Life Here Below: Michael J. Farrell on Writing
I started writing sometime between ages three and forty depending on how you define writing, and my process has been evolving to this day. I came late to fiction because I had previously been saving the world through journalism and other strategies. My adult head has never been overcrowded with story ideas, as some heads are, so I have to encourage the few notions that present themselves. I coax reality out from under what seems like ordinary life until some loose verbal fabrication begins to take shape. Then, because I see ambiguity everywhere, I leave half the work to the reader—let posterity decide what I really meant, what really happened.
To say it another way, the process is one of sitting down, gazing out the window at the Shannon, getting up before my backside has time to warm the chair, getting coffee, reading a poem (Philip Levine is my main man), wondering, doubting, and after several hours there is a page or two of (longhand) stuff, somewhere between fiction and dross, in front of me, and (God’s honest truth) I almost never remember where the idea came from. And that’s just short stories. My novels come from another planet.
Our house has a sunroom. I got lucky and it became my study. Aesthetically it is perfect for writing. Whatever that means—I have written more and perhaps better in many a hole-in-the-wall. Where the body is parked is not as important as where the head is; not to mention the heart. I have, by the way, a big desk once owned by the district attorney of Liberty, Missouri, birthplace of Harry Truman. I usually write the words in copybooks before trying them out on the computer immediately south of the historic desk.
The first two short stories I wrote were published forty years apart, 1966 and 2006, both published by the late great David Marcus. The return to Ireland was a catalyst—the USA I experienced was, I think, too big for short stories.
I was so proud, living in the American Midwest, when word of the Celtic Tiger drifted across the Atlantic. Ireland was the richest country in the universe per capita, the stories said. We were bringing over the British to do our menial jobs, like building houses, because we ourselves were too busy running things. It was, then, a monumental disappointment to come back and see how corrupt we really were—the politicians, the bankers and other suspects. The obvious thing for a writer in such cases is to write a book. Soon the subject was written half to death. So I thought: a satirical novel. Which I called All That Delirium. Which is still in search of a publisher.
Apart from the greed and cronyism, Ireland, I found, had survived well. When I go for a walk I say hello to the cows in the next field. I think they know something, as do donkeys and dogs. The country, in short, is as full of secrets as ever, and my short stories are intended to give these secrets an airing, but you have to read between the lines.
It’s not that I gave up on novels. I have three ready, going on four. In the past ten years I have approached every Irish agent and editor I know of with one or another of these works, but no cigar. There can be only two possible explanations: (a) that they are really bad novels, or (b) something else. Unable to settle on something else, I am forced back to the bad novel theory. My failure would be legendary if only people knew about it. My first novel, A Slanting Sun, was written in 1973, so I have been trying to find a publisher for forty-one years. And it’s not that I hid it away in a shoebox. A senior agent at William Morris, then the biggest agency in the world, huckstered it around New York and beyond for two years, and, to generalize, all the editors said they loved the writing (few risk praise like that here) but the story was not right for them. Twenty years along, another big New York agency had the same experience. More recently, one or two Irish publishers came tantalizingly close to being tempted, but then lost their nerve. I confess it’s a mystery. I have only to enter a bookstore to be depressed. The last thing the world needs is another book, my cynical mind reminds me. But if there is to be one more, it adds, let that be mine. This dilemma may be why, in one of my stories, ‘The Written Word,’ one character, a failed writer much like myself, has an epiphany. He decides to go over the heads of the book people and write for the universe. ‘It was liberating,’ he explains. ‘No more catering to passing trends. The world was interested—how could it not be? The world had time. The cosmos needed feedback. The cosmos, designed for give and take, is constantly running down unless we give something back. This is especially true of meaning. Everyone knows there is a dearth of meaning in the world.’
A New York critic (and musician, I think) named Ned Rorem wrote, ‘Art is to dare, and to be right.’ I agree. Don’t follow the current trend—nearly every other writer is by definition doing that already. Don’t re-do what has been done, or there will be a whole galaxy of writers, including the dead and dying, hacks and geniuses, screaming at you that they have been down this road before you and have left footprints that you don’t need to disturb. So, go out on a limb. I forget who John F. Kennedy was quoting when he said, ‘I dream of things that never were and say: why not?’ But then comes Rorem’s sting in the tail: get it right. That means plot and motivation, commas and the devil knows what. The good news is that it can be got right.
(c) Michael J Farrell
Michael J Farrell’s short story collection, Life Here Below, is available from New Island – pick up your copy online here.
About Life Here Below
A dippy photographer shoots talking donkeys and invisible strangers. A professor who in his youth vowed to kill Ian Paisley has so far failed to do so. A brash young journalist wants the local paper to save the world, but the editor prefers football.
Only a thin veil separates the world we think we know from the other universe we suspect. Does a son always know his father and vice versa? When a large old duffer gets stuck in Newgrange, can love provide a way out? Why can’t the future be obvious as the past? Michael J. Farrell insists his stories are what people brood over in the small hours until some see the light. What they see is the fragile earth redeemed time and again by surprises.
Ballinasloe may seem an odd beginning of the end of George W. Bush. A saintly old archbishop and a worldly new bishop climb Croagh Patrick together, ecclesiastical chalk and cheese each in search of a different end of the rainbow. New arrivals find one astronaut too many at the International Space Station. Life here below, Farrell contends, would be a dire place without insights and epiphanies and, of course, porter.
‘This is a great collection. The stories surprise, and are full of surprises. They are funny, provocative, clever, charming and quite brilliantly written.’ – Roddy Doyle
‘‘It is always bracing to begin a book with no expectations—no advance praise, no foreknowledge of the author—and then to find oneself irresistibly ensnared by its originality and wit…Farrell’s tone is so assured and his linguistic touch so deft, he makes such improbabilities seem not just likely but in the natural order of things. And he can be very funny, too.’ – Irish Independent
About Michael J Farrell
Michael J. Farrell grew up in County Longford not far from the Shannon. He was a priest for some years, during which time he edited the annual literary reviews, Everyman and Aquarius (he edited a book of the highlights from these, Creative Commotion, for the Liffey Press in 2009). Farrell spent his middle years in the practice of journalism in the USA where he was an editor at the National Catholic Reporter. He also edited and contributed to books, while reviewing others for, among many, the Los Angeles Times.
His novel Papabile won the Thorpe Menn Award in 1998. Since retiring in 2003, his stories have appeared in Let’s Be Alone Together (The Stinging Fly Press, 2008) and The Faber Book of Best New Irish Short Stories, 2006-2007, while another was runner-up for the RTE Francis McManus Award in 2006.