Interview with Jack Harte by Karin Petko
“If you gave me a couch and a pillow and left me lying down, I would happily stay there forever,” says the former teacher and principal, active writer and man who single-handedly founded the Irish Writers’ Union and the Irish Writers’ Centre.
Jack Harte, an Irish writer and the founder of the Irish Writers’ Union and the Irish Writers’ Centre, visited our small country in November to participate in the Slovenian Book Fair. He is a retired teacher and principal who has dedicated the past 20 years of his life solely to writing. He is a short story writer, a novelist and a playwright. A writer whose books have been translated into many languages such as Russian, Bulgarian, Hindi and German, but not yet into Slovene. He is a very down-to-earth person whose life is not only about writing stories, but seemingly also about living them, since he has a story for every occasion and every memory. Chatting with him was a true pleasure.
How would you like to describe yourself using three to five words?
A decent human being.
If you could use only one word, which one would you pick?
I think the word “decent” that I used there is a very good word, because very often, decent people are regarded as mediocre. But I think that if we could reorient the world to live in a decent way and take pride in being decent human beings, the world would be a better place. So, “decent.”
What is your life motto?
Oh, you should’ve sent all those to me before, so that I could give deep philosophical thought to it. (laughs) Motto… Well, yes, I have it. It’s actually on my website — a haiku.
Don’t be distracted by the streetlamps
Above them the stars
That’s my motto.
What is your favourite book?
I have a lot of favourite books in different genres. If I were asked which author I would like to be, to write his books, I would say Bernard Malamud, the American Jewish author. He wrote novels like The Fixer, The Assistant and The Natural. A lot of these were made into film as well. He’s an absolutely lovely and beautiful writer. He writes from the point of view of the very poor, very deprived Jewish people in New York. Or, in the case of The Fixer, it is somebody in Kiev who suffers because he’s a Jew. I absolutely love his writing. In some of his stories he takes his own community to task – so it’s not the awful Christians or the awful rest of the population of the world. There’s a story called “The Jewbird” – it’s a brilliant analysis of anti-Semitism and he inverts it beautifully, so that the most significant anti-Semite is a Jewish guy who keeps talking about anti-Semitism. It’s lovely and subtle, but it’s very simple. So, yes, Bernard Malamud – I would love to have written his books.
“So yes, Bernard Malamud – I would love to have written his books.”
What is your favourite place or attraction in Slovenia from what you have seen so far?
Probably the most unusual thing, which I though was absolutely lovely, was the three bridges. That was stunning, yes.
Do you know any Slovenian words?
I don’t think I picked up any words. I’m not good at picking up languages. I speak English and Irish. After that I have a long agenda, a long to-do list with all the languages that I have yet to learn. You know, the languages of all the countries I’ve ever visited: Bulgarian, Italian, French, German, Slovenian… I get this urge to learn the language, but of course, I never have time. Oh, God…
You know, one of my novels was published first in Bulgarian, before it appeared in English – Reflections in a Tar-Barrel. The funny thing is it was hugely successful in Bulgaria, but not that successful in Ireland. But some years later I met this very famous critic in Ireland – it was the first time I met him. I know most writers and critics in Ireland, but I had never met this guy before. And we started chatting and he said: “I love your work.” And I says: “I hear you on the radio and I admire your literature show.” We kind of flatter each other a little, but then he says: “I love your novel Reflections in a Tar-Barrel.” I said I was delighted that he had read it, because it kind of disappeared. “You know, it’s a pity,” he says, “did you get any feedback from the people who run the Book of the Year?” And I says: “No, no …” And he says: “Are you sure of that?” And I says: “Aye.” He says: “I was on the board and we had to come up with the shortlist of five novels. We had six. Yours was one of them. We debated and we had a really heated discussion and eventually it was your one that was knocked off.” And then he said to me, which I though was interesting: “It was first published in Bulgarian, wasn’t it?” And I says “Yeah.”
And then it made sense – because it was published first in Bulgarian, technically the English was a translation. (laughs) And they weren’t allowed to take translations. It had to be the books that were first published in English.
“And then it made sense – because it was published first in Bulgarian, technically the English was a translation.”
How come that it was first published in Bulgarian?
