Shortlisted ICB short story competition

Good news from the International Club of Bordeaux: My story ‘Well Done’ has been shortlisted in their 1st Annual Short Story Competition, judged by Amanda Hodgkinson. And I’m delighted that my fellow Writing Group member, Jane Cooper, is shortlisted too with ‘The Competition.’ Congratulations to the winners in each category.

Looking forward to reading all the shortlisted stories and the winners in the forthcoming e-book.

Crannóg 37

Delighted to see my short story ‘Poke’ in the autumn 2014 issue of Crannóg Magazine.

Great to read the other stories in this issue. There are some very talented writers out there. My favourite (so far) is ‘Tomorrow’ by Melissa Goode. Beautiful and intriguing cover image by Isabelle Gaborit.

Short Story: What Happened to Us by Dan Chaon

What Happened to Us by Dan Chaon

The Spring 2014 edition of Ploughshares Literary Magazine contains this gem: A story about Rusty Bickers and the family that takes him in as a foster child. Joseph is the narrator and is eight years old. Rusty is fourteen. We know little of what happened to Rusty before he arrived into Joseph’s home except a few hushed conversations between Joseph’s parents, where we hear that ‘unspeakable things… happened to Rusty in his family home,’ and Joseph’s mother’s comment, ‘How long does it take to get over something like that?’

Rusty does talk to Joseph about his past at one stage:

‘Do you know what would happen if a kid like you got sent to a foster home?’

‘No.’ And Joseph breathed as Rusty’s eyes held him, without blinking.

‘They do really nasty things to the little kids. And if you try to scream, they put your own dirty underwear in your mouth, to gag you.’

Although Rusty’s past was disturbing, we follow his summer in Joseph’s home with a little optimism. We are lulled into the meandering narrative, peppered with humour, especially when Joseph’s father dances with his prosthetic arm.

‘After he got drunk, Joseph’s father would go around touching the ladies on the back of the neck with his hook, surprising them, making them scream. Sometimes he would take off his arm and dance with it.’

But this humour is followed by raw understated emotion:

‘Sometimes he would cry about Billy Merritt.’

The story contains some great descriptive passages.

‘Rusty…watching Joseph’s family as they ate their breakfast, his shaggy hair hanging lank about his face, his long arms dangling from slumped shoulders, his eyes like someone who had been marched a long way to a place where they were going to shoot him.’

The story gets progressively more disturbing as the summer passes and we sense that Rusty is a deeply troubled teenager.

‘You could kill the little kids first, while they were sleeping. It wouldn’t hurt them, you know. It wouldn’t mattter. And then, with the gunshots, your mom and dad would come running in, and you could shoot them when they came through the door…’

An excellent and enjoyable story.

Dan Chaon is the author of the short-story collection Stay Awake, the novel Await Your Reply and other works of fiction. He lives in Cleveland.

Short Story: ‘The Fjord of Killary’ by Kevin Barry

‘The Fjord of Killary’ is one of the stories in the ‘Dark Lies The Island’ collection by Kevin Barry.

Originally published in the New Yorker, read the story online here.

‘So I bought an old hotel on the fjord of Killary.’

A great opening line that draws us right into this story. Caoimhin wants to escape the city and buys a hotel in the west of Ireland, a place with an interesting history, and hopes it will inspire him to write poetry again.
‘All of my friends, every last one of them, said, “The Shining.”
‘But I was thinking, The West of Ireland . . . the murmurous ocean . . . the rocky hills hard-founded in a greenish light (the light of a sad dream) . . . the cleansing air . . . the stoats peeping shyly from gaps in the drystone walls . . . ‘

But it doesn’t inspire him. Instead he grows to despise his customers in the bar and dreams of escaping elsewhere. This story takes place on the night the ‘gibbering Atlantic’ looks like it’s going to flood the hotel.

Although Caoimhin himself is a bit of a bore, his customers are varied and typical. The conversations of the locals in the pub, from the undertaker to the retired lorry driver, give a realistic insight into the rural psyche in the west of Ireland.

Caoimhin tries to engage in discussions but is magnificently ignored. The staff, all Belorussians, won’t let him forget he’s paying them minimum wage. The disco that follows the rising water is vividly portrayed: We can imagine the old ballroom, the dusty corners and the disco lights as the water rises up the stairs.


