• West Cork Literary Festival 8-15 July 2022

Carrying Fire and Water by Deirdre Shanahan

Writing.ie | Magazine | Interviews | Literary Fiction
Carrying Fire and Water

By Deirdre Shanahan

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The background and inspiration to the stories varies with each one. They came to me quite individually, out of different circumstances and not as any kind of collection. But with perspective I can see underlying themes and connections which resonate through them and am delighted to have the chance for them to be collected. With hindsight, I was thinking how each story is like a different piece of jewellery, if that does not sound too fanciful, each one, hopefully doing something different with its own characteristics. To be able to bring these disparate pieces together in the jewellery box of a collection, from Splice Books is truly heartening and one for which I am very grateful.

I write about my preoccupations, which might be about states of transition, difficulty, identity, change, love and loss.  Landscapes are potent forces for me, as well as cities. I often write about the sea, but I would not want to limit myself in terms of what could strike me as a subject. I think I have written characters  of various ages, although this was not a conscious decision but I simply wanted these particular characters in my story. I don’t write about people I know, or maybe only part of them, nor do I write about what  has happened to me, although maybe I do. I write about what is true- what is emotionally true.  I  want  to be as open as possible to the potential for ‘story’ in any aspect of life which attracts me and which I want to explore.

Each story developed out of a germ of an idea, a nugget which might have been as fleeting as a snap of conversation overheard, the sight of a photo or image or a passing stranger in the street. A voice or accent. A situation. Something that pulled me. Drew me in. To which I felt a connection, but at an early stage may not have known how or why.  The initial trigger will sometimes suggest another often opposing idea and I have to wait for the two to combine or for ‘something to happen’ and see if they will sit together. If they belong. If there is an interaction or dynamic between them. This could be between characters or within a character. At an early stage I won’t be able to tell, but have to wait and see where I am led and where the story wants to go. If indeed, it is a story. Often this can only be determined at the very end of writing. Before then, I don’t want to be prescriptive or create false or limiting aims. But until the end the possibilities are endless. I write to find out.

Because of their relative brevity, stories are  ‘little laboratories’ where I can try out forms and voices,  work out whether to use the first, third or second person point of view. Stories offer the chance to try something and start again, to follow up ideas which may not lead anywhere .

I re-write, edit, redraft, refine at the level of a sentence to ensure every word counts. I cut edit, redraft and so on until  the story emerges. This process is open-ended and could take weeks. But this is the labour required to bring the story into the light and is different each time.There is a mysteriousness at the heart of a good story. I also think that a story is not a short piece of writing but something more – it is indefinable but recognisable. There is a depth which shows us who we are.

Stories are wonderfully portable  and share several qualities in terms of  metaphor and symbol and lightness of touch, with poetry. By their nature, the reader is brought up close to the use of language. I hope my stories have a shape, a kind of movement. I don’t mean physical but something which takes flight for the time a story is being read. Some kind of ripple effect which might have resonance beyond the page. So the story lingers in the reader and might change with each re-reading.

These days we have a looser sense of the story form,  so a story might be long, as in Claire Keegan’s Foster  or  much shorter as in the work of Lydia Davis and the various kinds of flash fiction. But I like the sense of development and being able to write at length, so my stories are usually at least around 2,000 words in length and often much longer. Though I never think of a word count when I write and I do not limit or impose any restriction on my writing. I think the story will take care of itself and make itself known in due course  if I am attentive.But there is a balance to achieve between the story emerging and the best way to express it.  I think stories like poems, cannot be forced. Something has to literally germinate  and if this does not happen, I don’t believe it can be forced. I have to abandon the story and wait for the next notion or idea to come along. Sometimes if  I am fortunate, like buses, more than 1 will arrive at once. But usually not and I am often at the bus stop, waiting.

(c) Deirdre Shanahan

About Carrying Fire and Water:

A beloved child is lost: taken too soon or never born. A woman bereaved and a man distraught are pulled apart, isolated, abandoned to search for intimacy elsewhere. A heartfelt bond is broken: a romance collapses under conflicting desires, a marriage cannot bear the burden of the unsaid. Lives dissolve, identities wither, and yet, amidst it all, there are glimmers of grace: compassion, renewal, second chances, serenity.

The stories of Deirdre Shanahan leave splinters in the conscience. In sharp, unsparing prose, they stalk the lives of characters bewildered by moral crisis. From hospitals to convents, from rundown farms to forests, from America to Ireland, England, Turkey, and Japan, Shanahan casts an eye over the lost souls of our world: men and women uprooted, unsettled, aimless and adrift, hungering for a way to feel less alone.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

‘Carrying Fire and Water’ is Deirdre Shanahan’s debut collection of stories from Splice Books. Her work has appeared in journals in the UK and USA including ‘The Massachusetts Review’ and ‘The Southern Review’ as well as New Writing from Vintage. She won the Wasafiri International Fiction Award 2018. Her first novel was published in 2019 from Bluemoose Books and longlisted for The Guardian Not the Booker Prize. ‘Carrying Fire and Water,’ has won praise from Alan McMonagle, Billy o’Callaghan and Wendy Erskine among others.

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