Celeste Augé is the author of ‘Fireproof & Other Stories’, a short story collection recently published by Doire Press. Celeste is an Irish-Canadian writer who has lived in Ireland since she was twelve years old. In 2009, her poetry was short-listed for a Hennessy Literary Award and Salmon Poetry published her first full-length collection, ‘The Essential Guide to Flight’. She has been awarded an Irish Arts Council Literature Bursary and in 2011 won the Cuirt New Writing Prize for fiction for her story ‘The Good Boat’. She teaches creative writing at NUIG and the Galway Arts Centre. Celeste now lives in Connemara.
You can read an extract from ‘Fireproof & Other Stories’ and order a copy from Celeste’s website (www.celesteauge.com) or from Doíre Press. She’ll be reading from ‘Fireproof and Other Stories’ in Limerick on the 4th of September at 8pm in the Locke Bar as part of the ‘On the Nail’ series of readings organised by the Limerick Writers’ Centre, and in Dublin this coming November as part of the Dublin Book Festival.
Dermot Healy describes Celeste as ‘a sensitive writer with a fine ear for dialogue and interior uncertainty’ and Mike McCormack describes ‘Fireproof & Other Stories’ as ‘a gifted angular debut.’
Celeste dropped by today to talk about her book, and about how she approaches writing fiction and poetry.
Valerie Sirr: Your stories have a powerful emotional effect. Your characters not only made me care about them, but in some cases seriously worry for them and one or two were heartbreaking. Did you find it emotionally affecting to write protagonists that produce strong emotion in a reader? I’m thinking of the brutality of life in ‘Ghost Girl’, self-electrocution in ‘Touching Fences’ and other stories (‘Seizures’, ‘Quick Reaction Force’) where characters not only hover on the edge but go over it physically and psychologically.
Celeste Augé: No. I’m too busy trying to put the right words in the right order. (But when I read them, I get quite emotional. That’s when I know I’ve managed to get at least some of the words in the right order, or that I’ve put down the right words.) Plus I need a clear head to write. Tears would just make the keys too slippery to type. I do care about my characters, though. All of them. It’s why I write their stories.
VS: The stories convince in that the characters’ psychology is sound and explored in depth and refreshingly free of any sense of workshop-induced ‘character building’ techniques, forced quirkiness or self-conscious experimentation. Would you say you’re an honest writer in that you’re not afraid to explore your own humanity?
CA: I would say I don’t have the sense to do otherwise. No – that’s not true. I’ve never been good at platitudes, I’m much more comfortable with genuine response. Or else none at all. And since I’m like that in the rest of my life, I’m like that in my writing – I’m fascinated by what’s going on beneath the surface, what we all really do and say and think, not the socially acceptable version of ourselves. Honesty in writing – in the lives I’m depicting in words – is the only writing I’m willing to dignify the world with. Otherwise I wouldn’t bother to write at all.
VS: Following on from the above question – for me you managed to inventively fictionalise your characters without falling into confessional autobiography or self-exploration. What kind of writing do you admire? Which contemporary writers would you read?
CA: Now, this is the part of the interview where I would like to impress, where I’d like to list some obscure – but quirkily impressive – writers that have exotic-sounding books. But really, I read widely (and thanks to the local well-stocked library, I can afford to). Confessional writing or self-exploration doesn’t interest me. I read for the same reason I write: to escape myself. Imagination, that’s what I want from a writer. To be sucked right into whatever creation they’ve laid open on the page. The kind of writers I admire (and read) range from children’s authors like LM Montgomery, SE Hinton and Philip Pullman to popular fiction authors like Marian Keyes and Janet Evanovich to literary writers Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro and Joyce Carol Oates to crime writers Ian Rankin or Henning Mankel to crossover writers Elizabeth Berg, Alice Hoffman and Barbara Kingsolver. And they’re just the fiction writers. And the ones that popped into my swiss-cheese brain. Later on tonight, when I’m trying to get to sleep, I’ll kick myself for not putting down so-and-so, or how could I have forgotten that one who wrote that book. But anyway, this gives you an idea. Oh, and then there’s Aimee Bender – she’s a recent discovery, courtesy of my publisher, Lisa Frank. I’ll stop now.
VS: I interviewed Nuala Ní Chonchúir recently and, like hers, your stories often get to the heart of things quickly with some great first lines (‘Molly Fawn’: ‘Things you (probably) shouldn’t tell your boyfriend: That you once exchanged a backseat fuck for money…’; ‘Quick Reaction Force’: ‘The day fish got stuck in the letterbox…’). Do you have a writer’s faith that, once begun, a story will find a way to be written?
CA: I have plenty of abandoned stories, that either couldn’t find a way to be written, or I didn’t care enough about to persevere. For me, a story will not flow until I have found the way to write that particular story – some hook or image or attitude that will release the story from me. Although I don’t necessarily start at the beginning of a story when I sit down to write. I write some stories in a patchwork way, and move sections around until they fit. (That’s how ‘Quick Reaction Force’ evolved.) I’m not entirely sure how or why I end up getting straight to the heart of a story. Maybe it’s impatience on my part, maybe it’s a short attention span, maybe it’s a lack of investment in the usual social conventions. Maybe I’m just not great at foreplay. I think, however, that this may also be connected to my obsession with truth. I don’t have time for window dressing.
