We speak to #12NOW writer Paul Doran about his writing, his work as an editor and reviewer with The Bear Review and elsewhere, and what’s ahead for him in 2017 in a post-Brexit literary landscape…
Being one of Lagan Online’s selected #12NOW writers, can you tell our readers a little about your background and literary influences?
Originally I wanted to write about music. I remember buying a Pixies cassette, bringing it home, listening to it and feeling that, for the first time, I had just discovered something interesting. I did play guitar, and I gigged a bit, but I realised that I could write better than I could ever play music, so music journalism seemed like a good compromise.
I read Greil Marcus, Cameron Crowe and lots of Lester Bangs, which then turned me onto the kind of stuff that teenagers always discover: Jack Kerouac, Hunter Thompson, William Burroughs and Hubert Selby Jr. It took me a few years and an English degree to realise that good writing didn’t have to come from horrible places.
At some point that ambition died and I started working in a book shop. I met my wife, Rachel, there and she was reading short stories by Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, John Cheever, and especially Raymond Carver. It was O’Connor, Carver, and Claire Keegan, that showed me that you can say all that ever needs to be said in just a few pages.
But, as much as I learned from reading them, I also probably set myself back years by trying to write just like them. I’m sure every writer does this. Kevin Barry said something along the lines that writers imitate in their twenties and find their own voice in their thirties, which rang true with me almost to the month. It took me years to realise that I could never write like Raymond Carver. And I should be grateful of this. The power in Carver’s work came from a real and very ugly struggle with alcohol and, for him, writing was not only redemptive, but also so integral to his recovery that he even thought that Gordon Lish’s ruthless editing of What We Talk About… might actually derail his attempts to stay sober.
I’m very glad to say that I don’t have to struggle like that. I have the luxury of being able to write purely to amuse myself.
I’ve always loved Kurt Vonnegut and George Saunders but I was always scared to follow their example in completely scrapping the rules of what is acceptable in respectable writing. I have a list of ideas stretching back five years that I’ve always wanted to play with but have never felt they were serious enough. I even thought about writing some of them under some ridiculous assumed identity and putting them up on The Bear. Now I’ve started just writing them and they’re making me much happier than anything I’ve written before.
I’ve been reading Shirley Jackson recently – everything I can find – and I suspect that, above everything, she was writing to amuse herself too, and only herself. I hope that I can continue to do the same.
You’re one of the editors for The Bear, having contributed a number of quirky and serious reviews to the site. How do you feel the act of critical reviewing feeds into the creative writing process?
I think it depends how you approach critical reviewing to begin with. If you make your living as a critic, which I don’t, you’re expected to review work that you love as well as work that you hate. And it’s important that this kind of reviewing exists. If you’re familiar with The Bear you’ll have noticed that this isn’t really how we operate. It’s run pretty much wholly in spare time and everyone involved is working on a voluntary basis which means that we can’t keep up a pace with every interesting new title that comes out, but it does mean that we can focus our efforts on things that really mean something to us. I would much rather spend a dozen nights writing about Emmanuel Carrére’s Limonov, Marina Keegan’s Opposite of Loneliness, or spend more than fifty hours researching the horrible comics of Jack Chick, than I would dashing off quick reviews of the new Franzen or Foer and not doing them justice.
If you’re happy to indulge in each review as a piece of writing that actually means something to you, I think it can really help to hone style and flex muscles that you might otherwise ignore. It can be a good way to explore a variety of voices too, and voice is one thing that I’m really trying to nail in everything that I’m writing now.
Taking the time to read deeply and really think about how a story works is good for any writer. I don’t think many people are born with the ability to know exactly how a story should be told (maybe Marina Keegan was, but I also get the impression she worked very hard and learned very fast). For most of us it’s something that has to be learned through both reading and practice, and critical writing requires both of these things. You just have to be careful your style doesn’t become too stiff. If I get carried away I sometimes catch myself sounding like a dull Victorian etiquette guide.
The Bear has recently begun publishing original short stories again. What elements of storytelling do you look for in a successful short story, and are you attracted to stories that would be wildly different to your own approach?
There’s no single thing or formula that we look for, and quite often the three editors (myself, Ray McGahan and Euan McBride) will disagree on a piece. But we’re happy to respect each other’s opinions and, generally, if one of us likes a story it will make the cut.
Personally, I like to see something in a work that I haven’t seen elsewhere. This can be something in the voice, the way a character is built, or even just a turn of phrase. Those things can make a decent tale into a great story, but they can also ruin it. It’s a very fine balance and if I knew exactly how to pull it off myself I would be a lot happier.
I’m always glad to find something that is different to my own approach. We recently published a great story by Reggie Chamberlain-King about a colonial-era missionary in a fictionalised West of Ireland. If you know Reggie’s work you’ll know he is steeped in the stranger side of Victorian literature in a way that nobody else I know is. I could never pull off a tale like that and have it sound authentic, which is why I was so happy to receive it.
