Scratching the itch

Living

LAUNCH NIGHT Liam Horan pictured with his collection of short stories ahead of an interview during the Wild Atlantic Words book festival.  Pic: Johnny Mee

‘Second Chance & Other Stories’ is Liam Horan’s debut book

Edwin McGreal

Writing his own book has been an itch Liam Horan has longed to scratch, and we should all be grateful he has.
The Ballinrobe man’s debut book is an engaging collection of short stories that bring tales and, particularly, characters from the west of Ireland vividly to life within its pages.
Horan knows the west of Ireland and its people and our ways intimately, and he conveys this masterfully in his collection of charming, sad, uplifting, reflective and, ultimately, very normal and everyday stories. The book succeeds because of the well-developed characters, their story and the premise that underscores their narrative.
Horan started working in journalism when he was still in national school, helping his late father, Billy, with his Ballinrobe Notes and his GAA match reports for the local papers.
Since then, he has written for and edited local papers, worked as GAA correspondent for the Irish Independent, set up his own career consultancy business and is now working for the Western Development Commission on the ConnectedHubs.ie project.  
He has observed the great and good of Irish life in all those roles, but he when he looked at himself, he saw one gap in his career: a book.
“I often thought about it – and I often berated myself for not writing a book,” he told The Mayo News.
“It is really great to have it published. For years, I’d go to a show or a play, or a concert or an exhibition, and marvel at the creativity and the persistence of those involved, while also beating myself up for not tapping into my own creativity. And I mean that: it would often interfere with my enjoyment of the event itself.
“Completing this collection has given me the impetus to do more, I’m already working on a second collection – and I’ll be able to enjoy concerts and musicals more in the future too, so it’s all good.”

Recognisable characters
It is no surprise to anyone who knows Horan that the book is so well written. The sentences flow seamlessly into each other and you find yourself whizzing through the chapters. It is the first book this writer has read in some time (the demands of three small children, Judge) and it was, therefore, a timely reminder of just how enjoyable a good book can be.
If you don’t see yourself in here, you will see plenty of people you recognise. All come from observations that Horan has made over time, and it is clear he is fascinated by the little trivialities and peculiarities in us all. His characters are all the fuller for it.
Some of the small details stand out for their ordinariness. Like the librarian who fills the kettle in the evening so she just has to flick the switch the following morning. The individual quirks and traits that make us all who we are.
“I think I’m a good observer: I am curious about how people drive – elbow resting on the open window, receipts above the visor, do they wave at oncoming traffic? – and how they get in out of the car and how they move through a queue in an airport and a million other things: there’s a simplicity about so much of what we do, yet it is all wrapped up in the overall complexity of who we are.
“I feel that if you can capture those simple things, you can build that overall complex picture much easier. The things we do every day reveal the people we are. When we take time to look at people we can see so much of their impulses and motivations; we can see their dreams if we take the time to really watch.
“Writers have things to say, it is said – I am not so sure that is strictly true of me. I am not a polemicist. Jimmy Lyons (one of his two editors, with John Culhane) said that I ‘have things to observe’ – and that was a sort of liberation for me too. If we observe well, and write what we observe, we will, in effect, have ‘things to say’ – or, more to the point, our characters and our stories will have ‘things to say’.”

Themes
Horan embraces a wide range of themes in these pages. Parental loss (he lost his own parents Ina and Billy in the past two years), addiction and journeys of self-discovery are all explored.
Many of his characters understand themselves intuitively, just as Horan understands himself when you speak to him. He is in some chapters while other people he knows and have observed inform characters too.
“I also think my age is a factor too – in your mid 50s, people start slipping out of your life; not just people close to you, but people you’ve known forever. There are empty chairs everywhere you look now. During the time I wrote this collection, both of my parents passed away and that fed into the whole process too – I didn’t set out to write stories that would feature death and loss so much, but those topics insinuated themselves into the stories. I guess the reality is that your writing will inevitably reflect your life at that point in time. It can’t really avoid that.”
Horan said he was drawn to short stories because he ‘loved the self-contained, nuclear dimension of them’ and loved creating characters.
“While setting – the view, the smell, the sounds – are important, they’re not what draw me to situations: people are what draw me. Short stories allow you to create these characters who come and go, or rise and fall, in relatively few words, and yet you can get a feel for who they are – and they can also provoke thoughts in yourself about your own life, your own strengths and weaknesses, your own decisions and so on.
“Initially I think that perhaps I was fixated on writing a novel, but struggling to figure out how I would structure a novel and maintain a compelling storyline over hundreds of pages – the journalist in me is more accustomed to writing 1,000 words rather than 150 pages. In the last two years, something drew me to short stories – which, in light of what I’ve just said about journalism, looks like an obvious fit, but it took me a long time to find it.”

The premise
Crucial to the stories is not alone the character and the situation they find themselves in but how they feel in there, be it with self-realisation, optimism or quiet acceptance, what Horan describes as the premise.
“It could be something as simple as ‘in life, sometimes you’ve got to bite your lower lip’ – and then I go in search of characters … Without a premise, the characters take over too much, there’s no real purpose to it,” he said.
For instance, he covers superbly the relationship between Irish sons and their parents, where the love is often unspoken, even when both sides know the end is coming.
The book will make you laugh. It might make you cry. Horan writes his characters with great understanding. One chapter deals with a woman who has been the victim of coercive control. It is not an easy topic for a man to write about, yet Horan does it very convincingly.
“I would have shied away initially from that because I wondered if I could manage it. But I built the confidence to do that by just watching people, and thinking about them, and listening to people express their frustrations – I think once you do that, you can write from a variety of perhaps unlikely points of view: for example, adults can write as children; men as women; women as men; 40 year olds as 80 year olds; and so on. Observe well enough, spot the clues and have a go – it can work.
“However, that doesn’t mean you can just ‘have a go’ at writing in periods of history you don’t really know; that can appear unconvincing, but if you want to get inside the head of a character, as opposed to an era of history, I believe you can.
“One of my favourite characters in my book is a father who struggled with reading and writing in school and who lost a son very young – neither of those scenarios apply in my case – but I hope I managed to capture him. The challenge of the writer is to figure out the character and to portray him in a way that makes sense.”
Horan has done that and more.

‘Second Chance & Other Stories’ is published by Mayo Books Press and is available in bookstores around Mayo and online at mayobooks.ie.