Angie Stratos meets ‘a 21st Century writer, one for the 21st Century readers’ Daragh Fleming to discuss his new collection of short stories, how social media has influenced literature, and the monetary value of books.
I meet Daragh Fleming in a buzzy café. It’s on Winthrop Street, it’s open late, and it’s what we call the second coming, or season two, of Paul Street. The conversation is punctuated with babies crying and hand dryers yelling, and the noise of teaspoons being picked up and put down onto saucers. My recorder is placed on no-mans-land on the table, it picks up every word, and so do I.
Daragh is what I would call an authentically 21st century writer. He’s one for the Instagram generation, the eyes that scroll through Twitter in their beds in the morning. At 25, he writes the words your mam wouldn’t wholly understand. Before his first book of short stories, The Book of Revelations, he was the words behind the blog Thoughts Too Big, formerly known as Thoughts Too Big for Twitter.
He tells me of his poor timing when picking up projects like his blog or his book. Thoughts Too Big came about in his final year of his undergraduate degree in Applied Psychology in UCC. “I started my blog just before my last exam. I don’t know why, it was just a complete whim, but I felt like I had some things to say.” It was during his Masters in Linguistics that his book came about, and he started writing short stories. His questionable timing became a theme. “It was very much do anything besides college work [sic.] apparently is why I started writing.”
I ask about his feelings about social media, and its effect on today’s literature. “Social media has made people’s attention span quite short. It deals with 180 characters at a time, 7 second videos, etc. People won’t read more than 200 words in a post. I wanted to write something you didn’t have to commit a massive amount of time to.” Is this the trademark of our generation, which inspires writers to create short stories instead of novels? Are our attention spans too short for longer pieces of ‘literature?’ Daragh says “writing no matter when it is written is always going to be influenced by the culture and social climate, and so of course writing now, be it style or content, is different to writing 100 years ago.”
This point of view comes across in his work. His style is indicative of the 21st century in both style and content. “My style, and I’ve done this purposefully, is to make it sound like someone is talking to you.” He knows it won’t suit everyone, and can seem a bit ‘train-of-thought-ish’, but he doesn’t see the point in over-intellectualizing things – “five or six of the stories could be categorized as personal essays.” They’re fictional, but grounded in real-life thoughts and conversations.
He talks about the short story 46A-pathy, and how it is “semi-autobiographical.” The story is brief, about a homeless man on the bus in Dublin who’s drunk and hits his head. Nobody checks to see if he is okay. “Some of it happened and some of it didn’t, but that experience of me on the bus with him gave me the revelation or realisation that happens at the end of the story: the reason he was homeless is because none of us gave a shit about him.”
Daragh frequently approaches such commentary in his blog, in his book, and on his social media. I ask about blog titles that could be deemed controversial, such as “Why the Pro-Choice Movement is Convincing Me to Vote No,” or “I Don’t Care if You’re Offended.” “I wouldn’t say it’s reactionary, if I wrote something that I thought was controversial I wouldn’t post it straight away. Sometimes I write something and I’m like no – that’s not actually what you think either. I think the kind of ‘outrage culture,’ even though the message behind it is the right one, the way it’s being treated is causing people to be averse to it. People think they’re being told what to think.” He talks about how his Masters affects his thinking and writing. He talks about linguistics’ relativity and about how every word has a price. Free speech exists, sure, but there are certain things people can or can’t say, that can ostracize a person from society – he draws on slurs as an example. Does he worry his outspokenness will affect his readership? The long and short of it is no. “Obviously I want people to read my book, but if I ever start writing because I think it’s something people will like to read, then it’s going to be artificial. I love when people get in touch and enjoy my writing, but it isn’t the motivation. I don’t think it bothers me.”
His publishing experience leads him to talk to me about the monetary value in books: “if you’re going into writing books for money, you’re going to be deflated by it. It’s not about that anyway, if you’re writing to get paid, you’re not writing for the right reasons. In terms of being a writer right now, it shouldn’t be something that’s done for the pursuit of fame or money. Mainly because it takes quite a while before that side of the industry builds up, but also because the art created loses something if it’s created purely for financial gain.” I think of the long and complicated history between writing and money, the rumors of Dickens being paid by the word or Fitzgerald being offered $4000 for a short story. But Daragh seems to know that a modern writer shouldn’t expect financial success in spite of commercial success. The opposite seems true almost; “I did get two vanity publishing offers which is essentially we’ll publish your work but give us two grand. It doesn’t really feel like you’ve earned it. And I considered self-publishing, but I feel like there’s a bit of validation in the traditional contracts.”
While talking about his inspirations, Daragh juxtaposes James Joyce with Blindboy. In relation to Joyce he admits he doesn’t think he’ll ever be up there; “by rights he’s arguably one of the best short story writers ever.” But before reading Blindboy, he wasn’t trying to be published, not only that, he didn’t know he could be. “His stories are so bizarre and out-there, and not connected like traditional ones, and it made me realize I could push at getting published because his themes are disconnected too.” I point out that Daragh’s stories are connected, if that is what it means to have a ‘traditional’ collection of short stories. “Vaguely, sure, but not like Chekov or Joyce. David Szalay did a collection where the link was a person’s experience on a flight from one place to the next, and the following story was from that place to another. I’d like to do a collection with a link, make it more nuanced and underlying. At some stage I’d like to do a novel too, so we’ll see.”
I think of the writer in front of me who I herald as a 21st century writer for the 21st century reader, and I also think of the homage he would like to pay to the writers of the past. Maybe this is the trademark of this generation of writers, those who are desperate to change the rhythm, but who are deeply in awe of those who have gone before. Maybe money or social media or societal changes taint today’s writing, but I leave the interview knowing one thing; “in the end, writing now is quite similar to writing in any other age, in that those who are writing do so because they need to, and that’s probably the universal common ground.”
Find Daragh Fleming’s book online, or read his blog at thoughtstoobig.com