Last night, I attended a reading and Q&A with Irish author Claire Keegan. This event was part of the Well Festival of Arts and Wellbeing, which is in its fifth year here in Waterford city and county.
Claire is the author of two books of short stories and a novella called ‘Foster’. All her books have received prestigious awards, too numerous to mention, and ‘Foster’ is on the syllabus for Leaving Certificate English.
With only three books, she has become a giant in the world of literature in English, and deservedly so.
I last saw Claire at a seminar in Cork city in 2010. That was an event I have remembered ever since. She spoke then for hours, almost without a break, weaving a spell with her words, both spoken and read. I couldn’t help but take lots of notes as everything she said rang so true with me. I refer back to those notes to this day.
Last night, we were treated to a reading from ‘Foster’ – an extract in which the central character, a child, describes her first day with her new, ‘foster’ parents. The author’s musical voice and expressive face enhanced the reading. I didn’t want her to stop.
Then for the audience Q&A. Unmoderated Q&A sessions can veer dangerously into time-wasting territory. By that I mean both the other audience members’ and the author’s time. Claire handled questions on all stages of the spectrum with grace and calm. She is (in?)famous for not taking any shit and it is a deserved reputation. For this we, the audience, have to thank her because an author who can deal respectfully with time-wasters and move on quickly is creating time for useful discussion, which benefits us all.
Remarks by Claire that have stuck with me are as follows (this is based on memory – if there are inaccuracies or omissions, please post a comment below):
- Claire writes slowly, going back to the start of the previous day’s work, dredging out extraneous material until she has a work she is happy with.
- Characters are defined by how they spend their time. Claire reminded us that we have limited, precious time on earth. What each of us does with that time says everything about who we are.
- “A good middle” is the hardest and most crucial part of a work. Once you have a good middle, your ending will emerge.
- Desire is another key driving force behind each character. What does he or she desire? Find out.
- Echoing Tolstoy’s remark that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, Claire pointed out that happiness does not usually make for great fiction (this is my interpretation – Claire did not use this quote). She highlighted loss as a driving force in fiction.
The event ran to just over an hour, which gave the audience a short and very sweet distillation of Claire’s writing wisdom and a beautiful reading.
My thanks go to the organisers of the Well Festival of Arts and Wellbeing, and the staff of Tramore Library for the welcoming, professional manner in which they hosted the event.