I had the opportunity to interview James Lawless, a poet, literary author, teacher and philosopher. It is fascinating to explore other points of view in this vast literary universe and for those readers who enjoy more textured writing than is commercially available, they may find a kindred spirit in Mr. Lawless.
(I would recommend readers check out his ebooks and read the samples; it’s easy to get a sense of the flavor and rhythms of his work from the first few paragraphs.)
Interviewer: Joanna Celeste
Q: You’ve referred to Finding Penelope as your “wry glance” at the genre of chick lit. Please elaborate.
A: Just as Cervantes’ Don Quixote was a send-up of the proliferation of novels of chivalry of his time, I attempt in Finding Penelope to send up the chick-lit genre and show it for what I believe it is: a fatuous and formulaic comfort read with no claim to art. Part of the development in the character of Penelope is centered on this realisation. She starts off as a romance novelist with her de rigueur happy ending demanded by her readers and her unflappable agent Sheila Flaherty. However, after she endures various vicissitudes, she comes to realise that life is not always happily ever after and she resolves from then on to be true to herself and her writing.
Q: That’s a fascinating approach. As a poet, scholar, short story writer and novelist, you chose to play with form in Finding Penelope, switching tenses frequently. What inspired you to weave your story this way?
A: Virginia Woolf and James Joyce are great influences on me particularly in their steam of consciousness techniques. Nineteenth century narrative styles are no longer adequate to address the multimedia and high-tech world of the twenty first century. The weaving in and out of Penelope’s consciousness of past, present and future hope is in keeping with modern living varying from its frenetic texting and emailing to the deeper revelations of the solitary reverie or epiphany as Joyce called it.
Q: How refreshing that you’re bringing that “flavor” back into our present-day literature. What was your writing process for this project?
A: I tried to be disciplined although it didn’t always work. I showed up like a clerk most mornings in my little office, petit bourgeois as Flaubert would say but dreaming subversively — my dreams are my freedom. I am more productive when I go to my cottage in the mountains of West Cork where I have no Internet to distract me. For Finding Penelope I travelled to Spain to do research on the Costas particularly on the expat way of life and on the drug culture and the criminality associated with it. I also consumed a high octane level of chick-lit.
Q: What a range of research! Share with us your affinity with the Spanish culture. What about it speaks to you?
A: When I was in secondary school, an enlightened Christian Brother introduced some of us to Spanish extracurricular studies and it opened up a new and polysemic universe to me. I delighted in learning of a different culture in an Ireland which at the time was rather insular. Spanish of course stretched beyond Europe to the great South American continent with its powerful potential and also to the huge Hispanic population in the USA. I enjoy the literature not only of Spanish writers like Javier Marías but also Borges, Márquez and Carlos Fuentes. So Spanish has huge significance even from its scale and global representation. Having a second or a third language equips one with extra keys to unlock different ways of seeing the word. Perhaps what I learned most— and this probably helped my story writing— was to try to see the world from the point of view of the other to get a different angle on things. I think that’s beneficial not only artistically but also for our understanding of world peace.
Q: Thank you; as someone with a multicultural heritage, I agree. In your book Clearing the Tangled Wood: Poetry as a way of seeing the world, you explore how poetry opens up worlds within our present experiences. How do you consider your background as a poet and an author of short stories (which I count as a poetic form) has shaped your life and your writing?
A: I studied Gaelic in university. As an undergraduate, one of the most impactful compliments I received from a lady lecturer was ‘tuigeann sé cad is filíocht ann’— ‘he understands what poetry is’, based on some creative work I had submitted. This encouragement inspired me to delve deeper into poetry. I read poems from anthologies in Irish and Spanish and English and some of the great Russian poets like Pasternak in translation wherever I got a chance: in between meals, stealing moments to read like Francis Copeland did in The Avenue, on a train or a bus, in a bar, in a dentist’s waiting room; when ill or down, poems could pick you up as they opened windows on the world. This poetic affiliation, I would like to feel, sharpens my prose writing.
Q: It certainly invokes a rhythm in your work, from what I’ve read. What do you love the most about poetry?
A: Matthew Arnold claimed that poetry would replace religion in the world. What I like about poetry is that it has no boundaries and the best of it has no agenda; it involves some of the best minds using the best language to attempt to interpret life in an unfettered way in so far as is humanly possible.
Q: Capturing the inexpressible, as many artists endeavor towards. You’re an arts graduate of the University College Dublin and you received your Masters in Communications from Dublin City University. As an author of accessible literary fiction, how has your education assisted you?
A: Some artists and autodidacts believe the university is anathema to creativity. Perhaps there is some truth in this as I remember when starting my first novel Peeling Oranges soon after I had finished my MA thesis (which later with additions became Clearing The Tangled Wood) and found myself with a mass of research information about the old tenements of Dublin and about the Irish and Spanish civil wars—I had all these footnotes and appendices written in jawbreaking, academic jargon. So I soon realised that in order to write fiction I had to unlearn the methodologies which I had employed in academe—that is not to say an academic or non-fiction text is not also creative; it is just that like Clearing the Tangle Wood it has different parameters to a novel or poem. But notwithstanding, the university did help me in at least two ways: it gave me the bottle to finish a project and it taught me how to research, which hopefully I have learned to do now without getting too bogged down now as I attempt to introduce it as seamlessly as possible into fictional narrative.
Q: You’ve also been on the other side, as a teacher; what did you enjoy most as an educator?
A: The act of teaching itself I enjoyed, sharing with people who were open to learning. However, as an artist I felt hemmed in by the institution. The souls and the institution don’t blend. Teaching is also a great way of articulating and clarifying what you want to say within boundaries of course. The boundaries are the problem, so teaching is not really a free act.
