I’ve admired Geraldine Mill’s work for a long time now. I first came across her writing when her story ‘Lick of the Lizard’ won the millennium Hennessy New Irish writer award. Her winning story became the title story for her debut collection of short fiction published by Arlen House in 2005. I reviewed that collection here.
Hellkite, Geraldine’s third short fiction collection published recently by Arlen House, is a powerful and original work that explores the goodness of men, and the cruelty, sometimes indifferent, sometimes hellish, of women to men. There’s a lively, imaginative playfulness in these stories and the abandoning wife in the opening story is further developed in the final story, which allows an exploration of the humanity of the hellkite and frames the collection beautifully. Below, in this review/interview, we explore the many strengths of Geraldine’s collection.
Valerie Sirr: The idea of a collection of hellkites for a book of short fiction is wonderfully inventive. How did the idea come to you? Did you come across the word somewhere, an image? Was it an emerging theme in your work?
Geraldine Mills: The collection didn’t start out like that at all. There was never a moment when I said I was going to write a book about cruel people or about men who have been cruelly treated by women. Like most writers, it is not the way I work. I go with the gut instinct of what is chipping away at my imagination; what will not give me peace until I start to give it some attention; until the image begins to hold.
So, for me, yes, it is the image, a picture that lodges in my subconscious and grows there until it demands to be fleshed out. The starting point of the collection was ‘The Centre of a Small Hell’ which was broadcast on RTÉ when it was shortlisted for the Francis MacManus competition. The idea for that story came after a friend of mine showed me a hunting table belonging to her father who had just died. That piece of furniture immediately grabbed my attention and as with the most rewarding parts of writing, the characters Bernard and his wife Margaret became flesh. It was then up to me to search out the words that might adequately paint their lives on the page. Deciding to bookend the collection with Margaret’s death scene came about much later in the process.
I find with each collection that I am writing blindly, not seeing much before me. I am well into it before I see a pattern emerging and it was the same case with this one. After I finished ‘Frost Heave’ and ‘Every Piece of Ivory a Dead Elephant’ I found that I was telling the stories very much from the man’s point of view, not knowing why that was. Only as the collection got more depth was I able to see a pattern emerging which was ‘the goodness of men.’
As I looked for more stories I was able to see that this theme resonated even in the very short story ‘The Devil’s Dye’. In this piece of flash fiction, Eliza’s father is the one who gives her the courage to go on despite the hardship of her young life. The final story ‘Feeding the Wolf of Lies’ was also an important one to include in it as there is an attempt at seeking atonement which comes too late. I was able to salvage the title Hellkite from an unsuccessful poem I had written a few years earlier. It is what we writers do, salvage, steal, unearth.
VS: There is a wide range of styles in the collection from classical realism in some instances to the comical surrealism of Fionn MacCumhaill appearing in a Dublin supermarket (‘Drinking his Strength Back’) and the Angel Gabriel turning up on the moonlit trampoline of an Irish garden (‘The Best Man for the Job’) to the darker Kafkaesque absurdity of a hopeless man’s metamorphosis into a pig (‘Foraging’). Even your traditional stories often read like tales, for example ‘Centre of a Small Hell’ – like an old Irish tale, ‘This Street with Looking-Glass Eyes’ with its echoes of Hansel and Gretel, ‘The Call’, with that vivid swan imagery, ‘Once Bitten’ – an unnamed man hovers between past and present love. Have you ever made a conscious decision to move away from social realism?
GM: Never. I go where all writers go; I sniff out the story and like a blood hound follow it until I can root it out of its covert. I am certainly attracted to the surreal and the power of story. I also believe it is important to write what gives me the greatest fun and contains the greatest primordial energy. Maybe it says something about my need for new things, not to stay in the one spot too long or I will atrophy.
Every story a writer starts is like starting from the beginning again so I am always working in the dark; I never know what I am doing until it is almost done. I don’t set out with a plan. After getting the image, I run with it until it takes on its own life. There may be a battle, there will be a battle until the story comes or it doesn’t. The easiest ones are the ones where I hear the voice of my character in my head and they carry the story for me, such as ‘The Best man for the Job’. With this Angel Gabriel story, I was lying awake late one night in Cape Cod suffering from jet lag and I saw the image of the archangel swinging back and forth in the darkness. I transferred him to the trampoline at a later date so Jimmy could join him on it.
