SOPHIE GRENHAM talks to Belfast writer ROSEMARY JENKINSON about SHORT FICTION, the POWER OF PLAYS and writing escapes …
Rosemary Jenkinson is a renowned playwright and short fiction writer from Belfast. She was away for many years studying Medieval Literature at Durham University, along with teaching English in Greece, Poland, France and the Czech Republic, before returning home in 2002. Her debut short story collection Contemporary Problems Nos. 53 & 54 (Lagan Press) was published in 2004 and her first play The Bonefire (Methuen) followed in 2006, which was produced at the Dublin Theatre Festival and won the Stewart Parker BBC Radio Drama Award. Her other dramatic works include Basra Boy, White Star of the North, Planet Belfast, Michelle and Arlene and Lives in Translation. As well as Belfast and Dublin, Rosemary’s plays have been performed in New York, Washington DC and Edinburgh. She was writer-on-attachment at The National Theatre Studio in London in 2010, has won many Arts Council Awards from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, as well as Oppenheim-John Downes and Peggy Ramsay Awards for her writing, and was the 2017 Artist-in-Residence at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast.
Catholic Boy, Rosemary’s new collection of short stories, is engaging from beginning to end. Each gem of a tale glides with an effortless immediacy, contains indelible characters and radiates their creator’s razor-sharp repartee. Mia Gallagher has said, “These stories are cunningly seductive, by turns raucous, wry and tender. A gifted storyteller, Jenkinson leavens even her darkest materials with biting, effervescent wit – while never breaking faith with the small, shabby realities of her endearing cast of liars, rogues, sex-addicts and former World Champion snooker players.”
Catholic Boy (€13.99) is published by Doire Press and available from all good bookshops.
I’ve been living in East Belfast for the past ten years and the main landmark is the Harland and Wolff cranes from the defunct shipyard. I love my street because the neighbours look out for one another – the vibe is very old-school, salt-of-the-earth working class. My area’s still dominated by a paramilitary presence – even my wheelie bin had “UVF” sprayed on it when I arrived and I was glad as it meant it would never be nicked. The local pub is called The Longfellow and I initially thought it fantastic that it was named after a poet. However, I soon found out it was named after the jockey, Lester Piggot, who was so tall his nickname was “the Longfellow”! I don’t drink there anyway as my friends are scattered all over the city, so we meet in town at the likes of The Sunflower, The John Hewitt, Maddens, Kelly’s Cellars…
I lived in East Belfast till I was eleven, then moved to Dundrum, Co Down. I have images of playing in my leafy suburban back garden in East Belfast and hearing the sound of bombs going off down below in the city centre. A bomb-blast was always exciting to me, a bit like fireworks, as I didn’t really understand what it meant.
A typical sound of East Belfast would be the band parades – anathema to some, but stirring to my ear. Bright, pristine flags, murals, that beery smell from a pub corner, the damp reek of wet clothes on the bus, the sound of rain gushing down drains with the power of a waterfall, the taste of vinegar and iced buns. Unfortunately, sewers would be something that also comes to mind as a Belfast smell!
Whenever I think of Dundrum, I see sparkling sea, dazzling sun and mauve/green mountains – heaven.
Writing space? Writing lack of space, more like. I write in my bedroom. Prominent features? Bed. Piles of paper from previous drafts and stories in progress. Right now as I’m writing this I can count seven piles. Every so often I do a paper purge but it soon builds up again. I save most of my drafts on the PC but I have an inveterate distrust of computers (a bit like Will Smith in I, Robot) so I like to keep a hard copy too.
The only “artwork” hanging on the wall is a sheet of instructions my physio wrote for me after my back operation. She helped give me back my life and I owe her so much, so I look up at her words whenever my back pain returns from too much sitting. The word “Relax” is at the top, underlined twice.
I have to admit I rarely stay focussed and I write in short frenetic bursts. I’m constantly distracted by social media and google, even breaking off mid-sentence sometimes. I’m up and down the stairs at least a dozen times in the morning for tea, coffee and snacks. It’s also perfect that I can leap off my chair onto my bed for a rest.
