Oisín Fagan is from Moynalvey, Meath. His novella, The Hierophants, won the inaugural Penny Dreadful Novella award in June, 2016. His story collection, Hostages, was published by New Island in September, 2016. He has had stories published in the Anthology, Young Irelanders, and The Stinging Fly.
Tell us a little about your background (where you grew up etc.) and your earliest experience/engagement with literature.
I moved around a lot when I was younger and then my family settled in Moynalvey when I was seven. After that we stayed put. My mother’s side of the family is all from there, and that’s where I’m from as well. I had a blessed childhood. I lived very near my many cousins, who were of a similar age to me, and we played a lot of football and a lot of cards. I went to Kiltale National School and then Scoil Dara, Kilcock. I grew up around a big family and had a great time. I think my earliest engagement with literature was The Hardy Boys and The Famous Five, but what made the biggest impression on me was Calvin & Hobbes, which is a comic strip, along with cartoons like Pokémon and programmes like The Den. Personally, I count them as literature, or at least I wouldn’t write like I do without them. They gave me my love of colour, narrative, movement, emotion, character and adventure.
When and how did you realise that you wanted to be a writer and which author/s inspired you to pursue a literary career?
As long as I can remember reading I’ve wanted to write. I was always going to tell stories in some form or another. I think writing took over as an idea (although it was an interrupted idea) when I started getting into fantasy at about ten or eleven. Writers like Robin Hobb and Terry Goodkind were really big for me. The worlds they built haunted me, and I read their books many times. I don’t read fantasy anymore, but I probably would be a very different writer without them, especially Robin Hobb. She’s a true magician.
Describe your early writing habits and how you sustained the motivation to write. Have you noticed any differences/changes over the years?
I began to take writing very seriously when I was 19 and I wrote all the time. I wrote a novel and two books of short stories in the space of eighteen months, nearly all of which were shite. I wrote all morning and then I’d work in a bar at night. One of the years I criminally neglected my college studies, and the other year I left college and just wrote and worked nights. I’d write until I went blind or stupid, both of which happen after about four hours on a laptop. I tried to sell these books, but there was no traction, and rereading them I see why, so I gave up for a year or two and reassessed my goals and commitments.
I think the problem was that I actually took writing too seriously and wasted a lot of time and a lot of my youth on it, but all this really means is that I took myself too seriously. I had notions of myself. I thought there was some life you had to lead, some kind of romantic commitment to it that was necessary, which is stupid and embarrassing. I’m still very stupid, but I’m not stupid in that way.
There’s nothing as arrogant or as stupid as a young man, and there are absolutely no notions about writers that mean anything. There are only some stories you can tell, and some you can’t. Everything else is put on.
My writing habits have changed now, in that I know when to force writing and when to not worry about writing. I’m not afraid to write shite anymore in the first draft, because my eye has developed, so I know on going back over the text if it’s good or bad, and I know when it can be worked over and made better, and I know when it can’t, and has to be dropped. I also know, given what style I’m inventing (I like to think I’m inventing them, but I’m probably not, but if I don’t believe I’m doing something new I don’t continue) if a piece needs to be written slowly or quickly, so what that means is that my writing habits change every story, or every chapter. At the moment I write from 8-1. That’s my only habit.
What do you like to do to relax? (Do you have long walks, or enjoy farming or community discussions in grubby community halls?)
Listening to mixes, swimming, gardening, running, things like that. Reading, obviously. Hanging out with my family is the best relaxation. I suppose the strangest thing that relaxes me is learning a new language, but I haven’t done that in a while. One of my best friends has started tree-climbing. He just goes out to a forest and climbs trees. I’m going to do that. Climbing in places you shouldn’t climb is the most fun thing you can do.
Your disturbingly brilliant anthology ‘Hostages’ is a wonderful blend of the crazy, the damn right crazy, and the insane. It’s one of the best anthologies we’ve read recently to emerge from Ireland, and there is still competition with so many talented writers; how did you pitch this collection to New Island Books, and what’s the response been like?
