My first question for author Claire Kilroy is, “what has changed since your last visit to UConn?” This is her second time visiting – the first being six years ago in 2009. Her response: “I’ve had a child.”
Right now, Kilroy is primarily a mother. Before our interview, she spoke on the phone to her two year old son before his bedtime, offering words of comfort. One of the most striking things about her is the loveliness of her voice – bold and strong when reading out loud from her work, and soft and soothing in conversation. She’s a thoughtful speaker; she takes time to formulate her responses into incredibly eloquent responses. In-person interviews are difficult, but she seems at ease.
“It’s been the most eventful six years of my life,” she tells me. “Motherhood is a huge change. When I last came here, I was single and childless. It shows you how quickly life can change. Part of me wants to find that person who I was in 2009, part of me is happy as a mother.”
I ask her about her roots – out of college, she worked as an assistant editor for the BBC drama “Ballykissangel.” I ask what writing for the screen taught her about writing for the page.
“I taught me a huge amount,” she says. “It taught me about the plasticity of narrative and the discipline of plot.” She still draws from this training today.
We talk about the larger question of Irish literature. Writers like Wilde and Beckett and of course Joyce are celebrities of the canon, but I ask Kilroy about some Irish authors many people may not be familiar with.
John Banville is her favorite, she says. (In an answer to the Q&A session after her reading, she told the audience to “read him now before he wins the Nobel.”)
“I’m teaching him now,” she says. “You fear that that things you read as a younger person may…turn to shit,” she says, “but they just get better. Your capacity for greatness grows.”
She also mentions Anne Enright (“sharp as a knife”) and some younger writers, such as Paul Murray (“brilliant, funny, sad”) and Kevin Barry (“you’ll read him in the New Yorker.”
I ask what sets Irish literature apart from the rest of the world. How do the Irish maintain a unique and distinct identity through their work?
“There’s a sort of chaotic nature to Irish life that more ordered and disciplined nations may not have,” says Kilroy. “Our fiction tackles that chaos and wildness. It’s very human and reassuring, and unsettling, somehow. It’s reassuring to see all of man – and not make you feel like you have to be well-behaved. It teaches you to embrace human nature. It’s fearless, messy, there’s no expectation.”
I ask her how she contributes to this tradition and she says simply, “I’m just responding to being alive. This is what it feels like.”
In her reading, Kilroy spoke of her characters as if they were real people – with a deep understanding of their flaws, but an incredible fondness. I ask her if she considers her work to be character driven and she thinks about it for a moment, and then responds with a strong yes.
“I look for feeling and mood and emotion and use a plot to carry them, “ she says.
“What I love in a book is when I read it and say, “I felt that. I understand that. Oh yeah. I know what you meant. And I prefer subtle things.”
At her reading, there was some talk about the question “is the novel dead?” I ask her and she responds with a resounding and firm no.
“We’re storytellers,” she says, and I can tell she means all of us as a human race.
“The more I write, the more interesting language is. Sentences are endlessly exhilarating. If you apply your imagination to them, if you sit down and write stuff out, other stuff comes out and that’s exhilarating to me. It can take a long time for a great sentence, but it’s worth it. You’ve validated yourself rather than coast along.
It feels like being fully alive.
“Life gets in the way, but if you set something on paper, it’s artifact that to your time on Earth.”
The most wonderful thing about Claire Kilroy is her fierce passion and vivacity for both life and literature, separate entities that she connects effortlessly.