The Writing Process: Billy O’Callaghan
I love short stories and can’t go a day without reading at least one. My shelves are crammed with collections that I’ve been hoarding since my teens, books by household names alongside translated volumes by writers considered obscure even in their native language. I have also been writing stories, in serious fashion, for probably the past fifteen years. In that time, I’ve suffered a huge amount of rejection, though I’ve enjoyed enough morsels of success – the vital encouragement of a publication here, a prize or short-listing there – to keep me biting.
Mercier Press published my second collection, In Too Deep, in the summer of 2009 (they’d also published my first collection, In Exile, a year or so earlier), and while it was reasonably well received by the few critics who bothered to give it a look, its sales figures were distinctly unremarkable. And then the whispers started: “Short Stories don’t sell. You need to write a novel.” Everywhere I went, and from everyone I met, I got the same line: novel, novel, novel.
They were right. Sort of. Short stories don’t sell. At least, not collections. At least, not collections by writers whose names don’t begin with Stephen and end in King. I was one of the lucky ones in that I’d had the books published at all, that I’d had not just one shot at the title but two. But now it was time to get real, grow up, knuckle down and get to work on the novel.
I listened, but only because I had an idea for a novel already in mind. I’d written a longish short story and published it in the U.S., but months later I still couldn’t stop thinking about the characters, a middle-aged New York couple, both married to other people, who’d been catching the subway twice a month for decades to Coney Island, the line’s last stop, for their illicit trysts. I kept seeing them, kept thinking about their lives, their backgrounds, their needs and desires. And finally, just to clear my head, I began writing about them again.
Four years later, I am still writing about them. On and off. Mostly off. The story is done, but there are still a lot of edges that need rounding. The problem, the lovely problem, is that I keep putting the manuscript aside to work on new ideas. After so many years of writing nothing but stories, I think my mind has become attuned to both their shape and their call. Novels are unwieldy; short stories make me happy, whether they sell or not. They are what I want to write, and that is enough.
Then, two years ago last September, I received an email from Eoin Purcell, Commissioning Editor with New Island Press, asking if I was working on anything new. I replied that I had a novel on the go and that he was welcome to give it a read, though it wasn’t finished. His response staggered and thrilled me. Actually, he said, he was hoping that I might have a new collection of stories taking shape. Those words were music to my heart.
The request could not have come at a better time. I was suffering a crisis of confidence, I think. Certainly, I was struggling for a direction. Novels require such commitment, and mine was proving a heavy burden to haul around. They stretch to forever and, for someone who happens to be insecure about every laid sentence, they can bring on an acute sense of hopelessness. A story might take a few weeks, even a few months, to finish, but at least an end is always more or less in sight. Its horizons feel within reach.
With that one email, I caught the breath of freedom.
I began sifting through my stockpile, and found, after discarding several, that I had a nice core of a half-dozen stories, five of which had been already published in magazines and journals in the United States. Additionally, I had two more unfinished stories that I felt good about, and ideas for a third, and possibly a forth, slowly fermenting.
I suppose we write about the things that trouble us most deeply, and our state of mind really does permeate our work. I didn’t have to consciously search for uniting themes; certain shared notes were immediately obvious. All, in their way, were about dealing with loss, about picking up the broken pieces and moving on. About regret, yes, and guilt, but also about survival, and the ability to endure. And nowhere were these themes more clearly defined than in a story that I knew immediately would give the collection its title. The Things We Lose, the Things We Leave Behind is a story about a young man who returns to his island home after years of self-imposed exile to see again the child he long ago abandoned. It is about more than that, but this is what lives at its core. I have no idea where the title came from, it seemed to just emerge as the story was being written, and I loved it instantly, from the resonance of the words when spoken aloud, to their shape when spread out on a page.
With those six finished and two unfinished stories, I already had the bulk of the collection before I even realised I was writing one. By the time I finally signed the contract for the book, a year or so later, I had twelve stories ready to go. Then, during the early stages of the editing process, a thirteenth story reared its head. Keep Well to Seaward, which takes its name from a line in Homer’s The Odyssey, was a very personal story that I worked on over an intense four-month period between December and March. I’d already delivered the finished manuscript to New Island, but once I’d finished it I knew that it was the final piece of the puzzle for me as far as the collection was concerned.
It takes me a long time to write a story. Longer, it seems, with each passing year. Ideas tend to overtake me like shadows, and need the space of weeks or even months to solidify. The reason I write at all is to better understand the story that has invaded my mind, and so I work on it, over and over, until I have heard all it needs to say. Listening is critical. I’ve learned that I can’t force the process, or rush it. I need to have a sense of the characters before I start, and I need to be able to visualise the scenes. I skipped the college route and learned to write purely by doing, by reading and writing, by sticking to a rigid schedule, five hours a day, every day, without excuse. I work best in the mornings, and am generally started by 7 am. My way of working is utterly blind. I proceed by instinct, and let myself be led along by the feel and rhythm of the sentences. Plagued with constant doubt, I rewrite as I go, so I am not one of those writers who produces clear and distinctive drafts. By the time I have achieved a clean first draft the story has already been rewritten probably a dozen times. And that’s often just the beginning.
I have grown comfortable with my insecurities, and time has modified my expectations. Nobody gets to read my work until it is published. I don’t want feedback, or comments, not while the ink is still wet. These are my stories, for better or worse. My only real ambition for them now, the single challenge I demand of myself, is that they seem truthful. I want people to believe that they are reading about real moments, real lives, that they are glimpsing something genuine. If I can come even close to achieving this, then that is enough.
(c) Billy O’Callaghan
Winner of the Irish Book Aawards Writing.ie Short Story of the Year for The Things We Lose, the Things We Leave Behind
The stories in Billy O Callaghan’s new collection, The Things We Lose, The Things We Leave Behind, explore how people in crisis can pick up the shattered pieces of their lives and find among them some glint of worth. An institutionalised orphan boy in 1950s Ireland is sold into servitude as a farm labourer. A once-renowned Sevillano matador falls, in a single misstep, into obscurity. A grief-stricken father struggles with the notion of reality. And a man returns home after years of exile to see the child he abandoned long ago once again. In sinuous, evocative prose, O Callaghan weaves an emotionally truthful narrative thread of hope and redemption in the face of adversity. The thirteen stories in this stunning new collection attempt to illuminate the darkness.
The Things We Lose, the Things We Leave Behind is available in all good bookshops and online here.
Billy O’Callaghan was born in Cork in 1974, and is the author of three short story collections: In Exile and In Too Deep (2008 and 2009 respectively, both published by Mercier Press), and The Things We Lose, The Things We Leave Behind (2013, published by New Island Press), the title story of which was honoured with the Writing.ie Irish Book Award for Short Story of the Year.
Over the past decade, more than seventy of his stories have appeared in a wide variety of literary journals and magazines around the world, including: Absinthe: New European Writing, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, the Bellevue Literary Review, Confrontation, Crannóg, the Fiddlehead (Canada), Hayden’s Ferry Review, the Kyoto Journal (Japan), the Linnet’s Wings, the Los Angeles Review, Narrative, Pilvax (Hungary), the Southeast Review, Southword, Verbal Magazine (Northern Ireland), Versal (Holland), and Yuan Yang: a Journal of Hong Kong and International Writing. He has also written for the Irish Examiner, the Evening Echo and the Irish Times.