A Fascination With the World

Deirdre Shanahan discusses writing Carrying Fire and Water

This is part two of a two-part interview with Deirdre Shanahan. In the first part, Deirdre discussed her approach to the craft of the short story.
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Deirdre Shanahan is a London-based writer who has been publishing short stories for a few years now with a lot of success. She won the Wasafiri New Writing Prize in 2018, and was shortlisted for the 2019 London Short Story Prize. Her work also appeared in Salt’s Best of British Short Stories anthology in 2017, and last year Bluemoose Books published her novel Caravan of the Lost and Left Behind. This year, in Carrying Fire and Water, Deirdre brings together sixteen stories which the novelist Alan McMonagle has described as “elemental, achingly honest, and delicately rendered”; the collection is published by Splice and available to order now.

In this two-part interview, Daniel Davis Wood speaks to Deirdre first about her approach to the short story form, and then discusses the particulars of writing the stories in Carrying Fire and Water.

You’ve said that your characters tend to be fascinated by the world they find themselves in, although it also seems to me that they’re lost in the world, or overwhelmed by it, and their fascination with external phenomena reads like a coping strategy or some way of anchoring themselves, or re-orienting themselves. Let me give an example, from ‘Araiyakushimae’. Your protagonist, Yolande, notices an irrigation ditch on a farm belonging to her family; she has returned to the farm after an absence of many years. The description is very matter-of-fact:

At the lower field, the brambles were pimply and underdeveloped because of the early summer rain. The bridge over the ditch was an old door with a few split planks supporting it, though its appearance belied its strength for it had been there through all the years from the time when her grandparents were still alive. Old rainwater sumped the soil around it. Grass and reeds clotted the flow, shimmering gold under the full light of the sky. She had jumped over the ditch as a kid, lost to danger, rather relishing it and not realising ditches developed from runnels and brooks, following the contours of the land.

There are some poetic qualities — the “pimply” brambles; the acoustic resonance between “sumped” and “jumped” — but otherwise this passage describes a sentimentally important place in a dispassionate way. What’s interesting about it, though, is that the paragraph before it is seething with rage. Yolande, we’ll learn, was abused by her uncle, who still lives on the farm, and the words preceding her observations of the ditch are brimming with fury: “He would have to listen as she spat out words caged in for years. She would challenge. Scald him with the truth.” So we jump, shockingly, from this intense urge to “scald” straight into a cold description of a ditch — but Yolande’s anger continues to come through the description of the ditch, because we know that she’s focusing on it so closely in order to keep the reins on her emotions.

There are lots of other instances of this, where characters interact with the world by really only reacting to stimuli, because they’re so badly at the mercy of greater powers and not able to be proactive in shaping their own selves. The closest we get to someone who acts decisively is in ‘The Stars Are Light Enough’, when your protagonist reaches an awareness of her limitations, her ineffectiveness, and calls it quits. Otherwise there are no real epiphanies or resolutions, more a sense of drift — and especially in stories like ‘Lost Children’ and ‘Weights’.

What is this a function of? I mean, would you say that you see the world in this way — as so vast that it mostly swallows up human agency and self-determination? Or is it more that you’re drawn to characters in disempowered situations, for dramatic purposes?

I think your point is relevant to ‘Lost Children’ and ‘Weights’, but I don’t want to convey the belief that we have no agency in the world. When it does happen, I think these characters have evolved this way for dramatic purposes: some might appear to be reactive in some stories and become more proactive towards the end, as in ‘Breakfast With Rilke’ and ‘Dark Rain Falling’. Sometimes I see characters as being at the mercy of their passions or the effects of the past, so in those cases they may come across as more passive, but it is often because they might be enveloped in larger societal forces or emotional currents than they can deal with. And in other stories, like ‘Foraged Things’, the character’s age determines the degree of change she can effect on her own life. There might be an element of “drift” there in the collection, but I hope not excessively.

