Jamie and I met in London at a Guardian Masterclass led by The Book Doctor Philippa Pride in the autumn of 2014. Over the following winter and spring, I interviewed Jamie across the Atlantic via email.
EW: Your work evokes landscapes of a remote hinterland, especially the American West, and focuses on people far away from the centre. These are characters who seem to have very few people in their lives. They are surrounded instead by nature. And if it were not for the writer observing their quiet lives, they might not be noticed at all. What is it that draws you to these remote landscapes and characters?
JG: I spent last summer walking The Camino de Santiago and in doing so learned an important lesson in my life – which is that everyone is interesting. It doesn’t matter who a person is, what their job, age or background is – everyone has a story to tell.
There is an intrigue for me as a writer, about those human beings who appear to lead simple, even boring lives; because I recognise there’s a complexity that perhaps people just don’t see. It’s only by focusing the lens on them that we begin to really discover their layers and thus realise, that every human life is far from mundane. Old people are a good example – it is sometimes assumed that they are dull because they sit quietly in chairs or shuffle slowly around. But they’ve lived a lifetime, fought in wars, experienced many, many different circumstances. I think their contentment can be misinterpreted as banality.
The same goes for remote hinterlands. People assume that a field, a mountain, a forest; they are just monotonous, in the background. We can drive past these things a thousand times over and never once experience that they have their own energy and their own depth.
I’m interested in bringing these people, these places into the foreground, so their beauty can be enjoyed by all.
EW: You've had a number of short stories published, including two that have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Do you have a favorite among them? Tell us about the story and what it means to you.
JG: This is difficult – like asking a parent to choose their favourite child! I can’t pick an individual story because they all mean different things to me and have given me diverse experiences in their writing – but I will talk about a few.
My first story to be nominated for ‘The Pushcart Prize’ was ‘A Quarter Yellow Sun’, which was a very emotional piece to write. It’s based on a true story from my hometown about an elderly man who commits suicide, so I wanted to try and get into his skin, his thoughts; to capture his pain on the page. A writer must experience the events of each story through their imagination in order to portray them properly, which can be quite draining, depending on the subject. I’ve watched a lot of people cry when they read this story.
Another that I’m proud of is ‘She will be my joy.’ I believe the best writers can write about any subject, and so for a long time I had wanted to write a story about love. It was a personal challenge for me because love is a part of our humanity that is difficult to articulate in any new or un-clichéd way. I tend to measure my stories by the reaction I get from the reader and again, I’ve seen grown men cry at this one. It’s wonderful to be able to create something that invokes such a strong emotion from another person.
Lastly, I’m fond of my second story to be nominated for the Pushcart Prize which is called ‘The Cowboy.’ My culture is founded on storytelling and wit, so this tale is a showcase of how important those things are to me as a writer. I’m particularly attached to the character I’ve created for the story - people seem to react well to him. Boon’s a real rascal , so I think he could be someone that I return to in a future story perhaps. I also enjoy the small-town, rumour mill setting that this piece has to it.
EW: As well as short stories, you’ve written a novel. What are the most surprising differences you’ve found in the process of writing short and long fiction?
JG: The writer Lorrie Moore explains this very well - ‘A short story is a photograph; a novel is a film.’
I’ve always maintained that short stories are closest to traditional story-telling. If someone sits down to tell you a story - whether at home, in a tavern or around a campfire; it is a singular experience. You get the start, middle and end of the story; then the subsequent reactions or emotions that it has provoked inside you. Novels are very different. They take much longer to read, but provide a more extensive experience.
Therefore, because the way we experience each of these mediums is unique, then so in the writing method, they are different also.
In writing a short story, I have to be scant with details otherwise the piece begins to lose its identity and becomes more like a novel. Writers often talk about ‘the telling details’ – so I choose only the most vital pieces of information to pass onto the reader. Short stories also have more gaps and are more fragmented, in order to allow readers to participate with their own imagination and fill in the blanks. They are surreal in a way, snapshots in time (hence Lorrie’s comparison to a photograph) – and you’ll often see short stories end on a hanging note which leaves the rest for readers to figure out. Short stories are their own art form, you simply cannot write them as you would a novel.