The Hansel and Gretel story was written one blistering afternoon in Cordoba when it was too hot for me to go sightseeing. My husband was going to visit a castle and I asked him to bring me back great stories. My own request had given me a new starting point, a first line. I immediately grabbed it and went through the revolving door of the hotel to its coolness and started writing. I had the first draft written by the time he came back. A wonderful exhibition I had seen by the photographer, Helen Levitt, in Madrid the week before was still there in the back of my head and that informed the looking glass scene at the end. Mad or what!
VS: Whether your stories are social realism with contemporary references to austerity measures and redundant men, or experimental stories like those already mentioned, they seem to me to be deeply felt. Is ‘truth’ in fiction something that matters to you?
GM: In the preface to Creatures of the Earth, John McGahern wrote: Among its many obligations, fiction always has to be believable. Life does not suffer such constraint and much of what takes place is believable only because it happens. The god of life is accident. Fiction has to be true to a central idea or vision of life.
For me the story has to feel true; it has to have authenticity. Even though nearly all my fiction has little or no personal truth in it, when I write I subvert most details to satisfy the narrative I am writing. I have to believe it. I have to see it all happening as if I have lived it. I have to see Bernard taking the sledgehammer to the hunting table, I have to see the archangel swinging his legs on the trampoline, or Fionn MacCumhaill eating spag bol.
Hemingway also had something to say about it: Good writing is true writing. If a man is making a story up it will be true in proportion to the amount of knowledge of life that he has and how conscientious he is; so that when he makes something up it is as if it would truly be.
It has to ring true for me so the reader will be carried on that truth. Otherwise it doesn’t see the light of day. The stories that I discard don’t have that ring of authenticity.
VS: Your poet is very much in evidence from your unusual word choices – ‘haem’, ‘grallocked’, ‘pangolin’, ‘latchico’ (which I haven’t heard in years), ‘gilly’, ‘grackled’; your striking symbolism, imagery, pathetic fallacy; your ear for language rhythms. The opening to ‘Drinking His Strength Back’ reminds me of Ginsberg’s ‘A Supermarket in California’. Do you ever use a story image as an inspiration for a poem or vice versa?
GM: As you know, the only tools a writer has are the words and they have to be the right ones. The short story is as tight as poetry and for me the joy is in getting the right word, getting the lines to flow with the rhythm of a poem; to make it the very best it can be. I have certainly started off something as a poem that ended up as a short story and vice versa. ‘Thwarting Zeus’ in my last short story collection was a poem in my very first collection ( Unearthing your Own, Bradshaw Books, 2001) which was inspired by my friend and fellow writer Eileen Casey’s daughter sitting beside me when she was barely able to talk, looking up at me with her beautiful eyes and telling me that I smelled of swans. Out of the mouths of babes! Such an imaginative line had to be given as much space as possible and warranted both poem and story as I wanted to explore it to its limit.
I have always loved the short story genre and never planned to be a poet but when my children were very young often the only way I could get down an idea was to distil it into a poem. I was fortunate enough to get the attention of Bradshaw Books after winning their poetry competition and they went on to publish my first two collections. After that Arlen House approached me and invited me to submit my short fiction. Arlen House has published my last five collections so I have been extremely lucky in the dedication of these two independent publishers.
Writing poetry makes you a stickler for ensuring that you chose the right word and that you don’t waffle. That the image is strong enough to carry the narrative; that you are giving it all the attention it needs.
VS: There is a primal earthiness in your writing. Nature, animals and the animal in human nature permeate this collection (‘Centre of a Small Hell’, ‘Frost Heave’, ‘The Devil’s Dye’, ‘Apidea’ and your final story, ‘Feeding the Wolf of Lies’ – the poignant bird imagery and the gecko that briefly echoes the lizard from your first book). In ‘Every Piece of Ivory a Dead Elephant’, once again the absence of animal connection breaks a marriage. What writers or poets might have inspired you in this regard? Do you live close to nature, or did you as a child?