Thanks! I didn’t pitch it, really. I just sent it in, because I had a contact with them because I had a piece placed in anthology they did, edited by Dave Lordan, called Young Irelanders. Dan Bolger liked it a lot, so he took it. The response has been cool. It’s early days yet, so we’ll see. Some people have gotten the book, which has been really gratifying. Others, it’s not their thing, which I really do understand. Some people I went to school with like it a lot, which has been a really big deal for me.
Where there any short stories that you didn’t include or cut from your anthology, if so what were they and why? *
The Hierophants was in the first draft, but it really didn’t fit. It was just bulking it up, and then I realised the book was well over a 100,000 words, which isn’t really normal for a book of stories, so I dropped it. Bar that they were all the same stories: my hostages were my hostages.
Hostages by Oisin Fagan
For those that don’t know your work, you have previously written the short novel ‘The Hierophants’ which won the Penny Dreadful Novella Prize in 2016 and of course this anthology ‘Hostages’. Is there a particular form you prefer to write in, if so, what is it and why?
My comfort zone is 20,000 words. Everything I write comes out the length and then I push it down, or push it up. A big learning curve for me will be learning to compress, or elongate that now, and in the future. I just like telling stories, so I don’t really concern myself with the form too much.
Are there any tips you would be able to offer to first-time writers on what makes a good anthology?
Well, from my limited experience in the publishing world, which has only been in independent Irish publishing, I think everyone is trying to help you make the best book/story you can. There is no mythical money man trying to destroy your artistic vision and rob your glory. There’s no money, for one, and there’s no glory except for if you can communicate with someone and that doesn’t belong to you.
There are just loads of really talented people, from interns to editors, who believe in the form of literature and are doing what they do for love, as much as, you, a writer, are doing what you do for love. So, take their criticisms and suggestions seriously. Even if you’re turning them down, know exactly why they suggested it and why you’re turning them down. It’s always important to be humble. Your work and you aren’t sacred things.
The other thing, I suppose, would be to have a diverse collection, but diverse in a cohesive way. What that means is that if you write something good, it’s been published and praised, maybe in a magazine or something, that doesn’t mean it necessarily belongs in your collection. Have faith in your new creations. Have faith in stories you write around a similar time. If you’ve something good and it can’t find a home, hold on to it, or show it to your friends, or release it online. A collection shouldn’t be a kind of ‘Best of x writer’ it should be more like an album. That’s my belief anyway. It might not apply to other people.
The anthology for me was perfect as it had subtle blends of many of my favourite authors from HG Wells, Chuck Palahniuk, William S Burroughs and Anthony Burgess. How best would you describe your style and who have been your biggest influences?
A very interesting part of getting this book published has been where people see the influences of different people they admire. It’s been really cool. But I must admit, 95% of the time, I haven’t read any of my supposed influencers! So, for example here, except for the Island of Dr Moreau, by Wells, I haven’t read any of those writers! I still think it’s beautiful that people find those influences. It’s like we’re all living in a big world and we breathe the same air, and we’re all connected, even if we don’t meet each other, which of course we are.
Read out interview with Chuck Palahniuk here…
Hmmm… How would I describe my style? Hmm… I dunno. That’s a fun question. Rural sci-fi, maybe. Mythical Meathology, possibly. Frenetic naturalism. I dunno. I borrow a lot from older forms, such as the picaresque, fairy tales, realism pre-Flaubert and pre-Zola, Irish mythology, religious texts. I have an infinite number of influences. Maybe I haven’t read as widely, or as much as other people, but I’m not afraid to read texts from other cultures, other languages, other millennia, and I think that, if I do have any edge whatsoever, it comes from that. But, definitely, my main influence has been the struggle, and the way my mother reared me. She taught me that I wasn’t an individual, I was always a very small part of something else much bigger, and that is something I want to reflect in all my writing.
Before we move onto the anthology ‘Hostages’, could we just ask you to tell us your inspiration behind the wonderfully dark but delicately written ‘Hierophants’ and how would you best describe this in relation to ‘Hostages’?
I love Hierophants, but I wrote it a long time ago and I don’t really have the same concerns now. It’s exciting and loads of fun, though. Which it shares with Hostages, I hope.
