Q&A with Alan McMonagle: 3-Day Short Fiction Workshop Director

We’re delighted to introduce award-winning writer Alan McMonagle who will direct our 3-Day Short Fiction Workshop.  Alan has published two collections of short stories, Liar Liar and Psychotic Episodes, both of which were nominated for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. He has also contributed short fiction to a number of journals and anthologies in Ireland and the USA. In 2014, his radio play Oscar Night was broadcast as part of RTÉ’s Drama on One season. Paul has recently signed a two book deal with Picador, the first of which, Ithaca, will be published early in 2017.

Q. Have you visited Listowel Writers’ Week before? If so, what were your impressions of the festival?

A. I made a flying visit in 2011. I remember poetry with and without pints. A literary walking tour during which Kevin Barry and John Connolly spent their time teasing a hapless mongrel. I had a drink in the sun with Rita Ann Higgins. Billy Keane enquired of me should he throw more turf on when I plonked myself beside the open fire in his pub (it was a sweltering day). My friend, singer and poet, Tom Lavelle, delivered a never-ending version of The Lakes of Pontchartrain during a late-late singalong in the bowels of the Listowel Arms. I loved the atmosphere and subtle humour and all-round democratic energy.

Q. You’ve published two collections of short stories. What is it about the form that most appeals?

Liar Liar (2)A. Initially, I think it was the manageability of the form. And of course now that I was somewhat committed, I had myself convinced that I was chock-full of ideas and that the short story was the only form that would accommodate my soon-to-be prolific self. Several aborted attempts in (and by several I mean dozens upon dozens), I began to suspect I had a very special case of delusional grandeur. Short stories are all about concision and brevity and implication. Little moments that break open hitherto unknown worlds. Finding ways (not always successfully) to move within a few narrative pages from a place of knowing to one of uncertainty and mystery and ambiguity I find very satisfying. That sense of possibility; of discovery and the anticipation of this discovery. By its nature a short story can dwell only within a narrow channel, and it is within such channels that I enjoy looking for a story; once identified, this ‘narrowness’ I think provides its own freedoms.

Q. Did you always want to write? What inspired you to start?

A. When I was little we lived in an end-of-row patched together shambles of a house. We had a side entrance and, out back, what can only be described as a long narrow jungle that sloped gently as far as a dirt lane. The lane was frequently waterlogged. The jungle was an impenetrable system of nettles and wildflowers. Unending skirmishes ensued. From a very early age this ‘hinterland’ served as my stomping ground. I spent lengthy stretches of time mooching about, found myself conjuring epic yarns, scribbling them into copybooks. I thought it all very exotic, part of one big adventure. Then we moved and I stopped for a long time. Just over thirteen years ago I realised I was wearying of the interior monologues I had been foisting upon myself about starting again. For me, writing is an act of faith – a belief in something that does not (as yet) exist. Not a day goes by that I don’t spend idling in my imagination. It has been a good place for me to visit.

Q. The short story has enjoyed a revival in Ireland over the past few years. Why do you think that is?

A. Well, you know, it has always been there. The sensibility. The talent. The audience. And part of me thinks publishers are realising this anew and are more willing to take a punt on collections. And not just in Ireland.

Q. You recently signed a two book deal with a major publisher, with your first novel due out in 2017. Can you tell me how that came about?

A. I was ticking along. Publishing stories here and there. RTÉ put on one of my radio plays. I was even lashing out the occasionalLiar Liar (1) poem. A couple of writing friends got a hold of me at a festival in Tipperary. Threw down the gauntlet: Have a go at a novel. This was late 2013. And so I went for it. A London-based agency were on to me, asking was I working on a novel. I said I was. They (politely) told me to hurry up and the long and short of it after that is that Picador went for it. Essentially, it’s a quest story (a little guy in search of his old man). And in true Irish fashion, it’s a search that proceeds very quickly in every conceivable direction other than the one it should. Also, it’s a voice-driven narrative, a youthful voice, both comic and desperate, and I am very happy that Picador went for it. I suspect it has yet to fully sink in – and god help those around me when it does.

Q. Who were your early literary influences?

A. Huckleberry Finn. The Artful Dodger. Alice in Wonderland. Ali Baba. The lad that went in search of the Golden Fleece. Those stories Oscar Wilde wrote for his children. And I remember a compendium of Greek Myths, mangled versions of which have managed to smuggle themselves into my first novel. A little later along came the human comedy of William Saroyan’s Fresno. Flann O’Brien’s antic imagination. Flannery O’Connor’s mysterious sensibility. Beckett’s ‘less-is-more’ style.

Q. What are you reading at the moment?

A. I am re-reading Beckett’s novels Murphy and Watt. Ian McEwan’s first book, First Love Last Rites, a collection of brilliantly disturbing forays into the imagination. The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa.

Q. Do you have a daily writing schedule?

A. I try to write six days a week (well, five and a half). The how and where and when of any given day is irrelevant to me. Recently, the kitchen table has been a good friend. The Galway-Dublin bus. And, of course, the long-suffering rothar that gets me around despite the enduring efforts of Galway drivers. So long as something gets done the needle lurking within leaves me be.

Q. For those starting out on their creative writing journey, what’s your best piece of advice?

A. Writing is a long way. You must learn how not to give up. Every day is the first day.

Q. What do you think are the main benefits of attending a three-day Creative Writing Workshop?

A. Three consecutive days will provide an opportunity for participants to gain a feel for the shape of a short story, to get a handle on the various elements that go into the making of an effective short story. A very real chance for fast camaraderie (writing can be a lonely preoccupation). Hopefully some fun, some new friends and lots of short story enthusing.

Q. Briefly, what will you be covering in your Short Fiction Workshop?

A. The aim is to cover everything I feel belongs in a successful piece of short fiction. Beginnings and endings; voice and point-of-view; character and dialogue; and so forth. In service to this I will reference proven masters of the form, try to generate some discussion, and offer some prompt-based exercises. The pace will be both gentle and progressive.

To book a place on Alan’s workshop please click here