Séamus Sweeney is a writer new to Alt Hist, but with a number of writing credits in publications such as The Times Literary Supplement, The Guardian, The Spectator, New Statesman, The Lancet andThe Scotsman. We asked him a few questions about his story for Alt Hist Issue 3, ‘Dublin Can Be Heaven’, his other writing, and what he thinks about breakfast.
Are the Organisation and characters you write about based on historical reality? How did you come up with the idea for them?
Andrija Artuković was a politician of the Croatian fascist Ustaše state, and was nicknamed “the Himmler of the Balkans” for his part in genocidal war crimes during World War II. He fled to America via Switzerland and Ireland, where he spent 1948 and where one of this children was born. A good online source for reading about him is Hubert Butler’s essay “The Artukovitch File”, available at http://www.archipelago.org/vol1-2/butler.htm. Obviously in reality he went to America, rather than meeting the fate described in the story. The Organisation was made up by myself out of whole cloth; probably the proximate inspiration for the story was Daniel Leach’s Fugitive Ireland, a book about the various minority nationalist groups (Basques, Bretons, Scots and others who looked to independent Ireland as an exemplar) and collaborationists who fled to Ireland post World War II. Leach’s book shows just how marginal such groups were, and how the still-new Irish state trod the difficult path between asserting its sovereignity and avoiding Allied opprobium. While it is a scrupously unsensationalist and sober look at this issue, it contains enough imagination-provoking titbits to launch a host of counterfactual stories.
What was the status of Ireland during World War Two?
Neutral, but on the Allied side. Not entirely a sophism; one of the strengths of Leach’s book (and many others) is that it shows how Ireland’s neutrality, in the early years of the War, was beneficial to the Allies. Entering the war on the Allied side not only would not have been very popular (less than twenty years previously the Irish Free State had violently acheived independence) but would have required the Allies to protect Ireland militarily against the inevitable Axis attacks. Not to mention the pretext provided for a German invasion which would have tied up Allied forces quite severely. In any case, as the war proceeded Ireland’s neutrality was more openly derided among the Allies.
How did you get into writing?
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing. When I was a child, I was into books about dinosaurs and Usborne’s fact books. I began to write my own versions in copybooks. In school I was always writing ideas for stories and poems, although I rarely finished them. What boosted my confidence in terms of trying to get published was being involved in the university paper, The University Observer, where I was writing a few thousand words for publication every couple of weeks. While this was non fiction rather than fiction, it gave me confidence in approaching editors and I later began to review books for the TLS and The Lancet and other outlets.
What do you do when you’re not writing?
I work as a doctor which is rather busy, and spend time with my family. Which is also rather busy.
Are you working on any other short stories or novels at the moment and if so can you tell us a bit more about them?
I am trying to finish a longish short story about time travel. A couple of years ago I got thinking about the emotional cost of time travel, especially if you couldn’t go back to your own time. I guess it reflects universal concerns about the passing of time. My time traveller is a father whose child has a seemingly incurable disease, at least in our time. The songwriter Jule Styne had a saying: “its easy to be clever, the really clever thing is to be simple.” It’s quite easy in a way to be drawn into long pseudophilosophical bits, and harder to focus on the emotion.
What are your ambitions as a writer?
To have a fidelity to the characters, the ideas and the emotions I want to explore, and to follow where they lead. At any one time I have a few particular threads I want to follow. Sometimes I think “this would make a novel” and when I plan and write, the idea naturally coheres into a short story. The other day I was reading JG Ballard’s introduction to his collected short stories, and he remarked how many writers – himself included- saw the novel as the great virility test of a young writer. And yet while there are no perfect novels, there are perfect short stories. On one level I would love to write a novel, on another it would have to be for the artistically right reasons and not “because it’s a novel.” So I’ve answered your question with an answer about how I don’t want to write a novel, which is not something I have done in any case.
Where and what is the best Irish breakfast, what’s the difference to English and American?
The contrast is probably more with continental breakfasts! The classic Irish breakfast is sausage, egg (fried or scrambled), white pudding, black pudding, rashers and toast. Laterally you get a hash brown or two, and in a lot of cases a tomato or mushrooms. There are many places that do wonderful Irish breakfasts, and many places that do terrible ones. The last one I had, which was pretty good, is a place called Howard’s Way in Churchtown in Dublin, http://www.howardsway.ie/.
Séamus Sweeney’s stories and other pieces can be found at Nthposition.com
Don’t forget to take a look at ‘Dublin Can Be Heaven’ too.