Irish short story writer, Claire Keegan, sets the atmosphere in the Aberdeen May Festival marquee with a cheery “Hallo, Aberdeen!” She looks at home on stage and well she might, as this is a return visit to the festival for Keegan who reminisces about teaching creative writing at the university, during a fortnight when she rented a bike, rode a bike, then rode a horse around Aberdeen. Her enthusiastic opening continues with a quote from writer Yiyun Li, who once described Ireland as being similar to China – in so far as it’s impossible for someone to enjoy a private life.
And it’s this inner life that Keegan explores so well as a church-like hush fills the tent and we settle for a reading from her latest short story collection entitled Walk the Blue Fields. Her Irish lilt is soothing, like the ripple of waves washing over the audience who hang on her every word.
Keegan shares that when reading she doesn’t select a story beforehand, rather she chooses according to her mood, the place and time. She finds it satisfying to read a complete short story. Selecting work that makes her feel the most uncomfortable, which was an interesting revelation as she read The Long and Painful Death, which tells of a writer who has been granted a week in Heinrich Böll’s Irish house by the coast, only to have her tranquillity rudely interrupted by an unwanted visitor. The writer’s revenge is to create a tale of the visitor’s long and painful death.
Helen Lynch, writer and lecturer, leads the question and answer session, where Keegan explains she writes for the reader inside herself, searching for a voice that sounds true, believing the reader is intelligent but uninformed. She provides a mini-master class in creative writing. When asked why she is drawn to the short story form, she answers simply that she’s not drawn to drama or dramatic people. The short story happens as late as it dares, after what happened, happens.
She’s a lover of Russian literature, particularly Chekhov, who she came to enjoy in her thirties and quoted as saying, ‘Grace is when we make the least number of movements between two points.’
Which sums up Keegan’s performance beautifully, an accomplished writer whose reading is full of warmth and grace.