Irish Time: Diary of a Young Writer at the Frank O’Connor Short Story Festival

Sign at the Cork airport advertising the festival.

For five days in September I had the pleasure of, for the first time in my life, experiencing VIP treatment — in Ireland.

Recently I found out that a short story of mine had won the Sean O’Faolain Award, and I was invited to read at the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Festival in Cork, Ireland. The invitation stated: “If you come to accept your award we will lavish you…” You get the picture. Who doesn’t want to be lavished?

Organized by director of the Munster Lit center Patrick Cotter, The Frank O’Connor festival meets once a year to celebrate one of Ireland’s most beloved storytellers. The festival gives out two awards: the O’Faolain award for a single story (the little brother), and the O’Connor award for a collection of stories (the big brother — 35,000 euros).

For a young writer this is a treat of numerous courses. Obviously, it is a pleasure to receive an award, to have my writing recognized and heard; my choice to write was reinforced, and for the first time, by people other than friends, classmates, and mother.

But, the most rewarding part was the experience of the festival itself (really) — the people I met and the intimate treatment the short story receives in Ireland. I was awed. I was excited about writing. Each night I wanted to return to my room, get behind the computer, block the internet and leave the TV remote untouched — if you know me, this alone is a monster feat.

Those short listed for the O’Connor award: Laura Van Den Berg, Robin Black, Belle Boggs, David Constantine, and Ron Rash, who was ultimately the winner. T.C Boyle was short listed, but could not make it due to a last moment accident. Other writers were there to read, or to simply enjoy the festivities (Tess Gallagher, Ben Greenman, Tania Hershman, Karen Russell, David Vann, Nik de Vries, and more).

I could sit and just listen to Tess Gallagher talk for days; the woman is like some sort of living mood-stone, and in her presence you are forced to feel grounded and steady. I wanted her to adopt me.

The writers I met were not just successful in publication or financially. These were writers who were committed to and passionate about the craft. Each had a story of struggle, especially poignant in a time when the short form is undervalued.
Their success was in the daily confrontation with the page. The continual willingness to sit down and capture a moment of life, and a life in a moment, in a way that surprises the writer as well as the reader.

Each writer had a story of life’s compromise, and a private moment choosing to write. I know we are often told that writing is not a choice but a habit or addiction. Nevertheless, I have the impression that each writer, in the most private moment, ultimately does face a choice: to follow craft or, instead, to follow common sense.

Listening to the readings and being in conversation with these writers, I could not help but to consider other possibilities:
There is a Raymond Carver working for a law firm in Detroit; a Faulkner as a shrimp man in the Carolinas; there is a Dostoevsky running his own kitchen and staff at a hotel in South Beach; and a Virginia Woolf ordering her own preparatory school in New Castle. There is a Frank O’Connor tending bar in Cork City, telling stories of his childhood to the inebriated tourist.
There are other routes for everyone. How much of our culture and language we would lose if they chose those routes, if they escaped the daily struggle with the page.

A paper mache dog, reading O’Connor — A Frank O’Connor totem.

This is why it is so vital to have this festival in Ireland. Over and over, I met writers from Cork. These were not writers from a place, the way we think of writers as, for example, from Brooklyn. I’m a writer from Brooklyn but I’m not really from Brooklyn, few writers are. The Cork writers and poets were born in Cork. For them, the choice to write is a pattern of territorial identity. Confronted with this, I wanted to know, why? Why is this place so attached to the story?

Almost everyone reads in Cork. It is in the demeanor and faces of the locals; that wrinkled and bloodshot look that comes from years of reading or late stage boozing — maybe a combination. And conversation starts up everywhere.

Frank O’Connor, Sean O’Feolain, David Marcus were all Cork writers, but first, they were citizens of Cork — a fully involved and integrated part of the community. Unlike so many other cultures, the Irish story originates from its people and is a source of pride for them. It tells a personal history, not from above but from the fabric itself. The story is their language.

For a young writer this was an introduction worthy of a hyperbole — as our best memories often have to be. Away from the at times stuffy, at times hyper competitive world of New York City, an opportunity to be around people with passion and care for the story itself — an opportunity to celebrate.

–Nikita Nelin is the winner of the Sean O’Faolain award for his story “Eddie” which will appear in Southword Journal.

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