The inspiration for it was how I was feeling at the time. I felt like I had nothing to offer anyone. I felt like I had cut myself off from my people and the struggle. I made it about the total demolition of a self-involved ego drowning in a solitude they don’t have the skill or ability to shake off, because that’s how I felt at the time.
The opening story ‘Being Born’ reminded me of Chuck Palahniuk and Richard Thomas and had a very transgressive vibe to it; was this your intention? Do you consider yourself a transgressive author?
No, I don’t really. I think what’s often labelled as transgressive in literature is sex and violence and sex and violence are (I’m talking only about literature here) pretty boring, and to be frank, it’s been done. Marquis de Sade happened. And that’s a while back.
For me what would be transgressive is if you could tackle these issues from a collectivist standpoint, rather than an individual one. That’s where you have to transgress. But I don’t know. What are we transgressing?
We live in a global, transgressive system wherein torture and drones, violence against women, children living in detention centres because they’re foreign, have been normalised. Greed and selfishness are rewarded, held up as the summit of progress. Entrepreneurs are applauded and funded by governments while single mothers are vilified and have their benefits cut.
There are so many resources in this world, and yet so many children live in abject poverty. If I’m transgressive in any way it’s because I recognise the system is entirely transgressive and I reflect it and imagine little transformations that can happen. But, ultimately, I don’t think I’m a transgressive writer. I just think I’m a nice, rural boy.
Could you explain the inspiration behind this wonderful opening story?
Janey mac. I’d always wanted to write a story about blowing up a school since I was fourteen. It was a driving ambition. I waited until I had the skill and commitment to dedicate myself to a multi-stranded story. Maybe I didn’t have the skill, I still went for it.
I had a desire to represent the sheer energy, intelligence and weirdness of young rural people of my generation who have been treated as exports to be shipped out of the country. Also, I don’t think anyone has ever gotten into the Irish secondary school system in a way that spoke to me, even though we all go through it. I think the only person who’s gotten it in its particularity has been Tommy Tiernan in certain sections of his stand-up.
For that story, though, I had about a hundred different inspirations, and I could go on about it forever.
‘The Sky Over Our Houses’ was beautifully written, blending elements from the science fiction master HG Wells into a whole new realm (agricultural Ireland) which you masterfully weave into this science fiction gem. Where did your draw your inspiration for such a wonderfully surreal story?
I used to be a very scared child and I’d dream there were mutilated bodies growing in our field. Just real bodies, growing like how flowers would grow. I’d see them visibly, though they weren’t there. And then I used to help my uncle with… well I didn’t really help: I just annoyed him by wearing his ear off while he was working, and the milking parlour he milks in is a striking place with loads of old ghosts and swallow’s nests and cow’s shitting everywhere and stuff like that, and I always knew it could be the home of some adventure.
Then we were having a barbeque two summers ago and my uncle showed me how you could call owls down with noises you made with your hands and I just started writing after that.
‘Costellos’ was one of my personal favourites. The storytelling style added something different to this collection. Why and how did you decide to tell this story in such a way?
Costellos probably comes out of the bible, or a chronicle, or a history or something like that. There is a great brevity to most epics. I mean I read a lot of this stuff, and I read a lot of local histories about Meath, a lot about the little glories and massive sufferings of our ancestors. But all that reading I did was all in the past. You ingest that stuff and it becomes a part of you and then one day you just sit down and start writing like that and you don’t think about it.
‘On 3 December 2039, Aretha Daymon, President of the United States, leans casually on her desk in the Oval Office and on live TV informs the world that not only are they bringing public hanging back to deal with both internal and external threats, but that they are building a wall around their country and bringing down what remains of Europe…’ An excerpt from ‘Costellos’. It seems that you can predict the future what with Trump building his wall across Mexico’s boarder! Tell us what would life be like if Trump succeeds in leading the superpower of the USA?
Ha! I wrote that three years ago, but it’s really not hard to predict that all these assholes can come up with is building walls for people but allowing rich capital to move in every direction that serves the 0.1%. But there’s already a wall between Mexico and the US! He just wants to build a bigger one.
