Molly McCloskey

1964- ; b. Philadephia, grew up in Oregon; dg. of a WWII veteran and Wake Forest basketball coach (“Jack”); took sports schol. to St. Joseph’s University, Philadelphia; moved to Ireland in 1989; married and settled in Sligo, playing basketball with All-stars in West of Ireland for some years; separated, c.1992; published first short story appeared in Force 10 (ed. Dermot Healy - who changed the ending); winner of 1995 RTÉ/Francis MacManus Award, and Fish Short Story Prize, 1996; issued Solomon’s Seal (1997); her story “Another Country” was anthologized in The Faber Book of Best New Irish Short Stories, ed. by David Marcus, 1996; settled in Dublin in 1998, after a brief return to Philadelphia; completed Philosophy MA at UCD; worked at writing abstracts; issued The Beautiful Changes (2002), novella and three stories, in which title-story concerns Henry, a former baseball hero who descends into alcoholism, leaving home and daughter, and his quest for recovery along with his daughters attempts to reunite them;
scouted for Curtis Brown by David Marcus; recipient of the Ireland Fund of Monaco Literary Bursary at the Princess Grace Irish Library, Autumn 2003; travelled to Shri Lanka and to Bosnia, 2004; she has also worked in Kenya co-ordinating aid for Somalia for the United Nations, c.2006; issued Protection (2005), a Frantzenesque novel about memory - human and mechanical - incorporating a dystopic view of contemporary Irish society; her story “This Isn’t Heaven” was chosen by Richard Ford among short-listed entrants for the Davy Byrne’s Irish Writing Award, 2009; issued Circles Around the Sun (2011), a non-fiction account of her brother Mike’s schizophrenia, written with the assent of family members and using family papers to mine ‘the dramaturgy of my family’); named Memoir of the Year by the Sunday Times in 2011;
returned the US and settled in Washington, 2013; visited Guatanamo US Base in Cuba for trial of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the Saudi citizen accused of bombing the USS Cole in Aden, Sept. 2016; issued When Light is Like Water (2018; in USA as Straying), a story of adultery, short-listed for Irish Book Awards; winner of Short Story Award (US) with “Life on Earth”, 2018 - about a brief affair between a liberal woman-professor and an military US veteran of the Iraq War; has worked as writer-in-residence at Trinity College, Dublin [TCD], University College, Dublin [UCD], and George Washington University in Washington; currently lives in Washington, DC; she returned to Ireland for a reading at Sligo Library on 24 Oct. 2018 and as at the National Press Club, Washington, on 2 Nov.; her flat shared a house offFenian St. with The Dublin Review.

There is an Molly McClosky author-website - online; accessed 23.02.2021

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  • Solomon’s Seal and Other Stories (London: Phoenix House 1997), 144pp.
  • The Beautiful Changes (Dublin: Lilliput Press 2002), 224pp. [stories].
  • Protection (Penguin Ireland 2005), 309pp.
  • When Light is Like Water (Penguin Ireland 2018); Do., issued as Straying (NY: Scribner 2018) [short-listed for Irish Book Awards]
  • Circles Around the Sun: In Search of a Lost Brother (Penguin Ireland 2011), 233pp.
  • ‘A Nuclear Adam and Eve’, in Arrows in Flight: Stories from a New Ireland, ed. Caroline Walsh (Dublin: TownHouse; UK & US: Scribner 2002), pp.233-66.
  • ‘If a guy doesn’t think this is fun ...’, in The Dublin Review, 16 (Autumn 2004), pp.37-48 [infra].
  • ‘Our Own George Clooney: the UN in Somalia’, in The Dublin Review (26 Winter 2007-08) - extract available online; accessed 23.02.2021.
  • ‘What Are we Still Doing in Guantanamo?’, in Los Angeles Review of Books [Quarterly Journal, No. 14] (29 May 2017) - available online; accessed 23.02.2021.
  • ‘Tainted love: why women still pay for adultery’ [Women and Adultery in Contemporary Fiction], in The Guardian (11 Aug. 2017) - available online; accessed 23.02.2021.
[Radio work: discusses When Light is Like Water with With Anne Enright and Sean O'Rourke on RTE - online; q.d.; accessed 23.03.2010
  • review of The Sexual Life of Catherine M., trans. Adriana Hunter (Serpent’s Tail), in The Irish Times (29 June 2002) [‘... what you get in this book is a chronicler more tedious, more self-indulgent, than any dinner-party bore you have ever clapped ears on ... this blend of voraciousness and apathy rings false’].
  • review of Chinua Achebe, The Education of a British-Protected Child, in The Irish Times (16 Jan. 2010), Weekend, p.10.
  • review of Siri Husvedt, The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves, in The Irish Times (6 Feb. 2010), Weekend, p.12.
  • review of America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril, and Liberation,  by Elaine Tyler May, in The Irish Times (24 July 2010), Weekend [q.p.].
  • review of The Children of Lovers: A Memoir of William Golding, by Judy Golding [his daughter], in The Irish Times (23 April 2011), Weekend [‘written in a clipped, engaging and unsentimental style’ q.p.]
  • review of Jane Shilling, The Stranger in the Mirror: A Memoir of Middle Age, in The Irish Times (29 Jan. 2011), Weekend, p.11.\.
  • review of Bird Cloud, by Annie Proulx, in The Irish Times (26 Feb. 2011, Weekend, p.11).
  • review of The Long Goodbye: A Memoir of Grief by Meghan O’Rourke, in The Irish Times (13 Aug. 2011), Weekend Review, p.11;
  • ‘The other side of psychosis’, review of The Locked Ward: Memoirs of a Psychiatric Orderly, in The Irish Times (21 Jan. 2012), Weekend, p.10.
  • [...]