On her favourite bookshop
No Alibis in Belfast – it’s a great spot for book readings and coffees. Having said that, I rarely buy books at No Alibis as it isn’t on a bus route and it’s a long schlep home with a bag of books. If I want a coffee with a literary backdrop I always choose the Lyric Theatre.
On her “To Be Read” pile
I’m a very quick reader, so I don’t have a pile but Mia Gallagher’s new short story collection, Shift, is sitting downstairs. I won’t buy a book unless I long to read it straight away. With all my books and paper piles, it feels like I’m living in a deconstructed forest.
Writing lets me escape to amazing places every day. Also, I live on my own, so I have plenty of peace. But for real peace of mind, I go to my Dad’s house in England. He and Mum moved to Berwick-upon-Tweed thirty years ago. When I visit him, I feel the leisurely pace of retired life and it’s very calming. All my childhood books are there, my old diaries and early stories, and I can spend days running around in that nostalgia. I’m not a person who looks back that often as I like to go forward, but occasionally going back to the past can reinvigorate the present. It’s also good to get out of Belfast and the Northumberland scenery is fantastic.
I’ve met some incredible people as part of my writing and I’ve been lucky enough to get insights into unusual lives. I used to go into loyalist communities in Belfast for research for The Bonefire and other plays and I ended up in some extreme situations in my quest to be trusted and befriended. I remember lying virtually comatose after smoking a “lung” of grass, being sexually harassed in a toilet that had no door, being issued with threats of being put in a wheelie bin and burnt, being dragged down a hill by my neck – all experiences submitted to in the name of research. I used to get that journalist’s kick from putting myself in danger but thankfully I’m a bit more cautious now. I found it fascinating talking to asylum seekers a couple of years ago and, some time before that, talking to Palestinians in Nablus. One of the stories in Catholic Boy is about my real-life encounter with the Belfast snooker player, Alex Higgins. It’s brilliant when you don’t have to make things up – truth makes the best fiction.
On short fiction
I’d definitely agree that the short story is enjoying a renaissance. My first collection was published in 2004 and I wasn’t able to get an Irish Times review for it, but now collections are being taken seriously and being given nearly as much attention as novels. I think the rise has a lot to do with many big-name novel writers diversifying into the short story. Recently though, too many novelists have jumped on the back of this trend just to be fashionable and they tend to gain more attention than short story writers. The short story is a separate art form and I personally find that most novelists are too verbose to master it. It’s essentially prose as poetry. I know the short story’s been described by William Trevor as “the art of the glimpse” and by Mary Lavin as “an arrow in flight” but to me it’s about the missing ache.
I’ve no desire to write a novel myself – life is too short for long literature.
Theatre gives the audience a communal experience. A play has far more political impact than a story as you can feel the crackle of contemporary ideas and the rise of emotion, desires and dark thoughts in the auditorium. Live theatre is a powerful elixir and that’s why playwrights love it – you feel on the edge, communicating dangerous ideas in a form where things can go wrong with dropped lines and failed tech. The spoken word will always be mightier than the written word.
Short stories and plays are very different to work on. Plays are about the ear; short stories are about the eye. If I keep switching from drama to prose I get total sensory overload, so I try to concentrate on each one separately. I really love the visual nature of short stories. My mother was an artist who painted a lot of landscapes, so I’m sure I inherited her artistic vision – though unfortunately not her talent at painting!
Writing stems from your own character and preoccupations but I’d describe it as more of a manifestation than an extension. At the same time, my interests do change with age and I have to keep exploring and evolving to keep up with contemporary mores and politics. The worst thing a writer can do is lock her/himself away.
I think writing about my own time and locality is far more interesting than writing fantasy. For me, writing is often the opposite of escapism – it’s “stayism.” It requires huge powers of observation to transform the everyday into something vibrant and new. I find Belfast fascinating to write about and it’s fine to turn your gaze inward as long as your ambition is outward-looking. I have the same dream as W. H. Auden who said, “A poet’s hope: to be, like some valley cheese, local, but prized elsewhere.”
On what’s next
The sun. No, I’m writing a play for the Lyric Theatre about Brexit.
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