#ScottPrize Shortlist in Profile: Madeleine D’Arcy
I grew up in a small town in Ireland when money was tight, jobs were scarce, and there were only two TV channels. Books were my salvation.
The local library was where I found most of my reading material. I zipped through the children’s books and used my mother’s library ticket to borrow (illicitly) from the adult section.
While still very young, I learnt strange and lovely words like ‘scurrilous’, ‘curmudgeonly’, ‘discombobulated’ and ‘capernosity’.
I longed to be the ‘Belle of the Ball’. I didn’t realise that the ‘e’ at the end of ‘Belle’ was silent.
For a while, I thought Piccadilly Circus was a real circus.
I tried to understand everything but was often confused. Life wasn’t easy.
I wrote too – but this was an affair of deadly secrecy.
To be a ‘writer’ seemed impossibly glamorous, and beyond contemplation. It was not for the likes of me. A steady job was required. I chose law because I liked to read the court reports in local newspapers.
A newly-qualified, unemployed solicitor, I decided to move to London, where I worked in criminal law and in legal publishing. After thirteen years, I moved back to Ireland with my English husband and our son.
In 2005 I began to write short stories. In 2008 I entered some competitions. In 2009 I won two Hennessy Awards.
Being a writer was not impossible after all.
Finally, I was on my way.
So where did the book begin for you, how did the book come to be written?
As I’ve already mentioned, I began to write short stories in 2005. I had no plan. I was simply concerned with what William Maxwell expressed so well when referring to his friend, the Irish writer Frank O’Connor: ‘the happiness of getting it down right’.
So I wrote whatever came to mind and tried to write well. I spent ages editing and redrafting each story. Often, I put a story away for a while and when I revisited it something would click. Maybe the first page needed to be reworked or the ending was wrong, so I’d start over.
The first time I read one of my stories in public was in 2009 at the Frank O’Connor Festival in Cork City. The wonderful American writer ZZ Packer happened to be at the reading and afterwards she came up to tell me she really enjoyed the story. Later, she took the time to talk to me about my work and advised me to put my stories together in a collection, so that’s what I did.
My friend Isobel Creed of the Writers’ Consultancy was kind enough to read the collection and gave me excellent advice, particularly on the running order. I juggled the stories around, weeded some out and added others. After much deliberation, I placed the stories in a sequence that explores a gradual loss of innocence. The stories progress from the first indications that the world is not a rosy place and move on to disappointment in relationships and into a more mature perspective of life – with a bit of violence and some hard-boiled cynicism thrown in for good measure!
Finally, I entered the collection for the Scott Prize.
What was going on in your life while you were writing it?
I was very fortunate that while I was writing the stories in this collection my husband, Andrew Lane, established his own architectural practice and it was thriving. In addition, our son was happily settled in school.
My husband encouraged me to focus on my desire to write. In October 2005 my friend Colette Sheridan told me about a free writing course run by the Irish writer Claire Keegan in University College, Cork. Apparently there was only one place left.
I had to phone Claire to tell her why I felt I deserved that place. I was very nervous but I must have said something right because she gave the place to me. I went to Claire’s workshop every Thursday night from October to December 2005. After that, there was no stopping me!
Meeting Claire was of immense importance. She taught me the art of the short story. She’s unique, brilliant and extremely honest in her critiques. When she says something is good (which is not often) you can believe her. She has always given me encouragement and good advice.
I attended other workshops in the Munster Literature Centre, in Bantry Library and with writers such as the Canadian writer Alastair McLeod, the American writer Adam Johnson (his latest book The Orphan Master’s Son has recently been published) and with the Irish writer Mary Morrissy. After three years of learning the craft of writing, I finally summoned up the courage to enter my stories in competitions and some of them were long-listed and short-listed, which was very cheering. In 2008 my first story was published. This story won a Hennessy Award in the First Fiction category and to my amazement I also won the overall Hennessy Award of New Irish Writer 2009.
What do you think were the real driving elements within the book — the things that moved it all forward for you?
Actually, I’m a bit mystified about that myself.
Why have I spent so much time writing these particular stories and putting them together?
What exactly drove me to do this?
Part of the answer is that I really want to understand why people are the way they are and why they do the things they do. Human beings puzzle me a lot.
I’m also fascinated by black comedy and in my work I’m trying to encapsulate those weird moments when you don’t know whether to laugh or to cry.
What really moved my work forward, however, was the good advice and encouragement I got from my husband, from other writers, from friends and from family.
How long did it take to bring it all together?
My father once wrote me a letter – at a painful time in my life when things weren’t going very well – and I always remember one particular sentence:
‘I have spent many days and many nights wondering why people are the way they are – and I am none the wiser.’
I have spent many days and many nights wondering the same thing myself, so in a way these short stories have taken all my life to write!
In actual fact, they were all written at various times between 2005 and 2010.
Who was important to you in developing your writing life?
I have compiled a very long ‘Thank You’ list over the past few years, so that when my short story collection is published I won’t leave anyone out.
However, the list is so long now that, if it gets any longer, I may have to develop it into some kind of new kind of literary form.
