Liliane Louvel: John, wed like to know how you started to think of yourself as a writer. Did you, as a young boy, start inventing stories or writing stories? When did it all start? What were the first stories you wrote?
John McGahern: I dont think that you can be a writer without being a reader first. At first, I read for nothing but pleasure. And I still think pleasure is the best guide to what is good in literature. There were few books in our house, a few that belonged to my mother when she was training as a teacher and a few nationalistic books that belonged to my father. When I was ten or eleven, I was given the run of a library. The library was in a Protestant house, and was mostly a 19th century library. For about five or six years, maybe more than that, I would have come on my bicycle with an oilcoth shopping bag, returning five or six books and picking new books from the shelves to take away. Nobody gave me direction or advice. There was a ladder for getting to the books on the high shelves. I gave a public interview before a large crowd when That They May Face the Rising Sun appeared. The Moroneys turned up, mother and son, and presented me with a book from the library. They had heard me praise the family and acknowledged my debt, to them and the library. A lot of life is luck. There were all sorts of books. There were classics: Shakespeare, Webster, Ford, Dickens, a lot of Scott, books from the 19th century Lending Libraries, and cowboy books, lots of Zane Grey, and many books about the Rocky Mountains. And then side by side with those books, I used to read the weekly comics like The Rover, The Hotspur, The Wizard, The Champion. We were addicted to them at school. They were swapped and passed around. There was no television, few radios, and there was no cinema. One day I was reading in the barracks with my back to the window on the river and my sisters were very amused that I was lost in the book. They removed my shoes and put a straw hat on my head, they did all sorts of things with me and I didnt notice until they moved the chair, and I suddenly woke into their amusement and the day.
Ben Forkner: When did you leave home?
J.McG.: I left home at eighteen. I had university scholarships, and I got a call to the teachers training college. Some of the best brains in the country went to the training college at that time because the State paid for your education for the two years and promised you a fairly secure job at a time when jobs were like gold dust. If Id gone to university, I would have had to get first place in my class every year to keep one of the scholarships, as otherwise I couldnt afford to stay there, and I knew I wouldnt have been able to take that kind of strain. I also had a vague idea that I wanted to be a writer, and the short school hours were an attraction. We did no work in the training college. We needed eighty or ninety per cent to get into the college and only forty per cent to get out.
B.F.: So you were writing even at that time?
J.McG.: No, I wasnt writing then. It may have been there as an impossible dream. The training college was a strange place. Any education I picked up there was from other students. There wasnt a literary society, there wasnt a debating society, there wasnt a drama society, but there were a number of religious societies. We had to attend Mass every morning and Devotions every evening. We were being trained as non-commissioned officers to the priests in running the different parishes throughout Ireland, secondary to the priest in all things, including education. The Catholic Church had total power in Ireland at the time. Non-attendance at Mass or any character deviation meant immediate expulsion from the college. They werent interested in education. What was under inspection at all times was our characters. They wanted us to be obedient and conformist cogs in a wheel of power.
B.F.: Did the priests supervise your reading too?
J.McG.: No. They werent interested in books or reading. They thought you read only for exams. I became friendly with a brilliant classmate, Eanna Ó hEithir, who was from the Aran Islands. He was a nephew of the writer Liam O Flaherty. He gave me Eliot and Joyce to read. Joyce was never banned, contrary to popular belief, but the books werent displayed in bookshops. The copy of Ulysses I bought at the time was produced from under the counter and wrapped in brown paper before it was handed to me. I asked why it wasnt displayed on the shelves, and was told that it would offend the priests from the university, who were the bookshops best customers. Early Yeats was well known and in the school books, but not the great later poems. The writers that were recommended were those approved of by the Catholic Church, like Canon Sheehan. Also, a few French writers like Mauriac and Bloy and, strangely enough, Stendhal. They were indulgent to French writers in translation because of the Catholic tradition there. I dont think they knew very much about it.
L.L.: Is that when you started reading Flaubert and Proust and ?
J.McG.: It would be more Stendhal, Balzac and Rousseau, and then, later, people like Céline and Camus. Proust was much later, as was Flaubert and many others.
B.F.: The training college lasted during what we would call the academic year, but what did you do in summer?
J.McG.: I didnt want to go home. I really was fed up of home I didnt want to see the barracks again. When I was well known, about fifteen years ago, a deputation came from Cootehall village, wanting me to buy the barracks and set myself up as some kind of a monument there. I told them that I had spent almost twenty years trying to get out of the place, and that I had no intention of buying my way back in.
