John Walsh joins me on the blog today. John is a poet, writer and publisher. He’s published three collections of poetry, including his latest, Chopping Wood with T.S.Eliot (Salmon Poetry, 2010). He has read and performed at events in Ireland, UK, Germany, Sweden and USA. He is organiser and MC of the successful performance poetry event North Beach Poetry Nights in the Crane Bar, Galway, Ireland’s leading monthly poetry event. His short story collection, Border Lines was published by Doíre Press in April 2012 using a publication award from County Galway Arts Office. John set up Doíre Press, his independent publishing company with his partner Lisa Frank. Doíre is the Irish word for oak grove, translating into English as Derry.
Valerie Sirr: Welcome to the blog, John. Thanks for sending me Border Lines for review. The character of Ian appears throughout the collection, and the notion of the encounter appears in several of the stories (‘Jimi’, ‘Such a Good Invention’, ‘You’re Never Alone’, ‘New Year’s Day’, ‘This Could be Heaven’, ‘The Way Things Happen’ – co-written with Lisa Frank, and the unsettling ‘A Different Story’). Where does your interest in the idea of the encounter come from? Did any other writers influence you?
John Walsh: First of all Valerie, thank you for reading Border Lines. ‘The idea of the encounter’? I don’t think I was influenced in this by any other writer. I think it is in reality more of a John Walsh thing, something that I have been open to all through my life. There is a certain mystery, maybe even magic, about two people being thrown together for a very brief period and it is the brevity and uniqueness of the experience that heightens its intensity. There is a lot packed in in those few hours or days because, as Deborah in ‘Such a Good Invention’ says, to try to draw out or repeat the encounter ‘… wouldn’t be the same.’
VS: You seem to enjoy writing dialogue – the dialogue between the boy and his uncle in ‘A Day Like Today’, the social talk within the group in ‘The Trumpet in the Towel’ and the harsh dialogue in the dying relationship of ‘Yesterday’s News’. Kevin Barry said in a recent interview that he writes with the ear, that most of the stories he writes come out of speech in some way then that brings the place in. He said the dialogue is important, but the stories are also about what’s not being said. Is it important for you to get your characters talking?
JW: I like ‘the stories are also about what’s not being said.’ The current master of this is Jon McGregor. I like to think it is true of my own style. But to get back to the question. Yes, I can hear my characters talking from the get-go. I actually place very little emphasis on physical description of character or place. Maybe not enough some people might say. A sentence here or there. I prefer to let the dialogue and the action run and the reader fill in the pictures in his own mind. In that way the reader has a role and an input in the process. Unfortunately, this also means that I end up doing quite a bit of chopping of dialogue for the final edit.
VS: You’ve done some acting and you’re very involved in performance poetry, as mentioned above. Would you act out/read your stories aloud to yourself while writing them, to pick up any bum notes?
JW: Both myself and Lisa, my real-life and Doíre Press partner which is not to say that Doíre Press isn’t real. But we both read aloud when we are writing. It’s fun in this respect living together. I can hear Lisa downstairs, and she me upstairs. It’s a kind of credo. If it doesn’t flow in the reading, then it’s not right, has to be changed.
VS: Ian is the main character in Border Lines. His uncle, the man he looks up to, appears in ‘A Day Like Today’ and ‘My Perfect Uncle’ and he and Ian are very interested in music. ‘The Trumpet in the Towel’ is another story about a musician. Is music a passion of yours and how does that feed into your writing?
JW: Most of my family sing and play music and my closest friend John Peppard, who makes an appearance in ‘A Day Like Today’, we played music together all through our teens. And John’s still a professional in London. I had moderate success as a singer-songwriter in my twenties and thirties, when I was living in Germany. So yes, music has always been with me. Music is very much an ‘ear’ thing, going back to what Kevin Barry says. A melody thing, the flow of the writing and the music go together.
VS: Afric McGlinchey reviewed Border Lines in The Irish Examiner. She describes it as a ‘collage’ of pieces from Ian’s life. John Kenny describes it as a ‘mosaic’. Was this episodic structure intentional?
JW: I had originally quite a few additional stories for the collection but, when I put it all together, I detected a collection within the collection, a group of stories, mostly centred around the Ian character, that belonged together. I dropped I think four or five of the early stories and, focusing on the interconnectedness of the remainder, wrote two or three new ones. That’s how ‘The Way Things Happen’ and ‘My Perfect Uncle’ got written. So in truth it was a bit of both. I have to give credit to Des Kenny in Galway for this also, because after a reading of the early ms, he said the collection really came into its own at ‘Trumpet in the Towel’. I eventually had to agree with him and quite a few of the stories before ‘Trumpet’ got chopped.
VS: You set up an independent publishing company, Doíre Press, in 2007 with your partner, Lisa Frank, who had editing and publishing experience from her time in the US. How have the changes in the book industry and digital advances over the past ten years affected independent publishers?
JW: I think the changes in the book industry are, on the one hand, making life harder for everyone, in the sense that more people are competing in a shrinking market. The recession is a big factor. People have less money to spend. Consequently, they are buying fewer books.
On the other hand, one has to be realistic about what one wants to do and can do. Digital publishing is a great opportunity for people who know how to go about it, as long as they don’t cut corners on quality. Doíre Press is a small indie publisher. Our sights are not set on world domination. We are happy to be able to open the door each year for a few more emerging writers whose work we admire.
VS: Thanks for dropping by, John. You’ve a lot of different interests. I hope you’re finding time to write. Best of luck with it all. Any new poems or stories coming along?
JW: My sights are set firmly on a novel next. I’ve had this idea in my head for a good few years now and have done some initial work on it. I want to get my teeth into it now. That’s the plan. Thanks Valerie. It was a pleasure to drop by.
John reading at Culture Night, 2012, Spiddal Library
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