PADRAIC WALSH is one of our amazing panel of judges kindly volunteering their time to support our charity writing competition. Padraic is a fiction writer, playwright and screenwriter. He is a winner of the Walter Swan Trust Playwriting Award. Last year Padraic’s play, Foxes, was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and shortlisted for Best Original Audio Drama at the 2018 BBC Audio Drama Awards. His fiction has appeared in The Stinging Fly and Cyphers. Born and raised in County Mayo, Ireland, he is now based in London.
Who would you invite to a literary dinner party, alive or dead?
Because it’s more likely the thing would be a disaster, I’ve selected guests to ensure it’s a disaster. Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Edward St Aubyn, Patrick Kavanagh, Charles Bukowski, and Samuel Beckett. Céline said: ‘An Immense hatred keeps me alive… I would live for a thousand years if I were certain of seeing the whole world croak.’ St Aubyrn – who, if he’s even a fraction like Patrick Melrose, I would seat next to Kavanagh to see what happens – wrote: ‘Surely: the adverb of a man without an argument.’ Kavanagh famously could get into an argument with anyone, anywhere. Bukowski spent a lot of his pre-middle age years getting in actual fights with people. And Beckett said: ‘Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.’ Can you imagine the carnage?
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Advice is such a tricky thing. Often, the person giving it is really lawyering for the kind of writer they are. But I think, in general, fiction writers would be helped by Aristotle’s poetics, which is a touchstone text for playwrights. Short stories can sometimes feel very internal, but they still turn on plotting. Aristotle argues that: ‘Most important of all is the structure of the incidents. For Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality. Now character determines men’s qualities, but it is by their actions that they are happy or the reverse. Dramatic action, therefore, is not with a view to the representation of character: character comes in as subsidiary to the actions. Hence the incidents and the plot are the end of a tragedy; and the end is the chief thing of all. Again, without action there cannot be a tragedy; there may be without character.’ So one of the big takeaways there, for fiction writers, is to reveal character by action, not by description. Let’s see them do something, not think something.
Which poets or writers inspire you most?
This could be a long list, but my favourite short story writer is John McGahern. He writes so precisely and simply and seems to be always talking of the essence of things, not minor concerns – even in his stillest of stories. He once said: ‘I think that each of us inhabits a private world that others cannot see. The only difference between the writer and the reader is that the writer is able to dramatise that private world.’ He seemed to instil his every sentence with that intensity of inner life, so that each character, moment and thing is given full force. He could write about the quality of silence between a man and woman and not make it feel like the words were subjective (from the man, the woman or even the author’s point of view) but that he was capturing the essential truth of that silence. You find yourself thinking as you read: Yes, this is exactly how it is. He agreed with Flaubert that the only role a writer has is to get his words right and to do that you have to feel deeply and think clearly. He explained: ‘I think that if you do that, you will reflect everything that is worth reflecting. Whereas when you set out to reflect something you end up reflecting nothing. There’s a very interesting thing that Scott Fitzgerald said: “If you start with a person, you end up with a type, but if you start with a type, you wind up with nothing.” You set out to discover something in your writing and it’s through the attempt to discover that you reflect. If you have your mind made up about something, you’ll reflect nothing.
How do you select the names of your characters?
This probably relates to how much you root your characters and language in time and place. Generally, Irish writers do more rooting than English writers, but I firmly believe you reach the universal though the local. I’m Irish and the way the Irish speak English dictates not just how we say things but what we say – our sense of manners, patriarchy, masculinity, femininity, selfhood, confession, community, affability, individualism, identity, humour and more. If you want to capture that stuff, you have to use our language. And you have to use the correct names. The rightness of a name for a fictional character should, for me, be rooted in the where and when, just like the register of the prose. Embrace the subjectivity of your experience, of your world view, of where you’re from. Because looking at one specific person in one specific place is the most powerful way of looking at everyone.
How did you get into writing?
I’ve always been a reader and I’ve always wanted to write. Wanting to write must have come before writing – I didn’t just stumble across it – and wanting to write came from reading, I think. One is almost an extension of the other. After school, I did an English degree and then an MA. I dabbled, really, through those years (mainly poetry), and then started to write seriously in my 20s. Plays and short stories. One thing that I dismissed during those years that I wish I hadn’t is the importance of doing small things and getting recognition for them. Don’t just sit in your room for 10 years trying to write a novel, get some short stories or flash fiction published. Don’t just put stock in the top new writing magazines, also try websites and blogs. Don’t just work on full length plays, see if you can get one act into a competition. The little things build up and lead to other opportunities in indirect ways. More often, that’s how your ‘big break’ happens, not from out-of-nowhere. Because the gatekeepers seem to be reassured by credits, of any sort, over other qualities when deciding to roll the dice on you.