B.F.: So you just took odd jobs in the summer or ?
J.McG.: That first summer I went to England, to London, and I worked as a labourer on the buildings. The story Hearts of Oak came partly out of that experience. I was absolutely amazed to set foot in England for the first time because to me this was the land of Shakespeare and Wordsworth. I would have read many English classics, and for me it was like stepping on sacred soil. Then I took the train from Holyhead to London. I was met on the platform by people from a Catholic organization. They were watching out for young Irish boys like myself who might go wrong if let loose in London. They took me back to a Catholic hostel. I was very glad to find a place, and I stayed there for the whole of the summer. The hostel was in Whitechapel, close to Brick Lane and Algate and the London Hospital. It was run by priests and doubled as a school during the day. There was also a church on the grounds and a respectable dancehall. Each morning, before I left for the buildings, I used to have to help the other men put away the bunk beds and replace them with school desks. When we came back in the evening, we were given a big meal. This was cooked by young Irish girls who came from Cork and Kerry mostly. Any sexual play or interference with these girls meant immediate expulsion. I met a man who worked in a bookshop there who told me about current books and a very refined Englishman looking back, I think he had a crush on me and he gave me books on philosophy and religion, which we read and discussed on weekends. I was so tired after the work on the buildings that in the evenings I just wanted to watch television, which was new to me, and he used to get annoyed at this.
B.F.: So you spent the whole summer in England. Was it rough?
J.McG.: Oh yes. In Hearts of Oak there is a fairly accurate description of the working conditions on the buildings.
B.F.: He was a presence in the town.
J.McG.: Oh, he was an extraordinary presence, and in fact, there is a description of him in Parachutes.
Jacques Sohier: Why do you like Beckett?
J.McG.: I think Beckett is a great writer. What was very exciting is that you could open magazines, and new work was appearing by these great writers. Somehow when its in magazines its much fresher than a book that youre picking up for the first time. Kavanagh had twenty poems and it was some of his best work. Ill never forget the excitement of reading his poem Prelude: Ignore powers schismatic sect / Lovers alone, lovers protect.
L.L.: But Kavanagh was very much in Dublin, wasnt he? You met him?
B.F.: Had he become an institution in Dublin by that time?
J.McG.: Yes, I would have read his collected poems in manuscripts first. Kavanagh had no reputation much [sic] and of course he was very alcoholic, and a friend of mine called Jimmy Swift The Barracks is dedicated to him gathered up Kavanaghs poems in manuscript, and had them typed. Kavanagh had written very well in the 40s, but there was a long period when he didnt write at all, or was engaged in various wars with people. Then he got cancer of the lung and he had to go into hospital. When he recovered, he wrote all those extraordinary Canal Bank poems. He changed, in a small way, like Beckett in a different way, the course of Irish writing. Thats considered a famous poem now: A year ago I fell in love with the functional ward of a chest hospital. He was an alarming presence, but if you met him early in the morning he could be very good company.
B.F.: The story Bank Holiday was written after his death?
J.McG.: Yes, it would have been after his death.
B.F.: Was he recognized as the poet?
J.McG.: Patrick McDonough is a completely fictional character in Bank Holiday. There is one scene there based on a real incident. I was having a drink in Mooneys with two brothers and a girlfriend of mine. Unusually, Kavanagh was in the bar, as he always drank across the road in McDaids. He recognized me and came over and asked me to cross the road to McDaids to get him a packet of twenty Gitanes. I got round it, as I didnt want to be dancing to his tune, in very much the same way as Patrick McDonough gets round it in Bank Holiday. Kavanagh wasnt very pleased, though he did get his cigarettes, and abused me in very much the same way as he abused McDonough in the story. I didnt mind. It would have been easier to have gone across and got him the cigarettes, and his vanity would have been salved; but I was young then.
B.F.: During these nine years as a teacher, did you write during the year or during the summertime? There was no teaching in the summer, was there?
J.McG.: No. I had a very good job for a writer because I taught seven and eight year-olds, which meant I had no teaching preparation and no corrections and taught for five days and was finished at two-fifteen. Id walk back to my room, get my lunch, and walk into the city, which was an half-hour away. Id stroll around the streets, maybe see what was on in the cinemas, buy a book, if I found something that interested me, and walk home. Id then write for two or three hours a day. Ive never written much longer than that, even when I had the whole day to myself. When I was finishing The Barracks, I remember just staying in the digs in Dublin. I had a room and worked right through the summer holidays.
