A Front Row Seat on Moments of Psychic Despair
Chris Power discusses writing Mothers
Chris Power is well-known as a journalist and book reviewer for The Guardian, The New Statesman, and elsewhere, but this week he’ll publish his own début book Mothers, with Faber & Faber. It’s a collection of ten short stories, some of which have previously appeared in publications such as The Stinging Fly, The Dublin Review, and The White Review. Three of them — the “Eva” stories — are interlinked and form an overarching drama whose themes reverberate throughout all the others.
In reviewing the book for Splice, David Hebblethwaite called it a fine collection of compelling narratives that “imbu[e] the everyday with metaphoric force”. Throughout February 2018, Chris Power was generous enough to engage via email with Daniel Davis Wood, to discuss both the writing of Mothers and his work as a critic.
You’re publishing Mothers, your first collection of short stories, in the wake of the sixty-odd profiles of short story writers you produced for your ‘Brief Survey of the Short Story’ in The Guardian. Looking back on the survey after having read Mothers, it’s striking to see that so many of your profiles celebrate the work of aesthetically challenging writers — Beckett, Borges, Nabokov, Lydia Davis, David Foster Wallace, et al — while Mothers seems to be more studiously composed, more engaged with the tradition of realism.
Where would you locate Mothers in the survey? In whose company?
The ‘Brief Survey’ was always intended to be a catalogue of enthusiasms rather than a formal history of the short story that would begin with, say, Walter Scott and hit all its marks on through Maupassant, Chekhov, Hemingway, et cetera, and I — like many readers — enjoy writing that varies greatly in style. But I’m not sure I would necessarily separate “aesthetically challenging” or “experimental” writing from “realism”, and if I did the space between them would be narrow and permeable. “All writing is experimental”, as William Trevor once said, and pretty much everything I’ve ever written about in the Brief Survey is, after all, an attempt to portray reality. Eudora Welty said, “human life is fiction’s only theme”, and I’m not arguing with her.
Formal decisions really have to do with subject matter. A story like Samuel Beckett’s ‘Ping’, in which the flow of language the reader encounters is akin to being dropped directly into a character’s unmediated, uncontextualised thoughts, is very different to any of the stories in Mothers, which as you say are largely realist. But in a novel like Molloy, Beckett hews much closer to realism of a sort, not because he hadn’t yet “discovered” the style he employs in ‘Ping’, but because it’s the style appropriate to the effect he’s creating.
Were there things you discovered while writing the survey that went on to inform your own stories? Pitfalls to avoid, tricks to try out? Challenges to meet?
Well, it has had a profound impact, but it’s one among many things that have impacted Mothers. Danilo Kiš writes about the most important influence in all of literature being that of “work on work”, and I think that’s absolutely true. A lot of experiences taken from my life are portrayed in Mothers, but my writing style has strands feeding into it from all sorts of directions, many of which originate in books — all kinds of books, not only short stories and not only fiction.
Putting its realist composure to one side, Mothers does sometimes take unexpected, almost metafictional turns. In ‘The Colossus of Rhodes’, for instance, the narrator tells a story and then interrupts himself to point out all the things he has falsified, and in ‘Johnny Kingdom’ the protagonist is a character who literally struggles to distinguish himself from a character he has performed onstage. Most significantly, in the final story, ‘Eva’, the title character writes a piece of prose that seems to be a match for the first story in Mothers — but her version is written in Swedish, not English, which leaves open the question of whether her English-speaking husband comes to understand her as intimately as readers do after they encounter your “translation”.
Of course, these macro-level eccentricities aren’t playful in a Beckettian or Borgesian sense; they bend the structure of the book without troubling its surface, wearing their postmodernism pretty lightly. Do you recognise them as having some other source of influence, or an antecedent? And especially with regard to the three stories about Eva — the first and last stories in Mothers, and one at the midway point — what do you think has been gained by splitting them up and having them bookend this collection, rather than grouping them together or even reworking them as a short novel?
I was having trouble ending ‘The Colossus of Rhodes’ in a satisfactory way, until I had a conversation with a woman at a party about it. Talking about the story fed into a more general discussion of being molested as children by adults, and she said something about the difference between the male and female experience of it that really altered my perspective — it was #MeToo a couple of years avant la lettre. When that conversation took place I’d recently read Kevin Barry’s great novel Beatlebone, which contains a section where Barry shifts his focus away from his characters and onto himself. This move, fiction transforming into essay, combined with the conversation I had at that party and showed me how I could add another layer onto the story that really spoke to the subjects at its heart: questions about how to navigate the line between truth and fiction, and what difference it makes if certain events are never spoken of — questions that run all the way through the book, but are most explicit in ‘Colossus’.
As for the Eva or ‘Mother’ stories, I wanted to split them because a period of time elapses between each one — many years between the first and second, less between second and third — so it felt right that the reader should spend some time away from Eva’s story before coming back to it. These stories could have been reworked into a novel, sure, but I think this is the right place for them: they’re as long as they need to be, and their distribution is part of their effect.