The reason it was published first in Bulgarian… I had a few books published in Bulgaria and I would often be given an invitation to festivals. This friend of mine was an editor at one of the big companies and he kept asking me when was I going to write another book. At the time I had a novel finished and I told him that. And he says: “How long is it?” And I says: “It’s 76,000 words.” He says: “And it’s finished?” “Yeah, I believe so.” “Okay,” he says, “how much do you want for the Bulgarian rights? Because I will have it translated and published in Bulgarian before it’s published in English.” We were in a pub. So I said: “I wouldn’t sell you the rights to this book for any amount of money. It’s priceless. But I love that wine. I’ll sell you the Bulgarian rights for five cases of that wine – Melnik wine. So he took out a serviette and a pen and started writing a contract. And then he had everybody sign it as witnesses. And I says that I can’t read it in Bulgarian. One of the people there was a translator, so she translated it into English and I got the English version. I then always had the excuse to go back to Bulgaria, to go back and drink my royalties.
At our department, apart from translation, some students are studying to become teachers. Since you used to be one yourself, what would your advice for us be? What was your favourite part of teaching?
If you said you wanted to be a writer and asked me which job you should do to earn an income, teaching is one I would not recommend. Because there is a kind of logic out there that as a teacher, you have a fair amount of time in the evening and then you have holidays and this is the time you could use for writing. It doesn’t work like that. Teaching is the most exhausting and demanding job that anybody could do. I think aircraft control officers are about the only people who have a more stressful job. You may go home in the evening with a few hours to spare, but you have no energy to spare. Your energy is drained out of you. And besides, you have to prepare for tomorrow, correct the exercises from yesterday… Teaching is not really conducive in terms of writing, and neither is journalism, by the way. If you want to be a writer, washing dishes in the restaurant is very good – it doesn’t exhaust your mind. But if you are interested in being a teacher… I think it’s a great way to spend your life. Although for me it was never conducive to writing at the same time, I have never regretted a single day that I spent teaching or as a principal. I enjoyed every minute of it. You get a huge satisfaction from it; it is a great, great profession, I think. One of the best. There are very few that could rate more highly, except maybe medical professions.
“Teaching is the most exhausting and demanding job that anybody could do.”
So, I would say that spending your life teaching is a worthwhile way to spend it. What I enjoyed most about teaching was the engagement with people – I abhor the trend towards almost mechanised teaching where everything depends on the grades. To me, that’s abhorrent. The first element of teaching is personality; it’s the engagement of the teacher with the students. If the teacher is very enthusiastic about something, that will communicate to the students. The same goes for boredom. The relationship between students and teachers should be guarded. It’s not about the grades; it’s about the teachers. You have to trust your teachers, employ good teachers, pay them well, give them good conditions and trust them to educate the kids. That’s the way I would do it – it’s what I did as a principal. My job was to back up the enthusiastic teachers, not to tell them what to do or how to do it. I gave them support.
Why did you stop teaching and decide to become a full-time writer?
Well, I did my time. I was a teacher and a principal for 31 years, and before that I had done some other jobs for about 7 years, so I qualified as someone who could retire. I was only 55, but because I had started so young, I was able to retire. What I wanted to do was to give time to writing and I’ve been healthy and comfortable enough to survive since then, which was exactly 20 years ago. So, yes, I’ve been extremely lucky on that front.
How did you start writing? Where does your inspiration come from? How do you pick the form of an idea? How do you choose a genre?
When I was a teenager, I wrote poems and published them in local magazines and newspapers. It was when I was in my twenties and started teaching short stories that I fell totally in love with them. This form can do everything a poem can do, and can even do it better. I fell out of writing poems, haven’t written poems since, really, not seriously. I was writing short stories for 25 years.
“This form can do everything a poem can do, and can even do it better.”
Later I decided to branch out a little and started writing a novel. And then I started writing plays. I have about seven or eight plays written at this stage, but only three of them have been produced. The fourth is going to be produced next March.
Jack Harte met with ENgLIST’s editor-in-chief Karin Petko in November 2019.
So, you used to write poetry when you were younger, but now your genres are mostly novels, short stories and dramas. Do you have a favourite amongst them?
