Lucy Sweeney Byrne’s essays and stories have appeared in Banshee, The Dublin Review, The Stinging Fly, Litro, Grist, The Irish Times and elsewhere. Her work was chosen for inclusion in the twenty-year anthology, Stinging Fly Stories. Paris Syndrome, her Edge Hill Prize shortlisted collection, is her debut book. It has also been shortlisted for the Kate O’Brien Award and the Butler Literary Award 2020. We caught up with Lucy recently to ask her some questions about writing and the short story.
What is the relationship between your identity and your writing? Do they affect each other?
My identity is my writing, really. I think through writing, I dream about writing, I call myself a writer (when asked, not just, y’know, around the house). It’s how I spend my days, be it actually writing or thinking about what and how to write and what it means to do so. I have other identities, of course, an endless stream of them, just like everyone else – I’m a woman, white, Irish, a wife, a daughter, a tall person, a determined person. A dog owner. But through all that I’m a writer. I don’t see how a person’s identity could not affect their writing. Mine certainly does. It permeates everything I say and think and feel and imagine. What the mouth is to word sounds, the identity is to meaning making, and thus to writing.
How have you found writing over lockdown? Did any particular book/s or writer/s help you get through it?
I’m very lucky, in that this year I’ve had the pleasure of writing a weekly column of my favourite classic books for The Irish Times, meaning I have been accompanied throughout the lockdown by many of my favourite thinkers and dreamers. D.H. Lawrence’s letters proved an enervating re-read, as did Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: The Banality of Evil, as did Annie Ernaux’s The Years, which I consider close to perfect, along with Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick. I have been reading quite a bit of poetry too; Ovid’s Metamorphoses, The Whitsun Weddings, Birthday Letters, and now, again, Autumn Journal, which I read every year. I have wrapped myself up in great words, often written by frustrated or confused or anxiously hopeful people, despairing of their times and unsure of their futures, which has proved fitting, and illuminating (I like to be constantly reminded that everyone who has ever given thought to their own era has assumed it to be the worst, and nearing world’s end). Everything one reads in lockdown is inflected by the new reality inflicted upon us by its constraints. There’s now a new awareness that I for one have never been forced into maintaining (having been born in 1989, right at the tail end of things) of a precarious world, easily toppled into chaos. Or worse, into excessive exterior control under the guise of governmental management. As for my own writing, no, nothing comes of any significance. I process slowly, and there’s a glut of cud to chew before I can consider getting anything down. I constantly believe I have nothing left of worth to say, which is probably all for the better, since there are enough wonderful writers around, and I hated the whole process of having a book out anyway.
What are your feelings when you sit down to the blank page?
Syd Field says that before a scriptwriter writes a single word of dialogue, they should know 4 things about their screenplay. The beginning, the end and Plot points 1 & 2. Do you need to know anything before starting a story? And if so, what?
No, I need to know nothing, really. I have a set of experiences or feelings or impressions that I feel an overwhelming need to transmute somehow into something writable and perhaps even readable (although not always). For the stories in the book, it was often a feeling of quiet rage, rage at the experience of being a woman in the world as it is, rage at my own desire forcing me to be complicit in a dynamic in which I am forever bound to lose, rage at the humiliation, the isolation, the shame and dismay so inherent in the experience of a life in which one tries for what one wants, and repeatedly fails. It was a sort of write (i.e. fight, the only way I knew how) or die urge, really, that lasted from my late teens to my late twenties. Like if Bartleby the Scrivener had decided to pick up a pen instead of just lying down. Often, I wrote those stories simply to keep myself from doing just that, lying down and not getting up again. I always said I’d write until I died, because I might as well do something in the meantime. I don’t feel like that now, thank God, but it did keep me going. Now, I write to see what can be written, and how. I write to explore, but I still have no idea where I might get to when I start.
Finish these statements in no more than six words:
- Stories are … ways of relating lived experience concisely.
- Stories should … do whatever you want them to.
- Stories don’t … exist until they’re told or written.
Here is the first sentence of the first story readers encounter in your collection, “Almost exactly twenty-four hours into my stay on Ye Olde Americana, a defunct ferry boat moored in Red Hook, Brooklyn, I discovered that Elizabeth, the woman who owned it (who was tiny and old, and had a springy walk, and who was intensely pious and chirpy and plucky, all in a deeply threatening way), had been sleeping on the bathroom floor with the cats for two weeks before I’d arrived, purportedly for warmth.” Seeing it now, isolated like this, if you could rewrite it, would you and how would you change it?
God no, everything I write is written, done, finito. I never re-read let alone consider rewriting my work once it’s in print, and have no interest in doing so. Naturally, I assume it’s all perfect.
Read Don’t Pretend You Don’t Know from Paris Syndrome.