My brush with short-listed Booker Prize nominee

As well as being probably Ireland’s best writer, Claire Keegan is also an astute teacher, recalls COLETTE SHERIDAN
My brush with short-listed Booker Prize nominee

Irish novelist Claire Keegan

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“MEASURED” and “merciless” were among the apt words used by the judges to describe the beautiful and economic writing of Claire Keegan, who has been shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize for her novel, Small Things Like These.

As someone who attended her creative writing class at UCC years ago when she was the writer-in-residence there, ‘merciless’ seems like the right word when applied to her critiques of our writing!

I don’t mean that in a bad way, although I admit that I used to feel crestfallen when she handed me back my manuscripts. They would be covered in red marks with comments and suggestions.

As well as being probably Ireland’s best writer, Claire is also an astute teacher, weeding out anyone with notions but no talent. Her pen was like a scalpel, surgically cutting through extraneous words such as unnecessary adverbs and adjectives.

She was a hard task-master but, in my experience, a teacher who is full of verve, capable of making us fall in love all over again with novels such as The Great Gatsby.

As well as our own writing, we had to read a classic every month and talk about it in class. We read James Joyce’s short story The Dead, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles and The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut, among others.

While I looked forward to the class, which I attended with a friend who has since died, I always felt as if I hadn’t done enough homework. I knew I wasn’t giving my writing the time it needed. It was something I put off.

I dreaded the blank screen as I tried to crank myself up to write prose that wouldn’t bore and that would conjure up the world I was trying to create. Inevitably, I often failed.

There’s a bit of a ‘time and motion’ mentality in me. I always ask writers how many drafts their books went through and how long they sit at the desk writing. And whether it’s necessary to get up at 5am in order to crack it at the writing game.

Another great writer, Kevin Barry, often talks about getting words down immediately after waking up, when still in a slightly dreamy phase, all the better to tap into the subconscious. I don’t know about that. All I can manage first thing in the morning is strong coffee and a quick check on the state of the nation.

Claire writes about 50 drafts of whatever she is working on. Yes, FIFTY. That’s a lot of pruning, cutting back in the interests of precision and elegance. She takes notes in long-hand.

Whereas some writers get the story down and put it away in a drawer to be read and rewritten with a fresh eye later, that doesn’t work for Claire. I imagine she has total focus and intense concentration when writing.

Small Things Like These is set in New Ross in the 1980s. Dedicated “to the women and children who suffered time in Ireland’s mother and baby homes and Magdalene laundries,” Claire doesn’t see it as something that happened back in the grey mists of time.

On Morning Ireland last week, she said she finds it strange that something from the 1980s is regarded as historical fiction. Instead, Claire said it’s our own society’s making.

“Our society didn’t come out of nowhere,” she says.

She is interested in the way the Catholic Church “treated women who were sexual”.

Claire has said about her shortlisted novel (winner of two awards so far) that she didn’t deliberately set out to write about “misogyny or Catholic Ireland or economic hardship or fatherhood or anything universal, but I did want to answer back to the question of why so many people said and did little or nothing, knowing that girls and women were incarcerated and forced to labour in these institutions.

“It caused so much pain and heartbreak for so many. Surely this wasn’t necessary or natural?”

A natural storyteller with a strong moral compass, Claire’s other short novel, Foster, is the inspiration for a brilliant film, An Cailín Ciuin (The Quiet Girl.)

It’s one of the most touching films you’ll see in a long while and is a surprise hit. Still showing in some cinemas months after it was released, it’s in Irish with subtitles.

True to the book, the story is that of a nine-year-old girl from a dysfunctional family who goes to live with relatives during the summer. There, this shy observant child, discovers a new way of living.

Asked on Morning Ireland if she likes award ceremonies, Claire said “not really”, For the Booker Prize announcement, she said she’ll put on a frock and go off to the big party.

“There’s nothing to lose.”

Best of luck to Claire Keegan.

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