Affairs, adultery, and no end of dark comedy: An Interview with Cheat Sheets Author Edward O’Dwyer

With 2 poetry posts, a review, and a fiction post that previewed his new short story collection, Edward O’Dwyer has become a Dodging The Rain house favourite. I sat down with him ahead of Cheats Sheetslaunch.

Edward, we knew you as a poet. What’s prompted the change of genre? Have you always written both? What relationship, if any, do your poetry and prose have? Is there a crossover in style?

I got into writing the fiction stuff recently enough. It kicked off with a few short stories, reading a lot of short story collections, the likes of Kevin Barry, Donal Ryan, Jackie Kaye, James Lasdun and Lucy Caldwell, to name just a few. I’d never decided that I just wanted to write poetry, but I found myself in a community of poets at a time in Limerick, and so that’s what I got into reading, hearing, and then writing. The move towards fiction was seamless enough, once I had the impetus to do it. The first person I recall really encouraging me strongly to give fiction a go was actually Susan Millar DuMars, co-organiser of Galway’s Over The Edge series [at which Edward will read from his new book on Culture Night — follow the link for more info], and a writer of poetry and short stories that I’ve admired and read for some years now.

Writing fiction started out just like writing poetry did several years before. I tried to have no expectations regarding it, no pressures that it had to become something. I wanted to enjoy it in the same manner and if it grew into something more, then it would do so organically and with a process of development that I believe in. Writing should always begin in the love and enjoyment of it, I believe, and it’s something I’d hope it would never lose. There are differences in writing the two and the approaches I take, but I think the similarities and overlaps are very strong. When I have an idea to write something, I usually know instantaneously if it’s to be a poem or a story.

In saying that, I think I’ve always been a storyteller. My poems tend to be condensed stories, quite often. The style I favour in my poetry has always been accessible and engaging, and I think these things made the move over into fiction straightforward enough for me, especially in the case of this new book, in which the stories are so condensed and straight-to-the-point.

Reading the poems you’ve published with us, and the stories from Cheat Sheets, I see a lot of shared themes. What can we expect from this collection? Where did you get the inspiration?

There are certainly areas I’m interested in as both a reader and a writer, and that will certainly be evident in my books to date, as I’m sure it is in the work I have published with Dodging The Rain. The first poems you published came from my second collection, Bad News, Good News, Bad News (Salmon Poetry, 2017), while some of the most recent crop feature in a forthcoming third collection, Exquisite Prisons.

This collection, Cheat Sheets, was a bit more constrained than anything I’ve done in poetry collections thus far, as I went with a rather binding theme from the offset, which focused me during the writing and helped me to dictate which ways stories would and should go. These, like many of my poems, are about relationships. The difference is that all the stories in Cheat Sheets are, in some fashion, dark comedies about infidelity. They are gleefully ludicrous and outlandish and take every available opportunity to shock, appal, and leave readers in hysterics. That’s the idea, at least.

The idea for the book came from discovering the work of Dan Rhodes, an English fiction writer. I didn’t know books like his existed – that they could exist. Their brand of dark humour and the extent of their imaginative possibilities left me breathlessly in awe, and I’m not even being hyperbolic there. I just wanted more books like them to exist, and then, rather than passively waiting for Dan to come with another beauty, figured I would have a go at writing something that might be considered of a similar ilk. If you’ve never read anything by Dan Rhodes, you really should, because it’s like never having had dessert – you are missing out big time!

After that, I needed a theme and the infidelity idea came via two women at the next table in a café. I was trying to have a coffee and read but they were talking quite loudly about the affair one of them was having. There was a time people talked about these matters in hushed tones but they seemed fairly happy for everyone present to know their business, which I thought interesting, to say the least. Affairs and adultery, of course, will provide no end of mileage for dark comedy, and so then that was that; Cheat Sheets was in motion.

I understand Cheat Sheets contains 108 stories. How did you manage so many? How do you approach writing them?

I suppose the simple answer to that is that I have an endlessly warped imagination and just had to draw a line in the sand at that. There could have been many more. There are 108 of them in the book, and it was meant to be 100, but then there were a few more that snuck in because, frankly, I thought they were too good to leave out. They are short, though, so it isn’t the Bible-sized book it might appear to be.

