“The Coast of Leitrim” is about Seamus Ferris, who, at thirty-five, “was by no means setting the night on fire” and his love for Katherine, a Polish woman working in his local café. When did you first start thinking about these characters? Did you set out to write a love story?
The summer just gone was an almost hysterically fine one in Ireland—weeks of uninterrupted sunshine—and we all went a bit off the rails, basically. We emerged screaming from our caves and raved at the light. With the excess of sun, I found myself kind of unnaturally happy and moved to write a romance. This was a profound shock to me.
But I’d had the idea for a while for a character like Seamus, a kind of sniffy or even pretentious young man, overwhelmed by the delicacy of his own feelings, and very much a fish out of water hereabouts. He came into a more sympathetic relief when I put him beside Katherine, who seemed to find the good in him.
The story indeed opens during an unusually sunny June, with the fields around Seamus Ferris’s cottage idling “in what seemed a Continental languor” and the hills to the east “a Provençal blue in the haze.” If it had been raining all June, would your protagonist ever have summoned the courage to talk to Katherine?
Not a chance. I think we underestimate the effects of weather on the heart, the mind, the soul. This might be especially true in a place like the northwest of Ireland, where we have this vast and ominous presence on our doorsteps—the Atlantic Ocean—with its massively melodramatic weather systems.
Weather has a profound effect on the emotions, and who’s to say it’s not a very significant force in steering us in certain directions in our lives, causing all sorts of lurches and sudden, chancy moves.
Katherine has a sureness to her that Seamus lacks. Did you always know she’d possess this kind of quality?
As soon as she opened her mouth, she seemed to have that calm or even quality. And, I thought, if anyone was going to steady the ship of this couple, it would have to be her. She has the kind of personality that he craves for himself, really. He maybe thinks that she might (in that nauseating expression) complete him in some way.
The last story of yours we published, “Deer Season,” was about the interplay between a confident girl and a more reclusive man. What does the focus on two characters allow you to do as a writer?
Yes, I seem to be the poet of these lopsided little romances, with desperate, shaky men and somewhat blithe women. I don’t know where this stuff comes from.
With everything I write, stories or plays or screenplays, the narrative tends very quickly to center itself around a double act. I can see them coming miles off at this stage, and I think to myself, Oh, Jesus, here we go again . . . more duologues. I just seem to enjoy the snap and rhythm you can get going with a two-hander, the natural musicality of it. And, of course, it allows entry to one of the great mysteries—the way the presence of another can transform the way you see yourself.
Seamus appears to be a man prone to self-sabotage. He starts to imagine that there must be some old love Katherine is pining for. When he confronts her, “he was aware that he had a face on him like his father’s. Untrusting and cold.” You don’t reveal all that much about Seamus’s family background in the story. How telling do you want this kind of line to be?
The most significant details with a story are often the ones you leave out, or maybe just allude to. I tend to write quite long first drafts, and then slowly take the scaffolding away, bit by bit, and see if the thing is still standing up. This editing process is actually the fun part. First drafts are horrendous. I always think of the “Alien” movie with the creature crawling out of the dude’s chest—that’s what it feels like when the first draft is emerging.
We’re told that Seamus has been through a lot, but I’d rather have these spaces of darkness and shade at the edges of a story than to over-explicate. I like with a story not to know much about what happened before, and less again about what happens next.
Toward the end, Seamus seems destined to succumb to the fatal flaws of jealousy, distrust, and obsession. Yet the story saves him. Why did you choose happiness for Seamus?
Seamus is the classic Irish fatalist—we’re world-beaters in the field—who can’t quite believe there’s anything good coming. But then the story completely blindsided me, actually. As I was writing it, there seemed to be an atmosphere of dread building, and I was half expecting it to finish with blood on the walls. But then this great swoon of romance descended on the page . . . I thought, you’re writing a love story? With a happy ending? But in a way that’s quite a radical move.
The story takes its title from the destination of Katherine and Seamus’s first date, the four-kilometer coast of Leitrim. Why use it as the title?
It’s one of these weird occasions where the title came first. About six months ago, I saw a newspaper headline in a property supplement about a house for sale on the little-known “coast of Leitrim.” And, I thought, “The Coast of Leitrim” . . . I’m going to call a story that.