BackStory: Six Questions with Mary Byrne
Author of A Quiet Day in Hell
What inspired you to write ‘A Quiet Day in Hell’?
The house where we used to live in Normandy was an old presbytery built 20 years before the Revolution. Sometime after moving there, we discovered, in a church in the region, a marble plaque saying that one of their priests who’d lived there had been guillotined in 1794. Of course I went hunting for more information and eventually wrote a short story about him (not yet published).
Unusually for me, there was only one version of the piece in the file. Most of the research was done for this short story; no doubt it is because his story is so real to me that I still haven’t managed to produce a version that appeals to a litmag!
What are your favourite pieces of historical flash? Who are your favourite historical fiction writers who use longer forms?
My favourite single piece of historical fiction is Robert Walser’s ‘Battle of Sempach’, which is longer than flash length yet has the hitting power and huge visual impact of a flash (those pointy shoes…).
When I first discovered Lydia Davis, long ago, I was delighted and have read all her books.
Single flashes: Alice Walker ‘The Flowers’; ‘Marie Curie’s Kitchen’ by Ellen Goldstein in FBF; Robert Olen Butler’s book Severance; Galeano….
Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire trilogy for his angle on history and everything.
I like Dasa Drndic’s fact+fiction/hybrid approach to the history of parts of Europe (all of which resurfaces again with the war in Ukraine).
I find Lance Olsen’s novelistic plunges into fiction and history fascinating.
What is your favourite part of the writing process? Your least favourite? What do you like most about writing flash?
The immediacy of it: speed of results plus the ease of revision, although I’m wary of revision in the case of flash: one has to be careful not to massacre/frighten away that initial delicate inspiration that prompted it. I started writing very short pieces a very long time ago, but in those days people weren’t used to them, there were few outlets, and many asked why I didn’t write poetry. I find the space constraint inspiring. I also like stringing flash pieces into little micro series. Although I’ve written several unpublished novels, my heart is with fragments and hybrids. I have a problem with the verisimilitude involved in a whole novel (although I occasionally entertain the idea of a hybrid book chock-a-block with history and flash).
Like most people, I enjoy research but at this stage I’m wary of, and try to quell, my own excitement about a project! I can revise till the cows come home, but I find structural revision a pain. And as for marketing skills, well… I was behind the door when they were giving those out.
I write lots of flash but so far haven’t written much historical flash: one challenge for me would be getting the language and of course authenticity right, but above all hitting a balance between a real incident I might know of and bending that into fiction. (My feet rarely leave the ground…)
What, if anything, do you have in common with your main character?
Precious little, I’d say! I’m amazed at the physical stamina of women through the centuries. I had the privilege of hearing about the experience of washing clothes in the local ‘lavoir’ from some of the oldest women in my part of Normandy. I used one anecdote in a short story entitled ‘What doesn’t choke will fatten’ in Plugging the Causal Breach: a neighbour told me that she imagined the water getting warmer as it rolled down the hill to the lavoir. This was the only way she could bear its cold on a winter’s day.
How important is historical accuracy to you in your own writing?
I wouldn’t say I’m paranoid about it, but almost. And my historical accuracy antennae are always out when reading too…This is a major brake on writing it, though.
If you could live for one year in any historical period, when and where would it be, and why?
The Baroque period and the 18th century have always drawn me (on condition that I wouldn’t be poor, of course…). And I’d love to have a peek into the Neolithic or the Iron Age, where I wouldn’t last long due to the stamina required.
Mary Byrne is the author of the short fiction collection Plugging the Causal Breach (Regal House 2019). Her short fiction has been published, broadcast and anthologized widely. She was born in Ireland and lives in France. She tweets at https://twitter.com/BrigitteLOignon.
Detail of engraving of two women washing sheets, courtesy of Wellcome Images, library reference ICV No 40276, photo number V0039710, Creative Commons CC0 1.0.