Richard Ford says in his great introduction to The New Granta Book of American Short Stories, that the short story wants to give us something big but wants to do it in very little time and space. Because of that it is probably one of the most difficult tricks to pull off. I have always been drawn to it since I was first introduced to the genre in school: O’ Connor; Mc Laverty; Mary Lavin and all the masters in that time: Mc Gahern; Annie Proulx; Ron Rash. It is its satisfying completeness that has me apprenticed to its form in all this time.
I was thinking of this a couple of years ago as I sat in the bus station in Madrid waiting for the connection that would carry me for eight hours down the backbone of Spain to the international residency Fundacion Valparaiso in Mojacar. There were a few images germinating in my imagination. They needed to put out shoots and grow into this new collection. I had the title Hellkite. Little else.
Ha, a voice suddenly popped up behind me. I recognised it immediately. I hadn’t left my internal critic behind for there he was, sitting firmly on my shoulder as large as life: Señor Habenero himself with his lantern-shaped head and his crinkly skin breathing down my neck, the heat of his criticism blistering my thin skin. Who do you think you are, heading off with your paltry outlines and your flimsy, one-dimensional characters. Ha, ha. Face it. You don’t have what it takes. You couldn’t imagine yourself out of a plastic bag.
In my attempt to block out his invective I started to observe the people as it scurried around me, waiting for buses to take them all over Spain and Europe. A young disheveled man went from table to table, picking up leftover churros, scraps of bread. Lonesome faces hurried tired bodies onto buses.
And then it happened, tiny at first, but it began to grow. The transformation. I followed a man as he pulled his ordinary wheelie bag along the tiles towards the escalator. The bag was not co-operating; falling over, digging its heels in. As I watched, it changed before my eyes, rooted itself to the ground and refused to move, its little wheelie paws stuck into the floor. The man tried to coax his wheelie dog to come on the escalator with him but to no avail. Clearly, it was not going to budge. The man began to lose his patience with it and for a moment it looked like he might even strike it. Instead he leaned down and rubbed its brown canvas fur. Then the bag lifted itself up and let itself be dragged to the escalator by its lead. Without thinking, I had turned my negative self-sabotage into an image that got the writing adrenalin going and I was ready to face the month’s residency of writing.
In writing, the image is my currency and always has been; the bit coin that I use to buy a narrative. It adds the halfpence to the pence until the story begins to add up and with a bit of good investment, gains value; becomes worth something. It can be as simple as a hunting table; an angel landing in a garden; a deer frozen in a barn.
This is how Hellkite my third collection of short stories from Arlen House was built, by finding an image such as the above and drawing on it. Here, I have extended my thematic range to excavate new and shifting landscapes. I had a number of stories written for the collection before I saw that there was a theme emerging. First they were being told from a man’s point of view and as I looked at them I realised what I wanted to say was to explore the goodness of men, especially men who had made sacrifices and had been betrayed by women. The stories came unbidden, and I didn’t push them away even though they were topics that were difficult to deal with. Here we meet women who inhabit the world of the hellkite, who are unfaithful to their men, who treat them with contempt, who lock them away rooms of little ease. In tackling this taboo where gender expectations are re-aligned I was exploring a world that I had never expected to do.
I was really thrilled with Ferdia MacAnna in his endorsement of the collection when he saw them ‘…like being inside a short movie where the reader is taken on a sometimes scary but always beautiful and captivating journey only with no guarantee of a safe arrival.’ That is what I want to portray, to paint picture so the reader can visualise the world my characters inhabit as if it is playing out on a screen before them.
That is why the art I use for the covers is very important to me in the final product. I have been more than blessed with the artists who have been so generous in their gifts of covers. Joan Hogan, Charlotte Kelly Gerald Davis and Pauline Bewick. Death in Florence by Pauline Bewick is a departure for my previous abstract covers. This one tells its own story and is very fitting for the whole collection, the man leaning over the woman on her death bed with such grief and kindness.
Time is the great leaven when writing the short story. After I have written and rewritten until I can go no further, I leave it in a warm place to prove for a few months. When I return to it, I check it and know by its sound if it is worth eating or only fit to be fed to the birds. It is the one time my critic, Senor Habenero, has his say.
(c) Geraldine Mills
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A native of Galway, Geraldine Mills has four collections of poetry, her first two, Unearthing your Own (2001) and Toil the Dark Harvest (2004) published by Bradshaw Books. Arlen House has published An Urgency of Stars (2010) for which she was awarded a Patrick and Katherine Kavanagh Fellowship. She collaborated with American poet, Lisa C. Taylor on the collection The Other Side of Longing (Arlen House, 2011) which was chosen as the Gerson Reading at the University of Connecticut for that year.
Arlen House has published her three short story collections Lick of the Lizard (2005) and The Weight of Feathers (2007) for which she was awarded an Arts Council Bursary. Hellkite was published earlier this year.
She was the Millennium winner of the Hennessy/Tribune Emerging Fiction Award and the overall winner of the New Irish Writer Award for her story Lick of the Lizard. Other prizes include the Penguin/RTÉ Guide Short Story Competition, the William Trevor Award and shortlisted many times for the Francis MacManus Award. Her fiction and poetry have been taught on Contemporary Literature courses in Connecticut, USA where she has facilitated workshops on the short story as well as at the Cape Cod Writers’ Conference.
Her work has been published in Sunday Tribune, Irish Times, Poetry Ireland Review, Atlanta Review, de brakke hond, Dog Days and other stories, The Stinging Fly, The SHOp. It has also been broadcast on RTÉ and Lyric FM.