ON THE COUCH WITH ... Gerard DONOVAN
GERARD DONOVAN was born in Wexford in 1959 and grew up in Galway, Ireland. His first novel, Schopenhauer’s Telescope (2003), longlisted for the 2003 Man Booker Prize for Fiction and shortlisted for the Irish Novel of the Year Award in 2003, won the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award in 2004. He is also the author of two other novels: Doctor Salt (2004) and Julius Winsome (2006); and three collections of poems: Columbus Rides Again (1992), Kings and Bicycles (1995) and The Lighthouse (2000). His short fiction has appeared in Granta and The Faber Book of Best New Irish Short Stories. His first collection of stories, Country of the Grand (published in the U.S. as Young Irelanders) (2008), an elegiac collection of interlinked Irish stories, was recently longlisted for the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Donovan now lives in a former railway station cottage in New York.
Donovan recently spoke to Eric Forbes and Tan May Lee in an e-mail interview from his home in New York.
How did you find out about the longlist?
I was e-mailed by quite a number of people who saw it, and I followed the link.
What was the first thing you did when you found out you were on the longlist?
Not a lot as I remember—whatever I was already doing. But I remember thinking it was nice to see the company on that list.
What do you think of the other titles on the list? Are you familiar with any of them?
It looks like an awfully strong list. I’m familiar with a couple, yes. I haven’t read as much as I should in the last few years with all the writing I’m doing. Some writers are excellent readers and very informed. I’m getting better at that.
How familiar are you with the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award?
I know it is a very desirable award to get for a short-story collection. Very desirable from anyone’s viewpoint. And Frank O’Connor’s name on the award means a lot because he was and is the short story personified. His stories are illuminated with humanity and technically excellent at the same time, not to speak of his scholarly knowledge of the form. A true master.
What is the difference between writing short stories and a full-length novel?
I suppose a definition of the novel might be that it realises characters into their fullest potential over three or four hundred pages, drawing out their desires and motivations through a series of events that gradually expose a central conflict. Along the way the novelist comes up with descriptions and settings and language and point of view that somehow, and sometimes mysteriously, add up to being the voice of the novel, which may or may not reflect the writer’s psychology. I think a short story does all of the above, minus the length. All the ingredients are present, but they are compressed. So for instance, instead of ten pages of description, you get ten lines, and so on. The writer selects fewer scenes and has less space to come up with subplots. It may also be that a short story contains but one metaphor or idea, whereas a novel has time to develop many, although I believe that in the end most novels do revolve closely around a central principle of some kind. And characters have to be created quickly in the reader’s mind and with very little material at hand. Sean O’Faolain wrote that one attribute of a story is that it suggests more than it says. So the short story requires greater skill in my experience. I spent far more time writing the stories in Country of the Grand than I did writing the novel Julius Winsome.
Why do you think publishers avoid publishing short stories?
I’m not sure, I’d have to think from the point of view of a publisher. Perhaps some collections may lack a central theme and are therefore difficult to market for that reason. Or the short story as a form has tended to become shorter, relying on quick flashes of psychology, and less able to support multiple readings. To my mind, the classic short stories are so aesthetically pleasing and so humanely real that they can be read again and again, and are always new. But I’m not sure.
Do you think short stories are getting more popular?
I hope so. Maybe there’s a cycle in forms. One wanes, another waxes.
What is your personal favourite short story or short-story collection?
I have a few. I like B. Traven’s collection, The Night Visitor and Other Stories, and particularly the story called “When the Priest is Not at Home.” That man was an enigma. He wrote with great feeling on the lives and plight of the Mexican Indians, stories mostly set in Chiapas. Traven was a wandering actor and revolutionary journalist and then a sailor before settling in Mexico. The collection was published late in his life, in 1966. Mary Lavin was such a wonderful writer, her stories poised with great precision and gently paced—very difficult to do. Frank O’Connor, too: “Guests of the Nation” was an early favourite of mine. Anton Chekhov’s “The Darling” and Ivan Turgenev’s “First Love” also immediately come to mind.
The six-book shortlist for the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award will be announced in mid-July 2008