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.
with Michael J Farrell
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?
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?
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.
does the word "story"
mean to you?
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
have a "reader" in mind when you write stories?
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
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
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?
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
TSR: What are
the three most recent short story collections you've read?
(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.