I don’t see why people are surprised by Trump, like he’s some new thing. He is the paradigm of everything US culture has encouraged for a long time. The culture fostered him; he is its natural heir, the natural culmination and embodiment of that particular American spirit that loves obscene wealth, celebrity and willful cruelty. Philip K Dick wrote many versions of him in the 50’s and 60’s. He’s been about to happen for a long time, and he has happened already in different versions.
If Trump gets in it would lead to a quicker US decline, which would have its benefits and drawbacks for the rest of us. While he’s unpredictable and horrifying I don’t think there would be enormous changes on a macro level, though the minorities would have an even harder time within the country. The US state, and all its functions: FBI, CIA, military, surveillance state, whatever, wouldn’t do what he said automatically. Neither would the Republican Party, or his voting base. There’d probably be some kind of internal coup against him that disempowered him, probably not unlinked to international finance. All that reindustrialisation of the rust belt which he proposes, and which is why so many people are voting for him, isn’t going to happen from a top-down movement. It won’t be allowed.
Aretha Daymon was based on Clinton, by the way. What she did to Honduras and Haiti will not be forgotten. She is, structurally, a warmonger and a misogynist and a racist, like all US democrats. She’s just extremely sophisticated. Her foreign policy is worse than Trump’s. Also, like Trump, she’s a capitalist, so I don’t really care. There’s a book called ‘My Turn’ by Doug Henwood, about Clinton, which is good in unpacking the meaninglessness and destructiveness of her last 40 years in politics.
I don’t like to think about the US elections. I don’t find it useful. Big changes are going to happen, though in the next five years. Big, big changes. Things will not look the same, and the transformation won’t necessarily come from the States.
I’ll tell you what’ll happen in my new books.
My Turn by Doug Henwood
‘No Diamonds’ a lovely whimsical tale, quite different from the rest in this collection; could you expand on your inspiration for the tale?
I knew there was something missing because at some stage the two last stories were Costellos and The Price of Flowers, and something had to happen between those two stories, some bridge, for it to make sense in its Meathness, and in the social transformation I wanted to show.
So, fairly late in the editing process, I was reading a book on Julius Nyere and one day I cycled out to Tara and had a strange experience there, which always happens to me when I don’t see anyone for more than a day, and I was also missing my family a good bit because I hadn’t seen them in a month, so I wrote No Diamonds out of that.
‘The Price Of Flowers’ for me is your ode to William S Burroughs and ‘Naked Lunch’. It’s a fabulous story; iconic, cinematic and dammed right disturbed. What influenced the narrative direction of this story and your disturbing, stomach churning birthing scene?
I’m glad you like it. It’s very special to me.
It comes out of an engagement with learning about various indigenous struggles, mainly Amerindian, but also Northern Irish. Still, it couldn’t be pinned down to those things, and a lot of it comes out of my love of my locality, but it has a broader scope than any of those things. Maeve is the summation of everyone I’ve ever loved and believed in. For me she is the confluence of thousands of year’s struggle.
The whole collection is about being born in some form or other, so the birthing scene came pretty naturally. I won’t say what it means to me, but it is a combination of lots of things.
‘Hostages’ expertly borrows various conventions from a variety of genres. Is there a particular genre you prefer to write in? Is this the same for short stories and/or full novels?
Different genres can cast their web over different spaces. There is no total genre that can subsume everything, so I employ different ones and different motifs to get at what I’m trying to get at.
Utilising genre isn’t putting you in a box. It’s giving you boxes to carry your dreams in.
If you want to write about politics, the least cringe-inducing form to use is sci-fi. If you want to write about working class communities, maybe you use naturalism or certain aspects of crime thrillers. Or maybe it’s a romance? They achieve different things. If you want to talk about freedom, maybe you have to use the ‘road trip’ category, which comes out of the picaresque and the western. I don’t prefer to write in any particular genre. They’re an arsenal of tools you use to enhance enjoyment and subversion of narrative while carrying content in a suitable form.
Which of these short stories was your most enjoyable to write and why?
