Michael J. Farrell is author of ‘The Christmas Card’.
Michael was born in the Irish midlands. Then he went to school and has degrees in philosophy, theology, creative writing and communications (doctorate).
In the late 1960s he founded and edited the literary journal Everyman, later named Aquarius. This featured the illuminati of that opinionated time. Seamus Heaney was poetry editor, back when the world was young. In 2009 Farrell edited and the Liffey Press published the highlights: Creative Commotion: The Everyman/Aquarius Anthology, 1968-1974.
Farrell spent nearly half his life in the USA. Many years were devoted to journalism. He did book reviews for the Los Angeles Times. Editor for some years of the liberal National Catholic Reporter. Edited a few nonfiction books, contributed to others. His novel, Papabile, won the Thorpe Menn Award in 1998.
Retired with wife Marilyn to the Irish midlands in 2003, doing mostly fiction, occasionally published, e.g. The Faber Book of Best New Irish Short Stories, 2006-07.
A collection, Life in the Universe (The Stinging Fly Press, 2009) was well received, e.g. Roddy Doyle: ‘This is a great collection. The stories surprise, and are full of surprises. They are funny, provocative, clever, charming and quite brilliantly written.’
A new collection, Life Here Below, was published in 2014 by New Island Books.
Author Q & A
Can you tell us about the inspiration behind this story?
In 1988, a journalist on a trip to apartheid South Africa, I visited a township famous for its poverty and squalor. A young man named Oscar volunteered to show me around. We walked between hundreds of huts, thrown up higgledy-piggledy, raw sewerage often trickling between them. We came to a river winding amid the houses, the water stagnant, filled with every kind of detritus, including old cars, household objects and dead animals. In the space of a few minutes, three women came and emptied their overnight buckets in the river. The stench was terrible. Fires were lit for cooking outside huts, the smoke floating erratically with the river. It was a surreal, nightmarish scene. Children grinned shyly, posed for photographs.
A woman emerged from a hut. She was perhaps in her late thirties. Oscar spoke to her in Zulu and said she would like her photo taken. She said I could visit her hut. It stood within a couple of feet of that river of despair. It had an earth floor but was spotless and tidy, about the size of a bathroom, though it had no bathroom. She took a cracked mirror and fixed her hair for the photo. Strings of beads hung from the ceiling separating the back ‘room’ from the front. She held those beads and smiled coyly and posed for the picture like a movie star.
I never thought to ask her name. Never thought to ask for an address, if she had one. She had the bearing of a queen. Her photo was carried in my newspaper to 93 countries worldwide. I am haunted by the thought of her waiting for that photo somehow to arrive.
It may be my imagination, but I think she was the inspiration for my story.
When did you start writing?
I started writing sometime between ages three and forty depending on how you define writing. By the time I was seven I won sixpence for my handwriting at the one-teacher school I was then attending. I didn’t realise at the time that I would go on to write more words than most people on earth. I came late to fiction because I had previously been engaged in saving the world through journalism and other strategies. Back in my reckless youth I took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. They were meant to be perpetual but I broke them all eventually. The world, at that time, was full of things to write about, the facts, but when I turned to fiction I found my head less crowded with stories than some more privileged heads. So I have to encourage the few ideas that present themselves, coaxing insights out from under ordinary life until a loose fabrication begins to take shape. Then, because I see ambiguity everywhere, I leave half the work to the reader—let posterity decide what I really meant, what really happened.
Do you have a favourite genre?
Genre is a rubbery word, so let me dance around it. Whether western or crime or chick lit, the challenge seems to be to connect invisible dots in an agreeable manner. This stymies me. Take crime: every possible breed of detective is spoken for: the fat professor, the nun, the outsider with a chip on each shoulder. Write about the traditional homo sapiens with ten fingers and no gimmicks and no one wants to know.
So when my back is to the wall I say mine are ‘literary’ novels. This inflated adjective allows me to write about everything, throw in an occasional literary flourish and Bob’s your uncle.
