'A sense of the possible'
As 'The Stinging Fly' celebrates 20 years since its first issue, Hilary A White talks to some of the award-winning authors whose careers were launched by the Irish literary journal - and the man whose vision started it all
The power of brevity is omnipresent in matters of the written word, and for some it remains the ultimate test of expertise. Sorry, I wrote you such a long letter, I didn't have time to write you short one, as the age-old aphorism goes.
With a soft chuckle, Declan Meade agrees it is bemusing that beginner writers use the short story as a practice ground in search of getting published, and that they do so in their droves.
He should know. For 20 years now, Meade and his literary journal The Stinging Fly have built a reputation as one of the great midwives of Irish writing talent, a place for those with the itch to send their work and seek actualisation in print form.
Early May sees the release of Stinging Fly Stories, an anthology edited by Meade and Sarah Gilmartin that picks a "greatest hits" from two decades and 55 issues. The names that crop up tell a story in themselves about the Fly's pastoral role. Kevin Barry, Sara Baume, Lisa McInerney, Nuala O'Connor and Colin Barrett are just a smattering.
The maiden voyage in March 1998 showed Meade there was enough interest to fill an edition (Issue 01, Vol 01 was a 28-page A4 edition featuring five short stories). Today, the upcoming Summer 2018 edition received somewhere in the order of 700 submissions, every one read and vetted by editor Sally Rooney. Rooney, who recently took over the role to free up Meade for the countless other concerns of running an independent literary brand and publishing house, was "shocked" by the quality. That's a lot of rejection letters to people who have put their heart and soul into their work.
"Which makes the job a lot harder," Rooney winces. "If you're reading rubbish, it's easier to say no, but if you're reading very interesting stuff or things that aren't quite there but have a lot of promise, then it's really hard."
And then there are the 'usual suspects', as Meade has called them, those who always submit but never quite make the grade.
"I completely understand the urge to get published," he concedes, "and for that to happen as soon as possible. It legitimises what you're doing. Inevitably, when you say to people you're a writer, they ask have you been published, and its deadening to say you haven't. A lot of what we're doing is offering that validation."
While feedback for 700 submissions is simply impossible, part of the Fly's remit is a mentoring one. To help promising writers focus on their craft, it offers writing workshops helmed by Sean O'Reilly, a long-time resident of Meade's talent stable. As Danielle McLaughlin, author of Dinosaurs on Other Planets, puts it, The Stinging Fly gives emerging Irish writers "a sense of the possible".
For Colin Barrett, whose collection Young Skins, nabbed a Rooney Prize and Guardian First Book Award in 2014, getting published in TSF was his "only tangible ambition" starting out.
"Even if nothing more ever came of my writing career, it would be a marker, a sign that I had tried… I owe Declan my career."
Sara Baume, meanwhile, was inspired to submit after Meade gave a talk at her masters in creative writing in 2009. The Fly published her and the rest is history.
"I remember feeling quite despairing as my studies wrapped up and so having this story published represented a major source of encouragement," she recalls today.
Given Rooney is now the same age as Meade was when working on that first issue, he concedes that the dreaded "elder statesman" tag might be starting to fit more snugly. Author Joseph O'Connor said the world needs good readers as much as good writers, arguably more so. Meade is proof of this. Something of a frustrated scribe himself, the Ardee native set up the Fly with then-James Joyce Centre colleague Aoife Kavanagh (who departed after two editions) after meeting fellow tyros at writing courses who bemoaned the lack of outlets for their work.
Today, his eye for this notoriously tricky form is regarded as one of the best in the business. What is he after, then?
Meade inhales. "What you recognise in a good writer is that they're writing out of some kind of real experience or engagement with the craft. They also have ambitions and are writing in conversation with writers and works they hold in high regard. Each individual has their story to tell and their way of telling it, and they need to figure out what that is and how to bring it to the page. And if they're doing that, that excites us."
Despite this desire to see evidence of "some deep vein of something", Meade and The Stinging Fly are essential components in the landscape because they also recognise not everyone is chasing a seven-book deal with a major publishing house. There must be somewhere for those who dabble (a considerable chunk of the submissions, you guess), those with three or four very good stories in them but not enough to sustain an interest in pursuing it further.
For authors such as Kevin Barry, whose Rooney Prize-winning debut collection There Are Little Kingdoms (2007) remains the Fly's biggest seller to date, Meade's quality radar is "by no means as common in publishing as you might imagine". On a practical level, Barry also feels smaller publishing houses are great for debuts because there is more attention to go around.
Arts Council funding remains an essential component of the machinations, and while Meade has done an excellent job of building and solidifying the brand name through his famously exhaustive attention to consistency and standards, funding must still be competed for every year. It is bizarre to consider, especially given its nurturing role in an intangible cultural product enmeshed in "Brand Ireland".
From the very start, when resources were scarce, Meade has managed; a combination of his farming roots and business degree combining to practical effect.
This along with his obvious literary-junkie side is why the Fly is now a prominent pin in the Irish arts map. When asked what future ambitions he'd like to realise with extra funding, he is stumped.
"It's hard to imagine what we'd do if we had the resources," he says. "I've worked long hours and weekends but voluntarily. Any ambitions I had for it are now being realised in terms of the reputation it has. Survival is the ambition."
Stinging Fly Stories, edited by Sarah Gilmartin and Declan Meade, is published by The Stinging Fly Press in paperback and limited-edition hardback