In contrast to its cousin the short story, novels can afford the luxury of giving the reader all of the details – which means that the reader can become completely immersed in this world that is being described and inhabit the lives of characters as though walking around in their skin. There is no need to be as scant in the storytelling. Of course, there is still the requirement to allow readers to participate in the story, so there is a requirement to plan how I release details about plot, setting and character. I simply don’t give all the details away at once. It’s like a detective game: the reader pieces together information as they read, then the writer confirms some of these assumptions while sometimes adding twists and turns and releasing new details that the reader never saw coming.
Technically, I find that short stories are less complicated to write because I can hold the entire story in my head at once, whereas novels are such leviathans that they require this extra layer of administration on top of the actual writing just to keep track of all the various moving parts. You will often find novelists have some kind of system set up to document and track their plots, subplots, character arcs and the release of details to the reader.
EW: Tell us more about your novel, The Judgment of Moses Crowe. Did you have a purpose in mind while writing it?
JG: After writing my first novel and sending it to publishers, I was deflated when it didn’t get taken on. I’m sure a lot of writers have found themselves in a similar position. The Northern Ireland Arts Council then funded me to attend a class at the Faber & Faber Writing Academy on the Art of the Short Story. I found writing short stories to be so rewarding and educating that I decided to focus on them for a period. I began to have great successes too - getting my work published in literary journals, being nominated for ‘The Pushcart Prize.’ I eventually reached a point where I realised just how much my writing had matured, so felt ready to do another novel. It was a real gloves coming off moment.
My main purpose when writing this second novel was just sheer determination to create something that would grip readers and tell a great story. I didn’t ever want to end up in that position again, having a novel that wouldn’t get read; so I’ve written what I believe is an intriguing, confident story and I’m very proud of it.
There are multiple strands to this book, but the title theme is about how we judge other people. I thought it an interesting facet of humanity, that we all judge other people very quickly when we meet them (whether we admit it or not), but sometimes our viewpoint changes as we get to know a person. So we all get it wrong occasionally. With this novel, I wanted to pose the question: do we become better judges of character as we get older and more experienced in life? I also wanted to tell people this tale about Moses Crowe and make them feel like they had read a wonderful book that moved them.
EW: One of the things I love most about The Judgment of Moses Crowe is the relationship between the two main characters, Moses and Jeannie, who are both older and fairly isolated. Their friendship blossoms, and for much of the book it feels quite heartwarming. Their relationship pivots around your question about how we judge others. Without giving too much away, what do you think are the big trigger points that can change a relationship as it evolves? Do you think these triggers change as we get older?
JG: Learning about a person’s past is particularly pivotal. No matter what we think about someone after our initial judgement, if something in their history comes out and it bothers us, then that can be enough to sever a relationship altogether. The other interesting facet to this is exactly how their past is revealed – there is a huge difference between hearing something first-hand from the person in question; versus some kind of third party hearsay. Of course, this is all affected by our depth of feeling - the more we care about a person, the more this influences our judgement of them.
I don’t think actual trigger points change as we get older, but our reaction to them does. Some people mellow as they age, increase in patience and realise that most things are just no big deal; while others become firmer in their convictions and allow little room for acceptance – their way or the highway! Growing up in Northern Ireland, I’ve seen this narrowing or widening of views a lot.
EW: I’d like to get into the process of your writing now. Writers, especially early in their careers, often have to fit writing into a schedule that is already packed with a full time job, family, volunteer roles, sleep, and other commitments. Tell us how you fit writing into your schedule. Where do you write? Is it a daily routine, cyclical, or irregular? How much caffeine is involved?
JG: I’ve never really had a writing routine until recently, but I think that’s down to what you have already described above – all of those other life commitments which leave little room for anything else. I’ve always just grabbed time here or there when I could get it, so quite a haphazard approach!
These days though, things are starting to become more structured. I have made a conscious decision to sacrifice other commitments in order to concentrate more on writing.
I usually write either at Belfast Central Library or at home in my study. Both of these spaces are filled with books and are great places to work. The library is a grand Victorian, red sandstone building that opened in 1888 and is steeped in history. I like that quiet hum of people working or browsing through bookshelves and also enjoy watching what they are up to while I pause for thought. In my study, the desk faces a window and overlooks a field where huge carthorses wander around and birds dart in and out of the hedgerow. I find that view both inspirational and beautiful.
