How I Wrote ‘Good People’ – Valerie O’Riordan

It’s probably not too much of a spoiler if I suggest that there are no particularly good people in ‘Good People’, right? After all, this is a story about a bullishly unrepentant embezzler (jailed for stealing from a charity he founded himself) and his wife, a woman who’ll cry out plaintively that she’s ‘good’ only moments after striking her own daughter for suggesting that she be excused from future visits to her dad in prison. ‘Good’, here, is synonymous with ‘loyal’, but loyalty is a malleable concept: in a world where capital commands fealty, loyalty and goodness are indexed to wealth. If Tania and her mother remove themselves from her father’s orbit, they’re surrendering to poverty – an unthinkable concept. In fact, the only objectively ‘good’ action in the story is that of their new neighbour, Mrs Delaney, who yells out furiously when she sees Tania’s mother hit her, but nothing will come of that: they cannot submit to her judgment, nor even directly acknowledge it, because she represents a way of life (poor and unashamed) from which they both shy away in disgust. Tania’s final attempt to escape her family is doomed, because she will only run backwards towards the prosperous world that has already rejected her: like her mother, all she’s left with is frustration and rage.

I wrote ‘Good People’ as part of a linked collection dealing with a group of neighbours and acquaintances living through austerity-era Britain; it’s the companion piece to another story (‘Bad Girl’) that picks up Tania’s story a year later, when, burning with the need to get out of the city and to leave her mother behind, she betrays a vulnerable new friend. With ‘Good People’, then, I wanted to explore Tania’s history, and to look at how she’s been damaged by her parents’ versions of goodness and loyalty. It’s the only story in the collection that looks at the lives of those doing pretty well for themselves, financially-speaking, and as a result (given my own left-wing tendencies!), it’s probably the story slanted most vehemently against its own characters – I hope, though, that despite her socio-political obliviousness, the reader will feel a degree of empathy for Tania, who is, of course, a victim of her parental circumstances. And I hope, too, that the reader will laugh: for all its darkness, it’s a funny story, and I try always to be guided by Flannery O’Connor, who remarked once that ‘the Comic and the Terrible […] may be opposite sides of the same coin’.

Valerie O’Riordan received her PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Manchester in 2016. She is a former editor of The Manchester Review, and current editor at The Forge Literary Magazine. Her work has won and been shortlisted for various awards, including both the Bristol and Bridport Short Story Prizes, and has appeared, or is forthcoming, in The Mechanics Institute Review, Unthology, LitMag, Fugue, Sou’wester and For Books’ Sake’s Weekend Read.

‘Good People’ is featured in Issue Seven of The Lonely Crowd. Listen to Valerie read the story here.

© Valerie O’Riordan, 2017. Image © Jo Mazelis, 2017.