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Gavin Colton is a fiction writer from Ireland currently living in Lexington, Kentucky where he teaches creative writing workshops at the Carnegie Center. He also coaches academy soccer. His short story, “Little Piles of Changes,” appeared in Appalachian Review’s Winter 2022 issue and follows the working-class family of Colly, Nicole, and their two daughters, Niamh and Evelyn. In Gavin’s words, the story explores the “beauty and low moments” of this family as they face the constant struggle of life on the margins. Gavin talked with Skylar Bensheimer, student assistant for Appalachian Review, to discuss this story, his approach to writing, and his current and future writing projects.
Skylar Bensheimer: How does this story set in Ireland connect to Appalachia?
Gavin Colton: Having lived in this region for the last ten years, I’ve begun to understand the history of Irish immigrants that came to America over the last couple hundred years and how they contributed to the creation of a distinct Appalachian culture. The language feels similar when I think about southern accents and folks in Eastern Kentucky and the similarities with the quick and playful Irish dictions. It seems natural for me to begin to draw that connection between what I’m trying to do with the Irish voice in my work and how that relates to how I see the likes of Silas House, Crystal [Wilkinson], and even Bobbie Ann Mason in Western Kentucky, how they’re trying to represent voice on the page. So that was—on a linguistic level—my impetus for connecting myself to the Appalachian Review and submitting work there. And when I think about the thematic elements that are in the story that are everyday, that are quotidian, where the ordinary is examined to feel dignified and understood, that’s how I understand the work of many contemporary Appalachian writers who are working to do similar things. They showcase a group of folks from a particular area or class and conjure them on a page in this way that both celebrates and recognizes the complexities of everyday people and the comedies and tragedies that occur their lives.
SB: Are working class and ordinary people one of the main focuses in your work, whether recently or in its totality?
GC: It is what I grew up around: working-class, middle-class folks (somewhere in the margins) who worked lots of different kinds of jobs on construction sites and moved around jobs often. The writer who got me into this stuff in the first place is Roddy Doyle, who is the master of the North Dublin voice and one of the original folks who started to really push for the working man, the working woman, the working family to be on the page and celebrated and recognized in their beauty and low moments. Warts and all. I learned from Doyle and decided that there was as much to examine in working class lives where there aren’t big trips to foreign countries, people aren’t living in big mansions that I get to draw on the page, people’s problems aren’t solved by money. Their lives are often more about surviving that day, surviving that week, looking to the small moments in life. In “Little Piles of Change” there’s a moment at the end of the story when Nicole is sitting in the kitchen watching a holiday destination TV show, and there’s a moment of knowing between [Colly and her] that there’s a dream of something bigger beyond their current life that may be unlikely, and it’s hard to plan for it because they are in a financial hole with Nicole losing the job. There are all these very small obstacles that are there every day that get in the way of going on holiday to somewhere like Lanzarote or owning a second home. I’m interested in understanding all of those everyday obstacles and investigating the implications they have on characters’ actions and perceptions of themselves and what they’ve made of themselves.
SB: You said “the beauty and the low moments,” and that was something that I picked up on and really liked in this story. It seemed like Pat, at times, was more involved with Colly and the girls’ lives than Nicole was, but we also can see Nicole as a victim of the same circumstances. How do you approach writing those complexities where you can see a character from different angles and in different lights?
GC: Nicole, Colly, and the girls have appeared in quite a handful of stories I’ve written. I wanted to avoid the usual trope of a young mother who took on all this responsibility and a father just playing second fiddle to what was need in terms of being a co-parent. Here’s a marriage filled with love and understanding, but sometimes to be in love and to be understanding, as a parent and partner, is hard, and Colly in this case is doing his very best to not say what he wants to say throughout the whole story about both the job and the smoking. The smoking is more obvious, but his worry is that she’ll think it’s not about the smoking, that it’s about something else. It’s everyone painfully trying to do the right thing and, as a reader, getting to understand that dramatic irony. We know how upset he is, and he’s doing his very best not to be a negative force in her life; she’s just lost her job and rekindled her addiction to cigarettes, and he’s trying his best not to be a part of that. I think that’s where some of that complexity comes from. Nicole, in many ways, operates in the background of this story, but I hope that there’s some texture there to what she’s going through. Here’s a woman who did the right thing for another woman at work and recognizes that there’s a lack of protection for women in Irish society whose private images are distributed without their permission. She’s gone and done the right thing, sticking up for her co-worker, but it’s still caused this difficulty in the family economically because they live on the margin of survival in a working to middle-class sense.
SB: I had a similar question with Maeve and Pat, who are both side characters, but they’re very memorable. Do you have a way you go about writing side or minor characters?