As far as editing goes, I usually keep a printed copy of whatever I am working on and can edit anywhere as time permits.
EW: How do you convince yourself to keep working at it?
JG: A writer is not something I chose to become, it’s something I discovered about myself – like finding your calling – so it doesn’t take much convincing to keep going, because I deeply enjoy what I do. I love the immense capacity of words and it still amazes me how a few paragraphs on a page can stimulate such powerful emotions from a reader.
EW: Who are your literary influences?
JG: Most of my literary influences tend to be American and I’m wondering why that is; I think it’s because I’ve always loved film, particularly American movies, and so naturally tend to lean towards those voices.
I am in awe of Richard Yates. After reading a few of his novels, I went through a period of actually avoiding his work, because it was so good it made me want to give up writing.
Other writers who I admire, who have also taught me something about writing are: Steven Millhauser, Tim Gautreaux, Richard Ford, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Harper Lee, JD Salinger, Joseph Heller, Charles Dickens.
It would also be remiss of me not to mention some writers from the Emerald Isle whose craft I have great respect for: Gerard Donovan, Niall Williams, Claire Keegan and Frank O’Connor.
EW: A writer’s biography is often just as interesting as the writing itself. Tell us, when did you first know you were a writer?
JG: Growing up, I was just like any typical boy – I played football and computer games, practiced Karate, enjoyed sports and watched action movies; but I’ve always had a rich imagination and a creative side. Mostly, I remember sketching a lot – my school books were always covered in little drawings or cartoons. I also had a healthy appetite for reading and give kudos to my mother for that – when I was 9 or 10 years old, out of the blue she started buying me books as treats. From there, I progressed into borrowing books from the village library.
Thinking about it now, I can identify that introverted side to my personality. I remember being completely content sitting alone at home, either drawing or watching some old black and white movie on the television. It makes me smile thinking that sometimes while the other kids were outside playing, I was sitting watching ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ or ‘Twelve Angry Men’ or something with Dirk Bogarde in it. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t Boo Radley – I did go outside and play with the kids too!
Interestingly, I fell out of the way of reading during some of my teens and generally became less creative. I’m unsure why that was (probably too busy gallivanting), but I did eventually start reading again and realised how much I loved it. I also took up playing the guitar which was another form of creativity. I had wanted to learn piano, but came from a working class background and pianos were expensive instruments, so I opted for guitar instead.
You’ll notice that so far there is no mention of writing!
I was into my 20s before I started to write my first novel. After completing the wonderful ‘Catch-22’ by Joseph Heller, and perhaps hungry to create something, I decided on a whim that I would write a novel. I wrote the entire manuscript in secret and no-one except my wife knew about it. I found that I truly enjoyed the process – tapping into my imagination and making up this wild tale – so began to grow in confidence. Pretending to be a writer eventually turned into actually being one. I think the first time I started to really believe I was a writer was when I had my first story published. Through the Northern Ireland Arts Council and the Faber and Faber Writing Academy I wrote a short story ‘A Quarter Yellow Sun’ that got published and subsequently nominated for The Pushcart Prize.
Recently I have wondered – why writing? I puzzled over why I hadn’t tried to write creatively before, in my youth, and then, these hazy memories began to come to me.
I remembered during my teens, going to the school library one day, feeling fired up that I was going to write a novel. I managed half a page. I also recall being very enthusiastic each time we did creative writing exercises in English class, but my enthusiasm usually fizzled out without any encouragement from the teacher. I think back then it was in me to write, but I just didn’t know how to go about it or what it was that I wanted to say.
The most important memory though, is a story I wrote in school, I must have been 15 or 16 at the time. I remember the story was called ‘Dreamscape’ – a futuristic piece that I worked very hard on. It was 6 or 7 pages long and the first time that I had ever redrafted something several times. I was so jazzed by what I had accomplished that I made one of my friends read it. I remember that feeling very clearly – that writing buzz.
Ultimately though, writing is in my heritage because everyone on the island of Ireland is a born storyteller. I still find that being a writer or creative in some other way can be weird, because there are always days of doubt – but I know for sure now, that I’m a writer and always will be.