Behind the Words: James Claffey

Posted by on Apr 1, 2015 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

JC3James Claffey’s “White Horse” was featured in Spry’s 3rd issue, and we still remember how excited all of our readers were when we first read it in our submissions manager. Almost immediately, the staff voted yes, suggesting we accept it before another journal got their hands on this great piece of flash fiction. We were lucky when he agreed to interview with our Editorial Reader, Greta Mugge on process and life as a writer.


Greta Mugge: Would you consider “White Horse” fiction or nonfiction?

James Claffey: Fiction, totally. The idea behind the piece is a complete fabrication in terms of the cast of characters and the narrative thread. What’s interesting to me is to take small details from my memory, like the splicing together of an old cassette tape, and the place, Oyster Island, which is a real place in County Sligo, and I holidayed there as a kid and looked out from the shore at Rosses Point to Oyster Island. All the other details, the typesetting, the woman’s death, the white horse, are fictional. This story is close to my heart as it combines intense detail, almost cinematic, and deep human pain, two aspects of my writing I keep trying to explore.


GM: You have a very prolific and detailed website. Do you think an online presence is important for writers, both new and established? How has the internet and your website impacted your writing and your connection to an audience? Do you think a worldwide and extremely accessible platform helps or hinders writers today?

JC: Having an online presence is important if you’re going to publish and interact in that medium. Writers who are active in the world of the online journals and magazines seem to be more connected to the virtual world, whereas those writers who inhabit the world of print-only journals and magazines, and big-five publishing house careers appear to rely less on having an online presence. One reason I keep a website going and have a busy social media activity is that when I finished my MFA at LSU, we left New Orleans and moved back to California. Unlike most of my peers at the time, who stayed put, I left behind my community of writers and creative souls from that time, and I didn’t have those people or connections here in California. So, I used the online world as a substitute means of building a community, albeit a virtual one.


GM: Many of your pieces, including “White Horse”, involves extremely detailed depictions of nature and wildlife. You also typically include a picture along with the posts on your website. Do you create elements from your imagination and seek out pictures that represent your ideas or do you draw from real events and locations? 

JC: The places I write about tend to be places I’ve visited, or read about. I’m fascinated by nature, animals, birds, the world about me, and write of those elements quite frequently. I believe that writing about “real” places allows me to root my writing in a strong place, and from that foundation I can spin the story I want to tell. As far as the images on my website go, I take all those photos myself, and try to match them with my posts. I read someplace that web posts with a picture attached stood a better chance of being read. Also, in the last few years I look at things with a writer’s eye, almost searching the landscape for elements to include in my writing. I’ll find myself looking at the shape of a tree or cloud and trying to convert that image into some detail I can write about.


GM: What is your editing process like? Do you follow a personal set of rules or does it depend on the piece? Your stories are so concise, is that a natural style or do you edit out a lot of content?

JC: With my short fiction the editing process is pretty straightforward and I don’t make many substantive changes to a written piece. Rather, I tend to edit on the sentence level and clean up prose so the flow is good, the rhythm there, no words repeated unnecessarily, things like that. The problem is that months after a piece has been published I’ll re-read a story and in that activity find small mis-steps that I’ll want to fix. In terms of my concision, that’s my style. With my short fiction I write short, image-thick pieces filled with details and hopefully enigma. For my flash fiction I don’t edit out much at all in terms of content, and only rarely has an editor cut a piece to ribbons and gone on to publish the shortened piece. In terms of my longer work I tend to write several drafts, cutting passages out and rearranging the shape of the writing to better emphasis (I hope). For the longer work I edit more holistically, too, looking for broad strokes of narrative to expand on and flesh out the characters.


GM: Your first book, “Blood a Cold Blue,” was recently published. Was a collection of your work always part of the plan? How long did the process take you? Did you have a theme consisting of cohesive pieces or did you pick and choose based on what appealed to you?

JC: No, a collection was not what I expected to have as my first book. During my MFA I was writing a novel, and planning on getting an agent, selling the book for $$$, and living the vida loca. Post-MFA, away from the sequestered positivity of the workshop, I found out what I’d written was a hollow shell of a novel and not at all “true” to me as a writer. So, I said, %&$ it, I’m done writing for agents/editors, and instead I began to write the pieces that spoke to me, that struck me as authentic and true. Much of the credit for the shift in this goes to my wife, Maureen, a fine writer and artist. She encouraged me to write what mattered to me, and previously she’d introduced me to writers like Eileen Myles, Bhanu Kapil, Jean Toomer and Anne Waldman (Maureen got her MFA at Naropa). I was liberated when I began writing this way and wrote a huge amount in a short period of time. The book is comprised of stories written between 2011 and 2013, so two years. In terms of cohesion, I chose to leave a good many of my published pieces out of the collection, mainly because they were the genesis for a novel I’m working on right now. I got a good deal of help from Kevin Morgan Watson and Christine Norris at Press 53.


GM: The reviews of your book typically include a nod to your Irish upbringing. Would you say your culture and childhood are apparent in your writing? How has your writing been impacted by the places you have lived?

JC: Hugely. Ireland is such a critical part of my make-up that there’s not much I write that’s not influenced by the place. Growing up in Dublin, surrounded by a family of storytellers, characters, and theatrical souls, I was heavily influenced by my experience. There were always stories being told at our kitchen table, or around our sitting room fire, and in Ireland we gravitate to telling tales, to embellishment, to outdoing the last story told.  All my writing is rooted in places I’ve either lived, or visited and been touched by. My writing is saturated with my culture and childhood, particularly the novel I’m at work on presently, which is the story of a young boy looking for a father’s love and not able to find it. Living in London, San Diego, Carpinteria, Baton Rouge and New Orleans, and visiting places like New Mexico, Tennessee, Alabama, and other countries, has colored what I write.


GM: Any advice for writers interested in publishing a book for the first time? 

JC: Patience. Work at the craft. Don’t force the issue and try to be a writer you’re not. Find the presses where writers you admire publish. For me, Meg Pokrass, who was published by Press 53, is a writer I admire, and I sent to Press 53 primarily because they published her book, Damn Sure Right. So, find your people, the writers who speak to you, and query their presses.


GM: Did anything in particular draw you to Spry? How do you seek out a platform for your work? Any upcoming projects we should know about.

JC: Yes, I read work by Michael Dwayne Smith, Jeni McFarland and Allie Marini Batts in the first couple of issues of Spry, three writers I admire, and sent some of my own work your way. I’m attracted to journals and magazines that have an edge to them, whose aesthetic appeals to me, and potentially who publish writers I connect with.

As far as upcoming projects, I’ve got a novel in late-edit stages that’s being published by Thrice Publishing in Michigan. Also, I’m collaborating on a flash novella with Tara Masih, who I collaborated on a piece with for Counterexample Poetics. Add teaching high school English to that, along with raising a toddler and an eight-year-old, and it’s a busy life.


Greta Mugge is a graduate of Iowa State University and has since become one of Boston’s foremost experts on pointing out Iowa on a map. Greta was an editor of the literary magazine Sketch and the cultural magazine Uhuru, where she became hooked on selecting delightfully unique pieces, hunting down grammatical errors, and forcing readers to listen to rants about Star Wars. You can find her on Twitter and Tumblr in 2020, when she has finally figured out how they work.

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