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Interviews

Mary Costello’s The China Factory

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Vanessa O'Loughlin © 20 June 2012.
Posted in the Magazine ( · Interviews · Literary Fiction ).

Mary Costello grew up in Galway and lives in Dublin. She has had stories published in New Irish Writing, various anthologies, and in the literary magazine The Stinging Fly, and she was also shortlisted for a Hennessy Award. Her first collection of stories entitledThe China Factory was published recently by The Stinging Fly Press. So how did it come about? Mary revealed to writing.ie,

“In my twenties I’d had a couple of stories published and then, after a few rejections, I stopped sending work out. But I kept writing. Over the years I wrote many stories and a draft of a novel. I was working as a teacher during this time but I wasn’t part of any writing scene or community. Then in 2010 I sent two stories toThe Stinging Fly literary magazine and both were published in subsequent issues. Declan Meade, the editor of both The Stinging Fly magazine and The Stinging Fly Press, asked if I had more stories, and after reading them, expressed a wish to publish a collection. So I am very fortunate, really, at the way things have turned out. There are twelve stories in the book, many of which were written up to fifteen and more years ago – though three were written in the last year.”

Mary’s experience shows just how important sending work out to anthologies and competitions is and how opportunities can appear. Always interested in how writers, write, we asked Mary about her writing day and where she writes. Mary explained, “Mostly I write on a laptop at a desk in the corner of my living room, facing a wall. But I also write on the hoof, in a notebook – thoughts, ideas, overheard snippets, sometimes lengthy paragraphs. These are the lifeblood of a story and I need to have lots of notes gathered before I start a story.

I try to be at the desk by 9.30am and work ‘til 1pm – with frequent breaks. If I’m on the first draft I read what’s written so far, tweaking as I go, and then attempt to push it on, make further inroads, with the ammo – my notebook – to hand. I take a walk before lunch. If a story is going well – especially at the rewriting stage- and if I’m lucky, things can get come to me on the walk, and I return to the desk in the afternoon and keep going. I’m not often lucky. I do many redrafts- impossible to know how many, really.

I wouldn’t know where to begin without the notes. A notebook is like a hoover that gathers up stray thoughts and ideas when I’m away from the desk. So, though technically I write at the desk, variously I write everywhere… at the kitchen table, in the garden, in the car, on the bus, in the cinema, in bed at night. David Mitchell, in an interview in The Paris Review, articulates this ‘laptop vs. longhand’ issue best when he says he does his thinking on paper and he acts on his thinking on the laptop.

I am not a prolific writer. I’m very slow, below slow – sub-slow, in fact. The first draft is the hardest. Just to get it down. And it’s always appalling. But it’s the scaffolding and once you have it you hope things will grow and take shape. The notebook is even more active at the rewriting stage. Because you’re burrowing into the character and story more now, trying to put your finger on the nub of the thing, trying to define and refine everything.

These days everyone is swamped. Sometimes there’s just too much. Too much to read. Too much everything. It’s hard to sift, to quiet things down, take things in. Often at night, listening to music, far from everything, I might be lucky enough to come upon a little surge of words. These little pieces usually survive, often nearly intact. These are the morsels, the moments, we wait for”

But where do these wonderful morsels of ideas come from and how does Mary develop them? She explained, “A story almost always starts with a character. I often have both the character and the crux of his or her ‘problem’ to begin with, but hardly any plot. Ideas can come from anywhere; picked-up pieces, a memory, a remark, a sighting. The oddest of places sometimes – the death notices in the newspaper once yielded up a name for a character … the exact name. Names are important. Often I won’t know the character’s full story and then a line from a poem or a song will prompt a thought that fits that character and moves the story on. Everything feeds in – films, books, poetry, a shout in the street, a view from an upstairs window”

Putting together a collection of short stories is a challenge in itself and Mary revealed her inspiration for several of the pieces contained in The China Factory, “The stories in the collection have all had various origins. In ‘The Patio Man’, which is the oldest story in the collection, I had a gardener character in my head, and then I came upon a story that Michael Viney related in his ‘Nature’s Eye’ column in The Irish Times – of a sea eagle that swoops down and plucks up a sleeping baby from a field on Achill Island while its mother works – and it was just what I needed, a gift. The idea for ‘The Sewing Room’ originated from a conversation I overheard in someone’s kitchen, years ago, when I was on holidays. I was very much on the fringe of the gathering, straining to catch things and then someone said ‘So-and-so’s son is a lawyer now, in Boston’. There was a kind of uncertainty or delicacy attached to the way the word ‘son’ was spoken. I felt it, and came away troubled, trying to figure it out. I found out later that a small child from a large family had been sent to America to be reared by a relative who had no children. In the story I re-imagined this and created a fictional scenario involving a young trainee teacher who has a child and gives him up.

John McGahern said that real life events never seemed to work in stories – they had to be re-invented and dislocated, because ‘the imagination demands that life be told slant.’”

We asked Mary how she decided what goes into a collection, and why? “Well, you want only your very best work to go in there, don’t you? You do have to be selective and apply your own highest standards. And then let your editor apply his or hers. You don’t want to look back in a few years and think, ooh, that one’s a bit weak. Originally we had thirteen stories ready for this collection but we pulled one at the last minute – it needed a little more edge or heft, somehow, to fit in. Recently I’ve re-worked that story and it’s the better for it.

When you’re writing stories you’re not aware of any theme or thread emerging. But if, over time and many rewrites, one does, then the collection should reflect that as cohesively as possible. The writer may not be best placed to see this – which is why the eye and direction of a good editor is crucial.”

And Mary has one major tip for short story writers: “If you are lucky you will have one favourite writer, one who appeals to you above all others, one who stopped you in your tracks once and continues to do so, one who never fails to reach you and to whom you keep returning, year after year… Read that person widely and deeply.


(c) Vanessa O'Loughlin & Mary Costello June 2012

An elderly schoolteacher recalls the single act of youthful passion that changed her life forever; a young gardener has an unsettling encounter with a suburban housewife; a wife who miscalculated the guarantees of marriage embarks upon an online affair. And in the title story a teenage girl strikes up an unlikely friendship with a lonely bachelor.

Love, loss, betrayal. Grief, guilt, longing. The act of grace or forgiveness that can suddenly transform and redeem lives. In these twelve haunting stories Mary Costello carefully examines the passions and perils of everyday life and relationships and, with startling insight, casts a light on the darkest corners of the human heart.

What emerges is a compassionate exploration of how ordinary men and women endure the trials and complexities of marriage, memory, adultery, death, and the ripples of disquiet that lie just beneath the surface. With a calm intensity and an undertow of sadness, she reveals the secret fears and yearnings of her characters, and those isolated moments when a few words or a small deed can change everything, with stark and sometimes brutal consequences.

The China Factory is available now from The Stinging Fly Press and all good bookshops.