A troubled boy convinces himself he can fly.
An old crone decides to turn herself into a man.
Two adolescents make an unusual list of ideal women.
A childless couple is given their little nephew for the day.
The players in these humorously anxious stories are separate, apart from the mainstream; their lot being a slow awareness that they may not be able to control the confusing extensions to the landscapes they inhabit. Skewed comedy, absurd perspectives and stretched realities abound as members of this misplaced assortment grapple for their place in the scheme of things.
Alan McMonagle’s new collection of short stories is much more than a series of Psychotic Episodes as the title suggests, but the culmination of a life spent on the move, gathering influences, half heard snatches of conversation and most importantly inspiration. As Patrick McCabe says “In these stories, which are precise, tender and glitteringly compelling, Alan McMonagle reveals himself as a writer of the first order. Mc Laverty comes to mind but make no mistake McMonagle is his own man. Readers should pay close attention to him.”
Writing.ie asked Alan to tell us about Psychotic Episodes, and a writing career that has seen his short stories widely published – including the lead story in this collection, which was nominated for the prestigious Pushcart Prize. Alan explains, “When I was little there were lengthy silences in the house I was growing up in. So I would retreat to my room or maybe go outside and make the most of what the back yard had to offer. I was a townie and a street kid. I was far from the Artful Dodger that I liked to think I was. Nor was I quite Oliver Twist. I passed lengthy spells in my own company and was very happy with this arrangement. Looking back it occurs to me that in ways I was trying to interpret the silences around me. And that time in my own company and early forays into the realm of imagination offered access to another way of life.”
Alan started writing when he was seven. He told us, “I remember the first story I finished – it was titled The Ants Who Grew Into Giants and it went on for about two dozen pages. I thought the title was so clever (gi-ants). I remember my father counting the number of words in it and then saying, ‘there are more words in this than in your mother’s dissertation’. I still think of that as a fine compliment – and I kept at it pretty much non-stop until I was twelve.
Then I stopped for twenty years.
By then I was in my early thirties, considered my life a series of false starts, felt constantly restless, ill-at-ease. I had interrupted various jobs with extended spells out of the country. I lived and worked in London for a year. I applied for an Australian work visa and went to Sydney. I’ve spent time in Africa and South America, seen lots of Europe. I penned articles for a couple of UK travel magazines. I spent a number of years working as an office slave. In 2006 I packed that in and returned to college to do the MA in Writing.”
Studying for the MA definitely appears to have been a turning or tipping point (as Malcolm Gladwell would put it) in Alan’s life, as he explained, “The one-year full-time course was never going to indulge my restless nature, and so I acquired levels of focus and discipline I could only previously dream about. I made like-minded friends, quickly felt part of a writing community, my stories began to take shape. And accumulate. And appear in journals. I graduated late in 2007 and the following Spring, at the Cuirt Festival of Literature, was approached by Tony O’Dwyer and Gerardine Burke from Wordsonthestreet. They had seen and published some of my stories in a couple of literary journals they are involved in, and were interested in putting out a book.
My first collection, Liar Liar, appeared in October 2008. I applied for residencies and received a couple of awards. My stories were now being picked up by journals in North America (Grain, Prairie Fire, The Adirondack Review, Natural Bridge to mention but a few). Early in 2012 I met Alan Hayes publisher at the Irish independent company, Arlen House and he asked to read a handful of new stories. I met him again at that year’s Cuirt Festival and he asked for the complete manuscript. By the end of summer he started talking about putting together a collection. He suggested Psychotic Episodes as a title as this story had been listed for a major award in America – the 2011 Pushcart Prize. The Connemara-based artist, Aoife Casby, produced some remarkable cover art. Two authors I admire, Patrick McCabe and Mike McCormack provided testimonies. We were given a slot at Cuirt 2013 to launch the book. It has been a hugely rewarding experience.”
With such an eclectic background, we asked Alan what had inspired this particular collection? He revealed, “For this collection I looked close to home, across the Atlantic and more recently to eastern Europe. I love the Armenian writer William Saroyan’s take on childhood. The confusion. The soon-to-be lost innocence. The human comedy of it all. I love the Russian Sergei Dovlatov’s absurdity. His mordant humour. His matter-of-fact style. His chaos. Also, it’s often a single story as much as a writer – the Joyce story Araby has always stayed with me. For the language. For the concision. For the ‘discovery’ the little boy makes when he finally gets to the exotic market of the story’s title – not necessarily a ‘happy’ discovery, far from it in fact, but a valid discovery nevertheless. My own stories attempt a blend of skewed sensibilities, absurd perspective and underlying loneliness. Alongside plenty of contemporary detail, the stories employ anecdote, observation, memory, reflection and lots of dialogue. Humour is vital to me, as it represents the flip side of tragedy – they run together, co-exist. The stories favour characterisation over plot.”
In every collection of short stories, theme plays a vital part, giving what could be a disparate group of ideas a cohesion. Alan explained, “the players in my stories essentially are misfits. They operate on the margins, they come at life from an angle, whether by choice or by nature is not always apparent – at least not to me. I suppose they are at odds with the world they are growing into, or have already become part of. This marginalisation has bequeathed them fractured relationships and distorted attitudes, affected their ability to engage in any meaningful way with whom they come in contact. The knock-on effect of this is that, like it or not, they must live with an inability to communicate with themselves.
My good writing friend Geraldine Mills suggested to me they are misplaced people – straight away I thought that was the right word. My stories snuggle up to you and then bite, Ger also said. I like stretching reality. In one of my stories a troubled boy convinces himself he can fly. In another an old crone decides to turn herself into a man. The stories are humorous and anxious; my characters are separate, apart from the mainstream. At times, they are wary of progress, experience spells of diffidence and their reactions are as surprising to themselves as they are to their ‘nearest and dearest’. In others, the narrators are precocious, already, despite their young age, scornful of the attitudes continually foist upon them – as though they are privy in advance to the world’s duplicitous nature. In the course of various relationships and encounters they have decent powers of observation, but these abilities evaporate when it comes to taking a good look at themselves. Ultimately, there is the suggestion that this will cost them.
When it comes to life I’ve been a slow learner. A sort of slow awareness you could call it – and I think I have passed this quality onto those unlucky enough to find themselves in my stories! A slow awareness that they may not be able to control the confusing extensions to the landscapes they inhabit. A constant grappling for their place in the scheme of things. A yearning for life to be more grounded, more compassionate, more inclusive – and that’s possibly a statement of how I’ve felt since I was very little.”
Psychotic Episodes is published by Arlen House and was launched by Pat McMahon at the Cuirt International Festival of Literature 2013, it is available online in paperback here. As Mike McCormack says, “Sentence to story with sudden grace and sharp wit – McMonagle is the real thing!”
As well as at various countrywide locations, Alan will be reading at the 2013 Cork International Short Story Festival in September and at the 2013 Dromineer Literary Festival in October.
In 2007 Alan received his MA in Writing from NUI, Galway. He has received awards for his work from the Professional Artists’ Retreat in Yaddo (New York), the Fundación Valparaiso (Spain), the Banff Centre for Creativity (Canada) and the Arts Council of Ireland.
He has contributed stories to many journals in Ireland and North America including The Adirondack Review, The Valparaiso Fiction Review, Natural Bridge, Grain, Prairie Fire, Southword and The Stinging Fly.
Liar Liar, his first collection of stories appeared in 2008 (Wordsonthestreet) and was longlisted for the 2009 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. The title story from his second collection, Psychotic Episodes, (Arlen House, 2013) was nominated for a 2011 Pushcart Prize.