The Lonely Voice: In Conversation with Carmel Mc Mahon

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[Photo courtesy of Theo + Theresa]

Carmel Mc Mahon grew up in Ashbourne in Co. Meath. She attended college in the U.S. and worked as a foreign films reviewer. She has published short stories in LeSofa, and the Irish-Australian Heritage Journal. She lives in New York City, and is working on a collection of short stories. Her story, ‘Homo Spiritualis’ was selected for the August Lonely Voice Short Story Introductions. Anthony Glavin was the judge for that month. After a talk with him, she entered the story into New Irish Writing in the Irish Independent and was published.

Here in conversation with Claire Costigan:

Did you always want to write?

Not really, no, but I would say my desire to write was born out of a love of literature. I have always been a reader. When I got to college I was encouraged to consider a career in writing, so I wrote some essays and reviews, but it took a long time to develop my artistic voice.

What made you take the leap to actually penning a story?

It wasn’t a conscious decision on my part; it was more of an instinctual response. The stories write themselves, the good ones do anyway, my job is to show up at the keyboard. A lot of the time I don’t know a story is there in until I start typing. The leap for me was in taking the actions to put them out into the world. I am so grateful to the IWC for providing an informative and suportive environment and so many opportunities for writers.

What is the basis for your inspiration? What influences you?

The big questions have always bothered me. You know, why are we here? What’s the point? That sort of thing. I really would just like to know what it’s all about….I am always actively looking, and I have noticed that on the rare occasion that my mind is uncluttered and my heart is open, I am more likely to recognize a moment that might be a portal into a story. Right now my guiding lights are the visual artists, Agnes Martin, Richard Tuttle and the young New York artist, Theresa Kenney.

Short Story, why this form of writing? What’s its appeal? Do you yourself read this form of writing?

The short story is just what comes out when I sit at the keyboard. It appeals to me because the form does not require the writer to be particularly clever or funny or opinionated, none of which I am, but occasionally, I am struck by an everyday moment that seems to reveal something about what we have to contend with in this human condition. I read short stories all the time. I have William Trevor’s Selected Stories by my bed, and I just reread Colm Tóibín’s The Empty Family. The title story blew me away. And it blew me away again.

How important is the title? “Homo Spiritualis” is so fitting for your tale of the young Irish girl in New York, do you have an anthropological background?

I studied English and philosophy, but when I was working on the story, I saw the Werner Herzog film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, where one of the anthropologists makes the comment that it would be more fitting if we were called Homo Spiritualis rather than Homo Sapiens: He who does not know rather than he who knows. I don’t think that’s a direct translation, but it seemed to illustrate the relationship between the young Irish woman and the old French woman in New York. How these two lost souls find each other, and the mystery of how we sometimes come to impact each others lives, often in subtle, but profound and unexpected ways.

Would you say your writing is character driven?

Oh yes. My characters are the lost, the lonely, the immigrant and the addict. Writing their stories is like painting, where layers of feeling and emotion are built up until a portrait emerges. The action is usually driven by the interiority of the protagonist who simply comes to some realization in the end.

How do you find the editing process of writing?

When I submitted the freshly written, “Homo Spiritualis” to the Lonely Voice Short Story Introductions, I had no distance from it and could not see its many flaws. Anthony Glavin gave me the feedback, “Cut it down by a third, and make every line earn its keep.” This has become the editing rule of thumb for me. Space is limited in the short story, so I am learning to pare away everything, but what William Trevor calls the “essential art.”

Do you find feedback necessary for a writer? Are you part of a writers group or do you go it alone?

Oh yes, feedback is very necessary for me, but only in the editing process. When writing, I have a very vague, if any, idea about where the story is going, and part of the joy for me is being in that unknown space, but trusting that it will come together in the end and being utterly exhilarated when it does. The story is very fragile when it is being born, and I don’t want to risk hurting it by exposing it to opinions or criticisms while it is still forming. When I have gotten it to the point where I can’t work on it anymore, I seek feedback from a couple of friends, the writer, Rusha Haljuci, is one. I love her work, and I trust her implicitly. Anthony Glavin’s feedback has influenced everything I have written since last August. Also, if he had not suggested I send “Home Spiritualis” in to New Irish Writing, I would never have thought to do so.

What are your favorite books?

Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, Conrad’s The Secret Sharer, Beckett’s Molloy, Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North and Euripides, The Bacchae. I always return to these.

Most importantly, how do you unwind after a day of writing?

Haha! Good question. I spent half of my life unwound and zoned out. Today, there is no separation between my life and my writing life. I am just grateful to be alive and fully engaged with my work in this way.

Read Carmel’s story in our online archive HERE.

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