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****Mary Byrne’s short story “What Doesn’t Choke Will Fatten” from her short story collection PLUGGING THE CASUAL BREACH #225 in the never-ending series called INSIDE THE EMOTION OF FICTION where the Chris Rice Cooper Blog (CRC) focuses on one specific excerpt from a fiction genre and how that fiction writer wrote that specific excerpt.
Name of fiction work? And were there other names you considered that you would like to share with us? I first entitled this story ‘Existentialism for Dummies’ which I rather fancied, but when I asked my nephew to read it and he asked, ‘What’s existentialism?,’ (Right: Mary Byrne's son Edwyn and her nephew Ian. Copyright by Mary Byrne)
I decided on my father’s adage: ‘What doesn’t choke will fatten’, a nice paraphrase of Nietzsche’s ‘What doesn’t kill me makes me strong’. (My father started life on a farm in south Monaghan and was never short of sayings, quotes, poetry – including Kavanagh, of course – and remembered doggerel from one of his aunts).
What is the date you began writing this piece of fiction and the date when you completely finished the piece of fiction? I wrote the story around 2011.
(Right: Mary Byrne in 2011. Copyright by Mary Byrne)
Moving from Paris to Normandy some years earlier, I realised that the houses, villages and countryside I’d seen in WWII films were in fact Norman. My students introduced themselves and their region by saying, ‘The Allies bombed Caen without evacuating it.’
(Above Left: IWM caption : THE BRITISH ARMY IN THE NORMANDY CAMPAIGN 1944. Sherman tanks carrying infantry wait for the order to advance at the start of Operaton Goodwood. 1944.)
Where did you do most of your writing for this fiction work? And please describe in detail. And can you please include a photo? I had no ‘official’ study at home at the time – my husband needed a room for his own work and I was often in Caen teaching – so I tended to camp my temporary study in bedrooms until dislodged by visitors (see two such encampments below). Any writing I did was snatched in haphazard breaks from teaching and happened in notebooks and sometimes in a deckchair in the garden, which was beautiful. (Right: Mary Byrne's writing space. Credit and Copyright by Mary Byrne)
What were your writing habits while writing this work- did you drink something as you wrote, listen to music, write in pen and paper, directly on laptop; specific time of day? I tend to use music to put me in the mood, whatever I’m into (but Mozart when I need to be fast and efficient). However when seriously writing text, even music can be an interruption. I’ve now moved from notebooks direct to laptop and have a proper study (still pretty chaotic though). I drink tea all day. Favourite time varies from morning to evening according to mood and other interruptions. (Mary Byrne's notebooks. Credit and Copyright by Mary Byrne)
Please include just one excerpt and include page numbers as reference. This one excerpt can be as short or as long as you prefer. The story’s narrator is a German former student of philosophy, who is captured in the ‘Falaise pocket’ in 1944.
The story consists of his backstory intercut with events in the present. Obviously it was his backstory that inspired me first. When he’s finally released, sometime in 1948 probably, he walks to Germany and, failing to find any trace of his family, returns to France, ‘the only other place anyone had ever cared for me.’ That person is Marguerite, a farm worker like himself:
I bought an old motorbike and we would take off for the coast, Marguerite having forgotten her idea that we’d never remain friends if we made love again.
Marguerite had this thing about ocean liners, could never get enough of them. So I was jealous of ocean liners, especially American ones. We would spend Sundays in Le Havre, where most of the local boys were getting piecework for rebuilding the town, working as fast as they could. Many of the houses around here were paid and families reared on the rebuilding of towns like Caen, Le Havre and St Malo. I never even tried for such jobs, content to stay with Marguerite on farms. I thought no one would have wanted me anyway, although the French were shipping in cheap labor from all over: Germany, Poland, Italy, North Africa. I just kept a low profile and stayed where I was.
On the quay at Le Havre we stood, keeping our voices down, among American soldiers leaning against American cars, waiting and wanting to go home. Their uniforms weren’t half so crisp or handsome as in the films that portrayed them. But they were better fed than us, from better-fed parents. Good teeth filled their big smiles. They smiled and waited and watched. Marguerite would watch the ships and I would watch her, in a yellow button-down dress with oranges and apples on it, watching those gigantic ships come and go, bearing glamorous passengers and other people’s dreams. Her favorite liner was the Ile de France. Back in the village she would throw her hands together like a child and describe it to friends. One Christmas I found her a poster for the Cunard line. She installed it on the wall of our first house together. By then it was the ‘60s: the crones were being silenced by new clothes, new music, new mœurs. They didn’t like us, but they had no power over us. (Plugging the Causal Breach, Regal House publishing 2019, p.21).
Why is this excerpt so emotional for you as a writer to write? And can you describe your own emotional experience of writing this specific excerpt? My experience in Normandy left me sad for everyone in and around the war. I admired people’s physical and mental strength. I sensed buried rancour, as in any place ravaged by war. I loved the idea of a Franco-German post-war love affair between two people the world hadn’t managed to break. It was even sadder to imagine how difficult such a relationship might have been for them: they would probably have encountered considerable hostility.
Were there any deletions from this excerpt that you can share with us? And can you please include a photo of your marked up rough drafts of this excerpt. I cannot find any trace of the actual story in notebooks I haven’t yet decommissioned. I can find lots of research about the war etc. It’s possible I wrote it straight onto the computer, because most of the elements of the story were already there in my mind.
Has this been published? And if yes, where? Short story first published in Prairie Schooner Vol. 86, No. 1 (SPRING 2012), pp. 132-147 (16 pages)
Published By: University of Nebraska Press
Now collected in Plugging the causal breach (Regal House, 2019).
Or via Amazon
Biography of Mary Byrne: “I’m a writer, a voracious reader, former editor and translator, and a recovering academic. I was born in Ireland and started life in the picturesque village of Tallanstown, Co. Louth before moving to Ardee where I attended the Mercy Convent before going to Clochar Lughaidh Gaelscoil in Monaghan. At University College Dublin I studied English and Philosophy and eventually completed an MA in Modern English and American Literature. I’ve worked in Dublin, London, Essen, Rabat, Paris and Caen and now live in Montpellier where I’m working on further collections of short fiction - and planning further travels.” (Left: Mary Byrne. Credit to Didier Barthelemy. Copyright by Mary Byrne)
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