The River and Other Stories

Writer and author Sean Mackel was inspired by nature in his first short story collection

Belfast-born writer and artist Sean Mackel is very content with his lot. His passion for his work, both the written word and his graphic design, is clear in conversation. He admits that he is priviledged, although perhaps not all would see it that way. A period of ill health forced him to give up his day job and while he struggled to come to terms with all that entailed, the move has given him the chance to concentrate on his artistic endeavours full-time - something he finds exceptionally fulfilling.

'Yes, I'm content,' he says. 'It has been a joy to be able to concentrate on my 'hobbies' full time.' Last week saw the launch of his first short story collection The River and Other Stories - published by Guildhall Press - and this week he will launch an exhibition of his graphic art in An Culturlann in Derry.

Both are the culmination of years of work. Indeed, The River has been some five years in the making, and was borne out Mackel's desire to challenge himself to write a novel. 'I had written poetry before, and had an anthology published through Lapwing Press, but I wanted to challenge myself - to dig a little deeper - to expand my characters a little more. I wasn't sure I was ready for the challenge of a novel, so short story writing seemed to be a natural progression.'

Mackel attended a workshop with Derry writer Sean O'Reilly in 2005, which turned out to be the final dose of inspiration he needed to put pen to paper - all that was left was to decide upon a theme. 'I wanted to tie the stories together. Originally I thought of focusing on the seasons, but the river, in particular the River Foyle, seemed to emerge naturally as a theme. Rivers by their nature are fluid and always moving, bringing people together and dividing them.'

In the title story, an ageing house painter discovers the river to be the only true bridge. Elsewhere, a young couple reconciles the past through music; a dusty professor finds release working with a Czech puppeteer; and a surprise awaits the 1948 Tillies Shirt Factory Queen. The reader embarks on an intriguing journey beginning in 1920’s Donegal through Derry during WWII, from Australia to Poland and back again to a contemporary city on the cusp of cultural celebration.

'In exploring these narratives, I was influenced by one translation of An Feabhal as ‘estuary of the lip’. And it was this link between life and language that intrigued me. So the first story in my collection acknowledges the Irish language as the roots of our imagination.

'The collection then flows forward from the 1920s, through the 40s, and after addressing the Troubles, it continues up to the present day featuring characters from Australia, the Czech Republic, Germany, France and Poland. Given our recent history in the North, the title story, 'The River', explores the idea of truth.'

Included are stories previously short-listed for the Brian Moore Short Story Award 2003/04, Raymond Carver Short Story Contest 2004 and the Michael McLaverty Short Story Award 2008.

In his foreword to the collection, Derry-born author Sean O’Reilly writes: ‘These stories display a scrupulous sympathy for the characters and the small rewards they find in their attempts to keep on going. The writing is simple and honest and touched with wonder... With great delicacy, these stories ask the question: What saves us all from drowning in the past?’

With his background in graphic design it is perhaps no surprise that Mackel has designed the cover of The River himself - but he is certainly not one to rest of his laurels. His exhibition at An Culturlann, exploring the themes of nature and trees but with an abstract twist opened this week. He has also commenced work on a novel set in 18th century Belfast - although he claims he is not naturally drawn to historical fiction.

He describes his experiences working with Guildhall Press, who are based in Derry, as a 'joy' and admits that he has most certainly caught the writing bug. 'I am lucky in a way that I can devote my time to what makes me most content and I intend to keep pushing myself in new directions.'

The River and Other Stories by Seán Mackel is published by Guildhall Press and supported by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. Available from all good bookshops and, priced £7.95.