Mary O’Donoghue

Interviewed by Patrick Duane

The story, “Late Style,” happens on Zoom. There isn’t a strict setting or place. When did you start writing this story?

I started it four years ago, and its early moves predate the online life of the pandemic. All that time ago, the story started exactly where we enter the story in Subtropics, with the predicament of the Icelandic ponies. I’m interested in waiting places, limbo states, and the talk that happens in those spaces. The airplane. The phone call. The screen. And the hospital. And in and around those liminal places there are ordinary sightings, kitchens, screen backgrounds, and the like. I keep as much of that material as streamlined as possible so as to get at the conflict and sadness in the story through speech more than setting.

I’m interested in how this narrator identifies or remembers. She remembers in a distinct and specific way, and she names people in a distinct and specific way. No one else in the story has a real or traditional name aside from the authors and musicians that are mentioned. People seem to be defined more by the repetition of their actions, how they appear to the narrator, and I’m curious what, for you, this signifies about the narrator.

In a story I published in The Common in 2021, the only character with a name is a dog. It was easy for me to manage not-naming the people because there are only two of them, a farmer and his daughter. As “the farmer” and “the farmer’s daughter,” they quickly took on their contours as characters. To later supply a name would impinge on what I had found out about them. Something of that effort shows forth in “Late Style.” And not-naming might be the most Irish feature of “Late Style,” instead using memory tricks and blunt characteristics as mnemonics for characters. It’s the world I grew up in, knowing people as identified by habits and idiosyncrasies. In so being identified, they became memorable. It’s perhaps the most unfair part of the story, to position people like this, but I think it’s also the most online part of the story. On Zoom everyone’s name is right there on the screen, but I didn’t rely on that. And my story doesn’t even name Zoom, so I don’t need to abide by its protocols! Instead, I bring characters forward in swift strokes. It’s unfair, maybe, but we might say all fiction is unfair.

There is an idea of not being able to go back to a place or being a foreigner that can’t be reintroduced somewhere.

Much of what I’ve come to work at in fiction involves just that: not being able to go back to a place. I’m getting closer to that condition in a story like “Late Style.” More recent stories I’ve written in this vein become more surreal, often valuably sinister. The initially familiar contours become baleful because of their inaccessibility. Re-entry is a deeply interesting topic to me.

Do you imagine that this narrator does end up going back to where she’s trying to get to?

It’s a good question and something I did not seek to solve. Because of what happens at the end of the story, that friend who is the site of impending loss, the friend to whom she might send a pillow, I’m guessing that might keep her in place. There’s a new concern now, even though she’s ready to go. I worked longest on that last paragraph where she hears sounds from the hospital. Kept trying to not make it collapse.

That’s such a nice moment of tenderness that you ended on, which I think is near impossible to find online, especially through Zoom. I thought it funny that she was waiting for something embarrassing to happen.

So many stories of Zoom embarrassments are salacious, but often we love them because they’re very public. So, that kind of embarrassment was certainly on my mind, while knowing it wasn’t going to happen in the story. The only character who might have brought it on himself is And Its Discontents, but he’s not a character around whom our tenderness gathers, so I didn’t give him the limelight!

The entire evening, and event, seem to hinge on moments of proper language usage or saying the right thing to open up further discussion. How do you see your relationship to language as a poet and translator of poetry? Is this something you’re conscious of while writing a story? These very specific phrases ripe for interpretation or overinterpretation in a group setting.

It’s the baton in a relay race. Just when we think it’s going to get dropped, it gets picked up again. In this cold online setting, I wanted a bar talk atmosphere, a kind of competition verging on intellectual posturing. My work in translation helps me think about phrases, terms, idioms getting picked up, looked at, toyed with. A character realizes they can have their moment if they use this baton that’s been handed on. I like Kingsley Amis’s description of the last people left at a party: “the hard kernel of the party that refuses to crack.” But in the end, despite all the jockeying for position, the story, because it’s a story, must crack and disperse. 

When approaching a story, do you sometimes provide that information up front and then slowly remove it through editing? In the story, there is also information that is cited and then information that isn’t cited.

That’s the balance I hoped for in “Late Style.” The uncited, unreferenced material is owned by the speakers; it’s very much “their thing.” The named writers and musicians are also part of the weave of intellectual and cultural positioning. The cultural touchstones and references are characterizing. The hope that another character will recognize, for instance, the board game Catan. One might call it a balance of high information and low information. The heavily working detail, but then the other mere stuff that is sometimes the more human, ordinary detail that shows a weakness, habit, passion, or waste of time, maybe.

Of all the people who hopes that somebody, if not everybody, will pick up on a reference, it’s the character who quotes a song from hospital. He wants to throw out as many lines as possible, that one of them might be grabbed and held onto. Most importantly he casts lines to his dear friend, the narrator, but he also wants everyone out there on screen to hold on to those electric lines.

So maybe the narrator is making a last grab at establishing connection or finding something to push their life along?

Some kind of grace, yes, even in the most unlikely or thinnest of circumstances. She might be taking a last stab at grace. And maybe she gets it without knowing it at the end. 

Who is the Austrian author of the 160-page book in which someone lives their entire life?

Robert Seethaler. I read the book several years ago and it put me in mind of Train Dreams by Denis Johnson.

Have you always formatted dialogue without quotation marks, or is it something that you slowly shifted into over time?

I think the latter, probably over the last five years. There wasn’t a watershed moment that said the end of apostrophes was nigh. Rather that once I saw those apostrophes, then I very much mistrusted every little step of the dialogue. The artifice seemed to be there, at least to me. For a long time, I hated writing dialogue and did anything to avoid it. Anything that could be reported would be reported! But in reporting we often summarize and it’s not helpful to creating real voice. I thought of Chekhov’s advice: the first line of your story is the most obvious artifice in the story, so every story ought to take away the first line and work with the second one instead. When I took away those apostrophes, things started to move. In “Late Style” I’m managing a number of speakers, and if we imagine how that story would look with quotation marks, they’d be a flock of insects swarming round what’s said.

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