B.F.: So all the jobs, and the description of these jobs in the early stories such as catching the eels, those were earlier on in your life?
J.McG.: Thats right. There was a family that went to school with me called the McMorrough. They were the last to fish the Boyle and the Shannon for a living. I never worked with them but actually knew how to fish for eel. I used to set eel lines myself. It was the sort of thing everybody did. I had a boat that belonged to the police barracks, and it was a way of escaping from the house, and I enjoyed fishing. We had a very strange upbringing. For most of the year we lived with our mother in various houses close to the schools where she taught and spent the school holidays with my father in the barracks. Shortly before she died we bought a farm and lived on the farm, which was close to my mothers school. I think we bought the farm because it was easier to find a farmhouse with land than to buy a house on its own.
L.L.: Then afterwards you had to go to the barracks to live?
J.McG.: When she died the farm was sold and we went to the barracks to live with my father. Ive been reading my mothers letters recently, and it was brought home to me what an uncertain place the mind is. I remembered almost everything, but time was telescoped and events didnt happen at all in the way I remember them. For instance, the animals we owned were bought over a long period, while they seemed to me to have come with the farm. Likewise, with my mothers final illness. In my memory it took place over the long course of the year, while in fact it was for no more than six weeks in early summer. It was a very hard time, and Ive never been happy about the way I wrote about the experience in The Leavetaking. Catholicism dominated everything. Heaven and Hell and Purgatory and Limbo were to us real places; the Church was the story that gave meaning to our lives over the whole course of the year Christmas to Easter to Advent. I always admired that description of the Gothic churches: Before the printed word, the churches were the Bibles of the poor, and the Catholic Church was our first book.
J.S.: John, do you think it is religion that makes men violent?
J.McG.: No. Ireland was always a very violent society, and, like most things there, it was very hidden there as well. There was also much sexual frustration. The authority was paternalistic. God the Father in Heaven, the Pope in Rome, the father who said the Rosary each night in the house.
J.S.: Too many Fathers then.
J.McG.: Probably. All authority was unquestioned. Men and women lived mostly separate lives. Men dominated the outside and the women dominated the houses, if they were not cowed by violence. Many of my fathers generation would have fought through the War of Independence and the Civil War, and were steeped in violence.
Emmanuel Vernadakis: You said in several interviews that the artist may be in conflict with himself while the rhetorician is in conflict with society. Do you feel that, as an artist, youre in conflict with yourself and if so, do you think that this has to do with your religious education or with Christianity in general?
J.McG.: That goes back to something Yeats said, with which I agree: Out of the quarrel with oneself comes poetry; out of the quarrel with others rhetoric comes. In a very different way, Rilke said much the same thing. If I had a rule for writing, it would be, above all, no self-expression. The simple base of writing is the image, to be able to pick out of the welter of experience the image that illuminates. The rhythm is the emotional binding that links the images. Ive made all my serious writing mistakes when I actually stuck close to the facts. For some reason or other, they have to be re-imagined, reinvented, reshaped. They have to conform to an idea but not an idea of oneself. Then you start to work with the words. Flaubert got everything right when he said in his letters to George Sand, In order to write well, you have to feel deeply and think clearly in order to find the right words. Nothing has changed.
L.L.: Yes, it is like moulding a matter in something, making something out of it.
J.McG.: Yes. By the time it is finished, it should reflect the original idea, but it has often very little to do with the first draft. The story Bank Holiday went through many drafts, and began as a completely different story. The original idea was based on a man who was very attractive to women and had many affairs. One of the women he seduced and rejected set out in turn to seduce him, and succeeded. They married. On their wedding night he was warned by some instinct, and pulled back the bedclothes to find her waiting for him with an open razor. In the various workings, all that was lost, and the story became Bank Holiday.
L.L.: Thats what you said before when you spoke of dislocation, dislocated?
J.McG.: Thats right. All material has to be dramatized, and to do that it nearly always has to be dislocated.
L.L.: Would you say that it is the same with the voices, because when we read your short stories or That They May Face the Rising Sun, the voices of people are very important and they come ... Do you hear the people?