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Shirley Kelly, ‘The Blow in from Oregon’ [interview-article], in Books Ireland (Feb. 2002), quotes McCloskey as saying: ‘One of the reasons I like it here is that it’s so small, like a stage. I come from a place that’s so huge and my family has had a peripatetic life. It’s nice to find such a strong sense of place.’ Further, ‘It’s not that the place hasn’t impinged on my consciousness and imagination. It has, deeply, but I think I could only ever write about Ireland as an outsider and I’m beginning to do that now. I’ve just written a story for a new anthology, which is set in Ireland but from an outsider’s perspective, and I’m working on a novel based on that story.’ Notes that The Beautiful Changes was first submitted to Phoenix as a novel but ultimately published by Lilliput Press as a novella with additional stories. McCloskey relates that her own father left home when she was eleven but was not an alcoholic - as in the title story of the new book. (p.47.)

Martin de Kerimel de Kerveno, ‘Molly McCloskey, nouvelle invitée’, in Happy Monaco [magazine online de la Pincipauté (7 Oct. 2003), supplies news-coverage on McCloskey’s tenure of the IFM Bursary at the PGIL [Princess Grace Irish Library), with these additional comments and quotations: ‘Egalement journaliste et critique indépendante, Molly a l’écriture dans le sang. Sa vocation date de son enfance: “A l’époque, quand j’en parlais, on me conseillait de devenir avocat, ou journaliste. J’ai fait un autre choix de carrière. Je ne sais pas vraiment ce qui m’inspire. Disons que ce qui m’intéresse, c’est la mémoire, collective et personnelle”. Peut-être une bonne façon, au-delà de la barrière de la langue, d’entrer en communication avec les autres. Native de Philadelphie, aux Etats-Unis, la jeune femme aime s’ouvrir à d’autres idées, d’autres cultures. Son grand-père, portoricain, l’a familiarisé avec la langue espagnole, qu’elle a ensuite étudiée et qu’elle parle suffisamment bien pour envisager de s’installer en Espagne. La France, elle s’y intéresse aussi, mais bien qu’elle ait aussi vécu à Paris, elle ne parle pas le français. La notion d’exception culturelle, elle l’ignore, mais s’y intéresse, et raconte: “Les Anglo-Saxons ne lisent pas beaucoup les auteurs d’autres langues. En Irlande, nous connaissons Michel Houellebecq, car il habite là-bas, mais peu d’auteurs contemporains sont traduits. C’est dommage, je pense qu’il nous manque quelque chose”. Quelque chose comme une ouverture sur une autre culture. Aussi Molly compte-t-elle bien profiter de son séjour sur la Côte d’Azur pour découvrir d’autres lieux, d’autres gens, d’autres façons de vivre. Et même si, comme elle le dit en souriant, “ici, à la Bibliothèque, tout le monde parle anglais …”.