VS: I was struck by the interesting structure and perspectives of some of these stories (‘The Good Boat’, where a group of characters is the filter for the narrative, ‘Molly Fawn’ where a list is the filter). They didn’t feel schematic or clever for the sake of it. Is reading lots and writing lots the key to finding honest ways to reveal stories. Does luck play a part?
CA: Reading a lot, writing a lot, yes. But also time. Persistence. Daydreaming. A lot of daydreaming. Really good imaginative work takes daydreaming – a wandering mind might be something that school tries to knock out of you, and it’s almost taboo in the adult world, but all imaginative acts begin in a relaxed mind.
‘The Good Boat’ came out of a failed poem. I decided to write a story where the central character was, in fact, a group, and during the daydreaming stage I remembered this poem I had worked on a couple of years previously, and resurrected it into a prose narrative. A bit of poetry clung to the story, in the rhythm and imagery of the race.
The form for ‘Molly Fawn’, on the other hand, came after I had the character and story well-ensconced in my head. I had started the story a few times, and I knew I wasn’t getting it. So I waited, allowed the story to drift around my head until I came across some women’s magazines (in the hairdresser’s, I think) and I was struck by how advice-driven they are. And something clicked – I knew Molly’s story was connected to this ‘what you should do if you want to be McWoman’ attitude. And so when I wrote the story, the subversion of that magazine-style list became the thread that pulled Molly’s story together.
When a character or an image won’t leave me, I find that if I wait long enough, keep my mind open to unexpected connections, and try different approaches, the best way to tell a particular story will present itself. Eventually.
VS: The preoccupation with language in the title story ‘Fireproof’ reminds me of some of the stories in a collection I recently reviewed, ‘Lick of the Lizard’, by Geraldine Mills, another Galway-based writer and poet. Do you think that being a poet influences your writing or is one form, poetry or prose, better than the other at getting to the truth?
CA: Being a poet makes me much more conscious of the uses of structure: that there are multiple routes into a story, and that it is necessary to find best way to tell a story. And not thinking of those choices simply in terms of voice or point-of-view, but from a shape point of view. How to hang the story together, how to give it a form. Also I have an extra set of writing tools to use: how to manipulate rhythm and sound for emotional effect or to deepen meaning, or how to condense the story into the most accurate grouping of words. Hemingway’s 6-word story challenge (‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn.’) always strikes me as an exercise in poetics. The commonalities between poetry and fiction interest me, though, the shared territory. Imagery, or the way a metaphor can be exploited to enrich a story or poem. Voice. The importance of action (or the verb), to give us the experience. And I don’t believe that either kind of writing – prose or poetry – has a monopoly on truth. Speaking as a reader and a writer of both, I have turned to poetry and prose to make sense of whatever world I’ve found myself in. And for pleasure!
VS: How did you decide on ‘Fireproof’ as your title story? Do you think that a title story necessarily needs to somehow unify a collection?
CA: I’ll start with the second part of that question. A title story doesn’t need to unify a collection, nor even represent a collection. The title story needs to be a way into a collection – an invitation to the reader, an open door. Because a collection of short stories can be an intimidating thing to start reading: who are all these people going to be? Will I be safe in this writer’s hands? Or will the writer repeatedly drop me – the reader – every few pages? Will the effort be worth it?
And so, why ‘Fireproof’? It was that image of resurrection, of being through metaphorical fires but coming out the other side to light her own fires, that seemed to me to be the best route into these stories. Because life isn’t always cake, is it? But everyone has to find their own way through it. And that’s what this group of stories is looking at.
VS: You’ve been published in some prestigious outlets like Pank Magazine for example who published fellow Irish writer Ethel Rohan’s work, and you won the Cuirt Prize for fiction last year. Did your publication record help you to find a publisher or how quickly did you find a publisher for the collection?
CA: My publication record helped, without a doubt. It always helps to have some sort of stamp of approval – partly so that a publisher knows you’re serious about the business of writing (and understand the business of writing), but also because your work has gotten a quality mark from an unbiased literary source. Doíre Press was the first publisher I sent the manuscript to, so that happened pretty quickly. However, I had been sending these stories out to literary journals and competitions for years, with little success until 2011, when all of a sudden my stories seemed to get popular with editors! I have no idea why. Luck. It helped to have thick skin for all the rejections, so that I could send the stories out into the world until that streak of luck came along. Having said that, I’d been through this before with poetry, so I knew what to expect. Certainly, in the poetry business, a writer has to publish extensively in journals before a publisher will even look at your poetry manuscript.
VS: Thanks for the interview, Celeste. The book is a great read and thanks too for the laughs when reading some of the stories, especially ‘Mammary World’ (a girl longs for breast surgery), and ‘Rising Slowly’ (a kleptomaniac woman steals something highly unusual and rather disturbing!). Best of luck with your future writing.
CA: It’s been a pleasure! And thanks for the insightful questions.
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