When we first gave The Bear its name we had a vague image of some large taxidermy bear, maybe presiding over some grand library. Ray and I thought ourselves pretty worldly but it took Euan to point out that bears mean something different to the gay community and, sure enough, we do now and then find gay erotica in the inbox. Sometimes those stories are pretty bold and audacious while still carefully paced, and we’re happy to publish them. A good story is just a good story.
The one thing we do try to keep in mind is that most of our readers are probably reading on their phones so a story needs to work hard to keep them engaged. If we can read it through without getting bored, it’s a promising sign.
The Bear also hosts occasional ‘Write Fight!’ events, which challenges participants to “pit their creative juices against the blank page” with some spontaneous writing prompts. Do you use writing prompts yourself as a way to keep the pen and mind active, or are you happy to wait until inspiration naturally strikes?
Write Fights are good fun to put together and to host, but I’m pretty sure if I actually entered one I wouldn’t win a single round. They can be ridiculously hard and the standard of contestants – people who just walk in off the street! – often blow our minds.
I’ve been interested in the OuLiPo movement, and the idea of writing under constraints, for a long time. It’s amazing to watch how a story can shape itself if you only let it point in a certain direction. I like playing around with the idea but, if I’m honest, I never use it, or any other prompts, when writing something I want to bring to publication.
Mostly, when I have an idea I want to develop, I will just explore it, somewhat painstakingly, through draft after draft in longhand until it’s right. It’s usually only the final draft that makes it onto a computer.
Obviously there are plenty of times when there just is no inspiration but thankfully The Bear is always there and always needs new work. I figure that as long as I can write something every day, even if it’s just a bit of blog copy, I’ll be ready for an idea when it comes.
Back in June, you wrote an open letter to the First Minister expressing your concerns about the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland. In it, you stated that Northern Ireland is “a country with a bright present as well as a promising future”, but that this was now affected by the referendum result. Do you feel that literature, and the primary concerns of the Northern Irish writer, will change in the post-Brexit environment?
Haha, yeah. I was super pissed off about Brexit, to put it mildly. I’m not usually the sort to write open letters on political issues but the idea of the UK cutting ties with an institution that provides so many jobs, and guarantees our human rights, just seemed absolutely insane. It still does, although now we have all had a bit more time to process this grim reality. I do think I have a better understanding now of how and why the ‘Leave’ campaign was successful, and I don’t believe that it was motivated only by hatred or xenophobia. I am still certain, however, that those who took the chance to protest against the establishment which had left them behind will be no better off in this new reality. In fact, I imagine that we will all be a lot worse off.
Writers will surely be affected, yes. There isn’t a lot of money in writing or publishing as it is and I can’t imagine that changing in any positive way. I know that people can be very dismissive of funding for the Arts but, really, if you look at how much money comes from tourism based around Seamus Heaney, CS Lewis, or even Game of Thrones, it’s easy to see how important literature is to our society, both culturally and economically.
There is an old idea that what is bad for most people is good for writers and I fear that we may be about to put that to the test again. Bad times have a way of producing great Art. Maybe that will be the silver lining here. I suppose history will decide if it was worth it.
You co-wrote the play “Horrible Noise: The Sights and Smells of Lester Bangs” with Ray McGahan, based on some of Bangs’s writings, back in 2010. How was that experience, and do you anticipate further explorations into theatre?
I really don’t know about further experiments with theatre but writing about Lester was fun, and mostly because I was working with Ray. We didn’t know each other very well when we got talking about Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung but almost as soon as we realised we had that book in common we knew we had to write something about it together. We had both just found ourselves suddenly, if briefly, unemployed and it took us all of five minutes to sketch out the idea that completely overtook us for the next six months. After that we pretty much spent every day writing together and drinking very cheap booze.
Ray is the only person I know who can still write beautifully when he’s too drunk to stand. We did write a few comedy sketches together after Horrible Noise, but theatre and comedy are both very much Ray’s thing and they both seem to lend themselves to collaborative work better than prose ever could. We were both always keen to keep working together which is why we started The Bear. Now we’re pretty much tied to each other by its ever-lurking ursine presence. Still, I reckon we’ll probably find another script to work on at some point.
Thinking ahead, what are your writing aims for 2017? Can we expect further short stories, or something else?
I just spent about six months trying to make a particular idea for a short story work. I couldn’t do it. But almost as soon as I gave up I started work on a whole host of other stories which seem to be working. I’m not used to writing more than one thing at once so I’m actually having trouble keeping up. I know this burst of creativity won’t last so I’m working furiously to get everything down while I can. As for the abandoned short story, I was suddenly hit with an idea of how to turn it around and now it’s in the works as a short novel. But I guess we’ll see how that shapes up. There’s an equal chance I might just adopt a ridiculous pseudonym and write something iffy for The Bear. Groucho Snarks has been quiet for some time…