Kathy Sheridan, ‘Family Faultlines’ [interview], in The Irish Times (25 June 2011), Magazine sect. (pp.18-19), gives an account of Circles Around the Sun (2011), McCloskey’s book about her brother Mike’s illness and its impact on their family, telling the story of a young man who was a star athlete and a diligent student at school but used psychotropic drugs at Duke college and was diagnosed schizophrenia at 23. Mike is 14 years older than Molly so that she has no memory of his pre-illness times when he was a ‘pure shooter’ in basket-ball parlance. Her closest brother is Steve; her unfailingly upbeat mother is Anita [Nita]; family stresses bring on divorce.

Anthony Glavin, review of Circles Around the Sun, in The Irish Times (15 June 2011), Weekend Review/Books, p.10: ‘[...] Early on in this brilliant, at times heartbreaking book, Molly McCloskey tells how she first tried to tell its story of her brother Mike as a novel. But, trusting in Tolstoy’s assertion that every family is unhappy in its own inimitable way, she ended up crafting instead a remarkably courageous memoir that is as strange and rich as any fiction. [...] Having scant memory of her brother’s younger, healthier self and little understanding of his illness during her pre-teen and adolescent years, McCloskey has crafted her story as a kind of reclamation project. It is a determined reconstruction of her brother’s life and loss, drawing on an archive of 40 years of family letters that her mother gave her, as if memoir itself were a kind of recovered memory. But it is also much, much more, for McCloskey candidly examines not only her brother’s illness and its impact on her family, but also her own at times near-desperate struggle with anxiety and alcohol. [...] McCloskey herself gave up the drink in 1996, after a late-September lost weekend in Sligo, which she describes in a majestic, loving valediction, “the early evening sun streaming in the window and all the food and drink and friends I would ever need”. Definitively clear since then about herself and alcohol, she steadfastly declines to draw any such conclusions about her brother Mike’s condition, unlike her father, a second World War veteran, who sees his eldest son’s illness as the straightforward result of the drugs he took during a storied era that laid waste to the prevailing simpler story of a happier, patriotic postwar US.’ (See full text online at The Irish Times - online.)

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Sophie Haydock, Short Story Award Interview with Molly McCloskey (6 April 2018) - associated with the 2018 Award.

When did you first begin to write, and why? Do you remember the initial urge to pick up a pen and get words down on paper?
I first began to write in a diary, like a lot of kids. I began to publish when I got out of college and was working at a newspaper in Portland, Oregon. I was sort of a gofer, but I was surrounded by editors who kindly agreed to read my submissions, and occasionally to publish them. My first published short story resulted from my knocking on Dermot Healy’s door one rainy day in Sligo, when he was running a magazine called Force 10. He changed the ending without telling me, and I remember thinking: ‘Is that allowed?’

How would you describe yourself and your work to people who may not know your writing already?
I think one thing I would say is that I like to write both fiction and nonfiction. And I think these two ways of writing have begun to infuse each other in my work, so that my latest novel reads like a memoir, and my memoir - hopefully - reads a little like a novel.

To what extent do you draw on your own autobiography for fiction? Are authors compelled to write about what they know?
Authors are compelled to write about what excites and interests them. My feeling about a lot of novels I pick up is that they don’t feel necessary - I mean first and foremost to the writer. They don’t feel like books that absolutely had to be written. As for autobiography, sometimes I draw on it a lot, sometimes hardly at all. The point is that the story has to stand on its own, and whether it rings true or not bears zero relation to whether things in the story happened in real life.

You draw on the war in Iraq and Afghanistan in your story, Life on Earth. Do authors have an obligation to be political or make an important point, do you think?
I don’t think writers have any obligation other than to write the world as they see it, and to aim to write as well and as honestly as they can. Writers are like people - some are political animals, others aren’t; to pretend an interest in something you’re not really interested in makes for bad writing. As for making an ‘important’ point, it has to be important enough for a writer to spend the time crafting the story and for a reader to spend the time reading it. But it needn’t be ponderous or solemn. Comedy is important, too. And any time you put two people into a relationship, you’ve got politics.

