Friday, March 14, 2014

Claire Keegan and 'Foster'

Recently our Leaving Cert pupils were lucky enough to be visited for a reading and talk by Claire Keegan, author of the superb short story/novella Foster, which they have been studying for their comparative literature module. Claire read the last section of the book, and then took questions:

Why does the book end with “‘Daddy,’ I keep calling him, keep warning him. ‘Daddy.”
I think that maybe I should have ended the book with “Daddy, I warn him. I call him Daddy". I would hope that this by this stage you would believe that she would love to have Kinsella as her father, because she has a father who doesn’t really care for her; he’s an alcoholic, he’s not just a good or loving father so it’s kind of a difficult place to be. Kinsella is very fond of her, and she’s very fond of him, and I think he’s a decent man, and he has no children of his own any more, so for me when she sees her Daddy coming, it’s very natural for her to say ‘Daddy’ but because she’s in Kinsella’s arms she’s actually saying it to him. So even though she’s warning Kinsella that her father is coming to get her, what she’s doing in that moment is she’s calling Kinsella ‘Daddy’ which is something she’s wanted to do and couldn’t do until this moment and she didn’t plan it, and the moment enabled her to say something that she wanted to say even though she didn’t intend it.

Why does she just call the woman ‘woman’?
I think that where I came from is a very odd place! And I don’t think that’s any exaggeration! We’re all a bit strange about names and a name can first of all give you a huge amount of information about a family, if you know a surname. Whose son you are, whose daughter you are.

The second thing about a name is that it really can be affectionate to call someone by their name and I remember when I went to New Orleans to go to university when I was 17 people introducing themselves to me and to other people and I found it very strange to have my name said and my hand shaken. It just seemed like a huge and adult formality. Adults would have names for each other which had degrees of distance and affection. Children if they were not given a name to address someone by or us - if you were brought into the House and you were the girl and I was Mrs Kinsella, if I did not say to you ‘Call me Edna or Auntie Edna or Mrs Kinsella’ - you would not know what to call me. So you couldn’t call me anything. It was a way of keeping you at arm’s length, by not telling you what you can call me or how you can address me. I think one of the things that Mrs Kinsella did was she did not want to get too fond of the girl; I think she had a fear of getting too fond of a child who she knew she would have to lose at the end of the summer. And so one of the ways she handled this - and I think handled it well - was to give her no name to address her by. It’s again the power of naming or not giving someone a name. Also it’s a story about when you’re a child you really don’t know what’s going on a lot of the time and when you’re in a strange place with people you’ve never met before or have no memory of ever having met, you’re landed in deep water and you’re not quite sure how to carry on and with this situation I think that not being told what to call her was part of the portrait of not knowing what was going on.

Did you ever think about continuing the story or did you want to leave it as just a bit ambiguous?
I don’t feel it is ambiguous. I felt the story was finished, and I feel that every single story is completed by its reader, not by its writer. That’s the way I like to read. And everything I had to say about the circumstances of these people I said in the number of pages I had. I also think that every story is incomplete. Most of the work in a piece of fiction is done by the reader, not the writer. It’s what the writer stokes up in the reader. Each reader’s private life, secret life, comes out. Imagination is stoked by the text. No two people will ever read the same book.

At the end why is Mrs Kinsella crying? “As though she is she crying not for one now, but for two?”
Well, you have the right answer! Whatever you think. But for me there is a child who almost drowned and the weight of the bucket of water nearly killed her, and I think that Mrs Kinsella up until the point she left her home was suffering imagined loss of the girl on top of the loss of her own son and it was only after she left her back to the relative physical safety of her home that she felt the relief and could cry. We often cry out of relief. For me, that is what she was suffering from or experiencing at that moment. But she could have been driving up that lane to tell those people that your daughter has drowned. I think that she was living with that.

Mrs Kinsella is quite realistic about the girl: she knew that she would go back to her family. Perhaps Kinsella hoped she mightn’t in a stronger way or a less realistic way. Mrs Kinsella didn’t let herself get as fond of this child as her husband did.

Why did you write from the girls’ perspective and in the present tense?
Well, it’s her story, and she’s the bridge between the two houses. I told it in the present tense because again I wanted it to be a portrait of a piece of time, and she didn’t know when this would end or how it would end and so I wanted her to go from day to day with the feeling of real uncertainty and I think that if I’d written it in the past tense, that would have taken some of that away. It would have already happened rather than being something that was happening.

What inspired it?
Nobody knows where fiction comes from. We don’t know how our minds work. I don’t know where what I write comes from. I did have a picture in my mind for a long time, and that was an image of a hand over still water and the reflection on the surface of that water, and I wanted to explore where that came from. And I came up with this girl.

