work visit www.jamesclaffey.com
(c) Alison Wells
Alison Wells lives in Bray near Dublin. Her short fiction has been published in mags, anthologies and zines including The Sunday Tribune, Crannóg, Metazen and UK National Flash Fiction day’s Jawbreakers and Scraps and is forthcoming in the New Island flash fiction anthology New Planet Cabaret and The Stinging Fly flash fiction showcase. Bridport, Fish, and Hennessy New Irish Writing shortlisted, Alison blogs for Writing.ie and on www.alisonwells.wordpress.com and has completed a short collection, a flash fiction novella and other literary work for which she is seeking representation.