One of the interesting things you’ve managed to do in Mothers is develop a very clean, crisp style and turn it towards unconventional purposes. The style is so assured, so certain of itself, and almost cinematic in the way it conveys what your characters are doing and thinking from one instant to the next. But these qualities put the style at odds with the characters themselves, because so many of them are mired in existential crises that rob them of their certainties. They don’t know who they are, they can’t regain a lost sense of self, and they’re not sure that they can know anything meaningful about the inner lives of the people around them. Often they have no notion of where they’re heading beyond the moment they find themselves in; they’re unable to fully envision a life for themselves outside of a very thin slice of time.
The style becomes almost painful, then, giving the reader exactly the feeling of certainty, of mastery, that the characters have lost. How much labour is involved in producing this style and pairing it up with these people in these situations? It seems like a real challenge to so tightly control how much the characters can know about themselves and others, and how much can be known by others and by the reader, without muddying the waters or going all in with full-blown third-person omniscience. What were your guiding principles in composing and revising the prose of these stories?
I’m very interested in close third, this voice that is separate from the character, but so close that it never reveals anything that the character himself or herself isn’t aware of; in fact so close that the character’s perception and manner even tints the neutrality of the narrative voice. The calibration of that voice was very important to me when I was writing these stories. Get it right and you’re with the character, but as you say you’ve got some crucial distance there too, which kind of gives you a front-row seat on these moments of psychic disaster. I wouldn’t be so interested in being within Liam’s stream of consciousness in the final scenes of ‘Above the Wedding’, when he’s completely wrecked, but by tracking him at one remove, the writing can reflect a degree of his disorder while still remaining coherent.
I hadn’t thought of the prose style establishing a kind of tragic distance between the characters’ disorder and the writing’s order, but I think it’s an interesting idea. What you say about the limits of self-knowledge, and our knowledge of others, is certainly true; it’s there throughout the book and is something that fascinates and sometimes terrifies me, depending on how robust I’m feeling on a particular day. That’s why Eva’s arc is the reverse of a traditional one. She becomes less known to us as the book goes on, and the individual chapters in her story move from first person to close third to, in the final piece, close third on her husband.
Most of the stories in Mothers are self-contained, but the collection as a whole is shot through with a number of uncanny resonances that make the stories read as if they’re speaking to one another, engaged in call-and-response exchanges. There are two separate stories in which a character tumbles into a river, and two in which a relationship ends abruptly and wordlessly. There are two in which a young man becomes almost feverish with fury when he is spurned by someone he’s attracted to, and there are three in which different characters are struck by sudden, shocking punches to the face, prompting them to re-evaluate their circumstances.
Were these resonances planned in advance, or considered from a remove, in order to heighten the integrity of the overall collection? Or did they arise organically, as an indirect result of compiling the book, while you focused on meeting the needs and demands of the individual stories?
I definitely wanted the collection to be something that rewards being read as a whole. Those resonances you mention certainly weren’t planned in advance, but once I started editing the stories as part of a collection, rather than individual pieces, I was thrilled when I discovered echoes between one story and another — it’s like your subconscious has already done some of the work for you. In fact that’s how I arrived at the book’s title — motherhood is obviously central to the Eva stories, but it was only when I read all the stories together that I realised just how many of them featured mothers, or their influence.
Having found some things already in place, I did also write in some connections. I’m very interested in bodies of work that have that kind of unity, things like the stories of John McGahern, which return obsessively to the same situations and character types, or Roberto Bolaño’s writings, which he considered parts of one overarching narrative — the stories, the novels, the poems, everything.
Last question, playing on your role as both artist and critic. Let’s say that readers of Mothers love the book and want to know where you think they should turn to next. Let’s think of Mothers as a jumping-off point for reading other writers — largely unheard-of — whose work speaks to the book in some way, perhaps complementing it or perhaps contrasting with it. Who are those writers? Can you name names and give a brief idea of why you think they’ll appeal to your readers?
It’s a good question, but also a tough one. I love making connections between other writers’ work, but find I don’t have the ability to do it so well when it comes to my own. I’ll have a stab at it, though. These are books that I think share some atmospheric similarities with Mothers…
About a year ago I discovered the Norwegian writer Kjell Askildsen’s stories, which I love for the menace he can inject into domestic situations. His ‘The Dogs of Thessaloniki’ is a masterpiece. The Danish writer Naja Marie Aidt’s collection Baboon uses landscape in a very immersive way, and quickly plunges the reader into emotionally intense situations. Because she writes in both naturalistic and surreal registers you never know quite where you are with her, which only adds to the intensity. Peter Stamm is a writer I hadn’t read until someone drew a connection between our writing. Having now read him, I’m honoured by the comparison. He’s extremely good at using situation and setting to express the psychology of his characters; he never wants or needs to spell things out. And I’m going to say Denis Johnson, not because our writing is similar — no one writes like Denis Johnson — but because his writing has existed as a kind of ideal for me for so long, particularly in terms of its rhythm and economy. If you haven’t read Jesus’ Son, you need to go and do that right away.