They were all fun to write. Writing is all fun. I don’t know how anyone complains about it. Try working in the service industry! Or being a nurse! Or being a social worker!
Sky over Our Houses and Costellos were the easiest to write. They wrote themselves very quickly. Being Born was the hardest to write. It took a lot of diagrams and posters covered in markers to simplify that plot down to its essence. At points it was a nightmare, but I was still having fun writing Mr Kennedy, the narrator, Darragh Madden. How could that not be fun?
The second half of The Price of Flowers was very hard to write. It made me address fundamental concerns I didn’t know the answer to, like how do you get out of the prison in your heart, the prison of the dominant, the prison of your world? What do you believe? What price are you willing to pay? And for what? What is worth the sacrifice? What is real? I don’t mean that in a metaphysical sense, I mean what is realness for a people.
I think I unlocked something in that story even I don’t know the answer to, and that’s why it’s my favourite.
What are New Island Books like as a publisher?
Absolutely incredible. Wonderful, encouraging, friendly, professional. They made this book what it is. The reason the book makes sense and is enjoyable is because of them pushing me and their belief in it. Dan Bolger, especially. But also Shauna Daly and Hannah Shorten played a big part.
Visit New Island Books here…
What is your favourite book?
The Charterhouse of Parma, by Stendhal.
What is the one piece of advice you would give aspiring writers?
Well, I’m still an aspiring writer so I suppose I can only say what works for me, and I feel like a faker giving others advice when I don’t know if I’ve figured it out at all.
One thing I’ve been thinking a bit about recently is that some people say a lot to you that you must write something real and true for you, because everyone has a lot of clichés driven into them through media and narrative and then they reproduce them and it annoys people because it’s not real and they feel like you’re wasting their time. Lonely widow, gay priest, taking ecstasy, villain mansplaining the plot to the hero at the end, drunken heroic cops, daddy issues, smoking in your bed after having sex, etc.
I’d say, yeah, these are clichés, but if you’re going to write something true for you, you also have to recognise that you yourself are a cliché, that all your deepest emotions are clichés. Your life is a cliché, and clichés are a kind of global wisdom.
There is no trauma within you that hasn’t been the subject of a thousand bad or good novels. None of your deepest desires fall outside of recognisable genre motifs. Once you recognise clichés, once you go deep enough into them, you know when to employ them and when to subvert them, which clichés connect with people, and which don’t. This will also allow you to recognise what is truly new when it occurs.
So, know thy cliché.
What is the best piece of advice you received?
Certain members of my family told me to provide myself with a stable base of friends, community and family, and a non-challenging form of employment that kept me out of poverty, but didn’t consume my head space. I think it’s impossible to just be a writer. You have to be other things as well if you want to keep writing.
If you have something stable you can keep writing indefinitely. It’s more sustainable. So, I would say if you sort yourself out, you’re writing will follow suit. You won’t be able to forge a community or an identity off what you write because writing won’t always be there, and writing and reading won’t ever matter to most people who love you or who you love.
Become a holistic human being that’s a part of things. It’s worked for me so far.
We here at STORGY are lovers of the short story. Could we expect another anthology from you in the near future?
Definitely. Maybe not the near future, but in the next five years definitely.
Are you currently working / writing anything new? Short story or novel?
I have one novel I will write soon, which is going to be short and completely new and fresh, to me at least, and I have all the voices and characters in my head, but I’m working on something longer, which is probably going to be a failure because it’s so ambitious. It’s a labyrinth and I’m well out of my depth. But the point of being alive is to get yourself into projects that are too big to comprehend. You never know, it could work out.
What are you presently reading and what books would you recommend?
Last books I’d read which I’d recommend was Karl Parkinson’s The Blocks or Mia Gallagher’s Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland. I’m reading The Name of the Rose now, which reminds me of the Hierophants (I’ll have to get onto his estate about his stealing my characters 35 years ago). I’m also doing some research on the Blasket Islands, which has led me to lots of local histories and papers, though most of them are in Irish and it’s taking a long, long time to get through them with my shamefully bad Irish.
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