GM: There is something very heartening about a reader getting it; discovering all the nuances and the symbols hidden within the text. You have certainly given the collection a very close reading and you have picked up on all the little symbols that are there. Yes, I grew up in the country in county Galway in what was the country then. Behind our house was a small hazel wood. When I think back to that time, I realise that those woods reared us. We were not so much feral as hunter-gathers that scavenged briars and branches throughout the growing season. We were out in them at all times, our mother only calling us in when it was time for bed. In fact in the summer we didn’t even go in for meals but stood at the edge of the wood and shouted into her to bring us out a piece of bread which she dutifully did. We lit fires in the woods, roasted gooseberries on them, cracked nuts with stones, bruised our mouths with blackberry juice.
We were allowed to run wild, to live in moss and ferns. Just to smell moss now brings me back to that time of wildness. I spent a lot of time playing with snails, we made them race across the front step, climbed into walls and across the tops of gates. It was what we knew best and I felt totally at home among the trees and the birds. Moving to Dublin in the 1970s was great for 20 years but the lack of space and trees had me crossing the Shannon in 1992 where I lived in a mobile home every summer without electricity or running water until we finally built our own house and I moved back permanently in 1995. Here the scent of moss is never very far away. So, yes it’s a big part of me.
Writers who inspire me are another day’s work. I suppose everything we read informs us in one way or another in what way we want to write or not, as the case may be. I keep going back to Eduardo Galleano’s The Book of Embraces given to me by friend and short story writer, Alan McMonagle. It’s a book that blends poetry and parable, history and autobiography. I particularly like the surreal drawings attached to the text. I could write stories on those alone.
VS: I know you’re interested in art from your previous cover choices and you have an intriguing painting ‘Death in Florence’ by Pauline Bewick on your cover. You couldn’t have found a more apt image for your book. I love the ‘Alma Fetish’ story behind Bewick’s inspiration for the painting. Could you tell us a bit about it and how you came upon it?
GM: I was thrilled to be able to use the painting by such an esteemed artist. As you say it really sums up the collection. Arlen House is known for the beautiful books it publishes especially Bewick: The Seven Ages and Kelly Reads Bewick. They are collectors’ items at this stage and I am a fortunate to have copies of them. With Hellkite I was very clear that it had to be a very strong marriage between the text and the image. In choosing a new cover, I seek out new art work; go to exhibitions to see if I can find an appropriate image. It was the same with this one and when I went through Bewick’s art and discovered Death of Florence I knew it was the one. Nothing else came close to it in terms of how it captured the essence of the stories and what I wanted to portray. It was much later that I saw it was part of the opera inspired by her work and the life of Alma Mahler.
VS: Hanif Kureishi recently commented in a Guardian article that most of his graduate students did not know how to tell a story. No matter what style of story I’ve read in Hellkite, there is always the sense of being in the hands of a writer who has a keen awareness of the power of a well constructed narrative. There is great dramatic tension in your disturbing title story, among others. Some of your stories, though they are mostly modern rural Irish voices, have speech idioms and phrases ‘as Gaeilge’ and local lore that remind me of the traditional seanchaí passion for the art of storytelling. For any writing students who might read this interview, what would your advice be about storytelling, or how important is it to you?
GM: I have a card on my computer desk which asks me three questions when I sit down to write a story. What story do I want to tell? Who do I want to tell it? How do I want to tell it? That’s what it comes down to. If I can get these elements working together then I feel I am onto something. I keep going back to those questions if I find myself in a quandary. The story telling is a major part of the process. I want to tell it to someone and tell it so that he/she can see it happening before his or her eyes. That is why it has to work on every level. It doesn’t have to be a big story. In fact, the genre is built on a something small that brings about an awareness of change in the character and the reader. The story has to hook me in order for it to be continued on in the imagination of the reader. It’s not enough to have a good story if the writing doesn’t stand up and equally no good if you have well constructed sentences and no plot. The alchemy is in the melding of the two. Everything has to click into place – character, point of view, conflict, ending – like the tumblers on a vault door for the door to open. ‘What if’ is the carrot or stick that keeps me moving the story forward.
VS: Your short story collections and poetry have been taught at the University of Connecticut and Eastern Connecticut State University. You teach in NUI Galway. Do you find that mentoring inspires you to write, or do you put your own work on hold. while teaching?
