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Michael J Farrell


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Michael J Farrell  grew up in County Longford, Ireland. He was a priest for some years, during which time he edited the annual literary reviews, Everyman and Aquarius; he was an editor at the National Catholic Reporter in the US. His novel Papabile won the Thorpe Menn Award in 1998. His stories have appeared in Let's Be Alone Together (The Stinging Fly Press, 2008) and The Faber Book of Best New Irish Short Stories, 2006-2007, while another was runner-up for the RTE Francis McManus Award in 2006.

Short Story Collections

Life in the Universe
Stinging Fly Press, 2009

Longlisted, 2009 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award

Reviewed by Nuala Ní Chonchúir

 Interview with Michael J Farrell

The Short Review: How long did it take you to write all the stories in your collection?

Michael J Farrell: The eleven stories in Life in the Universe were written over a five-year period. During this time I wrote perhaps two dozen stories in all. Although I had recently retired I was and still am doing other things, such as painting. For a while I was producing a story every two weeks, but now I have slowed to one a month. There still remains the question of whether any of the stories is yet finished. I fear I may go back and tamper with some of them again later, something many writers, such as Richard Ford, decline to do. My own view is that they’re mine to meddle with until I die, then let posterity decide. (An old friend takes a dimmer view of the latter: “What did posterity ever do for us?)

TSR: Did you have a collection in mind when you were writing them?

MJF: When I wrote the first of these stories I had nothing in mind except to compete in the Davy Byrnes (Dublin) short story competition, 2003-2004. The only short story I had previously written was in 1966. It was published by legendary author and (especially) editor David Marcus in his New Irish Writing. The new story, The Written Word, did not win the Davy Byrnes. But in the meantime I saw that, yes, David Marcus was looking for stories for The Faber Book of Best New Irish Short Stories. So David published my first and second stories forty years apart. He died some months ago.
    After a lifetime of (mainly) journalism, short stories seemed rife with options, one didn’t have to hew to reality. After three or four I grew ambitious and thought, why not a collection? Easier thought than done. Book people, I found, were mostly (and perhaps rightly) timid. Among other things they shy away from the unknown. I had yo-yoed across the Atlantic for a lifetime and eventually scarcely anyone knew me on either side. Then I discovered editor and publisher Declan Meade at The Stinging Fly Press.

TSR: How did you choose which stories to include and in what order?

MJF: The aforementioned Declan Meade chose the eleven stories from perhaps twice as many. He's smart and wouldn't, for the most part, say why he chose one, rejected another (as a newspaper editor for twenty years, I too had learned never to give writers reasons for rejection, because there is always a counter-reason). We went back and forth over one story in particular, and he won, but I wish it were in here.
    Then Declan asked me to put the stories in order. I began with The Rift Valley because I liked it (surprise!) but also because it was accessible while at the same time imbued with a cosmic je ne sais quoi that seems peculiar to much of my writing. I kept what seemed to be a popular favourite, The Written Word, until last. Declan made some adjustments to my other selections. Since my stories were, and I hope always will be, all over the place, I was not concerned about any particular order. The point is, I think: I had absolute confidence in Declan's sagacity in these matters, and the reviews (until now!) vindicate him.

TSR: What does the word "story" mean to you?

MJF:  I would submit that my definition, if I could find one, would be as useless as most people's: a bunch of words to be thrown out every time a writer starts writing. As the unenlightened like to say about art in general, I know a (good) story when I see one. I fear that most people who read stories would prefer something more—let's call it traditional—than most people who write them, i.e. a beginning, middle and end. I myself lean heavily to ambiguity and open-endedness. I think the journey is more important than the destination. I also think the journey is less exciting if there has not been an epiphany along the way. I tell everyone who will listen that everything good and bad that happens to me comes as a surprise. And the rest isn’t worth putting in a story.

TSR: Do you have a "reader" in mind when you write stories?

MJF:  Like most writers I venture to think my writing is unique. The more unique one gets, the more there is not a ready-made reader out there. My own weakness is for the cerebral, the philosophical, the transcendent, which many would call the weird. In my several former lives I spent many years in school, culminating in four graduate degrees which have added practically nothing to my fame or fortune. So one of my favourite comments by a reviewer was, "Farrell wears his learning lightly."
    To the extent that any of the above is true, I have a growing conviction that I will have to develop a readership. I can't begin to imagine what, in real life, this reader is like. In theory, then, my best option seems to be to write for myself. Yet, when I sit down at my desk (first draft is always in longhand), I hesitate to transgress the conventions of the moment, because, dammit, we want to be liked and our writing to be loved. So I'm a work in progress and can’t help wondering whether, at the end of the day, there will be a single reader still standing.


TSR: Is there anything you'd like to ask someone who has read your collection, anything at all?

MJF: What should I be doing differently (apart from giving up writing)?

TSR: How does it feel knowing that people are buying your book?

MJF: I am immensely grateful to the people buying my book. I am puzzled by the huge popularity of chick lit. I don't think this attitude is snobbishness or envy. The law of averages would indicate some people ought to like chick lit. But so many? It must surely make a difference to a population or a civilization that so many like, nay love, this level of writing, and are to that extent usually turned off by other forms of literature.

TSR: What are you working on now?

MJF: I just finished a story about Descartes' skull. Perhaps A la Descartes is the wrong title for it but that's it for the moment. I am trying to package my twelve best stories while waiting for a brave publisher to come knocking on my rusty knocker in the townland of Skehard in East Galway. A novel is being read by a publisher and an agent. I wrote the first draft of it in 1973. In the meantime two prestigious agencies (one was William Morris) showed it all round New York, but the moment wasn't right. Many rewrites later, I think it’s ready. And there are a couple of other novels. The gist here: I was too busy until I retired to tie up all the loose ends, and now old age is yelling at me to hurry up.

TSR: What are the three most recent short story collections you've read?

MJF: (a) There Are Little Kingdoms, by Kevin Barry (Stinging Fly Press). This won the Rooney Prize and is great. (b)The Granta Book of the American Short Story, edited by Richard Ford. It’s as good as it is big and heavy. (c) Christ in the Fields, by Eugene McCabe (Minerva). The "Christ" of these three long short stories is, I guess, ironic; the "fields" are the killing fields of the Northern Ireland troubles.