By Bridget Taylor
Manchester Met’s Manchester Writing series recently welcomed special guest Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing and Academic Director of the Manchester Writing School Adam O’Riordan, who talked about his new collection of short stories The Burning Ground, just one of many projects he has been working on.
As Senior Lecturer Joe Stretch joked in his introduction, “He is widely hated in the department. Not only is it irritating that he’s traditionally a poet and he’s made the leap to prose, but it’s particularly irritating that he’s done it in such a difficult form as the short story.”
If that wasn’t enough, O’Riordan will be releasing his poetry collection The Herring Famine later this year and also admits that he’s currently working on a novel, and is in collaboration with Stretch on a screenplay.
O’Riordan made the transition from poetry to prose in response to his experience of travelling frequently to LA over the course of two years. At the time he was Poet-in-Residence at The Wordsworth Trust in the Lake District, so he found himself going from ‘sonnet writing’ country to the palm trees and high-rises of Hollywood. He said, “The form fitted the place – sonnets don’t fit LA. Writing in prose allows you to give a sense of the diversity that exists there, to capture various fragments and then try to make sense of the place and your own response to it.” He also confessed that, because he didn’t get funding for his PhD, his starting point was to write something he could sell.
During the event, O’Riordan read from his collection. The eight stories are all set in LA at various points in its history, and his first reading gave listeners the sense that this is an outsider’s perspective. The protagonist is able to observe the fishbowl world of LA, noticing how the models want to be actors, the actors have a secret passion to be directors, and the directors are secretly tired of it all, creating a sense of dislocation, of everyone feeling somehow out of place.
This theme was picked up on by O’Riordan in the subsequent interview with author and ex-Hacienda DJ Dave Haslam. He talked about how he felt dislocated in LA, but it was the right kind of dislocation – “along a continuum” – and that he “loved the sense of distance, of being right at the edge of the English speaking world. It opened up space creatively because it was familiar yet far away.” Dave Haslam pointed out that this makes him not the kind of writer that might “take sustenance from a particular geographical location,” like James Joyce, for example. O’Riordan agreed that many of us are becoming less rooted in place, but that we still “write through it.”
Yet Manchester, where he grew up, does seem to keep drawing him back. His upcoming novel will be set here, and he recently made the case, in the Manchester Evening News, for “why Manchester should be crowned the capital of poetry,” referring to the large number of well-established poets that seem to reside here. Haslam pointed out that he didn’t mention the flourishing slam and spoken word scene, and wondered if these two forms are in conflict with each other. O’Riordan argued that there’s no difference between them, saying, “We are all animals that exist in language” and that it’s not a case of the two forms being exclusive or valued differently. Rather, it’s about “how you can move through or across these forms, rather than up or down.”
When writing the collection it was important to O’Riordan to have a very clear sense of the geography of the real place, which he then went on to populate with characters. Yet the danger of writing about a place so deeply ingrained in popular culture is how to avoid cliché. His answer was to argue that you have to find the space around the cliché, “to accept that the clichés do actually exist…but to navigate them.”
In his writing, O’Riordan seems to do this by making very detailed observations, so that the reader is immediately immersed in a fully realised world. It feels surprising that a poet’s writing would be so ‘prosaic’, in the sense that he seems to avoid writing about the emotions of his characters, or use metaphors, but instead focuses on the detail of someone ironing a shirt, for example. These objects however are often the way into memories – they become imbued with significance. As he said himself, he comes at emotion “obliquely” so that the reader is “haunted rather than confronted by it.” He also commented that, even though this work has been described as “lyrical”, that that “doesn’t exist on the level of the line but in the impressionistic feel to the stories, in the ease with which you move in and out of the characters’ lives.”
The event as a whole was thought-provoking on the subjects of writing and place, and offered a keen insight into the life and work of a multi-faceted writer. As one audience member said, “I found the extracts really interesting, and O’Riordan was eloquent at expressing his ideas about writing. It’s great that a figurehead for Manchester Met is able to talk about writing in a way that’s useful for upcoming writers.”
The Manchester Writing series is co-organised by Manchester Writing school and the International Anthony Burgess Foundation. The next event is on Thursday 16th February and will focus on Edmund Gordon and his recent biography of Angela Carter, The Invention of Angela Carter.
For more information, visit the Manchester Writing School events page.