Jim Naughtie talks with Adam O'Riordan about his first collection of short stories, set in California, The Burning Ground.
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The American West Coast has always seemed, for many people,
a Shangri-La over the horizon, all sunshine and freedom,
the last frontier that's bound to be a happy journey's end.
The poet Adam O'Riordan sets his collection of short
stories, The Burning Ground, on that golden coast,
where lives collide in Los Angeles, a city that sometimes seems the most
artificial in the world, but always casts its own mysterious spell.
You describe, in these stories, something of
I think to me it's always been a place that's had that potential,
that distance, that sense of it sort of being on the very
edge the known world, or certainly the Anglophone world.
You have a quote at the beginning of the book from Christopher Isherwood,
which is very striking, and he uses the word
On the one hand it's the home of Silicon Valley,
its high tech, it's got Hollywood, it's everything, it's
the most advanced place on earth in many ways.
Yet there is this elemental feeling about it.
I think it's the way in which those things
So you can be at the very centre of the city, you can be downtown,
but in an hour's drive, you can be in the desert or you can
drive up to Malibu by the ocean, and you're constantly reminded,
as Isherwood mentions in that quote, you're constantly reminded
of the elemental, the vast, you feel the pull of those primal
I remember very clearly the first night I'd spent
I had terrible jet lag and I remember walking down
to the beach and standing there as the sun, as the mist
was burning off and the sun was coming up and looking around
and seeing two or three drifters there beside me.
I suppose it was sort of the opening up of the space
The sense that once I was there, I could think
I could go from writing poems to writing stories,
It felt like there was so much space there.
As you mention, you're a poet by background,
Goodness me, you spent a year as Poet In Residence
In the Lake District, which is about as poetic
You've turned, in this volume, to the short story form.
What do you think it allows you to do?
I think it was the place, again, that dictated the form.
So when I was in the Lake District at the Wordsworth Trust,
I wrote a lot of sonnets, which were strangely in themselves
Then when I got to Los Angeles and started spending more time
there, I felt like the short story was the form in which I
I was thinking about this earlier on the way here,
I think one of the things that really drew me to it was this idea
that you can, the idea of invention, the idea of making this counterfeit,
There is a wonderful freedom to that.
When you're sort of tethered to the lyric eye of being a poet,
when you get that freedom to invent, that freedom to find the details
I suppose if you're writing a sonnet of 14 lines,
a short story seems as if you've got the whole world?
Yeah, but interestingly the sonnet and this short story
have the same thing in common, which is you can change something
and get a complete overview, whereas if you're writing a novel,
you can't really see the change that makes until right the way through.
So you can fix both things in a day, as it were.
The other device I suppose, that's very obvious in this
collection is one of is the short story writer's favourite ones,
where lives collide almost unexpectedly.
There's always a sense of discovery, and you can have that
moment of collision that's really very dramatic.
I guess in the same way you are in a filmic mode,
you're thinking about the most intense moments in these
You can think, how do you can condense a whole life to five or six
key moments or regrets, or things they didn't do,
places they didn't go, and then how do those things,
what are the ramifications of those things, through
In the very first story a man goes to California to meet his, I suppose
I think that journey itself, that sense of returning to meet a lover,
that sense of going to another place but there being, finding
that person has to leave and being alone there...
I think it's a city that lends itself to that kind
of melancholy as well, in a strange sort of way.
It's this sense of a place where you can be easily lost,
because it's so big and sprawling and unformed, well untamed,
But at the same time, it can be terribly intimate.
It's in some ways, which is a very strange word to append
to Los Angeles, but in some ways it's provincial.
It's not at the centre of power, aside from Hollywood power,
it's not at the centre, and because of that you get all
You get different moods, you get different reactions,
As a young man from Manchester, as I am, was, that felt sort
It couldn't be further from Manchester, but in a way,
there were these strange sort of similarities.
It's also a place where you're allowed, in fact you're almost
You can do anything, you can dress how you like,
you can say anything, you can pursue some mad scheme.
Absolutely, and I was always very interested, in this book,
to think about lives that had somehow been subjected
The Second World War, for instance, and how they then fit themselves
How you live in a place like that, once you've experienced
It's a natural subject for somebody who has got
You are teaching poetry Manchester and obviously still writing poetry.
A lot of people say that poetry is going through a pretty good
What evidence is there for that, that people
I think, again, it's maybe a digital thing,
this idea that people can share their poetry now,
people can think about it more, they can write about it,
they can find communal interest, they can express themselves.
I think also it strikes me, the first decade or so,
the very strict sense of genre or place, whether its performance
poetry or page poetry or poetry that is somehow linked to the visual
arts, all of those things seem to have collapsed into each other,
which makes for a very fertile, and fecund landscape
A lot of the barriers have been broken down, I think.
If you're talking about a contemporary world
where there is a sense of drift, where people don't quite
know where we're headed, after the economic crash,
after 9/11 and so on, poetry, historically,
has been the classic vehicle for distilling those senses,
That's right, I think that's absolutely right.
I think it has the political application, if you will,
that sense that you can use it to protest, in a way, or at least
to make your voice heard, to share your experience,
You spent a year in the Lake District, which is a great place
just to walk and to think and to write poetry.
Do you find it easy to make time to let your mind wander,
and to give time to that blank page or that blank screen?
I think, yeah, the answer is you have to, with the poems
you have to sort of let them amass quietly in the background, you have
to let them pile up over time, and then sort of recognise
when the collection is ready to be sort of tested,
But as long as you have something else to focus on,
whether it's a book of stories, or a novel or teaching an MA course,
Annd you're confident that in the end they'll come good?
Good evening. The main theme of the weather so far this week has been
temperature driven and the story, as we move