Jaki McCarrick's The Scattering

Ahead of her reading at Eason's, Belfast, the author discusses her acclaimed debut short story collection

A friend of mine recently told me that, for many years, the train route from Portadown to Derry~Londonderry saw the train track briefly infringe into the Republic, and that during this moment the train’s buffet would shut down until the line swerved back into the North.

Whether or not that's true, I'm not entirely convinced. Nevertheless, it’s that same unseen but tangible presence of the border that speaks to Jaki McCarrick and informs many of the stories in her debut collection, The Scattering.

McCarrick, who currently lives in Dundalk, was born and raised in London. She is a prolific playwright and short story writer who has been shortlisted for both the Asham and Fish Short Story Awards. The Scattering was nominated for the Guardian First Book Award.

Having recently finished a stint as writer-in-residence at Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris, McCarrick is excited about the launch of her first collection and the borderland it explores between the North and the South of Ireland.

‘The theme of borders – the sense of being on the margins, in a kind of badlands or limbo place – fascinates me and is explored in all sorts of ways in the collection,’ she says. ‘The subject is rich, but it really was offered to me on a plate because of where I live.

'Also, as I am someone who was born and raised in London and then moved to Ireland aged 12, I often “read” the border area through the experience of emigration, or travelling to and from it. And, as I have a sense of possessing two identities – a bit London, a bit Irish – I also often think of myself as being a kind of borderland site.’

Throughout The Scattering, we are introduced to an impressive array of characters –from an expectant mother to an ageing parent – each living with some kind of problem or issue, often dating back many years into the past. In some ways, the stories are personalised post-mortems, and have an obvious resonance, given their setting.

‘The characters often have very different experiences of the Troubles and post-Troubles period,’ McCarrick explains. ‘I like to explore the lives of people for whom the Troubles were a mere backdrop, and then also look to other characters who were more directly involved.

'That’s what is so interesting about fictions set on the border: some characters will be very directly connected to the Troubles, or will have some memory of those times, or be scarred by them. Others will not. This “take it or leave it” experience is pretty much the border experience of the Troubles anyway.’

So does the work feel political? ‘With a small p. And I am of the school of thought that considers all art political in some way. But sometimes my work is political with a very definite capital P, and unashamedly so, though this happens primarily in my plays. Leopoldville and Belfast Girls are, I consider, blatantly political plays.’

Readers often marvel at short story collections in terms of how populous they are, each story having to introduce another character or set of characters, each with their own story or trait or problem, this being repeated again and again, until the whole books feels like a bustling, polyphonic world. How does McCarrick come to create and flesh out so many characters?

‘I get a very strong sense of a character’s emotional make-up and start from there. Sometimes I have in mind the face of someone I know or have met, but the character’s internal workings will usually be very different.

'Usually, though, I start with an image, or even one word. This is where, for me, the short story is like poetry because I do the same thing when I write poetry. I take something small and open it out, or, as an English lecturer once said to me, I “worry it to death”.’

The form’s conciseness, the brevity needed and the economy required, also appeals to McCarrick. 'But,' she says, ‘I am more interested in the writing. Language, voice, how a writer sustains a tone, a theme, than in actual “story”.

'In fact, sometimes I prefer the term short fiction to short story, because I think this is a broader term and allows for fictions that do not stick to regular shapes or have neat epiphanies at the end. Though many of my stories do stick to these conventionalities, I really do admire writers who break out, or who try new things in their short fictions.'

McCarrick takes a second to consider which collections have inspired her own work, her process as a writer. It doesn't take her long. 'My favourite short story collection is David Foster Wallace’s Girl with Curious Hair. Not all the stories are perfect, but at all times he is attempting to nail some truth or other, and this eager and honest searching is really palpable in his prose.’

When McCarrick comes to Belfast on Saturday, July 27 at 3.30pm to read from her collection in Eason's on Royal Avenue, she will, of course, have considered which stories she is likely to read from. Is there a particular story in the collection that McCarrick’s most proud of, and one that proved the most difficult?

‘At a push I would probably say I am most proud of 'The Tribe'. The story is full of challenges: it has a difficult science-fiction plot, very little dialogue, and I tried new things with it, with a very definite awareness of American postmodern writing. It was a difficult story to stick with and nail and I think I did it.

'The hardest was possibly the last, 'The Jailbird', as the idea was rooted in a play idea of mine, so it was difficult to lose the play and let the fiction fly. I got there eventually. Often, I think, the toughest pieces to nail will end up being your best.’

And McCarrick clearly thinks long and hard about the overall shape of the book, often rearranging pieces until the collection has the right flow and the stories complement each other.

‘Yes, in terms of shaping the collection and ordering the stories, I thought a lot about music, and at times putting the collection together was like writing an album,’ she says. ‘I tried several combinations, so the way the stories are put together has been very carefully thought out.

'I definitely had albums in mind, and I listened to a lot of different albums to see how and when good musicians shift from one mood to another. Two stories side by side that should not be together can kill a collection in the same way two misplaced songs can ruin the mood of an album. I am in an electronic band myself so I know a bit about this!’

Short stories, plays, novels and music, too. There’s no stopping McCarrick, and once you finish The Scattering, you will, undoubtedly, be glad that that’s the case. 

The Scattering is out now, published by Seren Books.