As a child, Keegan grew up in a house ‘with very few books’. Maybe that’s why she’s such a remarkable writer, who puts characters before plotting and lets their inner lives emerge at their own pace
Claire Keegan’s new book, Small Things Like These – her first since the remarkable Foster in 2010 – is so exquisitely and delicately written, so subtle and balanced, that I am worried that I will somehow spoil it by saying too much.
It’s the story of Bill Furlong, a coal and timber merchant in New Ross, Wexford, in the days before Christmas 1985 (Keegan’s evocation of time and place are such that you can smell the air of the town; that combination of damp and mist and burning that was an Irish winter).
Brought together over the course of the story are his childhood, his family life – and the ways he comes into contact with the local convent and its Magdalene laundry as a bitterly cold snap sets in.
Where did the idea for the book start, I ask Keegan, who is in Pembroke University, Cambridge, where she is a visiting fellow.
“I really don’t know,” she says. “I had this coalman going round in my head for a long time. Maybe since the Ferns Report came out. That’s a long time ago now.”
That report, into allegations of clerical sexual abuse in the diocese of Ferns, Co Wexford, came out in 2005.
“I’m somebody who’s more interested in what’s at the back of somebody’s house than what’s presented at the front,” she adds. “I think a lot of short story writers are like that; you need a novel for the face of the house,” she laughs.
“You know when you’re on the train and you look into people’s back gardens and it somehow seems more intimate? And I don’t mean in a nosy or prurient sort of way – I’m not that way inclined – but it just feels that this was a man who was privy to the back doors of people’s houses, and had a different viewpoint than others might.
"I was interested in his point of view, and then I found out early on in the writing of the book that he was a workaholic. He was somebody who couldn’t sit still.
“And then I knew there was something wrong with him. I realised he was looking down at the ground a lot, so I thought, ‘Ah, he was bullied when he was young.’ So I thought, ‘Well, why was he bullied?’ Then I found the story of his childhood. That’s how the story began.”
There is so much in the story that treats of Ireland and Irish society in the 1980s, including our relationships with Church and State, that I’m initially amazed that something so profound began with the coalman and his childhood. But this is how writing is for Claire.
“I usually begin with a man or a woman or a child in a certain place, and then I try to be open to anything that comes up,” she says, and later, when I ask about her process and how much she plots in advance. “I’ve never plotted anything. I don’t believe in it.
"If you plot something, you’re ahead of where your character is – you can’t be with them, because you’re ahead of them. I don’t believe I can find out what it is they’re going through if I’m ahead of them.”
She talks about not having stories she wants to tell, so much as, “stories I want to find".
“I feel as though the story pre-exists and then it comes along and chooses the author. And then the author is tested to see if you have enough patience to sit there and wait long enough until you find it through all of the drafts.
"I think stories go looking for their authors.”
And yet, for all that Small Things is Furlong’s story, Keegan doesn’t deny the breadth of what she has written. The book is dedicated “to the women and children who spent time in Ireland’s mother and baby homes and Magdalene laundries”.
“I’ve a degree in political science as an undergraduate,” she says now, “and I suppose I was always interested in politics and how society is structured.
"TS Eliot writes that every artist is a critic of their society. And it seems to me that a good book criticises society, its setting. At least those are the books that interest me.”
That said, she labours nothing.
“I have great faith that if I write as well as I can about the physical day in which my character lives, then what I have to say – if I have any thoughtfulness – it will come out in the prose,” she says.
What comes across in Small Things is something we know, or should know, but can forget – the complexity of what’s past.
“It wasn’t uncomplicated. It wasn’t simple. It wasn’t just a matter of speaking out. So many people were afraid of the Church.
"And of course it wasn’t just the Church. The Church was acting in concert with the State. People were afraid to say anything, do anything, or find out more.
“People also had no money, especially in the 1980s. It was a time of such high employment and desolation – real despair. I felt that was a good time to set the story and get that feeling blowing across the town that people were living on an edge, and were afraid of losing any more, because they couldn’t afford to lose anything.”
Small Things came about because of lockdown, which Keegan spent in Wexford, and which “provided space and time”.
“I’ve never written so much in a day. I liked it very much. I realised how much time I spent teaching. I think I let teaching take over my life for quite a while. Then, I had these long swathes of uninterrupted time and of going nowhere.”
Then she says: “I suppose I just don’t have a career. I genuinely don’t have a career.
