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Nicolette: I see your characters (esp. the narrators) drift in and out of ruins
a lot. How did you tread that fine line yourself when you were
writing these stories?
not sure I trod the fine line in the writing of the stories, as the
voice of each comes from a place of unknowing, of subconsciousness.
Ruin and its avoidance were part of my experience growing up in
Dublin. My father lost the family business when I was a small boy,
and that experience shaped him as a person for the rest of his life.
We’d drive past the place every summer on the way to the West of
Ireland on our holidays and he would curse, become morose, and bemoan
the loss of what had been a life of some privilege. After
he worked to support his young family, a lot of sacrafice, a great
deal of pride. From those memories, from the struggles my parents
went through, I saw the shadow of ruin on our house and it has stayed
with me to this day. Also, I’m captivated by the dichotomy between
survival and disaster, the gust of fortune that might consign a
character one way or the other. I find much to explore in flawed
characters and don’t for the most part write about happy, positive
people. Strugglers are much more interesting, don’t you think?
Nicolette: Your portrayal of these strugglers is so visceral, too. "My
teeth chatter from the cold, the edge of my left eye twitches faster
than my heartbeat, and there's a hollow feeling in the roof of my
mouth...I knew she was dead from the way her neck angled, the pale
skin, her cigarettes on the ground beside her--Marlboro Lites--and me
having told her over and over that smoking kills." ("The
Way Her Neck Angled")
your memories -- which fill that place of unknowing you re-create on
the page -- what else would you say inform/shape your approach to
Paying attention to the small things, the rust on a hinge, the shade
of lipstick on an old woman, the shape of arthritic fingers. I fall
back on the quote, "God is in the details," to explain my
approach to character. For me, the particular is critical to flesh
out a character, those particular quirks and traits that mark one
person apart from another. As I get responses to the book I notice my
writer's eye tends towards the grimness and the seediness of life.
This I have to ascribe to my self-reflective manner and the darkness
that comes from an Irish childhood where all about me were destroyed
people hiding in corners of the Dublin streets. When I was a kid we
came across tramps, tinkers, beggars, and in their faces the etched
lines of hard lives must have spoken to me at a deep level. It's not
that I don't embrace hope and joy and beauty, I do, but through a
particular prism that contorts those things into something more
problematic, more honest, more real.
Nicolette: One thing I've always loved about your writing -- the rhythm. It's a
moving shadow that traces the character's emotions and it's very
palpable. How do you find/relate to this music, when you write?
rhythm is something I found happened when I stopped writing for the
express purpose of finding an agent, getting a publishing contract,
pleasing other parties and other monstrosities! A rhythm existed in
my writing before all of that, but it was subverted by my own
shortcomings and inadequacies, and when I gave up on the notion of
pleasing others, the writing found its own voice, its own path so to
speak. Some of the musicality is down to growing up in Ireland,
immersion in the patterns of speech that mark our island soul, and
even though I've been away now for twenty years, those important
formative years when language acquisition took place cemented those
Celtic rhythms and notes in my brain. As far as musicality goes I'm
useless in terms of playing instruments, though I do a little
tone-deaf singing when I read certain stories that contain song
lines. Sometimes I listen to music when I write, mostly instrumental,
some Sigur Ros, some classical, some operatic, and as background
music I find it soothing, though maybe the darkness comes from the
mood created by the music.
Nicolette: Aren't you always juggling a number of writing projects? I think I've
mostly read your flash fiction (and some prose-poemy pieces) so far.
Are you working on anything else these days?
is generous. I've fallen in and out of projects, some of which are
ongoing, some lie fallow at present and I may go back to them and
revive the writing. I've been working on Pure Slush's 2014 project
where a story a month set on the same day reveals a world to the
reader over the timeframe of one calendar year, and I recently spent
three days in Big Sur at a Benedictine monastery working on a novel
that Thrice Publishing will be bringing out next year. I spent the
time revising the book as it stands, adding new sections to smooth
transitions between chapters, and generally polishing the language to
a point where I can comfortably say the book is ready for the light
of day. I'd like to find a happy medium where I don't have too many
projects going on, but that's probably not very likely!
Nicolette: That brings me to the question I've always wanted to ask you. How do
you approach the shift from flashing to writing a novel? Whenever I
read your flash fiction, I listen to the rhythm and emotions and
think, "There's something he's not showing here... The bigger
there's a great deal "below the water" in the flash pieces,
the unsaid, the unmentionable. I like to skirt the edges and give the
reader these clues, hints, as to what's going on beneath. The switch
to the novel is slightly more difficult in terms of creating a "whole
world" situation, and making sure the whole thing has
cohesiveness. I've worked hard on showing a world in the novel that
encompasses the main character's hometown, and I hope it succeeds on
the page. With flash it's easy to declare a piece finished and leave
much unsaid, whilst with the novel there's a pull that I feel at work
that makes me want to reveal the layers of the story in a more
complete way. I'm anticipating the novel will stay true to the rhythm
and patterns of my other writing, and that there won't be any sense
of the novel "failing" in terms of voice and authenticity.
James Claffey hails from County Westmeath, Ireland, and lives on an avocado ranch in Carpinteria, CA. His work has appeared in the New Orleans Review, Word Riot, Metazen, Necessary Fiction, FWriction and many other places.