Mary Costello is the author of The China Factory, a collection of short stories which was published by The Stinging Fly Press. It has received much acclaim and renown for its intensity and sensitivity. Costello has an amazing capacity to reveal characters’ lives through understated encounters, be it the restraint of two strangers in The Patio Man or the breadth of emotion explored in The Falling Sickness. Writing about The China Factory Booker Prize winning novelist Anne Enright commented “Like Alice Munro, Costello is not afraid of a good car accident, a cancer diagnosis, the arrival on the scene of a roaring madman . . . This is a writer unafraid of the graveside, or the bedside, of filling the space of the story to the brim.”
Mary Costello kindly agreed to an email interview with TMO’s Katie Mcdermott
TMO: Congratulations on all your success with The China Factory. What was it like to be nominated for the ‘Best Newcomer’ category in this year’s Bórd Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards and longlisted for The Guardian First Book Award?
Thank you, Katie. It was an enormous honour and a lovely surprise in both instances. For so long I wrote only for myself and now, well… It’s always a little shocking to know complete strangers might be reading your book. But it could be worse!
TMO: Irish writers seem to be preoccupied with place. How does place play into your writing and do you believe your writing fits into a distinctive ‘Irish’ voice?
I am not at all conscious of place during the writing of stories. It never preoccupies me. Place is incidental. Physical place, at any rate.
There is no doubt that, being Irish, I write about characters who are situated in Irish landscape, rural and urban. This is where I landed on earth, this is what I know. If I’d landed in Umbria or Utah that would be my literary landscape. The sights and sounds and feel of the places in which I situate my characters are woven into my stories – the west of Ireland, Dublin – and have a bearing on each insofar as they affect the characters at particular moments, as well as the tone of the stories. Light and dark and shade are important features in writing. What is of greater concern, however, is the characters’ inner landscape. The interior lives.
It’s hard for me to say if my writing fits into a distinctive Irish voice. I suppose it does, it’s bound to. I’m not consciously trying either to make it fit or unfit. The ‘Irishness’and the ‘place’ are just there. They are as natural to the characters as the air. But I do not expend any effort to ‘insert’ these. They emerge of their own volition. My main concern is to convey the characters’ inner lives, what Robert Musil called ‘the floating life within’. The world without – the place – plays on and affects this life within. The tension between the two worlds interests. The characters have to live in the real world. They have to survive, fill in the gaps, though sometimes they prefer to retreat to the interior.
TMO: What is the hardest part of writing?
The struggle to realise the story. The uncertainty, the anxiety of trying to write it as I see it in my mind’s eye, to ferry it to the page. To do it justice. There’s despair sometimes at the paucity of my words to do justice to things… like love and death and beauty.
TMO: What is the best part of writing?
The moment you accidentally stumble on something: a line, an image, a find of some kind. It happens rarely enough but it happens. Something that somehow magically ‘fits’ your story – the very scene that needs it – is handed to you. In that moment you want to fall to your knees in gratitude. Of course, in the whole scheme of things it’s nothing. And yet, when I am alone and in attendance and tumble into just such a moment, it feels like a gift, a grace. The image of medieval alchemists working alone in dark rooms with their base metals often comes to mind. Waiting for the key, the transmutation, waiting to extract the gold.
TMO: Your stories cover so much in such a short space. In a mere handful of pages you paint a life in its entirety and all its emotional intensity. What is it about the short story as a form that you find so compelling?
Thank you. It is that, exactly that… in a handful of pages you want to be delivered into emotional intensity. Or some kind of intensity.
When you read a story you want to feel the beauty and the terror of the human condition. You want to glean or intuit something about that. Stories that are tense and tightly-wound appeal to me, with language that is exacting. The voice is probably what defines the story more than anything else. When the voice is intimate and spellbinding and when every line holds me and transfixes, I am hooked.
I like a story to have an elemental quality, some extreme feeling, but also I want it to be subtle and taut and controlled. I’m not looking for escapism or solace or cleverness or gimmicks. I prefer to be quietly floored. After reading a good story I am sometimes troubled – it weighs on me.
TMO: When reading The China Factory the most vivid thing for me was your characters. How do you go about creating your characters? Do you do a lot of planning, do you base them on real people or do they just spring into your head fully formed?
Sometimes characters arrive almost fully formed. So I don’t really bring them into the world at all. When they come they already have a past and a history. I happen upon them one day on a road or in a car or a hotel room. Day by day I discover more about them. I might add or take from their lives. I might add parts of me or parts of others. But the central tale they have to tell is theirs – it adheres to them from the get-go. I know the story of each character almost as soon as I find him. It might alter a little, it might take a sudden turn, but the core of his life or story doesn’t much change from the moment I find him.
In that sense I don’t plan very much at all. Plot, as such, isn’t something I work on consciously or strategically. Things occur to me – outside of the story process a writer sees and hears and is receptive to all kinds of occurrences and events that can be used in a story. The most unlikely snippet can fall into one’s head – a radio report I heard one day on old Russian satellites falling to earth as debris was just what I needed to bridge scenes in a story of lovers in a hotel room.
TMO: What preoccupies you when you write? What themes do you wish to explore or what questions do you want to raise in the readers’ mind?
No, I never think of themes or issues or questions. I am so weighed down by the need to catch the story, so urgent and desperate to get the voice right and the feel and tone of each moment – the line of the story and keeping it tense is what occupies me. Anything extraneous to that is just a distraction, an impediment. Later, after the story is written I sometimes realise – or it might be pointed out to me – that this story is actually about some theme: ‘fate’ or chance or conscience. But I cannot hold that concern in the middle of the writing, I cannot carry it, or juggle it. I’m simply not able.
TMO: You have been involved in events such as The Dublin Book Festival, The Dalkey Book Festival and have given many several public readings of your work at venues such as the Irish Writers’ Centre. How important are events like this to you?
It’s lovely to get invited to readings and festivals. At the start it was quite nerve-wracking reading in public, and still can be, too. Something is gained at each reading of a story. There is something in a live reading that acts on a story, an energy, a frisson. The characters live more fully. I enter the story’s dimension. I sometimes discover new weak parts. I often learn something at a reading.
TMO: What three writers, living or dead, would you invite to your fantasy dinner party and why?
Oh, I’d want Camus there. I’ve always wanted to return him to life. Hear his voice. Gaze at his beautiful face. It’s the fiction, not the philosophy I’d want…the stories of exile, of memory, the sun and the light and the water of Algiers, the dark rooms of childhood with his mother and grandmother. And that refined feeling of his. He might tell me – urge me – to live my life in truth, only in truth. And I would obey him.
I’d invite Edna O’Brien for her passion and charm. And because she loves handsome intelligent men and they love her. And she loves love. I think these two would adore each other – she’d have Camus eating out of her hand. Profound compassionate hearts, both. Full of longing. Tinged with loss, too.
James Salter, aged 87, and American, would add a certain verve. His confidence, sensuality, his good taste. The long life, too, always watchful, and heaving with contained feeling. And Edna would have two men in adoration.
I’m tempted to have Alice Munro along. She’s such a quiet gentle creature, though, the others might out-passion her. Besides, I’d want her all to myself. Another night for Alice, then. Another night for Coetzee too. I’m way too selfish to share these two.
TMO: What are you currently working on? More short stories or a novel? Can you pitch this project to me in 140 characters (a tweet)
A novel. A couple of stories are pushing up too… troubling me. I’m a terrible pitcher… but something like this: The story of Tess, from 6 to 66.