J.McG.: Oh yes. That They May Face the Rising Sun was much longer when it was finished. A lot of the material was cut out. By the end of a novel you know so much about the characters that you could put them into any situation and know exactly how they will behave. Only a little of what you know gets into the final pages. Sometimes I think all bad writing is statement and all good writing suggestion. The readers take up the suggestion and complete the book in their imaginations. I believe there are as many versions of a book as the true readers it may find.
B.F.: Do stories begin more in your mind with an image or with a dramatic situation, or ?
J.McG.: Often with a scene or a rhythm or a piece of dialogue or an image. There is an enormous difference between a novel and a story. The novel is closely connected with society, with an idea of manners and society and is a whole world, while the short story is a fragment. A short story has a different rhythm than a novel. It makes one point and one point only. Everything in a short story goes to a certain point and leads away from that point. If you had the same intensity over the whole length of a novel, it would become tiresome. I think that the short story is much more connected with drama or the poem than the novel. A short story is like a flash that illuminates one point. What happened before that point and what happened afterwards can only be imagined.
B.F.: Have you ever started writing a novel that had to be broken up into two or three short stories? I was thinking of Eddie Mac and The Conversion of William Kirkwood?
J.McG.: No. They are close to a form I admire, the novella. The Country Funeral is a novella. In contrast, Korea is a classic short story. I dont mean classic in the sense of good but classic in the sense of brevity and rhythm and intensity. So is Why were here; Gold Watch and those longer stories are closer to the novella. I love Turgenevs work and I think Turgenevs novels are closer to the novella than to long, traditional novels like War and Peace.
L.L.: Are there some of the short stories which are some of your favourites or some you dislike among those you wrote? I remember that you said once that The Stoat was not one of your favourite short stories.
J.McG.: No. I think The Key or Bomb Box suffer because they are too close to life, the way things happened and werent dislocated enough. The Key is based on an actual incident. My father decided that he was not getting enough attention and that he was going to die. He left instructions for his funeral, and set off for the Garda Hospital in Dublin. There was nothing wrong with him, and they kicked him out after a week. He had to come home, and he was in a rage.
B.F.: There were images of revolt, though, of your father holding the priest by the ear and your aunt telling the priest to get out of the shop!
J.McG.: Thats right. My father was violent. He went into the guards straight after fighting in the I.R.A. in the War of Independence. He was instantly promoted because of his rank in the guerrilla company to which he had belonged. He would have entered the army as an officer, and probably would have been promoted further or killed in civil war. He expected promotion in the police, and was bitter when he didnt get it. My guess is that once the peace was established he was seen as far too difficult and dangerous for promotion, and they kept him where he was. I was on television a couple of years ago and the curator of Garda Museum saw me and sent me my fathers police file. It was interesting. On his application form in 1920, both his sponsers were parish priests, which showed how closely the priests ran everything. There was a question. Previous work experience? and the answer was Three years in IRA! There was a gang called Dohertys that raided banks in Leitrim. My father was the sergeant in charge of the town when they raided the bank in Ballinamore. He always complained about the Irish police not being allowed to carry arms. He said if he was armed on the day of the bank robbery in Ballinamore, that not one of the Dohertys would have left the town alive. I believed him.
L.L.: Talking about the title, we were talking about The Key and about The Bomb Box. How do you choose the title?
J.McG.: A short story generally chooses its own title. This is because it is dramatic and usually makes only one point, which gives the title. I always find it difficult to find titles for novels. I think this is because the novel reflects many more varieties of experience and is more closely connected to the whole of society. The short story is a fragment.
Linda Collinge: Some of your titles seem to be rather obscure and not obviously linked to the main theme of the story. They seem to be secondary, say something like Sierra Leone, which is not in fact about Sierra Leone, or Swallows.
J.McG.: They were not meant to be obscure. Sierra Leone is elsewhere, and the point is that it is always much easier to deal with something that is elsewhere than in the life thats around you.
L.C.: And with a story like Swallows?
J.McG.: Thats probably a pun. The swallows come like the surveyor, and then disappear. The sergeant swallows a lot of whiskey in order to get through the day. A story like Swallows would be set in the barracks but it is completely invented.
