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An Interview with Edward Mc Whinney

Contrary has published 36 stories by Edward Mc Whinney, far more than any other single author in our first 15 years. We’ve taken this occasion to plumb the allure of Mc Whinney’s work, its distinct musicality, its shifting awareness, its sensitive wistfulness, to discover more about the mysterious writer from Cork.

Four Pages, 6,000 words

JEFF McMAHON: When I think about your writing, Ed, there are a number of qualities that stand out. And I want to ask you about those. The first is what we might call the musicality. There’s a musicality to the language, and while it’s possible to find musicality in writers from any quarter of the globe, it seems to me that there’s a particular attention paid by Irish writers to the musicality of language—I’m thinking of John Banville, John McGahern, Colm Toibin, they all speak of musicality in the process of composition. And it seems to me you’re a part of that tradition. Even the punctuation seems to serve music first, grammar second. Here’s an example from your story “This House,” which we published in 2007, a long sentence about a man arriving at his workplace:

“And when I stepped off the misty street into the office block the clamour that arose to greet me seemed so loud that it struck me as being ridiculous, though I had heard it many times before, in the way that you arrive in an instant where even the most acceptable and certain things are utterly bizarre, like breathing, like walking on two legs in a horizontal position and this goes on no matter the beautiful blue day, no matter the gorgeous fresh breeze, that sensation I recall as though it were happening now, stepping into the hall of mirrors, the clamour that arose like I had never heard it before, and as I stepped inside the cage for another afternoon of drudgery I asked myself, well whatever happened to Epicurism, should I say Hedonism, and whatever is wrong with Hedonism because even as I sit at my desk they’re at it everywhere, down the streets he jives, the hedonist, the gold in his teeth rattling, the jewelry on his wrists, hey babe, down the streets he jives and in the jungle too and out in the woods and on the mountain slopes and by the water’s edge, they go to it pell mell while I sit chained to this desk, smelling Mrs. Bertie Mulumpy’s facial cream, pretending to be immersed in the work?”

We could analyze that sentence in terms of rhythm, subordination, the varying length of clauses, but let’s not analyze it. Let’s just let it sing. What I’d like to know, how do you go about it as a writer: are you listening in a particular way to the sentences as you write them, more attentively than a writer who’s primarily concerned about information? Are you speaking them aloud? And where do you suppose it comes from in Irish writers, from the influence of Gaelic, from the poetic tradition, somewhere else?

EDWARD Mc WHINNEY: From the beginning I’d like to say that this matter of musicality is as elemental as colour images in my stories. I was born and bred on the streets of the Northside of Cork City to the music, noise and rhythm of its singers and strollers. Love it or loathe it our accent, the Cork accent North or South of the river is music and I know that most of my stories would be best delivered in the Northside version. I’m not too conscious of it when I’m writing a sentence but it is very important when I read over something that it sounds right, the discordant note as well as the melodious. The meaning is enhanced by the music of the accent. Often, Cork people express themselves in a comical fashion, using irony and exaggeration, sometimes the opposite of what they say is true, you have to listen to the tone of voice to get the meaning. This accent is the somewhere else in your question when you suggest that the musicality comes from something other than the influence of the Gaelic or from the poetic tradition. I am not in the habit of reading the stories aloud, I prefer to rely on an inner voice to measure the rhythm. In the few readings I was lured into giving in the early, innocent days, I remember laughter even when delivering one of those sombre, metaphysical thoughts characteristic of the narrator, a natural, deadpan humour being part of the music. Take any bus into the Northside of Cork City and you will hear a cacophony of voices, thankfully we are a noisy and humorous tribe, always ready to give an opinion even when we have no idea what we are talking about, (the kind of situation I find myself in right now.) We are street philosophers living for the moment, a pun, a crack or a snide comment always ready, risky enough at times, you can’t be too sensitive, now look who’s talking. The funniest people I have ever known are ordinary men, masters in this Northside dialect, jokers in pubs, natural raconteurs whose collective voice I like to think is the inner voice in which I read my own stories and hopefully in the end the one that saves them from a total descent into pessimism and darkness. If Emile Cioran or Schopenhauer were from the Northside of our little city they would have made us laugh. What I’m trying to say is that without that musicality, that musical voice and its colour, there would be too much darkness. As for conveying information, well, accuracy is not our strength, we are great chancers and charmers like the clock on Shandon Steeple nicknamed the four-faced liar. Personally, I love that, fabrication or mythification, fooling around with the information. We invent. We add. We enhance. Why tell the truth if an innocent exaggeration has a greater ring to it or even becomes greater than the truth, for example I have a hazy memory of hearing the great Cork poet Patrick Galvin reading his poem The Madwoman of Cork back in the seventies and whether I did or not does not matter now because I have myself convinced that I was there thinking that if I ever write anything of value it will have to sound like the music of this poem delivered in a beautiful soft, middle parish accent. If Finnegan’s Wake makes any sense it is said to be when spoken in a Dublin accent, I admit my efforts to make it sing have always failed, I rather turn the inner voice to the stories of Frank O’Connor with Blackpool melodies and Shandon Street rhythms.