GC: What’s important to me with all characters but particularly those side ones—and I talk to students about this all the time—is that your characters don’t just show up. For the characters to feel real and rich on the page and in scenes for however long they’re going to be there, it’s about understanding how they fit into the society and the world of that scene, that story, that moment. Someone like Maeve—using just small brushstrokes in the story—she has a full and rich history. She has this past of being a successful athlete and has arrived from the country, from a rural area, to the city suburbs, and brought some of that with her: the discipline, the hardness, the brass. And we know that she has spoken recently to a group of people where Colly was present and said that the future of women’s involvement in the Gaelic Athletic Association requires investment. The term I use when I teach this and think about is this is “reaching back.” A way to characterize in fiction is to reach back to a previous moment to help the reader understand how that context, that history, that previous event is influencing the narrative present of that scene. Reaching back and creating this history and understanding the lives your characters have lived before the beginning of the story helps those minor characters not just feel like they’re stand-ins for what the author wants to say or are there as plot devices, but that they’re vital to the town and they’re part of the meat and the bones of this story.
SB: I think that’s a great way of thinking about that. Thinking about history and—as the title suggests—the theme of change throughout the story, I’m wondering what change looks like for you in this momemnt, or what does that look in what you’ve been writing recently?
GC: Currently I’m working on a novel about a middle-aged married couple in Ireland, and after a catastrophic health event the wife becomes a full-time carer for her husband who bounces back with new vigor for life but is left almost blind after this complicated health situation that he’s in after a brain hemorrhage. I’m fascinated by the idea of change because it’s something that we face every single day no matter who you are or what you have, what you don’t have, or where you’re from, we are constantly facing change, and the big struggle people have is to adapt to it. In this upcoming novel I’m working on, it’s an exploration of what we do when we’re confronted with major change in life. The most intimate change often occurs inside of family structures, and particularly marriages—people stand there on their wedding days and promise forever and no-matter-what, but when we’re confronted with a dramatic shift in the circumstances, that promise gets tested. An institution like marriage comes with all these expectations and imaginations, societal imaginations, about what life looks like, and here is a moment that this story pivots around that completely throws out those expectations, those imaginations, those dreams, completely throws them out the window and strips these two folks down to the bone where they will decide to rebuild together or, and I think this might be more likely, may end up hating each other and resenting each other. Unfortunately, they had no control over the change in their marriage, and now they have to make decisions and decide how they’re going to face that change and what direction they’re going to go, together or alone. You throw some Catholic guilt into something like a marriage, and it really gets you into the thick stuff.
SB: You mentioned earlier that Nicole and Colly show up in multiple stories, and I read “The Lippy” that you had published last year. Since those are recurring characters for you, why do you see yourself returning to them?
GC: They’re fun characters to write, particularly Niamh and Evelyn. They’re mischievous, and I was a mischievous kid, so it’s a way for me to conjure all the impish behavior from my childhood and let Niamh and Evelyn reenact all those little things I enjoyed doing as a kid. For Colly and Nicole, I’ve always been less interested in writing this big, epic journey. I’m not so interested in epic heroes. A hero to me is someone like Colly who is, despite all of his inclinations—wanting to have a drink and watch a football match with his friends and stay for one more drink—always up for his daughters and for his wife. Almost at every moment of every day, he is making decisions to show up and be there. But it’s a choice. On any given day, he could not return home; I’ve known plenty of fathers who simply vanished and were found months later in their local boozer. By returning to different moments in different stories to Colly and Nicole’s marriage, to Colly as a point-of-view character, I hope to create this mosaic of a man who is both ordinary, relatable, but nonetheless a hero in the world that he exists in.
SB: Could that become a collection at some point?
GC: Yes. Both of these stories are actually in a collection that I’m shopping around to agents. I’ve been getting some interest from folks who want to look at a full manuscript, which is always encouraging. As that’s happening, I’m working on a novel. It’s my hope that this family continues to reoccur for me. I don’t think I’m done with them by any stretch. Any time I start a new story about Colly and Nicole, I think about them being on TV. I think about it as an Irish sitcom. Some of my favorite TV shows growing up were sitcoms like The Royle Family, Only Fools and Horses, and Father Ted. These writers did a brilliant job at showcasing and bringing real life and richness to everyday folks and making it meaningful and compelling and emotional. “The Queen of Sheba” episode in The Royle Family is probably the best bit of TV ever written. Timeless. That is what I’m striving to do with Colly, Nicole, and the girls, investigate the implications of human behavior. I’m working on a pilot for a long-form TV show at the moment. It’s an adaptation of a very famous story in Kentucky. I’m enjoying the opportunity to work in many forms right now.
SB: I would be really interested in that and am looking forward to seeing those projects.
GC: There’s a lot of good interest in Irish stories. I don’t know if you watch Derry Girls, but it’s a fantastic show that came out from Ireland with its third season dropping this month back home. I’m always asking myself, as an Irish writing in America, How do we make Ireland more accessible? In a sense, there’s lots of mythology around Ireland and Irish people, particularly in America. There are all these ideas about what Ireland is and who Ireland is, but it is this changing place. It looks a lot different than it did in 1980 before I was born, and Ireland now holds a much more diverse population than it did even when I left ten years ago. Drawing and writing those places and people that captures the familial, political, and social aspects in Ireland continues to be an important job as we accurately represent who we are and what we are. ■