I recently helped Mary Behan publish her third book – a collection of short stories.
Back Blurb: This debut collection of short stories by author Mary Behan showcases her relentless curiosity and insight into the human condition, and displays her considerable talent for evoking an emotional reaction in the reader. In settings ranging from Ireland to Iowa, from Norway to New York and beyond, her characters embark on journeys that leave them indelibly changed. These are tales of loss and pleasure, of poignant relationships and chance encounters. Reading Kernels, one experiences heart wrenching moments of sorrow intertwined with unexpected surprises of joy and comfort.
A question and answer with Mary
Where did you grow up and how has this influenced your writing?
My first 25 years were spent in Ireland, a country where language is everything. Reading was a huge part of my life, not just in boarding school but also at home. I remember saying to my mother that I was bored one wet afternoon during the summer holidays. Her reply — part censure, part challenge, part encouragement — was instructive. “Don’t you have a book to read?” she said.
The Irish are good at conversation. It’s often said that ‘talk’ in Ireland is a combat sport! We love to tell a good story, so it’s not surprising that I turned to writing when I had the time.
How did Kernels come about?
I had just finished writing my first novel, A Measured Thread, a 3-year journey that left me feeling elated but at the same time spent. After it was published I found that I didn’t have a clear idea for a second novel. I didn’t want to stop writing, so I came up with a plan: I would write a short story every month for a year, get some feedback from beta readers, and eventually one story would rise to the top and become the candidate for my next novel. I remember pitching the idea to a group of friends at a local coffee shop after Yoga practice, telling them this was an experiment as I had never written a short story before. Several of them volunteered to be beta readers for which I am immensely grateful.
The first story, Dangerous Building, was written in October, 2019. I sent out the final story, All That Glitters is not Gold, to my beta readers in December, 2020. Missing the deadline didn’t seem very important at the time, especially with Covid-19 all around. I gathered my beta readers’ comments each month but held off reading them until January, 2021. That’s when I began to revise the stories. Some revisions were easy but others more challenging, especially when two or three readers disliked the same part of a story, or suggested a completely different direction that required a major rewrite. Towards the end of March, I had the makings of a book and that’s when I approached Christine. She liked many of my stories, but challenged me with some unexpected questions about others. More revisions ensued over the next couple of months, and I could see the improvements. I’m very pleased with the way the stories have turned out.
Where did you get your ideas for the stories?
The first story I wrote, Dangerous Building, had been lurking in the back of my mind for a long time. It was a place I remembered from childhood, a big country house where my sister and I went to play during the summer holidays with the three kids who lived there. I suppose I must have been 9 or 10 or thereabouts. The place has lingered in my mind for the last 60 years. About five years ago when I was back in Ireland, I went to see it. The description of the house and its surroundings is completely accurate, but the rest is pure fabrication. I needed a story. That’s when the magic of story-telling took over. It was such a powerful feeling: to create characters, have them interact, give them a voice. There’s a tiny kernel of truth in the story, but not much more.
As the months went by I found that about three quarters of the way through each story a new idea would pop into my head, almost demanding to take over. On the last day of each month I would send out a finished story, and force myself to take a week’s break so that the new one could sort itself before I began to type. During a long walk or a bike ride or a solitary drive I’d find the pieces of the story beginning to assemble themselves into a coherent arc.
What is your next project?
I don’t think that any of the short stories have the makings of a novel. Mind you, several of my beta readers disagree with me. That’s encouraging, so maybe I’ll change my mind in a year or two. Interestingly, as I was writing these stories I began to entertain the idea of writing a sequel to A Measured Thread. That hadn’t been my plan at all, and I was somewhat taken aback. I have an outline in my head: a beginning for certain, and a rough idea of an ending. But the middle is less clear. It’s going to be a hard book to write, not just structurally but also emotionally. So, I’m putting it aside for now; I’ll know when I’m ready.
My sister and I wrote a memoir about our childhood in Ireland, especially our time together at boarding school, called Abbey Girls. We had such a wonderful time wandering through our childhood that we are going to write another memoir together, Travels with Mick. Our father, Mick Behan, had a delightful and quixotic approach to travel that each of us experienced both as children and adults. We have a treasure trove of letters, diaries and photographs to dig into, and will laugh endlessly as we combine our memories into a story for everyone who knew him and those who wished they had.
Will you write more short stories?
When I began to write short stories for Kernels, several of my beta readers asked who were my favorite writers in this genre. I had to admit that I didn’t read short stories, preferring full-length novels. It seemed foolish not to dip into some of the well-known writers in the genre so I read James Joyce, Alice Munro, Joyce Carol Oates, William Trevor and Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen). I read stories in the New Yorker Magazine and American short Fiction. Oddly enough the exercise was unsatisfactory, perhaps because I couldn’t see my own stories reflected in any of theirs. Recently a friend suggested reading stories by Guy De Maupassant, and it was there I found a kindred spirit who will eventually lure me back to writing more.
If you’re interested in getting Mary’s new book or connect with Mary, below are the links.
Goodreads (paperback and e-book)
Barnes and Noble (paperback and NOOK)
Where Publishing Dreams Become Reality