Where did the first spark of inspiration for that story come from? How did the plot and characters develop? Was it an easy process?
In 2013, I moved back to the US - to Washington, DC - after having spent 24 years living abroad. To find myself in America’s capital city was like getting a crash re-entry course in my home country. During those first months in DC, I read David Finkel’s wonderful books, The Good Soldiers and Thank You for Your Service, which are alluded to in my story when the narrator talks about reading a book on the surge in Iraq, and there being no sexier feeling than coming under fire, and the state soldiers are often in when they come home from war. I started to think about the civilian/military divide in American society, and about how we - ‘we’ being liberals and civilians like the woman in the story - outsource our ‘security’ in ways we’d rather not always think about. DC can feel steeped in the kind of vibe that the story attempts to depict: an end-of-days anxiety, power, militarism, surveillance, paranoia. At the same time, the city’s demographic is very left-of-centre, no matter who’s in the White House, so there are really interesting currents in DC jostling and conflicting with each other. The story attempts to enact some of those conflicts in the form of a brief affair between a conservative military officer and a liberal English professor. The female character thinks that the officer represents a form of safety in an anxious age, but of course discovers that the kind of safety she’s looking for doesn’t exist anymore and maybe never did, because it’s not about being safe from a specific threat; the anxiety is something more free-floating and elemental.

Do you always like the characters you create? Is it important to feel sympathy for your protagonists?
I don’t always entirely like my characters, but I always want to understand why they are the way they are and what drives them, and that process involves the development of empathy. I think it’s far more important that you find your characters interesting than that you like them; and if you do dislike them, you can’t allow the story to become a way of beating up on them - which is boring and a very one-sided fight.

Which short story by another author has had the most profound effect on you and why?
About 30 years ago, I discovered the story, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, by William Gass. There was a lot going on it - structurally and narratively - that I didn’t entirely understand, but I knew I was reading something extraordinary: a story that went at its subjects obliquely, and yet in language that was devastatingly precise. I loved its fragmentation, its repetitions, all the beauty and loneliness. It showed me some very important things about the possibilities of the short story form.

And finally, is there anything you’d like to say about being shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG short story award?
It’s a huge honour to have your work recognised by other writers, and to be in company with writers whose work you’ve read and admired. All those clichés people trot out at such times: they’re really true.

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Anne Enright

‘A precise memoir about a schizophrenic sibling’, review of Circles Around the Sun, by Molly McCloskey, in The Guardian (Fri, 1 Jul 2011); available online; accessed 23.03.2021.

Every once in a while, a writer's voice hits such a clear note, the resulting book has the kind of sweetness that makes you hold it in your hands a moment before finding a place for it on your shelves. Circles Around the Sun is this kind of book: it's a keeper. A memoir of a schizophrenic brother, written with great care and simplicity, it is one of those stories that waited until its writer was ready to tell it.
 Molly McCloskey is an American author who has lived in Nairobi, Kosovo and Ireland. She was born 14 years after her brother Mike, so she was only a child when he first became a worry to his parents. It is always somehow hard to see your family properly, and this difficulty is compounded when they become obscured by mental illness. Who is Mike McCloskey? His sister goes through early photographs looking for clues. Here he is as a toddler: ‘His fair skin and blond hair lend him a radiance, as though he exists in a flash of sunlight.’ And again as a boy: ‘Thin as a rail, with freckles and a brush cut he flips in the front with a bit of Butch wax.’ This ‘fragile’, ‘angelic’ boy will be, in middle age, unkempt, a chain smoker, who walks with ‘the thorazine shuffle’ and speaks with the flattened affect of schizophrenia.
 The McCloskeys are a good-looking family. Her parents were so handsome and wholesome they featured in a 14-page photo spread in Ladies Home Journal in September 1953. Loving, frugal, outgoing, they were portrayed as the ideal postwar couple. Molly's father was, at the time of Mike's early decline, the coach of a failing basketball team. He subsequently turned his career around, by bringing the Detroit Pistons to win the National Basketball Association league.
 Mike too was competitive, and he got a basketball scholarship to college. His life, in the American way, might have peaked just there- if only the ball had found the net. But success seemed already too problematic for Mike and his story was, for a while, the story of the 1960s, as he took drugs, went on road trips and dropped out. Mike was the guy- and we all know someone like him- who disappeared into adolescence and never made it back.
 What makes McCloskey's tale distinctive is the steadiness of her questioning gaze on the problem of personality and what it is to be ‘well’. As college becomes more difficult, his girlfriend notices how Mike's sweetness became ‘overlaid with something false and stylised, like he was straining to detach himself from who he had been, and with unconvincing results.’
 Schizophrenia makes Mike somehow less authentic to his sister, as if the whole business was a kind of bad faith. Nor does the fact that he is helpless make him nice. The adult Mike sees himself as living among ‘retards’ and McCloskey nails the feeling of inadequacy the mentally ill engender; how they can make ordinary people feel so guilty and inadequate. ‘Despite his disdain for the niceties of human relations,’ she writes, ‘there was an expectation that we would not call him on his own fabrications or delusions.’ On a visit in 2007, she felt ‘as transparent before him as I had when I was 12 and he'd turned his condescending gaze on me and laughed out loud as I walked by. “You look lonely,” he said, and sat down.’
 The love between children and parents makes some sense to us; what McCloskey tries to understand is the fugitive, surprising and constantly reconstructed love that exists between siblings. She looks at Mike and wonders not just who he is now, but whether he is also a key to her; a piece of information that lies latent in her own genes?
 McCloskey was in her youth a catastrophic drinker - she seemed to bring a kind of American innocence to the project. She lived for some years in County Sligo, not short of good pubs, and gave up alcohol after a bad Christmas binge there. It is tempting to think of her as an amateur among the more seasoned, hard-working drinkers of that place, but she describes sobriety with the tenderness of the true drunk: ‘In the beginning,’ she says, ‘I just felt forgiven.’
 If there is something to be learned from these pages, it is the redeeming power of something well described. Precision may, after all, be a kind of prayer. Molly McCloskey is a fine fiction writer, whose drift away from the United States has made her work hard to label: we are, perhaps, more attuned to the voices of migrants who travel the other way. She writes as someone displaced: open-minded, exact. Word by word she makes her way home. [End.]

