Tadhg Coakley is a Cork-born author. His debut novel of interconnected short stories, The First Sunday in September, was recently published by Mercier Press. He completed a Creative Writing MA at UCC. Deputy Entertainment Editor, Julie Crowley interviews him about his writing.
What was your career before you published this collection? Was writing your hobby previously?
I was a librarian and environmental researcher/consultant for over 30 years before I took early retirement a few years ago. I still work as a researcher/consultant part-time. I’ve always read and sometimes kept diaries and wrote a coming-of-age novel in the early 1990s (to which I might return, now). I began to write seriously a few years ago, when I began my MA in Creative Writing in UCC.
How did you decide to do the Creative Writing masters at UCC?
I wanted to write as soon as I retired and I felt this would be a good way to immerse and challenge myself in my writing. It turned out exactly that way. The MA was challenging but very rewarding and I was treated seriously as a writer from the beginning but also I felt in a safe space – for which I was glad: writing and showing your material leaves one very vulnerable.
Can you describe some of the modules and activities involved?
The modules I enjoyed most were those where I was writing and where this material was being shared in workshops and being critiqued by my classmates and teachers. This is very rewarding. The fiction and short-story modules were especially worthwhile but I also hope to use some of what I learned in the memoir module before long in a book of personal essays, and eventually a full memoir.
You referenced Frank O’ Connor’s story Guests of the Nation in the collection. What other authors and short story writers inspired you?
John McGahern is an inspiration, he is my favourite Irish short story writer. His writing is exceptionally rigorous and unswervingly brave and his story ‘Love of The World’ was especially influential. My favourite writer is Elizabeth Strout and her book, Anything is Possible is heartachingly beautiful. I was influenced strongly by her book Olive Kitteridge in the structure of my book. Other stories of mine were influenced strongly by Claire Keegan, Raymond Carver, David Means, Richard Bausch (my story ‘Can You Talk?’ has the same structure as his ‘Aren’t You Happy for Me?’) and Donal Ryan.
The theme of sport, hurling in particular, permeates the collection. How important was this to include in your writing?
The first story I wrote in the book (for a fiction workshop for my MA) was ‘Dúchas’ which tells the story of a father watching his son play in an All-Ireland Final. But they never met and he cannot congratulate him because he gave him up for adoption as a baby. Then I decided to continue with the theme of that day for the five stories in my MA Dissertation. I had some new characters to work with, along with the hurler in ‘Dúchas’ and his mother. I really only write about the match in ‘Dúchas’ and one other story, ‘Five Seconds’ but it does remain as the fulcrum around which the other stories hinge and turn.
In The First Sunday in September, your stories often address different characters’ recollections of the same events, with their varying perspectives. Why did you decide to devote a different story to each character?
It just happened that way, organically. One story at a time. Then I began to stitch them together into a novel or meta-novel. The characters began to move in and out of different stories or chapters and an overall narrative arc (that of the whole day) began to develop, with a beginning (before the game), middle (during the game) and end (after the game). But I did want each character to have their own voice and that was a major part of the overall work – getting all the voices right.
Was the characters’ use of social media in your work, and the ‘cult of personality’ that builds around hurler Darren O’Sullivan, inspired by modern culture? Is social media important for today’s authors?
Social media is important for young people, so I had to have it in there for the younger characters in the book. At one time I thought about having a whole story told through social media messages, but I didn’t go there in the end, it didn’t quite work for me. Social media are not important for authors but they can be for characters and modern life so we have to work with the times.
What was the process for getting published by Mercier Press?
After I finished my MA Dissertation in September 2016 I had about eight stories and then I just kept going. By January 2017 I had eighteen and I submitted the manuscript to the Mercier Press Fiction Prize. I was longlisted for that in March and then shortlisted in May. In June I got the phone call that they wanted the publish the book, even though I didn’t win the prize. Then the real work began with my editor and the book was transformed and reworked for another year.
You were at Cork International Short Story Festival and Cork Culture Night recently. What did you think of the events?
I love the festival because of the variety of the events and readers. Upcoming writers get opportunities to read for the first time and to showcase their stories. This happened to me in 2017 when I read my story ‘Angels’ which is now in the book. But then you get to hear masters of the form like Ben Marcus and Akhil Sharma who are inspirational writers at the peak of their powers.
What do you plan to write next?
I’m just finishing a crime novel right now – it’s the first in a series about a detective based here in Cork city. Then I begin a book of long-form essays – partly personal, partly about sport. I’m also making notes right now for two more literary novels but those are at a very early stage of gestation. I’m hoping to begin a memoir next year. I’m also currently writing some articles, essays and book reviews for The Irish Examiner and other newspapers.