Welsh author Thomas Morris is editor of The Stinging Fly and Dubliners 100, an anthology of short stories inspired by Joyce’s 1914 collection
Joyce’s Dubliners celebrates its 100th anniversary this month. Why did it prove so influential? Dubliners is the book so many authors in the 20th and 21st century have read and thought: this is how you write short stories. Joyce wrote with great economy, precision and introspection about real characters with real emotions in real situations. Here were ordinary people living ordinary lives who, through the course of a few pages, come to experience an extraordinary sense of revelation. Joyce refers to his short stories as a ‘nicely polished looking-glass’ with which Dubliners could see their own reflection. Whether it was political hypocrisy or alcoholism or emotional paralysis, he didn’t shy away from uncomfortable truths – those themes are still relevant today.
How did Dubliners 100 come to fruition? As someone who loves short fiction, I was wondering how to make the short story more relevant to people and, at the same time, I was vaguely aware that the Dubliners centenary was coming up. One day I was walking down Grafton Street when I heard someone covering Jeff Buckley’s version of Hallelujah, which itself is a cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah; it got me thinking of cover versions and how it’s so common in music but less so with stories and books. I thought that rather than ask writers for a modern adaptation of each story, I’d ask for a cover version so they could respond in any way they saw fit.
Were contributors encouraged to take liberties with the original stories in terms of content? There were really no parameters. I hoped each writer would isolate the bits that interested them – character, mood, style – and take it from there. Some of these stories don’t even take place in Dublin and in others the sex of the characters has been changed; in Donal Ryan’s version of Evelyn, for instance, the central character becomes a boy. It was really about finding a way in to the story. I wanted contributors to put aside any hang-ups about Joyce and have fun.
Is alcohol as much of an issue in this collection as it was for Joyce’s Dubliners? Yes, it’s uncanny the way in which the more things change, the more they seem to stay the same. In Sam Coll’s version of Grace, a group of guys go round to book launches simply so they can fill up on free booze – with one character falling down a flight of stairs in The Workman’s; and in Eimear McBride’s Ivy Day In The Committee Room she nails a get-together fuelled by drink.
Which themes or topics in this collection dovetail most with those in Joyce’s original? What struck me most is the theme of addiction, that’s so prevalent in Joyce’s stories, has been tackled in various ways in Dubliners 100. Although we have alcohol addiction here, we also have porn and internet addiction. In Belinda McKeon’s take on Counterparts, set in New York, the protagonist works for a PR firm and is trying to write a press release, but her addiction to Twitter is getting in the way and, as days go by and she still hasn’t finished, her boss becomes irate. In Oona Frawley’s The Boarding House, a guy’s addiction to internet porn is uncovered by his step-mother.
You’ve recently taken the reins as editor of The Stinging Fly, which specialises in publishing contemporary Irish fiction. Do you enjoy sifting through the slush pile? Reading through submissions is like a long birthday – you have all these packages waiting to be opened and you’re just hoping for something that you want, but you didn’t know you wanted. It’s like tapping into the nation’s unconscious when you’re opening all those envelopes and you see the collective concerns of a country. A few years ago we were getting angry poetry about bankers and the recession, so you definitely get the pulse of a nation from sifting through the slush pile. My first issue as editor comes out at the end of this month, so it’s very exciting. Daragh Reddin
Dubliners 100 (€15) is published by Tramp Press. www.tramp.ie