Earlier this week I received word that a short story of mine has been accepted by Alt Hist , a wonderful magazine of historical fiction and alternate history short stories. A few years back another story, “Dublin Can Be Heaven“, was included in Alt Hist issue 3.
I explained the inspiration for the story in an e-interview on the Alt Hist site in 2011
Are the Organisation and characters you write about based on historical reality? How did you come up with the idea for them?
Andrija Artuković was a politician of the Croatian fascist Ustaše state, and was nicknamed “the Himmler of the Balkans” for his part in genocidal war crimes during World War II. He fled to America via Switzerland and Ireland, where he spent 1948 and where one of this children was born. A good online source for reading about him is Hubert Butler’s essay “The Artukovitch File”, available at http://www.archipelago.org/vol1-2/butler.htm. Obviously in reality he went to America, rather than meeting the fate described in the story. The Organisation was made up by myself out of whole cloth; probably the proximate inspiration for the story was Daniel Leach’s Fugitive Ireland, a book about the various minority nationalist groups (Basques, Bretons, Scots and others who looked to independent Ireland as an exemplar) and collaborationists who fled to Ireland post World War II. Leach’s book shows just how marginal such groups were, and how the still-new Irish state trod the difficult path between asserting its sovereignty and avoiding Allied opprobium. While it is a scrupously unsensationalist and sober look at this issue, it contains enough imagination-provoking titbits to launch a host of counterfactual stories.
What was the status of Ireland during World War Two?
Neutral, but on the Allied side. Not entirely a sophism; one of the strengths of Leach’s book (and many others) is that it shows how Ireland’s neutrality, in the early years of the War, was beneficial to the Allies. Entering the war on the Allied side not only would not have been very popular (less than twenty years previously the Irish Free State had violently acheived independence) but would have required the Allies to protect Ireland militarily against the inevitable Axis attacks. Not to mention the pretext provided for a German invasion which would have tied up Allied forces quite severely. In any case, as the war proceeded Ireland’s neutrality was more openly derided among the Allies.
How did you get into writing?
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing. When I was a child, I was into books about dinosaurs and Usborne’s fact books. I began to write my own versions in copybooks. In school I was always writing ideas for stories and poems, although I rarely finished them. What boosted my confidence in terms of trying to get published was being involved in the university paper, The University Observer, where I was writing a few thousand words for publication every couple of weeks. While this was non fiction rather than fiction, it gave me confidence in approaching editors and I later began to review books for the TLS and The Lancet and other outlets.
What do you do when you’re not writing?
I work as a doctor which is rather busy, and spend time with my family. Which is also rather busy.
Are you working on any other short stories or novels at the moment and if so can you tell us a bit more about them?
I am trying to finish a longish short story about time travel. A couple of years ago I got thinking about the emotional cost of time travel, especially if you couldn’t go back to your own time. I guess it reflects universal concerns about the passing of time. My time traveller is a father whose child has a seemingly incurable disease, at least in our time. The songwriter Jule Styne had a saying: “its easy to be clever, the really clever thing is to be simple.” It’s quite easy in a way to be drawn into long pseudophilosophical bits, and harder to focus on the emotion.
What are your ambitions as a writer?
To have a fidelity to the characters, the ideas and the emotions I want to explore, and to follow where they lead. At any one time I have a few particular threads I want to follow. Sometimes I think “this would make a novel” and when I plan and write, the idea naturally coheres into a short story. The other day I was reading JG Ballard’s introduction to his collected short stories, and he remarked how many writers – himself included- saw the novel as the great virility test of a young writer. And yet while there are no perfect novels, there are perfect short stories. On one level I would love to write a novel, on another it would have to be for the artistically right reasons and not “because it’s a novel.” So I’ve answered your question with an answer about how I don’t want to write a novel, which is not something I have done in any case.
Where and what is the best Irish breakfast, what’s the difference to English and American?
