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The tales from Balindoon with a voice from the past

Poet and novelist Tess Gallagher, widow of the writer Raymond Carver, is in Belfast tomorrow to launch her new book, Barnacle Soup. Then she leaves for Scotland's Wigtown Festival, which is being supported by the Belfast Telegraph. Michael Conaghan finds out more

In Barnacle Soup you record artist Josie Gray's remarkable oral tales from Ireland's west coast. How did the book come about?

I first met storyteller Josie Gray at his sister Eileen's, some years after my husband's death and after his own wife had died from leukaemia. He had just taken up painting and came to visit me in America. They told him there: "You're doing something that nobody could teach. "I collected the stories from him over 12 years, heard them in movement as it were, by the fire and at the airport, but mainly at the little lake cottage in Balindoon. I would make notes and ask for the stories again. They were transcribed by my secretary and passed back and forth. Josie has a lovely phrase to " throw chat on them", but he thought at first I was wasting my time

What was it about the subject matter that made you want to record these stories?

I already knew people in the book like the cattle-owner Tommy Flynn, who features in several stories including The Irish Solution. He is described before he speaks as "rubbing his hands together like a man before a good fire". It meant I could know these characters in their youth which was so lovely to me. it was like being moved back in time, which is a place I love to be.

What are the dangers of translating an oral tradition to a literary one?

I don't feel that they are fully literary. Anytime I felt I was losing Josie's voice I went back and roughed them up, determined to keep his turn of phrase.

Was the process of collaboration a harmonious one? How did it work ?

The important thing was to get the story out. Often we were living in different parts of the world, me in America, Josie in Ireland. Then we would meet up and have a furious period of activity. You have to be careful in case a certain fixity sets in. The book contains about a third of the stories told. Josie is a quiet man but the stories leaked out of him like lantern lights in a barn.

Your late husband, writer Raymond Carver, actively encouraged you to write short stories. Was it difficult to follow in his footsteps? Did you find it a challenge moving from poetry to prose?

It was difficult at first. To get back to rhythm, he would talk about the "hum" of a good story. He gave me the best piece of advice which was not to try to know everything about the story as you were writing it, to be ignorant of things, and then to come back to it. That was always his method; he was constantly reworking.

The Irish and the Americans seem to share an affinity for the modern short story, from Joyce's' The Dead, through to Raymond Carver and beyond. Would you agree and why do you think this is?

The oral tradition is very important. As far as my own country is concerned, immigrants carried their past, all their memories and what they could say, in an oral way. They had no libraries, hence the importance of stories. As my late husband put it: "If you hadn't heard a good story, you hadn't had a good day."

Is there a nostalgia for a simpler pre-Celtic Tiger Ireland that the stories in Barnacle Soup tap into?

I certainly feel that way. Rural and village Ireland come very much alive in this book. Josie's stories are non-judgemental, you can see in the way that difference is tolerated. People are very open, you only have to see the way they took me in in Co Sligo, as a Protestant among Catholics, when I was a young girl fleeing the Vietnam war.

Do you agree with Josie's idea of the story as "a bit of useless amusement"?

Irish people tend to be offhand about their storytelling, perhaps because there are so many people doing it. But now, with people dead and gone, it becomes a permanent record of their activity.

Will there be any more of these stories?

We're waiting to see how this book goes. When I was in America I wanted to call it Surrounded by Weasels to reflect the current political situation here. But now I'm happy to think of each story as a barnacle.

Tess Gallagher will be at Waterstones' Belfast branch, Fountain Street, tomorrow at 1pm, then at No Alibi', Botanic Avenue, at 7.30pm

Belfast Telegraph

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