Carpinteria writer James Claffey has a new collection of short fiction, Blood a Cold Blue. Claffey, orginally from County Westmeath, Ireland, lives on an avocado ranch with his wife, the writer and artist, Maureen Foley; their daughter, Maisie; and occasionally, his son, Simon.
The stories in Blood a Cold Blue are very short. Talk a little about writing the short-short story. Short fiction requires a discipline and great deal of care, and it’s this focused, tightly woven writing that I try to produce. I begin with an image, or a specific memory, and let my imagination lead me to a natural conclusion. I see the writing of the short fiction story as putting together a cryptic crossword puzzle, making sure a thematic resonance exists, and that same thematic, structural resonance should be present in the short prose piece.
That focus on image and imagination occasionally led me to feel I was reading a prose poem. When does a prose poem become a short-short story, and vice-versa? I’m not sure there’s a cut-and-dried answer to this, except in the case of short prose that might not necessarily contain a traditional story arc, and instead has more of an elusive narrative thread. If you read Lydia Davis’s work, the International Man Booker prize committee said her work had, “the brevity and precision of poetry.” That quote might create the litmus test for the prose/poetry conundrum. My wife says many of my pieces are prose poems, and I don’t disagree, but in the end I hope the writing succeeds and is what matters, not so much its categorization.
There’s a kind of hardboiled sensibility married to an avant-garde flair in these stories. Where does that come from? Chicago writer Ben Tanzer says the stories contain “rhythm and rot,” and this I ascribe to growing up in Ireland. Our patterns of speech, the way we write, sing, tell stories, are infused musicality and rhythm, a fingerprint, if you will. My writing bears my Irish accent more than my reading, partly because I’ve been here for over 20 years, but the speech patterns are still there in my performances. The sense of hard-boiledness you reference is a byproduct of growing up on an island in economically tough times, and in a culture where the dark underbelly of life is celebrated. We Irish revel in the macabre and brutal aspects of life! Whenever someone tells an awful story I’ll generally trump their’s with a worse one. So, it’s no surprise I blend rhythmic language and surreal imagery.
Conventional wisdom has it that only novels really sell, that a collection of stories, even by a famous author, is unlikely to do much in the market. Was that a concern for you at all? Steven Elliott, creator of the Rumpus, said recently, “What I learned from Richard Hugo, which is probably different from what he was trying to teach me, and different from what I’ve always thought before: There is no reader. There should be images in every piece of writing that only the author understands. Don’t write to communicate; use the telephone instead.” I’m not a conventional writer, and I embrace my writing for what it is—now, more than ever.
You write for the pleasure of writing. That’s right: not for an audience, not for an imagined reader, and my stories contain images and ideas I seed there without revealing the reason. To paraphrase bell hooks, I write to transgress, and as opposed to a few years ago when I tried to write to please workshop colleagues, professors, and prospective agents and editors, I write for writing’s sake.