John O’Donnell describes the origins of his first short story collection, Almost the Same Blue.
In the summer of 2008 I was sitting at my desk in the Law Library when a colleague tapped me on the shoulder. ‘We’re putting together an anthology of short stories,’ he said, ‘and we want you to contribute. And,’ he added, anticipating any effort I might make to wriggle out of it, ‘it’s for charity.’ While flattered by my colleague’s faith (or desperation) I was also bemused. I’d written poems in the past, but I hadn’t written a story since I was in school, when the nicotine-stained finger of my English teacher Tom O’Dea tried to guide my wobbly hand. Where would I even begin?
I think it was Graham Greene who said that the hardest part of writing any story was finding the idea; once you had that, the rest of it was like filling out a crossword puzzle. I wonder if he really believed this. Certainly no part of writing short stories is easy. But inspiration begins for me as a physical sensation, an inhalation, almost a gasp. It’s no surprise the word comes from the Latin spirare,meaning to breathe. One afternoon later that summer I opened a newspaper to read about a fundraising for a young rugby player who as a result of an injury was now confined to a wheelchair. My lungs expanded; I’d played rugby when I was much younger, and had loved the physicality, the camaraderie; what happened when that was suddenly snatched away? I tore the page out, found paper and a pen, and began to write. In the autumn I proudly presented the story ‘Promise’ to my colleague. The anthology never saw the light of day, but the wonderful Ciaran Carty agreed to publish the story in the Hennessy New Irish Writing, and I was hooked.
I joined a class. Some Blind Alleys was a workshop run by Greg Baxter, a tall, powerfully-built Texan who taught the way he spoke and the way he wrote; tough, uncompromising, ruthlessly alert to sentimentality and self-indulgence. The evisceration of our work was painful, but made us better writers. ‘Be honest,’ he told us. ‘If you’re going to write, you need to explore the parts of yourself you may not like, the parts you might even be afraid of.’ Seamus Heaney’s line in Digging, about the process of ‘going down and down/For the good turf’ made more sense than ever.
You never know where the stories will come from. ‘Marks,’ the first story in the book, was written in response to an invitation on writing.ie for stories around the theme ‘Making Your Mark’. I was intrigued by the idea that the target of the pickpocket is known as the ‘mark’; the story is about gambling (and more besides). At a Christmas lunch one of my legal friends told me about a case in which a boy of ten had been charged with indecently assaulting a girl of nine. I felt the hair stand up on the back of my neck: how could this happen, and how could the legal system deal with such a case? The story became ‘Shelley,’ again kindly published by Ciaran Carty in the Emerging Fiction section of the New Irish Writing page. ‘Where have you emerged from?’ wondered a colleague, ‘and can you not please go back there?’ Lawyers (like writers) are often watchful of the careers of others, and the odd brisk put-down keeps your feet on the ground.
I joined another class, a six-month immersion in fiction run by The Stinging Fly. We swopped and read our work under the beady eye of the director Sean O’Reilly, who is thoughtful and sympathetic, but with a steely Northern intolerance for slackness or bad writing. ‘Tighten it up,’ he kept telling us; I can still see the cranking motion he made with his hand. He was right. So much of what we gave him was unroadworthy; the chassis rattling, the wheels loose, the engine spluttering on empty. All writing, as Stephen King says, is rewriting. That winter and spring were exhilarating and unforgettable. The course made us proud, angry, depressed, elated, despondent and determined; in short, writers. And readers, since Sean like any teacher worth their salt urged us to read in order to write. We all had our own favourites (William Trevor, Lorrie Moore and Tobias Wolff had always appealed to me) but here were others, among them Kevin Barry, Mary Costello, Colin Barrett, whose work we devoured. Guest writers also gave classes; a session given by Claire Keegan was particularly memorable. The Fiction Workshop series also showed us the publishing ropes, with contributors from different sectors advising who to submit to and how to prepare a manuscript. One Saturday, John Walsh and Lisa Franks of Doire Press showed us how to prepare a letter to a would-be publisher. Four years later, their draft letter came back to haunt them, with my name at the bottom. Doire Press are a superbly attentive and supportive publishing house. Highly thought-of by arts administrators and by writers, they have been tolerant of my foibles, and nimble and alert on social media. Like others they have published (including at least one Hennessy Award winner) I am grateful and lucky they decided to take a chance on me.
And now the book is published, launched (virtually, anyway) on troubled seas in these strange times. The cover designed by Triona Walsh features a wonderful painting by the artist Michelene Huggard, called ‘Deep’; I wonder what Greg Baxter would have made of it? I miss the hoop-la of launch night, though hopefully we’ll have a hooley later. But in the meantime all I can do is write – or try to, since the distraction of what’s happening to the world makes what’s already hard even harder still. But you have to persevere. “Get it down,” William Faulkner said. “Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.”
(c) John O’Donnell
Almost the Same Blue is published by Doire Press and is available to order at https://www.doirepress.com/writers/g_l/john_odonnell/
A rare pleasure… incredibly well written, compelling and absolutely fascinating. Liz Nugent