Barry’s genius must lie in the authentic dialogue. The voices of his customers make the stories more gritty, more real.

The primary interest of these people’s lives is how far one place is from another, and how long it might take to complete the journey, given the state of the roads. They make a geography of the country by the naming of pubs:

“Do you know Madigan’s in Maynooth?”
“I do, of course.”
“You’d take a left there.”“I have you now.”

 Bill worked in haulage as a young man and considers himself expert.

“I don’t know, Bill,” I said.

“Would we say an hour twenty if you weren’t tailbacked out of Newport?”
“I said I really don’t fucking well know, Bill.”
“There are those’ll say you’d do it in an hour.” He sipped, delicately. “But you’d want to be grease fuckin’ lightnin’ coming up from Westport direction, wouldn’t you?”

 They like to criticise and discuss their neighbours.
 “Fuckers are washin’ diesel up there again,” John Murphy said. “The Hourigans? Of course, they’d a father a diesel-washer before ’em, didn’t they? Cunts to a man.”

“Cunts,” Bill Knott confirmed.

Kevin Barry certainly has a way with language. The west has ‘disgracefully gray skies’ and the ‘gibbering Atlantic.’
‘The last of the evening light was an unreal throb of Kermit green.’
 ‘Seven sheep in a rowing boat were being bobbed about on the vicious waters of Killary. The sheep appeared strangely calm.’

A dark humour runs throughout the story, fierce honesty amid the tragedy and we can but laugh or we’d cry.
‘It was by now a hysterical downpour, with great sheets of water steaming down from Mweelrea, and the harbor roared in the fattening light. Visibility was reduced to fourteen feet. This all signalled that the West of Ireland holiday season had begun.’   

‘This, by the way, was the Monday of the May bank-holiday weekend. Killary was en fête. Local opinion, cheerfully, was that it had been among the wettest bank holidays ever witnessed.’

‘I always tended bar in the evenings. I’d had a deranged notion that this would establish me as a kind of charming-innkeeper figure. This was despite the fact that not one but two ex-girlfriends (both of them, admittedly, sharp-tongued academics) had described my manner as “funereal.”’

The author

Kevin Barry is a bit of an oul’ character himself. I went to see him last year at the Cork Short Story Festival where he presented the Faber anthology which he edited: ‘Town & Country: New Irish Short Stories.’ Remarkably down-to-earth, considering he also won the 2013  International Impac Dublin Literary Award for his novel ‘City of Bohane’, he advised us to ‘go home to your tea, now’ to close the event.

A good interview with him on Irish Writers in America, in which he describes Ireland as ‘a wet, tormented little rock,’ can be viewed here.

Words with JAM Runner-up

Words with JAM, the ezine for writers and publishers, announced the results of its Bigger Short Story Competition this week. I was delighted that my story ‘Trumpet Dreams’ was a runner-up in the Shortest Story Category (max 250 words) judged by Susan Jane Gilman.

A prize of £10 and inclusion in the anthology is a welcome result. Thank you to the judges and to Words with JAM for running this competition again this year.

This ezine contains numerous articles, reviews, interviews and practical information for writers. Check out the writers’ toolbox here.

Short Story: ‘Foster’ by Claire Keegan

Foster by Claire Keegan won the Davy Byrnes Irish Writing Award in 2009 and had been recommended to me by several people. I bought the Stinging Fly edition and look forward to reading the other stories in this anthology.

Foster is a long short story, subsequently published by Faber&Faber as a standalone book.

The story is told through the point of view of a young girl who has been sent off to live with distant relations while her mother is pregnant with her baby brother. Nobody explains to her where she’s going or for how long but we understand a lot about her character and her life by her observations on the journey to her new home.

‘We pass through the village of Shillelagh where my father lost our red Shorthorn in a game of forty-five.’

 Her fluctuating expectations of what the family will be like give us an insight into what her own father is probably like:

‘He will take me to town on the tractor and buy me red lemonade and crisps. Or he’ll make me clean out sheds and pick stones and pull ragweed and docks out of the fields.’

