Expat Author Interview with James Claffey
IMBO: Welcome to I Must Be Off! James, you have exploded onto the indie lit scene in the last year. What was the first story you published? And was this before you moved to the US or after?
Claffey: Everything I've published has been since I moved here, though I am so happy to have several stories featured back home in lit mags and online journals. I've been most fortunate with publications, and a lot of that is down to sheer doggedness in the submissions process. The first fiction I published: "Bingo Night" at Up the Staircase. I owe Stephanie and April a big thank you for taking it and for subsequent work they've accepted. I wrote the story on summer break from grad school, sitting around a table with my wife and our friend, Ann, another writer, and we were doing short 10-minute quick-writes, and it came directly from one of the prompts. I got the acceptance email at a Superbowl party in Baton Rouge as I was watching the saints win.
Claffey: No. I think at the time I told my wife, only. We were all too insane watching the Saints finally come good.
IMBO: What was life like in Ireland before you moved to the US? I know you've said you started publishing once you moved to California, but you must have been writing in Ireland. What brought the writer out?
|Rathgar House, Dubln|
Claffey: Life was decent enough. I was working a retail job, playing a lot of chess, tennis, reading like a madman, watching all the great foreign movies that came to town. My friend, Joe, and I used go to the lighthouse cinema on Middle Abbey Street in Dublin with a bottle of wine hidden in my coat, and sink into movies like raise the red lantern, monsieur hire, le bal, au revoir les enfants, the hairdresser's husband, so many more...
IMBO: This sounds grand. I don't remember my own youth being nearly this interesting. So what brought you to America?
Claffey: I got my green card in 1991, back when people were sending hundreds, thousands in some cases, of applications. I sent one, purely to shut some friend up who had been applying like crazy. When the letter came from the US immigration people I couldn't remember applying! I talked with my mother at home over new year about that time, and she remembers the letter coming and my surprise. As for writing, I was not writing in Ireland. When I was nineteen I wrote one chapter of a fantasy novel (I'd been reading Raymond E. Feist and Stephen Donaldson), and read it aloud to a group of friends in a cafe in Dublin's Powerscourt Townhouse Centre, and that was all I wrote! I grew up in a home where literacy was cherished, surrounded by books, my mother an avid reader, a theatrical background, a huge Jane Austen fan, a big lover of detective fiction; and my father would read Zane Grey westerns and Dick Francis thrillers. But to write, not possible, not with the weight of provincial/parochial Ireland telling you your limitations. We lived around the corner from George Russell (AE) house, and very close to Joyce's birthplace, and there was no way you could imagine being a writer with the oppressive pantheon of Irish writers so close above your head like an impending avalanche of scorn! Maybe it was all the books in our house, or maybe it was simply being raised by a family of storytellers (my father was a great teller of stories). I wanted to write, but I was shy, insecure, and couldn't see myself as being worthy of writing. It was only when I did my undergraduate degree at UC Irvine and took a writing workshop that I thought to myself, "I can do this here"; and after getting into the undergrad workshops led by Geoffrey Wolff, I knew that not only was this something I wanted to do, but it was something I could do. He was a wonderful teacher and mentor for me to encounter at that stage, and when I didn't get into their MFA program (they were the only place I applied then), I took it as a sign that I wasn't to be a writer, and stopped again for some years. Only after meeting my wife, Maureen, did I finally get the message. She was the one who convinced me that if I wanted to write and be a writer, I simply needed to sit down and write (same advice I got in a workshop from Natalie Goldberg, only Natalie wasn't as polite about it!).
IMBO: How lucky you are to have such a supportive partner and supportive mentors. Have you noticed an evolution in your writing? Has California changed you?
Claffey: I'm blessed to have someone like Maureen, who understands the writing life, and has experienced its ups and downs. She just had her novella, Women Float, picked up by CCLaP, and she's been working to publish it for a long, long time. Still, being married to a writer does have its struggles and we navigate those waters as best we can! As far as writing evolution goes, yes, once I learned to stop writing what I thought people wanted to read, things changed. At first I was so worried about people liking what I wrote, that I trotted out hackneyed nonsense. It was working with the late Jeanne Leiby at LSU that cured me of my nonsense. She was pretty damn frank, about most everything under the sun, and she spent countless hours with me, going over my writing, scything the pages with her pen, rolling her eyes at my poorly chosen metaphors, she'd say, "Your metaphors are terrible." and she was right. Between her sharp editor's eye, and that of Jim Wilcox, the program director, a former Random House editor, and a fine writer, too, I learned so much about writing clean, well-written prose. I still lapse into my old maudlin ways, but most of the time I spot the lapses and correct them before it's too late. As for California changing me? I'm far less concerned with what people think about my writing, or me for that matter, compared with when I was living in Ireland. Of course, I'm older, hopefully wiser, and thanks to some good old-fashioned US therapy, I have a better understanding of who I am and why I do things the way I do them, now. I wish I could say I'm more "go with the flow," as many Californians are, but when I tried to tell my wife and a friend a while back that I thought I was more go with the flow, they both laughed, and said, "James, sorry to break it to you, but you're not go with the flow." Living here also gives me a better appreciation of where I came from: to know I am created from a different landscape, a small island of rivers and bogs, of pubs and churches. I am more relaxed here, away from the heavy social expectations of Ireland, but Ireland is in me, and always will be the greater part of me, no matter how long I remain in the States.
