The members of the Brussels Writers’ Circle are a varied bunch. Prose writers, poets, playwrights, memoirists, screenwriters and bringers of silly bits and pieces, we sweep in from all different occupations and locations twice a week to share our scrawlings with one another. In ‘Meet the Circle’, we introduce you to some of our members, hopefully providing an insight into who we are, what we do, and other writerly nuggets.
This week we will hear from Colin Walsh. Colin is from Galway, Ireland, and writes fiction.
When did you join the group?
It was February or March 2017. I’d started writing short stories in 2016. Completing a story is a bit like screaming off a mountain and hoping for some echo that’ll prove you’ve climbed the mountain in the first place. Readers can offer a chink of light and fresh air on whatever it is you’ve been working on in the dark, and that does help you stay vaguely sane. I was having one of those ‘I AM ONLY WRITING INTO THE GAPING VOID’ moments when it’s hard to stay motivated. So I googled ‘writing group in Brussels’ and found the Brussels Writers Circle. I emailed the BWC asking if I could come along to a meeting, and that was that.
What were your first impressions of the group?
That it was totally nuts. Not in the sense of everyone being mad – you only discover that after a couple of meetings – but more in the sense of how wildly eclectic the mix of writers and readers was. It was great. People who were interested in very different things, literature-wise, approaching the world from different angles and backgrounds, all gathering around a large table over a few drinks and giving their time and energy to other people’s work.
Also, the basic kindness and openness of people to the work of anyone who reads – kindness that isn’t hollow back-slapping, openness that is genuine. The BWC is a place for constructive, helpful criticism and real encouragement. That made a very positive impression on me.
What have you published so far?
Last year I won the RTE Frances MacManus Short Story Award, and I was a prizewinner in the Bridport Short Story Prize, got shortlisted for the Bath Short Story Award and the Aesthetica Creative Writing Award, and I won a prize at a cool literary festival back in Ireland a few months ago. All those stories ended up being published in anthologies or online in newspapers. I have another story being published later this year, which I’m very excited about.
When you list all those things out like that, it sounds like a big run of successes, but that’s a total misrepresentation of the reality. The fact is that every single one of those published stories, including those which won prizes, had all been rejected by (at least) one publication/competition before finding a home. There’s never any guarantee as to whether or not what you’re doing is ‘good’ in any objective sense. I find that pretty tough, to be honest.
Ultimately, your own quality compass (which shifts over time) is the only metric against which you should judge yourself, but that’s advice which I consistently fail to follow, haha. It does take a while to get used to just how subjective the whole submissions process actually is, and to not allow it destroy your self-confidence.
You see this type of radically diverging reception at the BWC too; a single text will provoke a huge variety of opinions/tastes around the table. Sometimes I’m bewildered by what other people like/dislike or fixate upon, and I’m sure they are equally nonplussed by what I blather about whenever I give feedback. It sounds harsh, but I really feel like anyone can write something that will be universally rejected, but no one can write something that’ll be universally approved. Like, Hilary Mantel and Flannery O’Connor and William Shakespeare could all read at the BWC and no doubt there would be people who would wrinkle their noses and have reservations about the writing of these giants.
So yeah – in terms of publication, rejection, etc., I suppose the fingers pointing at the moon are not the moon.
What are you currently working on?
A novel. I have a pretty tight deadline on me now, so I’m focusing on that entirely these days – no short stories. It’s a very different experience to working on short stories, but I’m enjoying it. Hopefully I haven’t just jinxed myself by saying that. I have to submit a draft by the end of the summer. Nicely primed for a total meltdown by mid-July, I reckon. I’ll be running naked through the streets screaming ‘show don’t tell.’ In Brussels, I don’t think people would even notice.
Who are your biggest literary influences? How have they influenced you?
I think different writers and books have all had very different influences, at different times and in different ways. I remember Zadie Smith said something about how reading is not a passive form of entertainment like watching TV. She said it’s much more like sitting at a piano with sheet music written by a composer, a composer who is usually light years from you, musically; sometimes you can sit at that piano and you’re able to access all the magic that the composer has put there for you, but the onus is on you. The pleasure is richer the more you lean into it. Sometimes, I find myself years away from being up to the task of honouring what a writer has actually done. Other times, a novel or short story hits me at just the right time, and has a huge ripple effect on both my writing and my reading.
All of which is a very long way of saying that I don’t think I have any specific writers in mind that I’d single out as clear ‘influences.’ I’m neither coherent nor consistent enough as a reader to say that.
But I can name a couple of books that I think have been important for my writing over the last two years:
Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings. This is really the book that made me decide – okay, this is what I want to do. I mean, sweet Jesus, that novel. What he’s doing with voice, language, pace, drama, rhythm, time. Unbelievable. The sheer nerve and courage it would take to even attempt writing such a book. I read it over Christmas 2015. At the time I was buried deep in the pyramid scheme of academic philosophy. I hadn’t read a work of fiction in years. Literally, years. All I was reading was philosophy, theory, history.
Then I read A Brief History and remember being just totally overwhelmed with the depth and breadth of what James was weaving. The throb of life in the prose. It really made me reassess what the hell I was doing with my life. A total Eureka experience. A couple of months later, I left academia for good. I started my first short story on the same day. Best decision I ever made.
Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. This novel represents a sort of Platonic ideal for me in terms of the balance between literary prose and the popcorn-munching thrills. Fantastic writing and a totally compulsive story, both powering each other. One of the most purely pleasurable reading experiences I’ve had in the past couple of years – the closest to the pure joy I had when reading as a child.
I recently read Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye and it absolutely wrecked me. Reading it was like swallowing a grenade and feeling it gradually explode inside you. But in a glorious way, you know? She’s doing so many things simultaneously, and she is doing all of them at the highest possible level, in prose that really doesn’t call attention to itself as it quietly sets about rearranging your guts. I was totally shook for a few days after I finished. Standing with a wobbly lip in the middle of the street, that type of scenario. Absolutely devastating, in the best way. Exhilarating.
Other writers: Anne Enright for her psychological acuity and the type of sentences that slice your eyelids off; George Saunders and Donal Ryan for their sheer heart without mawkishness; Kevin Barry and Lucia Berlin for their swagger and mastery of the short story; Angela Carter, Mike McCormack, Elizabeth Bishop, Danielle McLaughlin, William Blake, Ezra Pound, Doireann ní Ghríofa, Ginsberg, Heaney, Hughes, the essays of Zadie Smith… blah blah blah…
What do you get out of the group?
An education! I’ve learned so much attending the group – both on the page and in terms of how people approach what’s on the page. Like, you might have someone reading from a genre-mash-up novel they’re working on, and they’ll be receiving considered and in-depth feedback from an experimental poet, a memoirist, a songwriter, a YA author, a playwright, etc. All of these different lenses through which work can be approached, critiqued and enriched.
The sheer generosity of what people are doing at the BWC every Tuesday and Thursday is really incredible. You learn a lot from that alone. People can be so good.