The element of this story that makes it outstanding for me is the dialogue. This is the first exchange between the girl and the foster mother:

‘The last time I saw you, you were in the pram,’ she says, and stands back, expecting an answer.

‘The pram’s broken.’

‘What happened at all?’

 ‘My brother used it for a wheelbarrow and the wheel fell off.’

This is certainly not a Hollywood movie–no hugging and consoling. The conversation continues:

So how is your mammy keeping?’

‘She won a tenner on the prize bonds.’

‘She did not.’

‘She did,’ I say. 

The girl doesn’t complain about anything and just accepts her lot. She notices the neatness and order of the foster home. She sees the respectful way the couple speak to each other, how each job on the farm and in the house is done properly, methodically. Neighbours come to the house unexpectedly and Kinsella goes with them straight away to help. These are good people. Through all her observations, we realise that her home life was far from perfect. Her mother has a clatter (not clear how many) of children and they have very little money. Yet the girl misses her mother and hopes to go home.

As the story unfolds we learn more about the couple who have taken her in and their own personal tragedy, but so much is left unsaid. Somehow we know much more about these characters than the author has told us directly. We are able to imagine their whole lives.

Claire Keegan wrote about Foster:

‘It’s essentially about trusting in the reader’s intelligence rather than labouring a point. To work on the level of suggestion is what I aim for in all my writing.’

The narrator doesn’t tell us much about her father or Kinsella yet we get a feel for them through the dialogue, even though they don’t say very much at all.

‘Dan,’ he says, and tightens himself. ‘What way are you?’

‘John,’ Da says.

They stand, looking out over the yard for a moment and then they are talking rain: how little rain there is, how the fields need rain, how the priest in Kilmuckridge prayed for rain that very morning, how a summer like it was never before known.’

Although the girl is dirty and undernourished, the author avoids the cliché of depicting her as the product of poor, miserable Ireland in the 80s. Instead we find that the girl is happy with her lot. The experience of the summer with the Kinsellas has enriched her life.

And we see, from the walk on the beach with Kinsella, that she too has enriched his.

‘He shines the light along the strand to find our footprints, to follow them back, but the only prints he can find are mine.

‘You must have carried me there,’ he says.’


Claire Keegan is reading tomorrow 21st January 8pm in Howth Yacht Club.
(ref )

 Davy Byrnes Short Story Award is currently open for submissions.



Short Story Outlets


When I first started writing short stories it was for a creative writing class. We studied stories from some of the great writers (Alice Munro, William Trevor, Anton Chekov) and we wrote our own. Although I enjoyed the exercise, and I learned a lot about the craft of writing, I didn’t really love the form. In fact, outside the class I rarely read short stories and would never have picked up a collection when I was browsing in the book shop.

I’m not sure what’s changed but I find myself drawn to the short story more and more. There is a revival of sorts going on it seems. Even Amazon has launched a short story imprint in the US called StoryFront.

For the emerging writer it is a great way to feel productive and to get some feedback on your writing. And there are so many outlets to test the waters. There are countless lists and resources for publication of short stories.

This is my competition/journal schedule for the next six months (although I will certainly deviate from it as I hear of new outlets). It goes without saying that you should check the details yourself if you intend to submit to these outlets. Each journal/competition has its own set of submission guidelines which should be adhered to.

I read short story collections much more frequently these days (Kevin Barry, Michèle Roberts, Colin Barrett). And I write short stories because I enjoy the experience. Whereas the process of writing a novel is long and sometimes disheartening, a short story can be written in a few hours (experience has taught me that it then needs about ten rewrites plus breathing space, so really it takes me a month to finish a story).

Publication would be great. Winning first place in a competition would be great. Shortlisted, longlisted, payment, prizes: all would be much appreciated. But, even if I don’t manage to submit to all of these (I am also trying to write a novel after all) it’s good practice to write regularly and to set myself deadlines. And it’s good to experience rejection as well as success.

I recently submitted to a prestigious literary magazine and received a rejection: several paragraphs explaining why the story didn’t work (for that editor). He pointed out something that I couldn’t see because he had the distance from the piece that I had lost. I appreciate his input. I will take another look at this story and submit it elsewhere. It deserves a good home.