Claire Keegan Harnesses the Power of Brevity

From a New York Times story by Alexandra Alter headlined “Claire Keegan Harnesses the Power of Brevity”:

Claire Keegan didn’t read much as a child. In her home in southeast Ireland, where her family ran a sheep, pig and cattle farm, there were just a couple of books around the house — an illustrated edition of the Bible, and a cookbook, she recalls.

“I’m not sure that growing up without books was a bad thing, because I had to use my imagination,” she said. “Otherwise I might have just stuck my head in a book.”

As it turned out, Keegan made a career out of her imagination.

Despite her sparse output — she’s released just four books over two decades — Keegan has gained a towering reputation as one of Ireland’s canonical writers. Her work is a staple on school curriculums, and has won a slew of prizes and a passionate following among independent booksellers. Prominent novelists like Colm Tóibín, Lily King, David Mitchell and Richard Ford have lauded her work with an admiration that borders on reverence.

“She’s so utterly in control,” said Douglas Stuart, the author of the Booker Prize-winning novel “Shuggie Bain.” “She can say so much, and be so loud, with very little.”

This year, her 2021 novella, “Small Things Like These,” about an Irish coal merchant who discovers a disheveled, barefoot girl locked in the coal shed of a Catholic convent, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and praised by judges for its “beautiful, clear, economic writing.” At 114 pages, it is the shortest book to be recognized in the prize’s history.

Now one of her earlier works, “Foster,” which was released as a short story more than a decade ago, is being published in the United States as a stand-alone book for the first time. Set in rural Ireland in the early 1980s, it unfolds from the perspective of a young girl who is sent away for the summer to live with a foster family while her mother struggles to care for a newborn and the girl’s many siblings. Writing in The New York Times, the novelist Alex Gilvarry called it “a master class in child narration” and argued that“Foster” is as rich and emotionally resonant as a “heaping 400-page tome.”

“She is able to tell a story in a paragraph, or to compress a novel into a few thousand words,” said Deborah Treisman, the fiction editor at The New Yorker, which published an abridged version of “Foster” in 2010. “There’s such a precision to what she notices.”

It’s rare for a writer to build such a lofty reputation from short fiction alone. Keegan has been rated among the form’s most masterful practitioners — drawing comparisons to Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, William Trevor and Anton Chekhov, one of her heroes.

“You get from a Claire Keegan short story everything you get from a novel. It resonates, you keep thinking about it,” said James Daunt, the chief executive of Barnes & Noble, who has been a fan of Keegan’s work for more than a decade. “The work has been honed and honed and honed.”

Keegan’s stories often hinge on the unspoken tensions that fester between neighbors, parents and children, husbands and wives — even as they probe the bigger political and social fault lines in Irish society.

“Small Things Like These” examines the moral corrosion that spread into towns and villages where Catholic nunneries ran Magdalene Laundries, institutions where pregnant and unwed women and girls were forced to perform menial labor and were separated from their babies, many of whom died. Keegan explores that dark thread in an oblique way, through the eyes of a merchant, who has daughters at home and is shaken when he discovers that nuns are abusing girls in their care.

Similarly, “Foster” probes the social side effects of Ireland’s former strict prohibitions on contraception and abortion, from the perspective of a girl who is taken in for a summer by a childless couple, and feels loved for the first time, a feeling that forces the realization that she’s unwanted at home.

Keegan didn’t set out to write a critique of misogyny and gender inequality in Irish society, or to invoke the horrors of the Magdalene Laundries, she said. But she sees the strain on mothers, and the resulting scarcity of love, as a common thread in both books.

“There were so many unwanted children that were born into that society,” said Keegan. “You could argue that both books are about that.”

Keegan was born in 1968, and grew up on a 53-acre farm, where she was the youngest of six. She left home at 17 to attend Loyola University in New Orleans, where she studied political science and English. When she returned to Ireland in the early 1990s, the country was in the grip of an economic crisis and jobs were scarce. She applied for 300 jobs, she said, including positions in factories, hair salons and shops, and was turned down.

She tried writing a story after her mother saw an ad for a short fiction competition on television. Unemployed and in her early 20s, Keegan submitted a story and immediately had it published. She later found a part time teaching job in Dublin and continued writing on the side.

Her first story collection, “Antarctica,” released in 1999, won the Rooney prize for Irish literature. It was published in the United States in 2001 by an imprint of Grove Atlantic, and drew broad praise from critics.

It took her nearly a decade to produce a second book of stories, titled “Walk the Blue Fields,” which was met with equally rapturous reviews. Writing for The New York Times in 2008, the critic Maud Newton lauded the stories as “so textured and moving, so universal but utterly distinctive, that it’s easy to imagine readers savoring them many years from now.”

“Foster,” which Keegan classifies as a long short story, took a strange and circuitous path to publication. It was released in abridged form in The New Yorker in 2010, and was published later that year at its original length in the United Kingdom by Faber & Faber. Keegan’s editors at Grove hesitated to release it as a stand alone work on the heels of The New Yorker, and decided to wait for her next book. It took another 12 years for the arrival of “Small Things Like These.” When Grove released it last fall, it had been 14 years since Keegan had published a book in the United States.

“There was a whole generation and a half of booksellers who didn’t know her,” said Morgan Entrekin, publisher of Grove Atlantic. “She’s sort of a stone cutter, Claire. She doesn’t work quickly.”

Keegan says her work is often described as pared down, when in fact, she writes stories as they come to her, without giving a thought to length.

“What pleases me,” Keegan said, “is brevity.”

Stories often begin as a single image that gets lodged in her head. “Foster,” for example, grew out of an image a girl staring down a well at her reflection. Keegan said she revises obsessively, sometimes going through as many as 50 drafts, but never maps out a plot.

“I don’t believe in plot and I’ve never plotted anything,” she said. “I don’t think you can be in the paragraph if you’ve already decided where you need to be.”

She writes out notes and scenes in longhand, until she settles into a character’s point of view, then switches to a computer. The note-taking stage can last years, Keegan said.

She avoids lengthy dialogue and exposition out of respect for her characters, who tend to be reticent types, unwilling to divulge what’s eating at them.

“It’s not just that the character goes into it reluctantly, I too go into it with reluctance,” she said. “I’m very reluctant to go into anybody’s privacy, and that’s one of the reasons I find writing difficult.” Exposing feelings her characters prefer not to acknowledge strikes her as unseemly she said, adding, “I think all good writing is good manners.”

If Keegan has a guiding ethos in her writing, it’s perhaps her willingness to leave things unsaid, and her adherence to efficiency. Keegan sometimes references a letter Chekhov wrote, describing how grace stems from the ability to complete an action with the fewest number of movements. Keegan feels the same principle applies to graceful writing, she said.

“There’s something in the tact,” she said. “To be tactful is also to not say more than enough.”

Alexandra Alter writes about publishing and the literary world. Before joining The Times in 2014, she covered books and culture for The Wall Street Journal. Prior to that, she reported on religion, and the occasional hurricane, for The Miami Herald.

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