GM: There is a balancing act to be achieved when you write and teach. It can be very time-consuming working with other people’s short stories but very rewarding when you see where the story needs salvaging and you can bring the story to another level. Most of what I have learned about writing is by the hard graft of getting it wrong myself, understanding where it has gone wrong and learning how to put it right. Reading the masters in the genre is another way to see how it is done, but you really only learn by doing.
The advantage of mentoring is that you become sharper at editing because you are watching all the time for dud notes, for punctuation that affects the rhythm, a dubious point of view, a story that starts on page two. It sharpens my own writing and I see it as a plus both in terms of what it brings to my writing and being able to earn money doing something I love. It also makes me write. How can I, in all reality, be critiquing someone’s work if I am not writing myself? I have to be up-to-date with new styles and not be a Luddite, stuck in the past. It also makes me much more disciplined. I will often do my own work first, knowing that the teaching will have to get done at a later stage. If I do it the other way around my own writing will be side-tracked into some other chore.
VS: You’ll be reading at the next Cúirt Festival in Galway (Cúirt Literary Brunch). Your Hellkite stories have appeared in the prestigious Willesden Herald New Short Stories 6 among other places and have been broadcast on RTE. Do you enjoy the promotion, performing side of writing?
GM: For me the writing is the driving force. Recently, I came across a quote from the songwriter David Crosby where he was talking about song-writing. He said ‘If you don’t have a song, all the production in the world is just polishing a turd.’ I am inclined to agree with him. The work has to stand up to scrutiny, to endure. The greatest fulfilment for me is the finishing of a story to the best of my ability. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than someone coming up to me after a reading and telling me that they like my work. To touch even one person with what you have written is a great achievement I believe.
I am delighted to be reading at Cúirt with Geraldine Mitchell and Edward O’ Dwyer. The promotion side of things is not my strong point but I am always happy to accept an invitation such as this and to be reading in my own home town. American audiences have been hugely responsive to my work so it is always a great boost to read in Connecticut or Seattle. I also love to read at smaller festivals around the country because that is where you can pick out the pulse of people’s interest in literature.
A short story reading is a bit more difficult than a poetry reading. If you choose to read the wrong short story you could lose your listener soon after the first line. With poetry you can better gauge your audience and change tack if the first few poems don’t keep their attention. A short story doesn’t have that same opportunity and you make sure you chose a story better suited to the ear than the page so that listeners can see the story unfolding before their eyes.
I still believe that the work should be the yard stick but it is a different world now and it is important that in this social-media age to let the world out there know of new work and promote it at every opportunity. So Valerie, I appreciate very much you taking the time to structure these very interesting questions. I really enjoyed answering them and thank you for posting them on your blog.
VS: Thank you too, Geraldine, and congrats on another impressive collection of work. Best of luck and Beir bua!
Geraldine Mills Biographical Note:
Geraldine Mills is a poet and short fiction writer. She has had two collections of poetry published by Bradshaw Books, Unearthing your Own (2001) and Toil the Dark Harvest (2004)
Arlen House has published her short story collections Lick of the Lizard (2005) and The Weight of Feathers (2007) for which she was awarded an Arts Council Bursary. She is a recipient of a Katherine Kavanagh Fellowship for her third poetry collection An Urgency of Stars published by Arlen House in 2010.
She has won numerous awards for her fiction, including the OKI Award, the Moore Medallion and the RTÉ Guide/Penguin Short Story Competition. She has been a finalist in the William Trevor Short Story Competition and has been shortlisted six times for the Francis MacManus Short Story Competition. She was the Millennium winner of the Hennessy/Tribune Emerging Fiction Award and the overall winner of the New Irish Writer Award for her story ‘Lick of the Lizard’.
In 2011 she toured the United States where she launched a poetry collaboration with New England poet, Lisa C. Taylor, titled ‘The Other Side of Longing (Arlen House 2011) and presented the prestigious Gerson Reading at the University of Connecticut. Her short story collections have been taught at the University of Connecticut and Eastern Connecticut State University.
She is a mentor with NUI Galway and is an online tutor in the short story with Creative Writing Ink. Her recently launched Hellkite (Arlen House) is available at Kennys Bookshop, Galway. Geraldine’s website