Galway is a magical city in a magical country and in the center of town is an enchanting bookshop — Charlie Byrne’s. I just returned from a two-week holiday in which I spent almost every day walking the nearly three miles from Salthill into town and then back again, and most of those days stopping into Charlie Byrne’s. It’s the perfect place for browsing, for searching for one thing and stumbling upon so many other unexpected delights. This is how I discovered Susan Millar DuMars. While scanning books in the Irish poetry section, I noticed a slim volume titled American Girls. It turned out to be a chapbook of fiction stories, and flipping through I read lines like “Smell of chlorine and damp cement, and suntan lotion; distant shrieks and splashes. She and Pammy used to come here. When they were small and their bodies went straight up and down.” (Stupid Slim-Neck Audrey Hepburn Dreams); and “You just want him to look at you, scalding you like the hot black tip of the liner pencil with his stare. That’s enough.” (Earth-Bound People) and “Freckles like nutmeg across her nose. Long-limbed and heedless, everything a nine year old should be. Nine, the highest number; after that you’re just repeating.” (Blood Loss). I bought the book.
DuMars was born in Philadelphia but has a mother from Northern Ireland and has now lived in Galway for more than 15 years. She’s no stranger to questions of place and identity, loss and longing, topics that were very much on my mind being an “American girl” in Galway myself. There are no easy answers, no happy-ever-afters in DuMars’ work. But there are moments of beauty and hope, moments that are almost enough.
Georgia Bellas: Do you consider yourself more Irish or more American? How do you straddle those two worlds?
Susan Millar DuMars: I’m American. I lived my first 32 years in the U.S. My mother is a Belfast Protestant, and growing up in the States I knew I was not just Irish but the wrong kind of Irish, in the sense that I didn’t conform to many Americans’ idea of what Irish is. So I’m used to straddling worlds, and used to falling between them as well. I am used to the feeling that I don’t quite fit. This is a useful feeling for a writer to have, as when you are just outside of the norm you can more easily observe and write about it. Writers who strive to conform I do not understand.
GB: What are you obsessed with in your writing?
SMD: At the moment, I’m working on a series of short stories that focus on peripheral female characters in great works of fiction from the nineteenth century. I’ve written a story called Grace, about the servant who cares for the mad Mrs. Rochester in Jane Eyre. And Irina is of course the story of the young female vampire who menaces poor, hapless Jonathan Harker in Dracula. Irina and Grace are both ‘origin stories,’ explaining the flesh and blood origins of these apparently monstrous women. Next I plan an origin story for Lenore, the object of obsession in Poe’s narrative poem The Raven. I feel at home among these women, who have been overlooked or objectified to the point of losing their humanity. I am giving that back to them. I suppose I’m obsessed with motive, like most fiction writers; and with the way that pain and love shape us. And darkness – I’m comfortable with darkness.
GB: List five words you love that are characteristically Irish.
SMD: Gobshite (means what it sounds like!), love (as a term of endearment), grand, bless, howya!
GB: List five words you love that are characteristically American.
SMD: Movies, martini, yo! (I grew up in Philly), sidewalk, fuhgeddaboudit.
GB: Many of your stories are about longing. What do you long for?
SMD: I long to keep the people I love safe, and to make sure they know that I love them. I long to feel connected to other people, to nature, to the Earth. I long for silence. I long to write better. To say what I mean so precisely that the words become transparent.
GB: How do you approach writing fiction versus poetry? Do you always know what a piece is going to be or do you ever start writing what you think is a story and then decide it should be a poem (or vice versa)?
SMD: I usually know which a piece will be. I think this knowledge comes with practice. For me, poetry is about immediacy; a snapshot or a moment of insight. If I am writing about the present or recent past, I’m nearly always writing a poem. And most of the time, subjects deeply personal also belong in my poems. My last book of poems, The God Thing, was about grief and questioning God. I find myself writing about God quite a lot (from the perspective of an agnostic). That always goes into poetry, I suppose because poems are like prayers.Whereas the distant past belongs in fiction. It has a narrative, you see. And characters’ back stories also belong in fiction.
GB: Can you describe your writing routines and revision process?
SMD: I always start with paper and pen. Never the computer. I often start with a freewrite, in which you set a timer and just write whatever comes to mind, fast as you can, for five or ten minutes. And/or I jot down the images and ideas, the phrases, that have already formed in my head. For a poem, I’d do a full first draft on paper; with a story, once I have a couple pages written (the voice, point of view, setting, pace pretty well established), I’d switch to the computer. I strongly believe in writing groups, or at least having one or two trusted individuals who give me feedback on my work. We all need second opinions. Kevin, my husband, is first reader always. I also believe in leaving a piece alone for at least a day before I try to edit it. Sometimes much longer.
GB: What instructions would you give for creating a sense of place in writing?
SMD: Remember the five senses. Tell me how the place smells, what you can hear when you’re there. What does the air taste like? Don’t just describe visuals. And remember that description should set the mood in fiction. It’s not just there to be pretty. Your description tells us how to feel about this place. I can describe a graveyard as if it is the most beautiful and peaceful place on Earth, or I can describe it in a way that will scare the crap out of you. Make all your descriptive details point in one emotional direction.
GB: What is your earliest memory of Philadelphia? Of Galway?
SMD: Among my first memories of Philadelphia are many memories associated with the Art Museum steps (immortalized in the Rocky movies). My best friend’s mom volunteered in the museum, so we treated it and its grounds like our own private playground. I remember when the Beach Boys played on the Parkway in ’76, we stood by the steps to watch. And when John Lennon died, I, at age 14, went to the memorial on those same steps.Galway is easy – I was first here as a tourist in ’97. I arrived at Eyre Square on a beautiful summer day during the Arts Festival. The Square was thronged with people in sundresses and tie-dyed T-shirts. I ate in a café called The Hungry Grass (next to Neachtains; I think it’s a pizza place now) and a very attractive older woman invited me to a free seminar on meditation. The city just charmed the socks off me.
GB: Name five places/things to do a writer visiting Galway should not miss.
SMD: 1. Over the Edge! The monthly reading series my husband Kevin Higgins and I have curated in Galway for nearly twelve years now. It’s on the last Thursday of the month in Galway City Library, and it’s free. 2. The Cuírt International Literary Festival, about to celebrate its thirtieth year. It happens for a week every April. 3. Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop 4. Both Crannog Magazine and Skylight 47 are excellent literary magazines that are published in Galway. Find issues in Charlie Byrne’s, and while there, look for posters advertising readings organized by either publication. 5. I am hearing good things about Moth and Butterfly: A Night of Storytelling and Improvisation. It happens in Galway every third Wednesday. You can read about it on Facebook or look for posters locally. I mention M&B because it’s important we celebrate the new alongside the established.
GB: What are you thankful for?
SMD: My health, my husband, the wisdom that comes with age, my friends, our home, my career in writing.
GB: If you were a stuffed animal, what would you be?
SMD: As a small child, I had a big brown teddy bear – big enough for a child to hug. I called him Mr. Bear (I was kind of a formal little kid). That bear spent years being cuddled. I mean, I literally hugged the stuffing out of him. So I’d elect to be Mr. Bear. Don’t we all wish to be so cherished?