I couldn’t really pick, because what I do – my way of working – is that I have an idea. I am also extremely lazy – in spite of the fact that I am extremely active, my default position is absolute inertia – like, if you gave me a couch and a pillow and left me lying down, I would happily stay there forever. I have to kind of force myself to do anything. First, I have to force myself to get up in the morning and then I have to force myself to stay up, because of this great urge to go back to bed and just sleep. (laughs) I don’t get up full of energy and go to my desk. No; I hate writing, I hate my desk, I hate empty pages in front of me demanding to be filled. I hate it. The only reason that I write is because I have to. I’d have something annoying me, nagging at me, this idea, and then eventually, if it doesn’t go away – I do hope it’ll go away – if it doesn’t go away, I have to write it. And the next decision is for which form it is suitable: poem, story, novel, play? That’s how I decide on which genre to pick. So, it depends on the idea. I don’t have any particular favourites, though I haven’t seriously written poems in years. I have just finished another novel, but ideas that seem to come to me more often now belong to the form of plays, so I think I’ll be writing more of those now.
“If you gave me a couch and a pillow and left me lying down, I would happily stay there forever.”
In this issue of the newspaper, we are expecting to have a lot of short stories, so this question simply has to be asked. There has been many a debate on what the definition of a short story should be. What is your opinion? What makes a short story a short story?
It’s a short story. (laughs) It’s an interesting question and something that has been debated for generations. The Irish writer Frank O’Connor wrote about how to write a short story. I love his stories, they are brilliant stories – if I had to pick one of the greatest short stories ever written I would pick one of his, because they are that good. But when he wrote about the theory of the short story… It’s absolute rubbish. His type of short story is very defined. I don’t like his theory. If you compare a short story to a novel, I think it’s like comparing a dot, a point, to a straight line. How do you compare the two? A novel goes from here to there, you have certain events, they happen… A dot has no form. It presents “infinite possibility”. It can be anything, right? Anything under the sun.
My contention of the short story – what it is and what it isn’t. One of my contentions is that in trying to understand a short story, one should not compare it to the novel. They are so far apart, you might as well be comparing the short story to a forest… It would be much more constructive and you would understand a short story better if you compared it to a poem. A poem is something that sets out to create a single impression, just has your attention for a few minutes and plays on your emotions. If it’s strong enough, it will affect you and will stay with you. That should be the way the story is. A story sets out to stimulate the imagination, it doesn’t set out to go from here to there and have everything tied up in between, as the novel does. Instead, it takes the reader, lobs a grenade into the reader’s imagination, lets it explode in all directions – one reader could go in that direction, one reader could go in the opposite direction… It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you stimulate the reader’s imagination and the reader responds. In the case of the short story, the reader is an active participant, they are involved creatively in the short story. They will fill in the gaps. That doesn’t happen in a novel – where a reader is regarded as a passive receiver of the content; everything is explained. This is why short stories are not so popular, because they require you to sit down and think and imagine. To me the short story holds infinite possibilities in terms of form, objectives, impression… and above all it has to engage the reader and make them involved in creating the end product, which will then be different from reader to reader.
“A story sets out to stimulate the imagination, it doesn’t set out to go from here to there and have everything tied up in between, as the novel does.”
One day, when I was a principal, a woman came to see me about a character in my short story that was in the schoolbooks. She wanted to know what I was trying to say with the story, what it all meant, because her son had to answer some questions for school and she didn’t know how to help him. She had lain awake at night puzzling it out. I told her it was open to interpretation and that every reader could bring a different understanding to it. I said that her son should write what he thought of it and if the teacher was not happy with the answer, he should tell her that I said his was the correct answer. (laughs)
Do you always write in English or do you do it in Irish as well?
I write in English. I have written in Irish – I think the first short story I published was in Irish. Recently an editor asked me: “Do you ever write in Irish?” And I says: “Nah… I don’t think my Irish is strong enough for writing.” He suggested I write a book of short stories in Irish.
Will you do it?
Nah… (laughs) No, I find it hard enough to write in English.
What is the actual status of Irish Gaelic?
It’s interesting, because the Irish language survived in the west of Ireland but has been gradually dying out. And people were kind of having this countdown to how much longer it would last. It seems to be doomed in the rural areas, but there’s a huge upsurge of interest in Irish throughout the English-speaking part of the country, especially in towns and cities. It was mainly spurred by Irish-speaking schools. Those schools are all over the country now and young people seem to speak Irish quite naturally and this is a great development. So, what it’s losing in the rural parts, it’s gaining in the cities.
You founded the Irish Writers’ Union and the Irish Writers’ Centre. Where did the idea come from? Why? How?
