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Arts Extra

Interview with Seamus Scanlon, winner of the 2011 Gemini Magazine Short Story Prize for “My Beautiful, Brash, Beastly Belfast”

“A fascinating story”

— Marie-Louise Muir 7/26/11

MUIR: Irish short story writers have always punched above their weight on a global level as a recent shortlisting of both Edna O’Brien and Colm Tóibín for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize testifies. Their inclusion in a short list of just six shows that Irish writers are at the forefront of ensuring this literary form stays in rude health. So it was with great interest we read about Galway man, Seamus Scanlon who has just won a prize for his short story “My Beautiful, Brash, Beastly Belfast” in a short story competition run by Gemini Magazine, an international online journal of fiction, poetry and creative non- fiction. The story follows the politicization of a young West Belfast boy after his twelve-year-old sister is killed by a British soldier in front of him. Scanlon, who now works as a librarian in New York, is back home in his native Galway, where he joins me now on the line. Good evening to you, Seamus.

SCANLON: Hello. Thank you.

MUIR: There’s a real sense of historical events blurring with the fiction in this short story. Is this boy based on anyone or any series of events that happened in Northern Ireland?

SCANLON: Well, I suppose, it’s an amalgam really. I was very influenced I think by the execution of three off-duty Scottish soldiers in Ligoniel in the early seventies and two of them were brothers. One was seventeen and one was eighteen, and I felt that was kind of a vile act and there was vile acts on both sides. So, I was just trying to make a narrative that would blend them together and maybe try to explain why people got sucked in on both sides.

MUIR: Because it starts with the young girl being shot and then it ends with the brother shooting soldiers dead in a house. So, there is that sense of the split narrative of seeing both sides. You write about the R.U.C. coming. It’s not the P.S.N.I. so it’s very much dated before the Northern Ireland Police Service changed which was in 2001. Is it an historical work of fiction? Is it set in the 1970s?

SCANLON: Yeah, it would be set in the seventies, when it was probably at its most lethal in Belfast and Northern Ireland, in general. And I felt it’s an era that’ s not really covered that widely in fiction or in narratives that try to explain what might have happened and I feel, especially in Ireland, people tend to shy away from it. So, when I was in America, I found it easier to write it and for it to be acceptable, I suppose. There is a danger, I think, in Ireland that writing about the Troubles, so-called, can be viewed as exploitative. So, I was trying to make sure that didn’t happen.

MUIR: But the danger is equally there in, say, the appetite in American readers as well, for this sense of the extremity of life that was happening here in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. Many writers, contemporary Northern Irish writers, now have turned their back on that and write more about contemporary social and political issues. How did you feel about going back into that world?

SCANLON: Well, I wanted to explore it for a long time and it was always in the back of my mind. I had met various people on both sides and I actually met a therapist once who told me that not only do the victims’ families suffer immensely but often the so- called gun man had very serious fallout, as well, and that they were carried away in the moment but later regretted it, immensely. So, I think there was damage done, on both sides, maybe not physically but certainly psychologically.

MUIR: It feels like you know the place, as well. I mean, you obviously refer to landmarks within Belfast; you’ve got the streets of the Holy Land—Palestine Street, Jerusalem Street, Cairo Street—and you refer later on to the Ormeau Bridge and the Ormeau Road. How well do you know here?

SCANLON: Well, I lived there for five years. I lived adjacent to the Holy Land in Rugby Parade. So, I have a good sense of the locality. And the first time I ever went to Belfast, I was really taken by the beauty of it. So, that’s why that is in the title and kind of to contrast it with the mayhem that was going on.

MUIR: You’re based in the States now and living and working in New York and, you know, you’re writing, in a way, to an American audience because would they be your first readers? I just wonder what they expect from somebody writing about the Troubles.

SCANLON: They seem to have a very naïve view of it. So, in my mind, it wasn’t the American audience I was aiming for. It was more or less, you know, self- therapy, I suppose. I just wanted to write it and get it out there and write it down. The Americans are interested in, kind of a general sense. They have no concept really of any of the subtleties or ambiguities and you did mention that they like, you know, the extremity. I suppose that is one way to hook them, you know? They do tend to focus on that.

MUIR: Well, it is a fascinating story and a pen pic of life that was here. You can read Seamus’s winning story in the July edition of Gemini at www.gemini-