If magical realism is a genre, however, that’s the tent under which I’d prefer to hide. The concept oozed out of Latin America some years ago with much ado. Yet, long before Gabriel Garcia Marquez, we Irish cultivated an even wackier Celtic brand of magical realism. A book called A Celtic Miscellany points out: ‘…it has been the fashion to think of the Celtic mind as something mysterious, magical, filled with dark broodings over a mighty past; and the Irish as a people who by right of birth alone were in some strange way in direct contact with a mystical, supernatural twilight world which they would rarely reveal to the outsider.’
Yours truly has been trying to reveal this twilight to the outsider, with mixed results.
What’s your favourite book or short story?
I’m one of the few who refuses to settle for Ulysses. Instead, I give you Gifts: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, by Lewis Hyde. I was asked to review it in 1983 and didn’t. This failure haunts me every Christmas.
It upends cherished assumptions about giving and receiving. Nowadays we give to those who give us gifts. But the spirit of a gift, Hyde writes, is kept alive by its constant rotation. Early ancestors circulated a large portion of their material wealth as gifts. And vice versa: one presumably received gifts one had not earned. In tribal cultures to possess was to give. In the great sweep of history the market economy emerged only recently. A tit-for-tat way of living became a dog-eat-dog way called capitalism.
In the gift economy “the gift moved towards the empty place.” In such a gift milieu, honour fell on the giver rather than the hoarder:
Not only among obscure tribes: Hyde finds this impulse common throughout history. He recalls mendicant orders begging as a way of life. He recalls artists whose art is a gift to the world. He quotes Thomas Merton on Buddhism: the begging bowl “represents the ultimate theological root of the belief, not just in a right to beg, but in openness to the gifts of all beings as an expression of the interdependence of all beings.”
Contracts of the heart are easier said than done. I don’t think this book ever became a bestseller. Yet a doubt lingers – what if we risked it?
What has been your biggest challenge as a writer?
My biggest challenge has never been the writing, but getting the writing published.
For example, I wrote a novel in 1973 and have been trying to get it published for 41 years. And it wasn’t hidden away under the bed. I sent it out hundreds of times, including several times this year, and received the latest rejection just a few days ago. The obvious conclusion is that it must be a really bad book. Yet back in the day the William Morris Agency, biggest agency in the world at the time, represented it for a couple of years, in vain. All the editors said they loved the writing but the story was not right for them (I think I’ll write on my headstone: his story was not right for this world). Twenty years later, another major agency huckstered it all over New York again, and again in vain. Though they still said they loved the writing. To add insult to injury, I wrote four further novels in the meantime (make that five: I broke with tradition and had one published in the USA and it even won an award; so now I have only four orphans pining for readers).
Are you currently working on a full-length novel and looking for a publisher?
In I’ll Live Till I Die (85,000 words), Brendan Shea, adrift in Kansas City, USA, on being told he has cancer and only a year to live, goes a bit crazy, hijacks a prostitute, drives into the country, digs a shallow grave, and invites the earth to take him back into its bosom. But, Brendan being an Irishman, this strategy is doomed to failure.
Then the past starts niggling He remembers how, in his youth, whatever he wrote happened like magic. A world-class athlete, more or less, he could win races by writing the outcome in advance. This prowess won him an athletic scholarship in America, and he flourished there until he stopped believing in the magic and succumbed to the pedestrian status quo. Which has also let him down.
Now he grasps at straws and decides to write literally for his life. The story swings back and forth between past and present, with occasional updates on the dread cancer. His wife divorces him because he wants to remake the world, starting with one acre in Arizona, an unlikely project yet saner than the way he sees the world being run.
A day comes when the biography he is writing catches up with the life he is living. Everything depends on what he writes next; and on whether there is in this imperfect world enough magic, possibility, will, miracle—whatever its name, enough of the inexplicable to upend the status quo and transform reality into heart’s desire.
What do you most enjoy about writing?
I am underwhelmed by the joys of writing (per se as we say). The heap of manure produced so arduously often seems more like a punishment than a reward for effort. Not for nothing have writers delivered up all those meaty metaphors about sweating blood and such. But I write on. Then rewriting brings back good humour and optimism. The aforementioned heap begins to take shape and sometimes shines and looks more like creation must have looked three days out from the Big Bang, laden with options and possibilities, and I can see billions of ways to make a difference. At such times I think: if writing did not exist we would have to invent it.