Early on in the writing process, I realised that when they got a bit longer, they were losing some of their punch, and that needed looking at. They are full of sucker punches, and their relentlessness is what makes the book work best, I feel. So, I imposed a 500 word limit on the stories. It leaves no room for character development of any kind, which is fine, because the book was never meant to be about characters anyway. It is about the situations, and in giving them maximum comic impact, brevity was king. I think the shortest is (approximately) a mere 150 words.

In writing them, the style was also very important, and there is something almost childlike and innocent about the style, except that the words themselves and what they are describing are far from innocent. They had to be fluid and allow for the big laugh and wry chuckle moments to land as effectively as possible, so this was something I was very conscious of while arranging the elements of the stories. Dialogue was another. Though the book is not about characters, I wanted dialogue. I wanted voices other than the narrative voice. I wanted people talking to one another.

Finally, I wanted to misdirect readers and surprise and shock them as much as possible, so dreaming up outrageous twists and turns was a massive aspect of writing it. Julian Gough told me something a few years ago that I put immediately into the good advice bank. He said he sometimes starts writing a story and makes a list of ways it could play out, and how it actually plays out then, often, will not have featured on that list. He goes with something less obvious, less expected. That’s a piece of advice that went into Cheat Sheets, and a piece of advice I reckon I will never cease being mindful of as a writer.

Are there autobiographical elements in the book? Care to share any examples?

Haha. In two words: no, none. When you read it, you will understand that these cannot possibly have happened, not even slightly. They are too farcical, too surreal, and too downright insane. I think a lot of people will really wonder about me, to have come up with all of these things, but if anyone out there has had any of these situations befall them then they really do have my sympathy, let me tell you. Oh yes, let me make it perfectly clear now – as the author, I condone none of the dreadful antics of these rotten philanderers.

Not to leave you with nothing, though, I can tell you that one story in there, called ‘Massage,’ was imagined after a very real trip to a Thai massage parlour, in which the masseuse’s techniques were a little bit questionable at times in terms of their professionalism. The place was recommended to me by two different colleagues at work, and when I went to them afterwards to compare notes, I discovered, as expected, we had not had the same experiences at all. Anyway, the story itself is imagined, mostly. I just felt that the experience at the parlour had been too weird and hilarious not to make use of it.

What else? Oh, there is a story in there called ‘Yellow,’ which prominently features a pair of florescent men’s underwear. The story is not in any way true. I just do happen to own a pair of florescent yellow underwear and was quite pleased with them and really thought they should feature, somehow, in one of the stories. There you have it, the full extent of the book’s autobiographical elements. I swear.

Tell me a little about Truth Serum Press. What were they like to work with?

Truth Serum Press (since 2014) is a member of an independent publishing group, Bequem Publishing, with Pure Slush Books (since 2010) and Everytime Press (since 2016). They are based in Adelaide, Australia but publish authors worldwide, although I think I might just be their first Irish author.

I first became aware of Pure Slush Books a few years ago, submitting poems for their themed anthologies. They always have themes I badly want to submit to – ‘Summer,’ ‘Freak,’ ‘Lust,’ and ‘Greed’ (they are covering each deadly sin, and ‘Sloth’ is currently open for submissions). Truth Serum Press publishes in a variety of forms and its books are generally publishing novels, novellas and short fiction collections. Through publishing in their anthologies, I knew I appreciated their way of working. It was always remarkably thorough and organised, but the emails involved were always for personable as well, which does go a long way. Any of us sending out work on a regular basis knows just how impersonal getting responses can be.

When I sent the manuscript to Truth Serum Press editor, Matt Potter, he was very quick to get back to me with his desire to publish it. He said he had a feeling, based on the poems I’d sent in previously, he was going to like it. In terms of editing, formatting and turning the book into a finished product, I couldn’t really overstate how wonderful Matt was to work with. I was involved in everything, communicated with on everything, listened to on everything. I was astounded by the quickness and thoroughness of his work. At the editing stage, he had spotted things that helped me to improve several stories, and had great suggestions about structuring the book.

