‘Fear is what holds them back from publication’: An Interview with Lisa McInerney
By Jonathan Coste
Edited by Jon McGregor, Annabel Wearring-Smith and Kristin Schanke
Lisa McInerney is the new editor of The Stinging Fly, one of Ireland’s leading literary magazines. In this conversation, Jonathan and Lisa talk about the magazine’s success, literary community and the path to somewhere really good.
When I sat down to interview Lisa McInerney of The Stinging Fly, from the bitter mid-December chill of my University bedroom, Lisa assured me it was just as cold where she was, a few hundred miles away in her native Ireland: ‘I went out for a run this morning and when I came back, I do not joke, I have photographic evidence, there was frost in my hair!’ And yet, although the conditions were cold and our outfits woolly, the conversation was warm and sharp, ranging over the evolution of the literary landscape in Ireland, the secrets behind The Stinging Fly’s success, the plans for both Lisa and The Stinging Fly in 2023 and beyond, in her new role as Editor. Although the role is not entirely new, as she pointed out.
‘So yeah, I was appointed in July, August? Jesus now I can’t remember, but officially my first issue is Summer 2023, despite the fact I edited the last issue. Basically, I’ve been with The Stinging Fly since 2017; was a contributing editor up until this point, taking on some reading, mentoring writers and working on edits. Then at the start of 2022, Declan [Meade, the founder and publisher] asked if I would be the guest editor for the All New Writers issue, in Winter 2022. So I have effectively been doing the job of guest editor, whilst I got the editor’s job; so on that basis I have been doing it all year, so it doesn’t really feel like a change in anything.’
I wondered whether, now she was in the editor’s seat, Lisa could shed some light on just how The Stinging Fly manages so much success in unearthing and publishing new literary talents. Is there just a limitless supply of gifted short story writers in Ireland? ‘The reason the Stinging Fly performs at that level is because it was set up in service to the idea that writers needed people to read their work, and needed to feel like there was that pathway for their work to be published, and at the Stinging Fly that is what we have always tried to do. Because of that it becomes like a symbiosis; you have writers in Ireland who feel comfortable and confident about their work going beyond a short story – finding an audience, finding a readership. The Stinging Fly is just one now, of a very healthy landscape of short story journals, magazines and creative outlets within Ireland, and it’s very healthy because of that. There is a greater feeling that work is important, valued and going to find writers. Ultimately, there is a sense of community and a clear path carved to the reader.’
Indeed, many in Ireland pride themselves on being innately bound and deeply entrenched by literature. And whilst Lisa affirmed the Stinging Fly as one of now many creative outlets, that have cultivated such a flourishing climate for budding writers, she nevertheless assured me that the landscape was not always as plentiful and boundless as it seems today. ‘It wasn’t always in such a strong state, despite the brilliant literary history of Ireland, we’ve had Yates and Heaney, and one of the most famous novels ever, in Ulysses. When I was growing up in the 80s and 90s however, we looked at writing like it was a frozen asset, but there wasn’t any energy within the contemporary scene. So, when I started looking towards publication personally, it certainly didn’t feel to me that it was so vital and important a thing or an art, in Ireland at the time. And I feel like it’s much more welcoming now.’
This shift in climate within Ireland has been evoked via The Stinging Fly’s willingness to forge a path from reader to writer. Lisa detailed to me exactly how as an institution, The Stinging Fly is able to hone and polish potential literary diamonds in the rough. ‘We take a very proactive view of it – how do we encourage Irish writers to put pen to paper? What we have done more and more, in the last few years, is hold workshops for writers to develop their craft and utilised mentorships where we identify promising writers. In the last couple of issues, we have also held information sessions online before the submission window opens, and that actually is surprising to see just how many people feel empowered after talking to the editor and seeing what the situation is. In order to continue on that work within the creative industry, ultimately you have to be proactive and get in there quickly.’
Our conversation then shifted slightly to unpick what stories, or rather writers, stand out as particularly delineated from their contemporaries. ‘Writers often ask us what stories should I write? If someone has written anything, a short story, a poem, whatever excites them – that will excite us. For me personally, it’s a case of the story that I couldn’t have written myself, imbued with a certain jolt of energy – this came from a writer’s brain, and it could not have come from anyone else. For my own writing I want it to be absolutely flawless and that’s okay though because that is how I work. Emerging writers can get bogged down in it though, and that fear is what holds them back from publication.’
We concluded our conversation with a look to what the future holds both for Lisa and The Stinging Fly. ‘I’ve been lucky to have been involved in that work since 2017 and I am really happy with how that is progressing. I see within the organisation what it is that we want to do – writers across Ireland are aware of the work we do regardless of the background they come from, and we believe that the picture of literature in Ireland will only be complete when we are hearing from everybody who wants to be read, and we are working hard to ensure that happens. However, we know it is not something that can be easily or quickly done – the people who need to hear that might not be plugged into your channels, and that work that will need to be done over a period of many years, yet it is nice to be part of that. For me, the plans include continuance rather than anything radical and new, because we have already started down that path. Hopefully it’s going to lead somewhere really good.’
Ultimately my conversation with Lisa was wholly inspiring. She was warm, funny and a sheer delight to talk to. Yet interviewing her personally provided fascinating insight into how one of the most exciting and successful literary establishments of modern times operates. As Lisa described, The Stinging Fly believe entirely in a proactive approach to nurturing people as individuals first, and as writers second. This dynamic and comprehensive attitude is perhaps the greatest single factor, resultant in their numerous successes. I know myself and everybody at The Letters Page will be eagerly anticipating Lisa’s editorial debut in her Summer issue, later this year.
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