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Claire Keegan's latest book tells 'Stories Of Women And Men'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Claire Keegan is one of the most admired writers of our times - known for stories and novels that can be small and tight yet packed with light, as well as ominous darkness. Let's start at the beginning of her new work, "So Late In The Day: Stories Of Women And Men." Ms. Keegan?

CLAIRE KEEGAN: (Reading) On Friday, July 29, Dublin got the weather that was forecast. All morning, a brazen sun shone across Merrion Square, reaching on to Cathal's desk, where he was stationed by the open window. A taste of cut grass blew in. And every now and then, a close breeze stirred the ivy on the ledge. Down on the lawn, some people were out sunbathing, and there were children and beds plump with flowers. So much of life carrying smoothly on, despite the tangle of human upsets and the knowledge of how everything must end.

SIMON: Three stories are deftly folded into this short book. And Claire Keegan, who has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, won the Orwell Prize for fiction and just about every Irish literary award, joins us now. Thank you so much for being with us.

KEEGAN: It's a pleasure. Thank you for inviting me.

SIMON: Let's begin, if we can, with the title story - Cathal, a clock-watching civil servant in Dublin, and Sabine, a French woman. Cathal offers her, I must say, the worst marriage proposal of which I have ever heard.

KEEGAN: (Laughter).

SIMON: He says, why don't we marry? And then it's quickly followed by, neither of us is getting any younger.

KEEGAN: (Laughter).

SIMON: Should Sabine read that as a warning?

KEEGAN: Well, I suppose she was in love and hoping to make the best of things.

SIMON: Yeah. Cathal doesn't seem to understand that when they combine their lives, they combine their lives. And she might bring along a few things.

KEEGAN: No, he doesn't seem to have much understanding of that. He doesn't have much talent for women, I don't think.

SIMON: Much talent for women or people?

KEEGAN: Well, I'm not sure what he's like with other people. I haven't seen him in that regard. But I think his main problem is that he's not able to get along with women or have the generosity of spirit that requires.

SIMON: Now, that's interesting. You say you haven't seen him get along with people other than, I guess, Sabine. Tell us how you create a character.

KEEGAN: Well, I'm not sure. I go around thinking about them and wondering what they would do in different situations - even if you're at the supermarket and looking what's in somebody else's trolley and thinking about what they'd take home with them and what they dream of and what they'd say. And a great deal of what you write down doesn't feel accurate. And I suppose a great deal of the challenge, then, is trying to become articulate and refine it so it feels accurate.

SIMON: Yeah. I have read that this story began as a classroom example for creative writing students.

KEEGAN: It did. I was teaching a group of students in a fiction writing course. I was talking about the differences between tension and drama. And one of the students asked me if I could give an example of a story which had a great deal of tension but very little drama. And so I made up this - I just made up this exercise on the board, where a fellow comes out of work on a Friday evening and then takes the bus home, and very little happens at home. But there are three moments of tension in what I mapped out on the board. And then I called the story "Wedding Day" and asked the students, would these things be significant? Would they matter? And would there be tension, even though there's little drama, if this was the day that this man should have been married, and instead of that, this is all he does?

SIMON: Second story is called "The Long And Painful Death." There's a writer on residency living in the Heinrich Boll cottage, which I understand actually exists. Retired German professor knocks on the door and more or less demands a tour.

KEEGAN: (Laughter).

SIMON: Why doesn't the writer just say, hey, I'm working in here?

KEEGAN: I suppose because it's not her home. And the phone number has been given out.

SIMON: He turns out to be another charmer, doesn't he?

KEEGAN: He certainly does. He's another fine example of somebody who doesn't know how to behave and seems to suffer a lack of tact. Men aren't coming out so well out of this so far, are they?

SIMON: Well, I - you know, I had scrawled that down as a question...

KEEGAN: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...I was going to take up with you after we talked about the third story.

KEEGAN: (Laughter).

SIMON: You don't read this book and think well of men. At least I didn't. Did I miss something?

KEEGAN: No, you didn't.

SIMON: Yeah. In that third story, "Antarctica," a married woman decides if she's ever going to have an affair, she better do it now. Takes the train into the city, do a little holiday shopping - and meets a stranger who can get the job done. Am I putting that correctly?

KEEGAN: I think you are. You could also say that she doesn't come out so well from the story, either, even from the beginning, in her intentions.

SIMON: I wonder if that's a theme that occurs to you over and over - the fact that our world is finite. I mean, you say it in the first paragraph, and you're certainly - there's a momentous sense of it at the end of the story, too. Somebody trying to put some excitement they've never had into their lives - and doesn't necessarily turn out the way that they had projected.

KEEGAN: I think our mortality does make sense of our lives, that we all know that time is finite. And someday, there won't be a full day or a full night to pass. And nobody knows when or where or why that will happen. So it's an extraordinary thing that we go along sometimes the way that we do with this knowledge, this common knowledge. But, of course, it's part of literature. And I don't think it's any but - anything people forget about for too long, especially in times of trouble and upset.

SIMON: Claire Keegan's new book, "So Late In The Day: Stories Of Women And Men." Thank you so much for being with us.

KEEGAN: Thank you so much for inviting me. It's been a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.