Claire Keegan: ‘I think something needs to be as long as it needs to be’

For those who know and follow her work, a new Claire Keegan book is as rare and precious as a diamond in a coalmine. There have been just four of them over 22 years, and all are small, sharp and brilliant. Fortunately for an author so sparing with her output, those who know and follow her include an international array of literary connoisseurs, and many of the children passing through the Irish school system.

Eleven years have passed since her third published work – a standalone story, Foster – cemented her place as one of Ireland’s canonical writers, with a place on the leaving certificate syllabus. Foster is a gentle yarn about a small girl who is thrown upon the kindness of strangers while her mother gives birth to yet another baby. Her latest, Small Things Like These, is altogether darker and more ominous. It’s also longer, though pagination isn’t what separates the two. “To me,” says Keegan, “Foster isn’t a novel. It’s a long short story. And this is a novel, efficiently told. Unfortunately, this is often mistaken for what is condensed, and I have no time at all for what is condensed. I think something needs to be as long as it needs to be.

“When I was young,” she says, “my mother taught me that if I went to the butcher and was choosing a piece of beef to roast, it should be marbled with fat. And I actually see good prose in the same way – marbled with what doesn’t seem to be necessary.”

Set in the run-up to Christmas, Small Things Like These follows a coal merchant who finds a young mother locked in a convent coal shed, leaking milk and mourning the loss of her baby. But woe betide anyone who assumes it is “about” the Magdalene Laundries. “I disagree,” Keegan says, firmly, when I suggest that it is. Talking over video call from her home in the west of Ireland, she says “I think that [the laundries scandal] overshadows the community Bill Furlong lives in. It’s his atmosphere. It’s the environment. But I don’t think it’s the story at all. I think this is the story of a man with five daughters, in a marriage, who’s running a coal yard and is probably a workaholic, and maybe facing some kind of midlife crisis. I think it’s a story about a man who was loved in his youth and can’t resist offering the same type of love to somebody else. And it may actually be a self-destructive thing. I think this is a love story. It’s not a romantic love story. But it’s a story about love.”

For me, I tell her, the nuns who run the laundry are wicked. But Keegan won’t have it. “If I was to go off and write the story told from the point of view of, let’s say, the mother superior, I would like to think that I might find a reason why that woman turned out to be that way, rather than just damning her,” she says. “I don’t think we were born that way, you know. I don’t think most people want to be nasty and visit harm on others on a daily basis.”

If the mother superior’s story is left untold, so is that of the girl found shivering in the coal shed. “I’m not saying she isn’t a person,’ says Keegan. “I’m saying that the book isn’t her story. And maybe that’s deeply appropriate, because so many women and girls were peripheral figures. They weren’t central. Not even to their own families, not even to their own parents.”

There is a ruthlessness in this narratorial position which becomes even more marked in the context of The Parting Gift, one of eight stories in her 2007 collection Walk the Blue Fields, in which a young woman, packing her bags to emigrate, recalls years of sexual abuse by her father. “Well,” says Keegan, “he’s somebody who masturbates in his own room beside his daughter. And he’s in a horrible marriage and he’s lonesome. I don’t know if that equates for me as a bad man, though it’s misplaced, I agree.”

At our current #MeToo moment, this might seem a heretical statement, but Keegan’s morally compromised characters are often themselves the victims of failed institutions. In The Parting Gift, that institution is the family: the girl’s mother and siblings colluded in her abuse. In Small Things Like These, it’s a society that allows itself to be dominated by the church. “And it wasn’t just the church, you know, it was in concert with the Irish state,” she points out.

Keegan herself grew up in a Catholic family, the eldest of three girls and three boys, on a 53-acre farm on the Wicklow/Wexford border. Though she left at 17 to study English and political science in New Orleans, it is to this rural Ireland that her stories constantly return. “I’m sure that probably is the biggest influence in my work: how I was reared and who raised me and who was around me for all those years when I was developing.” She breaks into a rare laugh as she recalls someone once referring to “‘the idea of the big Catholic family’. And I said the big Catholic family is not an idea.”

One of her brothers kept horses on the farm and she always loved them. She now has two thoroughbreds of her own, a retired racehorse and a filly that she trained herself. “And then about eight years ago I started studying horsemanship with a man from Queensland, and he taught me a completely different way of starting horses. So I’ve been practising that ever since.” She was due to go out to Australia to “start a brumby” – tame a wild horse – when the pandemic struck, and she had to postpone her trip. But go she will as soon as she can, she says.

When I remark that it’s an expensive hobby for a writer with a one-a-decade habit, she fires back “not the way I keep them – in a field, eating hay”. But the infrequency of her output is no measure of its success. Her very first collection, Antarctica, in 1999, won a blizzard of accolades, including the LA Times book of the year. Foster was first published in an abridged form as a short story in the New Yorker, where it was declared “best of the year”. Even before Small Things is out in English, its French translation, published last November, has won two prizes.

It’s enough to allow her to contemplate giving up the creative writing teaching she has done for years. She currently has a fellowship at Pembroke College, Cambridge, as part of an exchange with Trinity, Dublin. “I really did spend a good deal of the last decade going deeply into how creative writing could be taught, and seeing what I could and couldn’t do there,” she says. “And I feel I’ve come out the other end of that now. I’ll probably just stay at my desk for the next decade.”

There’s a line in Small Things Like These in which Furlong wonders if he and his wife would be better off if they had a bit of time to spare, “or would they just lose the run of themselves?” In a sense the story is an exploration of just that happening. Is Keegan herself worried about losing the run of herself? “Well, I’m sure that I will have some public events and some people to socialise with and horses to train and all kinds of other things to do,” she says. “I’m not somebody who finds it difficult to find or make work.”

Her own stories are strangely timeless, tethered to chronology by the slenderest threads: only the most glancing of references tell you that Foster is set in the 1981 of the hunger strikes, and Small Things in the 1985 of Ireland’s young emigrating while the taoiseach signs an agreement with Thatcher that sends the northern Protestants into a spin.

“Because fiction is a temporal art, it’s based on time that’s irreversibly passing in one direction,” she says. “And I think one of the things that makes reading possible, or pleasurable, is that everybody knows what a day is, whether you’re on a farm in Ireland or at the top of a building in Shanghai. It’s what makes translation possible. And one day we won’t get to the end of that day. And that piece of time between now and then is called our lives. And I think if you’re a fiction writer, you want to say something meaningful about that.” Keegan’s devotion to this task is no small blessing.

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