Q: How valuable do you think a university education would be for writers today?
A: East Anglia and other ‘creative writing’ universities are in danger of churning out homogeneous writers and sometimes give the impression rather arrogantly that they are the only ones, the real McCoys of writers. While there are some of these writers I admire such as Ishiguro and McEwen, art is, like dreams by its nature, anarchic and therefore I would be wary of restricting it with rules and regulations.
Q: You touched on this in your blog entry “Creative Writing Schools”. What is your philosophy as a teacher?
A: Similar to my philosophy of life in general which is that life is not what you make it but what you make of it. Opening minds, including one’s own in a mutual process to learn about the world without dogma.
Q: As a fellow reviewer, how do you find your treatment of other stories influences the way you approach your own writing?
A: I grew up believing in the canon of literature and although we have developed interiorly since the time of Dickens and Hardy, we have not improved on their story telling or plot making skills. Indeed I believe the modernists may have discarded that quality and thrown out part of the baby with the bathwater in their attempt sometimes to be ultra-clever. I think writers of today should return to the methodology of Dickens with the benefit of hindsight of course and repair the tear made by the modernists between popular and highbrow fiction. For me the criterion is just good writing illustrating a style and narrative skill with an insight into the human condition. A writer like the undervalued Richard Yates in Revolutionary Road is an example of a modern artist who was able to span both these bridges.
Ironically, I believe the division has done more harm to good novels than to bad, because with the proliferation of mass market popular fiction, the average person (whose ancestors consumed Dickens classlessly) nowadays tends to frown on anything deeper, deeming it snobby writing. So what I look for when I review a book is something to aspire to, something I would have liked to have written myself and maybe to encourage others to consider also. Like the appreciation of good music, the appreciation of good literature is something cultivated.
Q: As someone who has been taught writing in the age of “make it tight” and “massacre all adverbs where possible” it’s interesting to consider that point of view. What are other experiences, places or people who have influenced your work?
A: I think it was Graham Greene who said nothing much happens after twelve. So like many writers, my childhood was my source: my mother reading to me as a child, my aunt’s visits with comics, a long gap in years between me and my siblings, family banter and tales, my father buying me my first diary— these were seminal experiences and later my travels to Europe and America provided many writerly insights. But I suppose the most important experience is a cultivated solitude, a condition and ability I have trained myself to do over the years while simultaneously not turning my back completely on a social life, to maintain a mental balance if such a thing is possible.
Q: I am amazed you could achieve a mental balance while publishing seven books in the space of approximately five years. How did you organize yourself?
A: With discipline, as I say going to the ‘office’ most mornings and the cultivation of solitude and believing most of all that what you are doing has value.
Q: You’ve also published different ways—as an academic, small press, etc. What has been your favorite method of publication?
A: No one in particular. Each publication is a hurdle and sheer hard work to promote.
Q: Marketing is one of the hardest aspects to being a writer nowadays. Your website [http://jameslawless.net/] is nicely put together and you are widely available through social media. What do you find is the best marketing strategy?
A: I manage my own website. I’m only learning how to blog and would like to generate comments. I send my blogs to Facebook which seems to elicit more responses. As regards marketing, I’m prepared to give any media a try as a means to an artistic end. It’s all about being known and valued. The great thing about the Internet is its global dimension— people from all over the world reading or downloading your work in seconds and then just as easily being able to communicate with the author. We are living in exciting times with great artistic possibilities.
Q: Yes, for every difficulty we seem to have great opportunity. What advice would you give to writers just starting out on the path to publication?
A: Ask yourself are you serious about your work; are you prepared to bleed for it, or are you just a dilettante? Is your work really good and original or merely imitative of a million others? Are you an artist with all of what that entails? Do you believe passionately in your art? If that is the case, you persevere, you take the inevitable rejections on the chin—editors are human; they can’t always get it right. Believe in yourself.
Q: Thank you. Your fictional work seems to carry a theme of cross-culture (particularly between Ireland and Spain), politics and threaded with a romantic/poetic atmosphere. What would you say is at the heart of all that you write?
A: What I write about is not what I know but what I want to find out, things that impacted on me: in my education for example being taught through the medium of Irish, the place (or absence as in the case of Derek Foley in Peeling Oranges) of religion or ideology in our lives such as the civil wars in Spain and Ireland; the all consuming monolith of capitalism obsessed me in For Love of Anna; what suburbia (being a product of it ) was about was my preoccupation in The Avenue; and what true writing strives to be in Finding Penelope and so on. A reviewer said the romance in some of my novels tends to be more than a mere love interest, but that it is sometimes strewn with history or politics such as with the extreme nationalist Sinéad in Peeling Oranges; and even Anna in For Love of Anna ,which is considered the most romantic of my novels, is also an acronym for Anarchist of the New Age. As regards the poetic element, I think I have alluded to that already.
Q: Yes, I like how you define your work as “accessible literary fiction.” By the way, what is the latest on The Avenue becoming adapted to film?
A: Still ongoing, under consideration.
Q: Your latest novel, Knowing Women, just released this month. Please tell us more about this project.
A: Knowing Women is about a vulnerable man, Laurence J Benbo, who is wrongly tainted sexually. With all the paedophile cases going on at the moment— and there is no doubt most of them are justifiable—I wondered what if opinion and the law were to get it wrong. Benbo is perceived as a weak character particularly sexually, but he is no paedophile and when he stands accused, how will society judge him in the hue and cry of vindictiveness?
Wow, that’s quite a challenge to take on, but I’m sure your treatment will make for a fascinating read. I wish you all the best and thank you for this interview.