The contrast is probably more with continental breakfasts! The classic Irish breakfast is sausage, egg (fried or scrambled), white pudding, black pudding, rashers and toast. Laterally you get a hash brown or two, and in a lot of cases a tomato or mushrooms. There are many places that do wonderful Irish breakfasts, and many places that do terrible ones. The last one I had, which was pretty good, is a place called Howard’s Way in Churchtown in Dublin, http://www.howardsway.ie/.
Ha, the “longish short story” has made the rounds of various publications and received rejection, and is being reworked into a shortish long story. Howard’s Way in Churchtown is somewhere I haven’t thought of in years…other than that, the interview is still pretty accurate.
Here is a preview of “Dublin Can Be Heaven” – let me be mercenary (well, not particularly, but I do want the publication to get supported) and urge you to buy Alt Hist 3 if you wish to actually read the whole thing:
All those grease-laden plates. Bacon. Eggs. Toast. Black pudding. White pudding. Piled high, more meat on one plate than he ate in six months in the mountains. For Harry, there could never be enough. The ability to walk into Bewley’s on Westmoreland Street and order a breakfast, freely available (at least if you could hand over the funds)—this signal fact was reason enough to love Dublin. What had Dublin, or indeed Ireland, been to him before? There were names—Michael Collins, de Valera, the Mayor of Cork on hunger strike, a vague sense of a desperate struggle—but nothing definite. Now Dublin was food, Dublin was breakfast, Dublin was lunch, Dublin was dinner. Also, Dublin was no ration cards, and no queuing. Every morning he ate slowly, relishing the sensation of gradually filling up. As he chewed he looked out at the street, or over towards the Liffey. How different all this was from those months before coming to Dublin, cadging coupons from the rest of the Balkan flotsam and jetsam that ended up in London, being ignored by the Foreign Office. Three years after the War, and still the British lived like a defeated people. Here in Ireland, money could talk as eloquently as ever.
He felt no embarrassment about spending his days drinking coffee and eating well. He was enjoying the Dublin spring. What else could one do? Only a few years before, he had been used to sleeping in the open in mountain country, eating husks and dirt. The mildewed flat in London, where the Organisation worked and dreamt and slept, would have seemed unimaginably luxurious to him in 1943. And as for this city … well, anywhere that a man could walk into a cafe and buy a fine cooked breakfast was a long way from where he came from. A land where his name was not Harry, no one had heard of Bewley’s, or Westmoreland Street.
Harry’s time in Dublin was turning into a failure. There was no trace of Andrija Artukovic, the man Harry was in Dublin to kill. They knew he had come here, via Switzerland, in the last months of the War. Various clerical and political personages had facilitated this passage; it seemed likely that the Irish authorities were unaware of the nature of the resident they hosted. Harry had obtained lists of foreign nationals kept by the Gardai, had staked out the lodgings of the few Croatians in the city, had walked the streets of Galway, Cork and Athlone checking up tenuous leads that went nowhere. He had lived rough for a week here and there, staking out monasteries; rapidly he realised that Irish Franciscans were rather different from their Croat confreres. He had sent a telegram from the G.P.O. in O’Connell Street back to the Organisation in London:
THE BULL HAS NOT BEEN SOLD STOP REQUEST FURTHER ADVICE STOP
Less than an hour later came the reply:
WILL SEND UPDATED PEDIGREE WHEN POSSIBLE STOP MEANTIME STAY AT MARKET STOP
Staying at market would not be a problem. Harry had been in the fields when the Ustaše came. He never looked back, as he crawled from field to field, and then into the mountains. He felt relieved that his mother and father had died years before the War. He did not allow himself to think about his brothers and sisters, and nephews. In the mountains, he crawled through scree and dirt. Eventually he stopped, lay there, and waited to starve. Then he realised that the thirst he had begun to feel meant that he still wanted to live. He met others, who had been hiding in the caves, and they found a monastery atop a cliff that escaped the notice of all the various empires which had tried to impose themselves on the land. Here, they had formed the Organisation. Here, they had fought back.
END OF PREVIEW