Author Q&A:
Sheila Armstrong

How To Gut A Fish

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How to Gut a Fish begins with the titular story – a step by step guide to a fisherman’s own undoing. The unsettling tone is set for a debut collection of short stories that brings readers uncomfortably close to the mortality of a set of memorable characters. Villagers, one by one, disappear into a sinkhole beneath a yew tree. A nameless girl is taped, bound and put on display in a countryside market. A man returning home following the death of his mother finds something disturbing among her personal effects.

Tell us about the title story. What inspired it in terms of content and structure? 
I was in a museum, and I spotted a photograph of a grizzled old fisherman leaning over a freshly caught fish. I came home and wrote the first line of the story as if this character were giving instructions. So the structure came first – I’m forever looking up how-to articles, so I’m familiar with the style! – and the framing narrative came later. The narrator is almost talking to himself, alone on his boat at night, finding comfort in the familiar process of gutting a fish. There’s violence in the task, but also a huge amount of empathy. Then things take a more sinister turn when you realise why he is really out there in the middle of the night. And all the while the narrator keeps talking to himself, trying to prepare for an uneasy encounter, even as things begin to unravel.

Many of the stories are experimental in form. Did they all come equally naturally to you?
What I love about short stories is that you can play around with the form – the writing doesn’t have to be linear or fall into a certain structure. You can experiment and try things that you wouldn’t get away with in a full-length book – there are stories in the collection that have no narrator, are set over a span of 50 years, use a wide, omniscient lens or get right behind a character’s eyes. You almost get a blank canvas for each story: each one is its own little universe with its own rules. I’m curious and have a short attention span by nature, so I loved jumping into something new each time, from drug smugglers to virtual reality to spontaneous human combustion!

In Red Market you venture towards speculative fiction. Did this allow you to grapple with real-world concerns in a way that fictional realism didn’t?   
Definitely. I began this story when there was a lot of human trafficking in the news. These stories were so awful as to seem unreal, but they were happening every day. In Red Market, I could grapple with that horror by trying to explore the indifference that we are all guilty of through participating in our culture of consumption. I tried to make some of the details as true to life as possible – the illegal organ trade is out there, and it is very real. That story unsettles me, even though I wrote it – we are all capable of such cruelty and callousness.

Some of your characters travel but all of your stories are rooted in Ireland. How important is place in your stories and what do you think defines Irish literature?  
In Ireland we have such a rich tradition of storytelling and folklore, it’s impossible to write without drawing on some of that. We also have our own turns of phrase, ways of thinking and talking, which are lyrical in their own way. And then there’s the landscape, which is almost a character in itself, something I’ve taken advantage of in Hole. Irish literature is so incredibly varied these days, it would be impossible to define it. We’re hearing from all these new voices who are writing about aspects of Ireland that have never existed before or would previously have gone ignored. Our literature is alive and kicking, and only getting better.

Physical illness, accidents or injury are recurring themes throughout your stories. Was this a reflection of writing during a pandemic, or is there another reason it preoccupies you? 
I write a lot about the body and how we experience the world through our senses. Our bodies can work with us or against us, especially as women, which is something I explore in Lemons. Only one of the stories, The Skellington Dance, was actually written during the pandemic itself. It came out of hearing about people’s experiences with Covid and wondering how that will stay with people going forward. So it’s really a story about after. The effects of the past few years aren’t going to go away anytime soon.

The sea is another motif in How To Gut A Fish. What does it represent to you? 
I grew up by the sea and it’s always been a huge part of my life. If I’m away from it for too long I get itchy! But the natural world as a whole props up a lot of my writing. I’m interested in the power of nature and its utter indifference to us. It doesn’t always give us what we want. In Hold Fast, a woman goes in search of the Northern Lights, hoping it will bring some kind of clarity to her life – but it is too cloudy to see anything, and she has to go home empty handed. We have to look elsewhere for answers.

You fit entire lifetimes or large spans of time into some of your short stories. Did you encounter any limits to the form that would nudge you toward novel writing?   
The joy of a short story is how much, or little, you can fit into a few thousand words. Often it’s an experience that changes everything for a character – sometimes that change is immediate and sometimes it takes a lifetime. Short stories are more intense than a longer piece of work, where I feel you need peaks and troughs of emotion. I’m currently working on a novel, but I’m trying to keep a hold of some of that intensity and brevity. I think – hope! – that’s when I’m at my strongest.

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