Apart from the people I have already mentioned, so many people have been important that I can’t list them all here. However, I feel especially privileged to have met Alastair McLeod, who is an inspiration to us all, and I’m eternally grateful to William (Bill) Wall and his wonderful wife Liz for their friendship and kindness. I’ll stop now because otherwise I’ll start talking about everyone and I’ll be here for hours and hours and then I’ll worry that I’ve left someone out by mistake and I’ll agonise about that for many days and many nights…
Where do you think you’ll go to next in your writing — what are you working on now?
I’m currently writing my first novel. It’s set in Cork and London during the years 1980 to 2005.
I was granted a bursary to pay a mentor to read the first and second drafts (a huge thank you to the excellent Mary Morrissy and to Cork City Council!).
Another fantastic Irish writer has agreed to read the third draft later this year (a huge thank you to the great Carlo Gébler and to the Arts Council of Ireland!).
I’ve got to forge ahead with that now… phew…
In January I took a break to write a short film script based on a very short story of mine called ‘Dog Pound’ and I hope something will come of that.
I have not deserted short stories though – I love them and I hope I’ll write many more.
The toy gun in the photograph is the gun that inspired ‘Waiting for the Bullet’, the title story of my collection.
To me, the gun has a resonance that exists throughout the collection.
All of the stories employ humour to some extent, as in ‘Waiting for the Bullet’ where the spectacle of four adults playing Russian Roulette with a toy gun is amusing at first.
However, in that story, though the gun is merely a toy, it nevertheless develops into a weapon in a war of emotional wounds.
Similarly, the other stories have instances of black humour and the characters often fail to realise that the people close to them are not what they seem to be. Ultimately, my characters are forced to change, and to reassess their relationships or views of the world.
Waiting for the Bullet (extract)
My husband Turlough arrived home with the gun a few weeks ago. I heard him coming in from work and putting his laptop on the hall table as usual, then the sound of packaging being ripped open as he strode into the kitchen. Turlough’s an immediate presence, full of energy. When I first met him this thrilled me, but lately it makes me feel – not tired exactly – maybe just a little diminished.
‘Look at this!’ he said. ‘It’s brilliant.’ He threw the gun onto the worktop. It was made of metal and the butt was beige-coloured plastic.
‘Jesus!’ I said.
‘Ah, cop yourself on, Melissa. It’s only a toy.’ He picked it up, pressed something and the barrel fell open. ‘Look, this is how you load it.’
He took a red plastic circle from a tube, pushed it into the exposed cylinder and clicked it shut. Then he pointed the gun at my face and pressed the trigger. The sharp crack of the gunshot sounded so real that I ducked. A haze of smoke hung in the air and behind it Turlough laughed. ‘You should see your face! Isn’t it convincing?’
‘It’s horrible,’ I said.
‘Ah, it’s only a bit of fun.’
‘Let’s put it away,’ I said. I shoved it into the junk drawer and began to make dinner.
The junk drawer is part of an ugly armoire that my mother-in-law gave us. ‘It’s an heirloom,’ she said, but I suspect she was yearning to get rid of it. If I could, I’d junk the entire piece of furniture. There’s one big drawer at the base, and that’s where I put stuff destined for the charity shop or the dustbin – things I can’t throw away immediately, usually because they belong to Turlough.
That night, while Turlough was out playing tennis, I contemplated the contents of the junk drawer. The first thing I saw was a cigarette lighter shaped like a woman with ‘Souvenir of Lanzarote’ engraved on it – it was about time I got rid of that. Among various other useless objects, there was a Casio pocket viewer (unused since he got his Blackberry) and a candy-striped tie from Brown Thomas that made him look like a pimp… The gun was there too, nestling between a packet of condoms in the colours of the Irish flag and a key-ring with a plastic pint of Guinness attached. I took the gun out and became oddly fascinated by it. I loaded it, aimed at the fridge and shut my eyes, then pressed the trigger. The sound was loud and convincing.
I fired six more times, aiming through the window at birds and a stray cat, until I hardly jumped at the noise any more. Finally, I looked in the mirror and shot myself in the head. As I put the gun away, I felt strangely fulfilled.
I was reading in bed when Turlough lurched in.
‘Night,’ he said as he lowered himself into bed and turned on his side. I moved close to him but he didn’t turn round, just said, ‘You haven’t forgotten that Stacey and Richard are coming over tomorrow night?’
‘No, I haven’t,’ I said. ‘Why?’
‘Just wondering. You know she doesn’t like red peppers, don’t you?’
‘Yes. Do you want me to recite the menu?’
‘No, I’m sure it’ll be fine.’ He kissed me perfunctorily and was snoring within minutes. I lay awake next to him and tried not to think about the fact that we hadn’t had sex in months. Then I went to the bathroom and lay on the bathmat for a while with a hand towel and fingers between my thighs. As I flushed the toilet later, I told myself that relationships were like economies, that they were cyclical things, with peaks and troughs. That me and Turlough were just temporarily in recession.
Discover more about Madeleine D’Arcy
Discover Madeleine’s Stories Online
‘Is This Like Scotland?’ – published in the Sunday Tribune
‘Clocking Out’ – published in Necessary Fiction
‘Dog Pound’ – published in the Irish Times