|James and Maisie|
Claffey: Yes. We're very settled in our coastal Californian world. It's pretty damn idyllic living in the midst of all these avocado trees, and it's a great place to bring up our daughter, Maisie, and every month we have my son with my ex-wife, Simon (who doesn't quite get "rural" life without a television set). Ideally, I'd love to be able to work three or four months in Ireland every year, and the rest here in the States, but that's not viable at the moment. When I go home now, I feel a palpable sense of my existing outside of things there, watching my brothers and their families live and grow up without seeing them all the time. There's a definite sense of wistfulness that comes with not being in Ireland any more, but home is here in America and I don't see that changing.
IMBO: I love avocado trees. They're so big and heavy looking. Do you like guacamole and do you have your own recipe? I understand the "palpable sense of my existing outside of things". I visit my family and my ever-dwindling group of friends in the US maybe two or three times a year, but my life has been in Germany for the last 17 years. Some people would say Ireland is idyllic. I've thought so on occasion. Why do you think California has become your idyll?
Claffey: Love guacamole, and yes, I have become the de facto guacamole maker for family functions, usurping the native avocado growers at their own game. One of my favorite recipes is to cut avocados and tomatoes into cubes, mix in red onion chopped fine, add lemon juice, salt, pepper, hot sauce, and pomegranate seeds, and it's a favorite at Thanksgiving/Christmas events.
|The Avocado House|
As for idylls, there's something to the light of evening here in coastal California that is quite wonderful. In many ways this world is far from idyllic--the work thing, the traffic, and the difficulties in finding an engaged and empowering writing community--but to live in nature, to be able to spend so much time by the ocean, to walk the hills and see the wildlife so near, it's amazing. Ireland too has its draws, and I certainly miss being able to get a decent pint of Guinness! Also, there's a freedom to life in California that's opposite to the parochial world I grew up in, so I appreciate that.
IMBO: Turning now to that world and to one of your stories (although I have made a note of the pomegranate seeds in the guacamole: this sounds incredible). "Holy Communion"--set in a leafy Dublin suburb--is a stunning narrative about a once-rich-now-poor boy who steals money during communion at the church on the corner of Leicester Ave and Rathgar Road. When did you write it and what, if anything, does this story say about class, economics and religion?
Claffey: Thanks for the compliment about the story. I wrote it late-summer 2012 as part of a novel I'm working on at the moment. Growing up in Dublin, class and social position were closely aligned with the power and weight of the Catholic church, and I wanted to convey that oppressive religious power through the image of Jesus on the cross, and the ritual of the mass--the people lining up for communion, the "dance" that is the whole ceremonial aspect of Catholicism. In a way, I perceived the Irish of that time to be parts of a greater machine, all fitting in to their assigned role, whether it be postman, accountant, electrician, writer, and it seemed to me at least, that there was little hope of rejecting that role you fulfilled, unless of course you extricated yourself from the whole thing by seeking a life elsewhere. Certainly, one could do so and remain in that world, but the church and the social contract of the time was so powerful a thing that one ran the risk of ostracizing oneself from society at large. I understand better now why so many of our writers fled the country, so they could write about it without fear of reprisal, and also by gaining the necessary distance to be able to do so. Ireland is changing and now writers like Kevin Barry are able to write wonderfully subversive prose from a much closer perspective. Still, when I was there recently for our daughter's baptism, the orderliness of life was still apparent, and the hold of the church, though clearly diminished, still palpable. I mean, at 12 and 6 each day the Angelus prayer bells ring out on the radio, much like the Muezzin's call to prayer. That world calls to me creatively, and is the bedrock of my writing, and God-willing, I'll be able to tap that source and write my stories for a long time to come.
IMBO: I was raised Baptist in the South, so I feel a similar creative call. Finally, James, if you had to pick one other expat writer to tell my readers about, who would it be?
Claffey: I try to keep up with other Irish writers and their works.One of my favorites, Ethel Rohan, is an Irish writer living in the Bay Area who writes marvelous stories and articles. I admire how Ethel writes from her Irish past in a fresh and challenging manner, and I particularly love her story, Haunt, in FWriction : review. Also, the Move, at Matter Press is pretty damn great. And then there are the ex-pat writers from Ireland who reside in the NY Times bestseller lists, like Colum McCann and Emma Donohue, both writing magnificent fiction, garnering prizes and praise from all corners.
IMBO: James, it's been great having you here at I Must Be Off! Your story is remarkable; thanks for sharing it. It goes without saying that I wish you tonnes of success.
Claffey: Chris, thanks for giving me the opportunity to waffle on about myself and writing! It's been a blast.
Recent publications James Claffey include . . .
Thumbnail 4: mercury retrograde & childbirth
Metazen Christmas Ebook: cold-boned and dead
Jet Fuel Review: the blow
Tuck Magazine: first communion
Apocrypha and Abstractions: silenced by a widowmaker
Thrice Fiction Magazine: the cane flays bare & softening of the skull
I must be off,
Christopher Allen is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O'Type, available from Amazon Anything.