Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with James Claffey

by Christopher Allen Read the Story September 18, 2017

James, thank you for sending “Sins of Omission” to SmokeLong. What I love about the story is that it gives us a narrator who believes in a loving God separate from the cruel hand of religion. Do you see the narrator this way?

For me, the boy is Catholic by default, through his schooling and parenting, and has major doubts about faith and its place in his life. I do think he’s an optimist at heart, seeing the fracture between the idealism of the “father figure” God, and the imperfections of the priesthood as the manifestation of God’s message on earth. Even his father doles out punishment in the name of religion and righteousness, and this serves to further confuse the boy as he traverses adolescence.

How much do you think the church in Ireland has changed since you were growing up there?

There’s no doubt the church has changed in the past thirty-plus years. I’ve been in America since 1993 but return almost yearly, so my grasp of how the social fabric has been rewoven is something I see through my visits home and conversations with friends and family. Certainly, the place of the church as the moral arbiters of society is no longer what it was. Time was the church dictated how you voted, how you married, how you conducted yourself as a person in the world. With the sex-abuse scandals and the failures of the Vatican and the Irish church to address the issue properly, many people have turned their backs on the institution, and church attendance is no longer what it was, vocations are decimated, and priests and nuns are imported from the world’s more vibrant Catholic countries. My mother’s local church has no Irish priests serving mass anymore, and the pews are half-empty for many masses. There’s a new secular Ireland where gay marriage is legal and even our Taoiseach (prime minister) is openly gay. The times they are a changing.

You teach high school in the U.S. What’s that like? What a challenge. And how fortunate your students are to have you.

Teaching high school is great; it’s time-consuming, emotionally draining, and keeps me on my toes always. I get to work with amazing artistic students who are quirky and funny and brilliant and make me reflect on my practice daily. There are times I struggle with the curriculum and how it skews towards the traditional texts and the “old dead white guys” model we’ve been following for generations. This year I’m abandoning Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Golding’s Lord of the Flies and replacing them with more culturally diverse books, so that will push my students into seeing the world through some different lenses. I’m excited to teach Sandra Cisneros, Justin Torres, and Julia Alvarez, and to inject some much-needed diverse voices into the curriculum. Teaching high school today brings a whole new set of challenges that didn’t exist in more distant times, such as technology in the classroom and the emergence of activist students who challenge the traditional ideas of sexuality and gender. I’m a big supporter of an inclusive classroom, and we have students from across the spectrum in terms of gender and sexuality. Embracing our students and seeing them as human, and as young people who are grappling with growing up in these times, is quite the privilege for me.

Tell us about The Heart Crossways, coming out from Thrice Publishing in early 2018.

The story “Sins of Omission” is an outtake from the novel, but indirectly, and gives a glimpse into what is a coming-of-age story about a young boy growing up in Ireland in the 1970s. There are elements of autobiography in there, but it’s fiction and operates in a world similar but different to the one in which I grew up. Several sections of the novel are previously published flash fiction, and that sense of fragmentation comes through in the manuscript quite deliberately. I’m not a huge proponent of traditional plot-driven fiction, though I love reading it, and I see the novel as a quiet, kaleidoscopic narrative that follows the main character through some of his formative moments. I’m excited to work with Thrice, who published a number of excerpts from the novel, long before it was ever a novel. The opening section in particular is the first piece Thrice ever published of mine. Also, the novel will be enhanced with graphic art, which resonates with the amazing artwork Thrice Magazine features three times yearly.

I’ve been working on the book for six years, on and off, and have gotten invaluable assistance with the manuscript from Ronyln Domingue, a fellow LSU writer and editor. In the beginning I was consumed by making it as plot driven as I could, but came to realize, with Ronlyn’s help, that the plot was organically sown into the story. The book will appear in early 2018, and I’m excited to see it in print.

OK, I can’t let you go without getting the best-ever guacamole recipe. Lay it on us.

Oh, man! I’ll be murdered if I give away the family secrets, but here’s a good one:

  • Three ripe avocados (slight give to thumb pressure)
  • Tablespoon of Cajun seasoning
  • Juice of a lemon
  • Teaspoon of black pepper
  • Teaspoon of salt
  • Healthy dash of hot sauce (Tabasco or Louisiana)
  • Finely chopped white/yellow onion
  • Two chopped jalapeños (deseeded)

Roughly mix the avocado with the rest of ingredients. Taste for seasoning and adjust per your taste buds. Add fresh, warm tortilla chips and beer of choice!

About the Author:

James Claffey hails from County Westmeath, Ireland, and lives on an avocado ranch in Carpinteria, CA. His work appears in the W.W. Norton Anthology, Flash Fiction International, and in Queen's Ferry Press's anthology, Best Small Fictions of 2015. He was a finalist in the Best Small Fictions of 2016, and a semi-finalist in 2017. His novel, The Heart Crossways, will be published in early-2018 by Thrice Publishing.

About the Interviewer:

Christopher Allen is the managing editor of SmokeLong Quarterly,  consulting editor for The Best Small Fictions 2018, and the author of the flash fiction collection Other Household Toxins (Matter Press). Allen's fiction has appeared in [PANK], Indiana Review, Juked, FRiGG, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts and others. Read his book reviews in Necessary Fiction, The Lit Pub, Fiction Southeast and others. In 2017 Allen was both a finalist (as translator) and semifinalist for The Best Small Fictions. He lives somewhere in Europe--for now--and curates the travel blog I Must Be Off!

About the Artist:

Alex Hockett's work can be found at Unsplash.