Okay, so then how does all of this make its way into sentences for you? I’m assuming you go slowly, sentence by sentence, rather than scene by scene, because your sentences are so stark and rhythmic. So you’ve got the characters in your mind, the situation they’re facing, but when you sit down to write, where do you devote most of your attention? Is it, say, to the voice, the sound, the imagery? Or is it in fact the dramatic material, wanting to make the action happen?

It’s still the characters. I actually don’t think about “voice” —that seems to be too self-conscious. I’m writing about people, place, situation; I’m thinking about relationships and the emotions between one person and another, what they see in each other, how they might act and react. I’m not thinking consciously about style or how to write — just hoping to get something down. And I’m kind of writing to work something out, so there’s excitement to it as you create and enter your own little world.

You mentioned that you studied art, so would you say, then, that this visual background not only influences the beginnings of your process — imaginative visualisations of people in a scenario — but also fuels the process throughout? As if, if writing is not primarily an exercise in the sounds of words, it’s an exercise in finding words that animate imagery?

A little. I think all I’ve studied — along with experience, observations, conjecture, imagination, dreams, memory, et cetera — come to bear on my writing. The process is one I might describe as involving similar skills to those of people who work with the materials of the plastic arts. By that I mean I see the writing process often in terms of shaping, paring as a sculptor works, carving and cutting off pieces while having to be sensitive to the form one is handling. The way a story emerges for me is something akin to the way Michaelangelo’s prisoner sculptures appear, if that doesn’t sound too hifalutin. When I write, I am working on the notion that there is something in this original image that wants to get out and I have to find a way to release it to its rightful form, in the way it will be served the best.

And in doing that I try to use all my senses, on and off the page. So, for example, I like to walk rather than drive, because it’s a more sensual experience, there’s more stimulation of the senses. A journey might or might not be pleasurable, but in each case I am more likely to register more about my surroundings if I go through them slowly, on foot. And the process you are specifically asking about, whereby I might start with an image and then use words to make it move and become immersive, is the result of long stages of just doing the same thing, imaginatively — putting myself in a place, working out what it feels like, maybe researching or checking on facts, but essentially drafting and redrafting until the words I want, which express most acutely how it feels to be somewhere, are finally there on the page.

Which of the stories in Carrying Fire and Water did you have to subject to this process most intensely, in order to get them into the right shape? And which ones would you say came easiest, through a relatively speedy process?

Nearly all the stories fell into place, eventually, in the way I envisaged, but the one that springs to mind in terms of needing reviewing was ‘Weights’. Something about the tone wasn’t right to begin with, and there was also something else that I knew was amiss and but I couldn’t detect what it was.

Can you say more about it, and how you resolved it?

In its original form, I had a much more explicit version of what happened between the girl and the music teacher. It felt quite wrong, I think, but I could not see a way out until a friend read it. They actually did not point out anything but offered advice on childhood trauma — things I knew but had forgotten, as one does when drawn into the world of a story. With their input, though, they helped me see that I could take a step back and make use of the metronome as an object in the story. The metronome carried the emotional weight in real and metaphorical terms, and there is now a greater degree of suggestion, which I hope is more effective than the explicit approach I took at first. The experience reminded me that you have to have a consideration for the reader, and what they’ll take from a story, but also what they’ll bring to it — what depth of understanding. Anyway, after that intervention, I was able to return to the story and complete it in the way I had been striving for.

So, what next? I know you have more stories in reserve, but where are your ambitions taking you now?

I am working on another novel. But I also have ideas for two stories which I want to get the chance to focus on in the near future. Stories will always be part of my writing life. They’ll interweave and arrive at unexpected times — though they are a welcome interruption and I have to give them due space and attention.

About Daniel Davis Wood

Daniel Davis Wood is based in Scotland. His début novel, Blood and Bone, won the Viva La Novella Prize in his native Australia, and his follow-up, At the Edge of the Solid World, was published to acclaim in 2020. He is also the author of a monograph, Frontier Justice in the Novels of James Fenimore Cooper and Cormac McCarthy, and the novella Unspeakable. He blogs at Infinite Patience and tweets @DanielDavisWood.