B.F.: Was there a housekeeper in the barracks? In Swallows there is the deaf
J.McG.: My father never could cook, so he always had housekeepers, even when he was a single man. Then after a while my sisters became the housekeepers but we had housekeepers until quite late. And nearly all kind of disturbed, eccentric people. My father was very handsome, so some of them used to think that he would marry them. There was a parsons daughter that quoted Shakespeare and she was intent to marry him. My father was very brutal and I remember the answer that he gave her: So you think you are the man for the job?
B.F.: So the bicycle was an education too ...
J.McG.: Everybody cycled because there were hardly any cars and the roads were very bad. During the break in school, we would have a little milk and bread. A tomato was a luxury. Many of us would spend our lunchtimes fixing punctures on our bicycles. The teachers were very good and I have nothing but gratitude for them. I went from Carrick-on-Shannon to the teaching college in Dublin.
John Paine: You began by saying that a writer needs to be a reader first.
J.McG.: Yes. I could not imagine anybody being a writer unless they were a reader first. I read for nothing but pleasure.
J.P.: This is obviously amazingly alive for you even today. In the last couple of days when I have been around you, the poetry, the lines from various things that youve been able to summon.
J.McG.: They become part of your lives.
J.P.: What role do you see that playing in your own creative process?
J.McG.: Not much. I think that they are two completely different things. I did refer to it in the introduction to Alistair MacLeods stories. I think that every serious writer has a limited area of experience. You see that most clearly in Scott Fitzgerald. I think that The Great Gatsby is a great novel and stories like May Day or The Rich Boy. Once Fitzgerald moves outside that area of experience, his work, though it is always carefully crafted, becomes less exciting. The serious writer always has to discover for himself that limited area of experience.
L.L.: That is what we find in That They May Face the Rising Sun because we have got the same ingredients as in the short stories of before the people, the area and it is totally different; you found a new shape out of some material which is there.
J.McG.: Yes. Also the experience has changed. It has become gentler.
L.L.: Yes, more reconciled.
J.McG.: I think it is much more a real novel than any of my other novels.
L.L.: In what sense?
J.McG.: I think its a whole world to itself.
B.F.: There are chapters in Amongst Women. Its almost as if you are reading a short story.
J.McG.: Its probably as pared down as a novel can be without becoming a short story, and the opening is very like the opening of a short story. As he grew older he became afraid of his daughters
I get a lot of letters about Amongst Women. Moran seems to have been a very common type and was present everywhere in the country, and the whole of Ireland seems to function like a very large family. Ireland isnt a very organized society, like France or Britain. There isnt any recognized system of manners. The manners and the mentalities change very quickly from locality to localitiy.
J.S.: Is there some kind of violence in women too? I am thinking of the novel Amongst Women.
J.McG.: I think that Amongst Women is really a novel about power. The power comes to the women in a circuitous way. In fact, at the very end of the novel, the power is transferred to the women. What they will do with it we do not know.
J.S.: You mentioned yesterday that the short story is closer to poetry.
J.S.: And in poetry the syntax is more disjointed than in a complete sentence. Do you write sentences more than words?
J.McG.: You always write sentences because you hope they make sense. I would argue that prose has invaded certain areas that used to belong to verse. Nobody is going to tell me that The Great Gatsby is an inferior poem to some bad poet who writes in verse. And there is no doubt that certain temperaments which has got to do with the personality of the writer work better in verse than in prose. For instance Philip Larkin, who is a great poet, wrote a couple of poor novels. Yeats, in my opinion, doesnt write well in prose. The amazing thing about Hardy is that he could write well in both verse and prose. He is a great poet and he is also an important novelist. But thats very rare.
L.C.: In the closures of your short stories, there is often a sort of dispersion rather than a rounding off. They seem very open towards something, not really an ending.
J.McG.: I dont think a short story is ever ended. I think a short story is like an explosion, and that the energy that it attracts throws light back to things that happened before the story began and after it ends.
L.L.: Is it difficult sometimes to find the final words?
J.McG.: Yes. Often the last thing that you write is either the beginning or the end. Sometimes I leave a short story unfinished for two or three months because I cant get a satisfactory ending. Then, somehow, it comes.
B.F.: Is that why you may not be completely satisfied with The Stoat, because the ending is the same as the beginning?
J.McG.: I dont know. I rather like the idea of a short story, or anything else, ending as it began: In my end is my beginning.
L.L.: It is more finding the proper ending or the proper words, not even finding how it is going to finish but the way it is going to be put into words.
J.McG.: And it must resonate backwards into the story and also take the story outwards as well.