We can use an inner voice to transfer the rhythm of natural speech to the page, and then I believe the voice of the writer sparks into life. I also happen to believe that some voices are as musical as full orchestras. Beckett was most conscious of this. He loved Jack MacGowran as a drinking friend, Colm Tobin has a lovely piece on the relationship in The London Review of Books, and he loved that wonderful voice which brought Molloy and Malone to life on the stage and may still be enjoyed on You Tube. Beckett told Patrick Magee that when writing Krapps’s Last Tape his voice was the one which he heard inside his mind and I find it hard to read the play in any other voice. Ever since I heard W.G. Sebald reading (in English) from Austerlitz in a recording I use his muted tones to re-read his books, the subdued music, the quiet, solemn music of his voice inside my head. For Ulysses it’s Michael Mac Liammoir. Likewise I am haunted by a reading I attended many years ago in which John Montague read from George Crabbe’s Peter Grimes. Actually it was a lecture in University College Cork where Montague’s booming voice and distinctive tones captured the lyricism of the poem as pure music. Whenever I return to the poem it is inevitably with the voice of the great poet inside my head. And films I fall back on in moments of anguish are Patrick Keillor’s London and Robinson in Space in which the voice of Paul Scofield renders the musicality of the narrative in hypnotic rhythms, so of course, it is not just Ireland or Irish, musicality in literature is universal but we Irish like to believe that with us it is part of an ancient tradition, and that as a continuation of the Gaelic poetic tradition, it is everywhere, the love songs of Eoghan Rua O Suilleabhain, the lyricism of Raifteiri, is mise Raifteiri an file lan dochas is gra, the music is part of us, we sing at weddings and funerals, we laugh, dance and drink with the bride and the corpse, our Irish-English which is foreign to the British and which we as writers like to think is more of a dialect of the King or Queen’s language than the thing itself. We believe it is more colourful and more humorous, that it takes greater risks with grammar and carries more of a kick than the dryness of the English grammarian. I’ve always preferred Brendan Behan to Jane Austen. John Banville speaks very eloquently on this topic in an interview given after he received El Premio Principe de Asturias de las Letras in 2014 and Joyce among many others delighted in this musical Irish version of English. JM Synge’s Playboy of the Western World is the classic example of how the musicality of the Irish language itself determines the way English is spoken in many parts of Ireland. Everything contributes, folklore, the oral tradition, the violin, the music box, an deoch of course, and all of it a two-sided coin, joy for heads, melancholy for tails, we sing of grief as of happiness. Recently while re-reading Adhlacadh Mo Mhathair by Sean O Riordain I was struck by the melancholy musicality of the language, a tradition I am flattered to be associated with. There is a weight to the language when the music slows down. Time almost stops. You can hear only the heart beat. There are times to speed things up and times to slow things down. The omission of speech marks in my stories may be an unconscious effort to let things flow with the natural rhythm of the spoken accent, something I learnt from writers like Cormac McCarthy. I remember reading Suttree for the first time, being struck by the way the language flowed along like the river itself, in a relentless forward motion with little or no punctuation to stop it beyond the natural fibrillation of the heart, the current reflecting the evanescence of time.

I have an interest in the art of translation, mainly because many of my favourite authors have to be read in translation. Somewhere, recently, I read that the real challenge for the translator is to capture the musicality of the original language. If that can be done, if the natural rhythms and cadences of the language being translated and the individual musicality of the author being translated can by some miracle be captured in another language then the job is worthwhile. But, if I have any method to writing a story and if I applied that method now, I would stop, file this away and begin all over again from the start, a whole new answer, a whole new set of references, the definitive answer always beyond our human capabilities, as is the perfect story. For this particular version of the tune has been played out, as we say in the Irish when something has run its course and it’s time for a pint, ta a phort seinnte.

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Editor Jeff McMahon writes about climate change and energy for Forbes. He has written for newspapers and the newfangled and has been a regular contributor, on writers and writing, to PEN International magazine. His commentaries have won a national first-place award from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, and he was the first writer to win two Golden Quills for commentary from the International Society of Newspaper Editors. He also serves as Contrary‘s commentary editor. He teaches various forms of non-fiction writing at the University of Chicago.