Anyone who watched our Summer 2020 issue launch was lucky enough to hear David Gavin read his essay “1959, Galway Races.” In the piece, David, who writes nonfiction, fiction, and poetry, brings the audience to the home where he grew up in Galway, Ireland for a very memorable few days.
David was kind enough to answer a few questions about the essay, his other writing projects, and his writing process.
Q: According to your bio, you primarily write fiction and poetry. What inspired you to put this story on paper?
A: Well, the story is all true, but I never really thought it would work as a short story. My grandfather, my great-aunt Bridgie, and Birdie, my mother’s friend, were all lively, interesting, colorful people and have stayed with me all my life. I always wanted to make them part of a story, but didn’t figure out how until earlier this year, when one day it dawned on me. Two years ago, I’d begun writing a memoir, Let the Hare Sit, and realized their stories might work there. Now the memoir is done, but I still haven’t finished writing about Birdie, her marriage, the small farm she lived on with no electricity in 1950s rural Ireland, and the summer break from school my brother and I once spent there. That story is still inside my head, striving to get out, and I’m working on it.
The action in this story feels so immediate. How did you recreate that feeling for events from your childhood?
The Ireland I grew up in had no television—not until 1963—only one radio station, and there was no telephone in our house. Back then a telephone was a rare luxury. Sometimes, I accompanied my mother uptown in Galway to do some shopping. The walking distance would only take about fifteen minutes. However, neighbors and people she knew stopped us along the way and gossiped and told stories. From the time I was a small boy, a young lad, I was used to people telling stories—and they were all pretty good storytellers. You had to be to hold another person’s interest. Otherwise, the person would make an excuse and hurry off. Stories, the skills needed to capture a person’s attention, was a skill possessed by many of our neighbors.
So, I suppose, I learned very early in life when telling a story, I needed to make it immediate, interesting, and riveting as possible. Often, when writing a story in first person, I imagine I’m spontaneously telling it to another person, and it’s incumbent on me to retain his or her attention. And to do that well, I need to recreate the events that happened in a dramatic and colorful way that will captivate my listeners. How does one achieve that? Well, make the story simple, fresh, straightforward, and easy to follow. At least that’s what I try to do.
What was your writing process for this piece like? How similar was it to your typical writing process?
I write very slowly, painstakingly, and try and get everything down on paper in correct order the first time. Of course, that never, ever, happens. I rewrite over and over, relentlessly, for as long as it takes—and that might amount to fifteen or more tries. Often, it can take months and months—even longer. I have parts of stories sitting on my computer for years that I’m still trying to figure out.
Now this nonfiction piece didn’t come easily, but I already knew the story, and it was just a matter of finding the right order—beginning with exposition, dialogue, a scene, and go from there. Not that I knew how to accomplish that from the get-go. No, it came to me gradually over several rewrites.
Writing for me has never been easy, always fraught with difficulties and frustration—rarely, if ever, elation. I’m never truly satisfied with what I’ve written. I believe Hemingway once said, “Writing is never finished; it’s only abandoned.” Also, when somebody once asked him what it takes to be a writer, he answered, “It takes just one thing—that you love words.” I believe that says it all.
Often, when writing a story in first person, I imagine I’m spontaneously telling it to another person, and it’s incumbent on me to hold his or her attention.
What other writing projects are you working on? Have you found that the pandemic has affected your writing at all?
No, the pandemic hasn’t been a detriment to my writing—quite the opposite… Because of it, I don’t get out and about much, so I don’t have a lot of excuses to avoid writing. I taught English for twenty-eight years, have been retired since 2016, and as I mentioned before, I’ve finished a memoir and am seeking an agent. That’s the greatest difficulty I’m now facing—finding an agent to read my work. It’s an uphill struggle I’m sure many other writers contend with.
What’s your favorite piece from the current issue of Little Patuxent Review?
I was strongly affected by Ann Bracken’s interview with Kevin Shird. Although I grew up in Galway, Ireland, and emigrated to the United States in my late twenties, I identified with his life’s struggles and the environment he grew up in. For I, too, had an alcoholic father, a loving father, who lost a good job and brought ruin on his family. I, too, have had enduring problems with alcohol, and know all about living in the lower depths, having lived on Skid Row in San Francisco and Seattle before I pulled myself together and went back to school. Sadly, during my twenty-eight years teaching, many of my students had problems with addictions. Some sought help and are dealing with them, while others did not fare so well.
Do you have a favorite piece of writing advice that you turn to?
I believe somebody once said, “If you don’t read, you can’t write.” Now, I accept that completely. Reading is an essential component of writing, and I was fortunate growing up in a world without television, where most everybody had books lying around. During winter, darkness fell around 4:30 and it remained dark until about 8:30 in the morning. No television, one right-wing Catholic radio station, no other distractions if you were a teenager such as I. No—nothing to do on long, dreary, rain-sodden winter nights. Nothing to do but read. And there were books galore at the public library. Sad to say, several were banned—books by Irish writers like Edna O’ Brien and John McGahern. Still, I always had a stack of books on my nightstand. Reading, more than anything else, I’m sure, helped me develop my writing skills—and still does.
David Gavin was born in Galway, Ireland, and emigrated to the United States in his late twenties. He earned an MFA in fiction writing at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, and has published short stories in Nebraska Review, The Texas Thoroughbred, poetry in The Common, and nonfiction in Upstreet and Little Patuxent Review. He has also written a memoir, Let the Hare Sit, and is currently seeking an agent.