I would strongly recommend sending your work to them. If you have a poem or short story that fits a theme they are running, or if you have a manuscript you believe strongly in, Bequem might very well be just what you’re looking for.

A more personal question. I know you as a proud Limerick man. What does Limerick’s recent success mean to you?

I am a proud Limerick man, absolutely, and I will promote Limerick as best I can, always. I suppose I’m no different to anyone else who wishes to see the place they call home doing well and prospering. In the past, maybe some people got the wrong impression of Limerick, which is something that can rankle, certainly. There has been a lot of progress made, though, these last few years, starting at home, with a drive within the city and county to put our best foot forward and express pride in who we are and what we do here. For me, that’s all you need. The rest follows, and has followed, and is following.

Now, I think people all over the country are seeing much more what Limerick has to contribute, which absolutely thrills and excites me. Limerick has given the world The Cranberries, Richard Harris, Paul O’Connell, Frank McCourt, Kate O’Brien, and I could go on and on here, but my point is that making an impact is by no means new to us – I just think we are entering into a new era now in Limerick, where that impact is going to be felt widely and forcefully. Make no mistake, it is a place very much on the up, and there is an energy growing, and a desire growing.

I was in Croke Park on August 19th to witness Limerick’s most recent major success, and I think it is emblematic of the belief and work ethic that is in the air here now. That amazing team, representing Limerick, won arguably the greatest [hurling] championship there’s ever been, and did so in style, some of the most eye-catching performances in recent memory. I think Limerick has everyone’s attention at the moment. This is a vibrant and culturally rich and diverse place, and a wonderful community, and if we haven’t, at times, made enough noise about that, celebrating that, we maybe let ourselves down a bit. There is a lot to come from Limerick. I can really feel it, and I am looking forward to witnessing it all and, hopefully, making my own mark as well.

2 poetry collections, 1 of fiction. What’s next?

Well, I’m in a good position at the moment, in that I am constantly writing new material, and towards a variety of future books. The next poetry collection, Exquisite Prisons, is completely finished, and will be published in 2020, again by Salmon Poetry. I have edited a couple of anthologies of poetry for Revival Press, a community publisher run through the Limerick Writers’ Centre, stewarded by Dominic Taylor, and doing another is something I would be interested in, and I have spoken to Dominic a little about that already. I am also about halfway through a sequel to Cheat Sheets – that is, towards another 108 little stories of infidelity. You can’t argue when there is demand! They are also just so much fun to write, I didn’t really want to stop.

I’ve also been writing another series of very short fictions that I’m also probably about half the way through. In these, God comes into all of them in unusual ways. They are often humorous, but it tends to be a more restrained humour than in Cheat Sheets. I do believe there is room for a good helping of humour in every book. I also have a good (I think!) idea for a novel, and I’m in the process of deciding whether I have the required patience to tell the same story for a whole year. I’m also trying to decide if I have the discipline to follow the rules of doing so. I love reading novels but usually want to flay them somewhat, feeling that they’d be much better books if they were half the length. That’s enough giving out about novels, though, because I’m probably giving the wrong impression. I’m actually in awe of what novelists do. So yeah, I have time on my side. I’m way ahead of schedule, so I really might give that a go.

*

Edward O’Dwyer is from Limerick and is the author of two poetry collections, The Rain on Cruise’s Street (2014) and Bad News, Good News, Bad News (2017), both from Salmon Poetry. Most recently, he is the author of a short fiction collection, Cheat Sheets (2018), published by Truth Serum Press. His work has been Highly Commended by the Forward Prizes and featured in The Forward Book of Poetry.

Edward has been shortlisted for a Hennessy Award for poetry and read at Poetry Ireland’s Introductions Series. His work is frequently nominated for Pushcart, Forward and Best of the Web prizes. His poem, ‘The Whole History of Dancing,’ won the Eigse Michael Hartnett Festival 2018 ‘Best Original Poem’ Award.

Some commentators think he is a very romantic poet but that is something he trenchantly denies and resents except, of course, when he feels like it.

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