Is it a happy ending or a sad ending?
That’s up to you. It’s not a way I look at life; I think it’s a strange way to measure something. I don’t try to be happy. I think that’s a way to be miserable! Whereas I think that if something feels good in the long-term it’s because you’ve learned something. And so if you could gauge  the piece of time she goes through in this book as a piece of time when she learns a lot … I would say that that is a kind of happiness. And I would say she developed hugely over the summer, and actually came of age because she was minded. Nothing flourishes so much as that which is neglected, and is then minded. You grow really well when you are minded. I don’t mind if you think it’s happy or unhappy: what I would like you to think is that it was inevitable. Good stories for me end inevitably: after they finish you feel there’s only one thing that could have happened, and that is the thing that happened. And I think it’s inevitable that she would return home, and that the Kinsellas would go back to the house with no child.

What did you pick a girl as the main character rather than a boy?
I think a boy would be less likely to be taken away from the original home, and left out there for the summer. I think he would be kept closer to the family, especially if he was an only son. They say that there are very few good Irish men in literature, good Irish fathers. So many of the fathers in our literature are just awful and neglectful, especially when it comes to fathering a girl and one on the things I probably wanted to do is have a good Irish father in this story. I wanted him also to use his humour and his intelligence and energy with a girl, rather than fostering someone who is male.  I don’t think Kinsella was good to her because she was a girl. I just thought he was a decent man who enjoyed her company. So for me it was an opportunity to explore how that would work. I think also because he himself had lost a son, I wouldn’t have wanted another boy to come in: that might have been too symmetrical, too obviously a replacement for the child he had lost.

There’s mention of a lost heifer. What’s the significance of this?
I don’t know. I just liked the cow so I put it in! Have you ever seen a lost heifer? No? Okay? First of all, heifers are herd animals. They don’t like being alone. She’s not going to be happy. If you saw a lost heifer on a country road, she’s probably be going to be panicking and they’re so big and powerful, and they’re not like a horse who will run swiftly pass you - they’ll panic and go through you. There’s a wonderful quotation by Flannery O’Connor, who said the art of writing fiction is the art of creating pictures. We enjoy fiction when we put the pictures together and they seem to come from the same place, to belong together. It is kind of a dramatic moment to see an animal like that, a great big beast who’s alone. And I suppose you could say the whole story is about families, and about belonging and the heifer is alone and isolated. A long answer for a short question. But I like cows!

Where does the cover picture come from?
It’s a picture taken in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris of a carousel there and it was taken by John McGahern’s wife Madeleine.  She gave it to me as a present. I just thought, there’s the cover.

How easy was it to write from a child’s point of view?
I minded children for years, and I got on really well with children - that sense of wonder and that sense of freshness. I think because everyone’s been a child then they think they can easily write about being a child and I do think that isn’t true. I enjoyed that part of it - seeing how different knowledge is in a different way of looking at the world.

[Further listening/reading:-
An interview on 'Prosody', with several readings and lots of interesting points.
An interview with Sean O'Hagan in the Guardian.]


Unknown said...

This is absolutely fantastic. My sixth years are studying Foster as part of their comparative course, too. I can't wait to share this with them. Thanks, SCC English.

SCC English Department said...

You're welcome. It's just a terrific book.

E.Keaney said...

Also cannot wait to share this with 6th years! Thanks for sharing!

Julie Cullen said...

Thank you so much for sharing this! I cannot wait to share it with my seniors. There are a couple of beautiful quotes: "I feel that every single story is completed by its reader, not its writer" ... "No two people will ever read the same book" Helpful and creative as always @Sccenglish ;)

SCC English Department said...

You're welcome, Julie. Claire is a terrific reader and talker about her own work.

Unknown said...

Thank you SCC! What a fantastic opportunity it must have been to meet Claire Keegan. Thank you for your questions as they really assist the reader in exploring both the writing and the thinking behind 'foster'. What a marvellous little gem! Really gets you thinking...

SCC English Department said...

Yes, she's excellent. The questions were from our Leaving Cert pupils. It's a great book for the course (and for pleasure, too!).

Anonymous said...

Hello, I'm a fifth year student currently studying Clare Keegan's "Foster" and I would be thrilled to have the opportunity to interview her on her work in my school. I would be thrilled if you could offer advice on how to contact her? Thanking you

SCC English Department said...

Hello - you're currently 'Anonymous', so you'll need to send an email for contact.

Unknown said...

Why are there .no names for the older sisters?
No age group is set for the child, why? Any particular reason?

Christine BELLEGO PhD said...

Nice blog and great interview ! I am studying "Foster" with my French class (leaving cert) and I am am very glad to have found those relevant questions and accurate answers. Thanks to your students and thanks to this striking, deep and sensitive writer Claire Keegan.