"I’m not interested in being an artist, or having a career. I’m simply interested in life, and human behaviour, and society. And my way of responding is by reading and writing and studying and teaching literature.”
This surprises me.
I would’ve thought Keegan – who is published in the New Yorker, Granta, The Paris Review, and has won such garlands as The Rooney Prize, The William Trevor Prize and the Francis MacManus Award (Small Things has already won the Ambassadors’ Award in France, where it was published in translation almost a year ago) – has a remarkable career.
“Maybe it’s just the definition of the term, or how I think of the word. I think ‘career’ comes from the Latin for a wheeled vehicle and then it kind of turned into ‘carrière’, which is a racecourse in old French, and has to do with ‘careering’ and speed and being in a race.
“And the last thing I am – when teaching, or reading, or writing, or studying – is racing or being in any kind of a hurry. It’s one of the reasons teaching takes me so long. I’ve sometimes spent more time trying to help somebody with a manuscript than they themselves spent writing it.”
This makes me laugh – a lot. So much that Keegan laughs too.
She adds, “I think also if you don’t have a generous nature, you probably shouldn’t teach.”
Keegan grew up in Wicklow, the youngest of six, in “a house with very few books. I suppose it was great because I had to amuse myself and use my imagination. I didn’t have a screen or I didn’t have my head in a book.
"In a way that was a wonderful thing. It made me look around and go looking for what would amuse me and what pleased me, and probably developed my aesthetic then. But I’ve always loved stories, and horses, and being outside. And I liked always the human voice.”
She talks about how, as a child, “I would listen to how people would come in. We lived through a wood, up a lane, up the avenue.
"We didn’t have many visitors, people didn’t come up very often so when people did come up, I used to be just so intrigued about how they talked, how speech worked between people. I think I have the same childish delight in that when I’m working.”
When she was 17, she went to New Orleans. “I got an opportunity to go and stay with a family there, and then I wound up going to university. A double major in political science and English literature.”
She remembers well what Ireland was like the year she left.
“I really wanted to get out. It was 1986. Ann Lovett had just died. I felt the darkness that is in Small Things Like These. I felt that atmosphere of unemployment, and being trapped maybe. And things not looking so good for women.
"My parents used to go dancing, and I used go with them, down to the pub. I remember everybody getting really drunk at the bar on a Sunday night.
"I remember looking at all the men at the bar – it was pretty much all men at the bar – and they were getting drunk and saying they couldn’t bear the thought of going back to work in the morning. And then others would say they didn’t have any work in the morning.
"So I remember thinking at that time – I’d say I was about 13 or 14 – that I’d get a job I liked. I would get some kind of work I enjoyed doing, so that I liked getting up in the morning. And very fortunately, I do.”
New Orleans wasn’t the place of opportunity she had hoped for. “I just felt this awful heat. Summer of 1986 was the hottest summer in 40 years, and it was hellish.”
It wasn’t just the heat; “I suppose the very obvious racism in New Orleans was frightening and I hadn’t been raised that way. I didn’t see women there as being liberated, but more running around after men in a different way perhaps.
"I thought a lot of the Southern men expected women to do the same things that Irish women in the 1980s were doing – cook and clean and mind children, all of that.”
She came home to Ireland in 1992.
“I wanted to teach. I applied for 300 jobs and got 300 rejections. I think it’s fair to say I felt some level of despair.
"I’d gone away and had done so well. I’d two first-class degrees and nobody in my family had ever gone to university. And I suppose to go away like that, to have worked so hard for that, and to come back and not to be able to get a job, that was quite difficult.”
But this is when she began writing.
“My mother was watching a programme called Live at Three in the afternoon, and there was a short story competition on it with the first prize of a thousand pounds. So I thought, ‘I’ll write a story for that.’
"It was the first story I wrote, and it came in the top ten of 10,000 entries. So then I wrote another one. And now I’m here.”
So what’s next?
“I’m going to write. I have a new short story published by the New Yorker next month, I’m hoping to have another story drafted and have it finished before Christmas."
Or at least, she thinks it’s a short story.
“I would never know what something is going to turn into,” she says. “It turns into whatever it needs to be. I think you’re more servant than squire when you’re writing. Or at least that’s what I try to be.”
‘Small Things Like These’ by Claire Keegan is published by Faber & Faber, €13.50, and
out on Thursday