Up to the 1980’s there was no organisation to speak for writers, to represent writers. Absolutely none. I think Ireland at that time was the only country in Europe that didn’t have an organisation – which is terrible, because Ireland is famous for its writers more than anything else. There was also no structure for supporting, cultivating and nurturing literature. It was pretty awful. It was also quite paternalistic. Most writers came from a privileged background and most were male, so the new writers coming in were also mostly male. It struck me that what was needed was a trade union to represent writers and get them on professional footing. I floated an invitation to every writer that I could find to join the trade union and almost all of them did. There was a kind of bubbling dissatisfaction there, so they all joined. It was only then that we tackled things such as rights – the first thing we established was the procedure of agreed publishing contracts. We also tackled other outstanding issues such as censorship.
“Ireland is famous for its writers more than anything else.”
I wanted to do two things: one was to set up a union and another was to set up a place where writers could organise their events, a place that could be their home away from home. A place for people to come in and get advice on writing and help. So the opportunity arose, because there was a huge recession in the 1980’s in Ireland – the economy was broke and the civil service was shrinking. The civil service had been using a lot of old buildings in the middle of Dublin, Georgian buildings, but they were leaving them. There was an election and the new prime minister was interested in the arts – he was also the minister of the arts – so he appointed a writer who had just joined the Union to be his advisor on the arts. And, I thought, interesting… (laughs) I saw a chance and made contact.
At first, they thought I was after money, but when I promised I wasn’t, I got an appointment. I presented my idea: the houses cannot be sold and they are not needed because the civil service is shrinking. I asked for one of those old buildings for a national Writers’ Centre and my idea was received with enthusiasm. Within a week I was told to go around and choose the building. Later I applied for funding from the new National Lottery, and it was approved. So we set up the Writers’ Centre.
You have already brought politics and the situation in Ireland into the conversation. And this question was bound to come up with the whole of Europe waiting to see what will happen. So, what’s your opinion about Brexit?
(laughs bitterly) It’s an unmitigated disaster, a tragedy. It’s just awful. We’ve been keeping a rather low profile. I could criticise our politicians for lots of things, but not in connection to Brexit. It’s an internal British, an internal UK, affair. We have been quietly asserting that there can be no border in Ireland.
These people who proposed Brexit, they are idiots. Like, they proposed Brexit without caring about the border or anything. I wonder if they even know where Ireland is. They are just a stratum of British society and unfortunately, they are hugely influential. Brexit has nothing to recommend it. And I may be left-wing, I may be a socialist, but I cannot understand how the British Labour Party are going along with it. Jeremy Corbyn is admirable in a lot of things that he does and says, but I just can’t understand his attitude to the EU, because it is one thing looking after the interest of British workers, but there are more people in the world than just British workers and we should be supporting global solidarity. So, Brexit is an unmitigated disaster and I don’t think that the UK are going to benefit from it.
“We have been quietly asserting that there can be no border in Ireland.”
Now, to a happier topic. Christmas is right around the corner and with it, trying out new recipes. Could you suggest something? What is your favourite Irish dish?
I’m not a food person, to be honest. I absolutely hate high-class cuisine. I find it boring. You’re supposed to go to these very posh restaurants with this very posh, celebrity chef and then you get these little dishes and have to pay too much. Then you get indigestion, because it’s so bloody awful. If I’m going out to enjoy myself with friends or family, I love to go to an Italian restaurant and get pasta, even simple spaghetti Bolognese. I just love that. Spaghetti Bolognese with a bottle of red wine. Hard to beat that.
How about something traditionally Irish?
We have a lot of Irish dishes. Many very basic ones, like the Irish stew (mutton, lamb in a stew with potatoes, vegetables, onions). I love that, I think it’s wonderful.
Since it is almost Christmas – what are your thoughts on the topic? How do you usually celebrate it? What does an Irish Christmas look like? What is your way of celebrating Christmas?
Personally, by ignoring it. (laughs) I hate all the hullabaloo and shopping. And the phoney socialising, like when people say they have to meet up for a drink before Christmas. You didn’t have to meet up for the last six months, so why now? I have a rule that after 8th December, which is our official start of Christmas, I don’t organise anything. I just ignore everything. But Christmas itself I like, because we have a family gathering. It’s quite a big family and the subsequent days are so quiet – I love it from Christmas Day right through. That I love, because it has to do with the real family. So in that sense I do look forward to Christmas.
Thank you very much, it was very lovely chatting with you!
Originally published in Issue XIX in December 2019.