Author Claire Keegan reflects on her deep love of stories during visit to Harpeth Hall
When Claire Keegan was in secondary school in Ireland, she was presented with a list of what jobs women could have. Hairdresser, air stewardess, secretary, nurse, teacher, and so on. For Ms. Keegan, looking at that list was like going to a restaurant and seeing a menu full of food, but with nothing she wanted to eat — there was simply nothing on the list for her. She did not know what she wanted to do, but she knew her dreams were beyond that short list.
Despite this uncertainty, one thing remained a constant in her life throughout her education – her deep love for stories.
As a child, growing up in a house with no books, she remembers finding paper to stitch together to create her own — even writing her name on the front before she could truly spell or write. In college, reading a profoundly moving memoir inspired her to pursue a double major in English literature. After her graduation, she returned to Ireland, which was grappling with the highest unemployment rate in Europe at the time. She applied for, and got rejected from, job after job after job. During this period in her life, she instead started writing stories for competitions. Then she won those competitions. And now… she is here.
“I’m not sure if I ever wanted to be a writer,” Ms. Keegan said. “It wasn’t something I had in mind. It is just what I was. I didn’t know that is what I was, and I didn’t have an ambition to do that. I just liked stories.”
Now, Ms. Keegan is the widely acclaimed author of three collections of short stories and two novellas. One of her novellas, “Foster,” was adapted into the first Irish language Oscar-nominated film, “An Cailín Ciúin (The Quiet Girl),” while the other, “Small Things Like These,” is currently in the works with Matt Damon and Ben Afflack’s production team.
Ms. Keegan journeyed from her home in Ireland to Harpeth Hall this November to speak at an assembly, where she shared insights with students on the writing process and her experiences as an author. Ms. Keegan read a selection from “Foster,” which was given to all faculty and upper school students as a gift to the school, and then encouraged students to ask questions. During this engaging discussion, students sat rapt as, in her lilting voice, Ms. Keegan spoke on her perspectives on writing, discussed the process of having her work adapted for film, shared moments from her life growing up, and shed light on authors who inspired her, including Flannery O’Conner, Eudora Welty, and Anton Chekhov. In fact, reading Chekhov in her 30s was a turning point for the writer.
“He is really quiet,” Ms. Keegan shared with students. “He wrote this wonderful letter to his brother, Alexander, and he said ‘grace is when you make the least number of movements between two points.’”
As an author of short stories, this sentiment spoke to her.
“When I was a child, I remember seeing a gymnast at the Olympics. …I remember seeing a young woman on a beam. I just loved what she could do with something so ordinary. I loved how it was a plain thing in itself, and she could get up and at any moment she could fall and lose her balance and she could do all these beautiful things that were, to me, aesthetically pleasing. …To be able to do something like that in that short space, on that short beam, knowing at any moment you could fall, was really appealing to me. [Writing] short stories is much the same. The level of intensity is really high. …You cannot sustain that level of intensity for 300 or 400 pages. I was attracted to that.”
Although Ms. Keegan has achieved commercial success with her short stories, she never aspired to build a “career” as a writer. She simply wants to share stories. As she says, writing suits her. From the beginning of an idea to publication, she will write dozens of stories, laboring over her paragraphs for days, until she discovers something promising in her work, an endeavor she loves. With each story she writes, she learns something new.
“It really mattered to me that I wound up spending my time doing something that I did not really know how to do, in the sense that I would always be learning. You really are learning every time. Every time you begin a new story, you are faced with a different set of difficulties, a new set of difficulties, and you don’t know what to do with it.”
“It is lovely to be able to make a good living doing something you love doing. That to me is wealth.”
Claire Keegan is the author of “Antarctica.” “Walk the Blue Fields, “Foster, and “Small Things Like These.” Her latest collection of short stories, “So Late in the Day” debuts on Nov. 14, 2023. Ms. Keegan was able to visit Harpeth Hall as a part of the Massey Lecture Series. Established by Barbara Massey Rogers ’56, this endowed series provides funds to invite distinguished thinkers on moral and ethical issues to campus. This program inspires and fosters Harpeth Hall’s commitment to a moral awareness and ethical climate focusing specifically on integrity, charity, and goodness in our life together on campus. In addition, Harpeth Hall thanks Morgan Entrekin, the president and publisher of Grove/Atlantic, for his gift to support this opportunity for students to read “Foster.”