—Available at The Guardian - online; accessed 23.02.2021.

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If a guy doesn’t think this is fun ...’, in The Dublin Review, 16 (Autumn 2004): ‘[...] I did resurface, but I didn’t achieve redemption. Instead, I watched history repeat itself, in slightly more farcical form. Around 1990, while living in the West of Ireland, I discovered there was a “Ladies” team right there in Sligo. Despite initial reservations prompted by the term “Ladies”, I signed up. / We were the All-Stars, and our coach was a towering, balding, pear-shaped Englishman named Mike, or Miy-uk, as we called him, mimicking his accent. Miy-uk’s primary piece of advice to us seemed to be: Breathe through your noses, girls! Through your noses! But I liked Miy-uk, and Miy-uk liked me. I saw his eyes light up when he heard my American accent, and light up even brighter after he’d seen me play. It’s not that I was great. Even back in 1982, in the bloom of youth and with a full scholarship, I could’ve foreseen my own obsolescence. The women’s game was improving much faster than I was. I was not a good enough ball handler, I couldn’t jump that high, my shooting was inconsistent, I played (according to my brother) “matador defence”. And, I was never hungry enough, probably because deep down, I didn’t really care. I thought basketball was beautiftil - I loved the aesthetics of the game, the fluidity, I loved executing my trademark move: head fake right, quick first step left, one dribble, off the glass and in - but winning had always been more a pleasure than a need. Still, relative to the other Sligo Ladies All-Stars, who hadn’t the benefit of my training and pedigree, I was pretty good.’

Getting lost - review of John Edward Huth, The Lost Art of Finding Our Way [Harvard UP], in The Irish Times, 20 July 2013), Weekend Review: ‘For a long time I avoided Stephen’s Gren, or if I did go in, I ventured only into the shallows, never so far that I couldn’t retrace my steps to the gate which I’d entered. To go deeper was to invite frustration. If I attempted to use the Green as a shortcut from, say,, the Grafton Street corner to the Earlsfort Terrace corner, I would invariably become confused by all those curly paths, and wind up emerging on a side of the Green which was not the side I’d intended. It wasn’t the lost time that bothered me - these were minutes spent in a park, after all - it was the repeated sense of defeat. / Over the years the Green became, in my mind, proof (as if I needed more) of my utmost inability to navigate the simplest non-grid terrain, of my complete lack of an inner compass, of my propensity for sinking into daydreams. And then, some months ago - and here comes the embarrassing part - I though that if, instead of gazing at the ducks or the people or the curly paths, I would pick a building visible above the tree line and, as I moved through the Green, I would track my position relative to this rooftop. Having to do this made me feel even more foolish, but it worked. I got to where I wanted to. [...]’

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