American writer and poet Tess Gallagher on Ireland and her deceased husband Raymond Carver

American writer and poet Tess Gallagher divides her time between the US and Sligo and is coming to Armagh next week. She speaks to Brian Campbell about Ireland, Raymond Carver and Birdman

Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in Birdman
Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in Birdman

TESS Gallagher lives in an idyllic spot in the extreme north west of the USA but she still spends much of each year in her cottage in Co Sligo.

The American writer and poet, widow of writer Raymond Carver, lives in Port Angeles, Washington, close to the Olympic Mountains and with a view that looks north to Canada. Yet Gallagher has been coming to Ireland on and off for 40 years now and is quite happy to swap her view of the Strait of Juan de Fuca for a view of Lough Arrow.

“I first went to Ireland in the early 70s. I was on a pilgrimage to Yeats’s grave. Now I’m usually in Sligo every three months and I usually stay from one month to three," she says.

“My neighbour Josie Gray lives just up the hill. He’s a painter and I made a studio for him in my garage. He’s been painting for 21 years now. He only started when he was 69.

“It's a lovely life where I'll sit in my chair and read and write and go for walks and go and see the horses.”

Gallagher and Gray collaborated on the 2007 book of stories Barnacle Soup. She will return to her Co Sligo abode next week ahead of a reading at the John Hewitt Society International Summer School in Armagh.

While she will be reading brand new poems and some from her ninth poetry collection Midnight Lantern (2012), she will also no doubt be asked about her involvement in the Oscar-winning film Birdman.

Directed by Alejandro Inarritu, the film starred Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson, a washed-up Hollywood star who tries to revive his career by writing, directing and starring in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

Gallagher is the literary executor of Carver’s estate and was contacted by the acclaimed Mexican director Inarritu about the Birdman screenplay. She says her annual Irish retreat had a big part to play in her agreeing to the project.

“I doubt if it would have happened if I had not had that chair [in her cottage] in Ireland. I order up movies and I happened to order one of Alejandro's films and I thought he was a genius.

“I sat in that chair and I went on to watch all of his films. It's a funny synchronicity that works in my life, because I got back to America and it wasn't long until this proposal came through from Alejandro.

“I couldn't believe it. I asked to see the script but I was already thinking, `My goodness, this is something else'. So I got the manuscript. But if I hadn't known Alejandro's work, there wouldn't have been the basis of trust to go forward.

“I went to New York and I had lunch with him and we talked non-stop. It was a wonderful meeting and we were in perfect accord and I more or less went to bestow my blessing.

“We began to have a correspondence and write back and forth over email and have a friendship, really. I met Chivo [Emmanuel Lubezki], the cinematographer, and some of the actors too.”

The astonishing film went on to win four Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Director), while Michael Keaton was pipped to the Best Actor award by Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything).

“When I saw it I was really knocked out by it. It's really something,” says Gallagher. “Keaton was amazing. Eddie Redmayne did well but his performance wasn't in the same register. Keaton volunteered everything and he put everything not on the line but way over the line. It was too bad he didn't win but he was so gracious at the ceremony and Alejandro was wonderful too.”

Gallagher says she was told that sales of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love shot up after the success of Birdman. She says Inarritu is “a poet in film” and cites his 2010 film Biutiful as one of her favourites.

Apparently Inarritu is a big fan of Gallagher’s poetry too. “I did naughtily say to him once, 'Why not make a film about a poet?'” she laughs.

Gallagher first met Raymond Carver in the late 1970s, just after the latter had confronted his destructive alcoholism and gave up drinking for good.

“The first time I met him was in Dallas. He was still married and I had a boyfriend but I thought he was an amazing guy and I loved his work. The next time we met was a year later in El Paso and he was on his own then and a relationship was possible and I had left Montana, so the timing was just right.

“When I met him first he had been sober for five months and nobody gave him a chance that he would stay sober. I met him a year later and he had managed to stay sober, even though he still had his wobbly things going on. I thought he could make it and I had to trust that feeling and go forward and see what we could do together.”

Sadly, Carver died of lung cancer aged 50 in 1988 but Gallagher cherished their time together. “It was a very intense beautiful time, those 10 years. I was so lucky.”

Gallagher has always been a fan of Belfast and she took Carver to the city in the 1980s, when they stayed in poet Paul Muldoon’s apartment.

“I wanted Ray to meet my friends in Belfast. He really enjoyed it. He wasn’t drinking so I think he was astonished at how much alcohol went down. He couldn’t stay in the pub and everybody wanted to entertain him, so they had a music session at the apartment, arranged by Ciaran Carson. But 10pm was Ray’s `Cinderella’ moment and he excused himself and said good night.”

Gallagher also recalls travelling up to Belfast from Sligo in the dark days of the Troubles and recalls a 'memorable’ lunch with poet Michael Longley in the aftermath of a bombing.

“Michael invited me to lunch at a hotel and on the way I saw smoke coming from there and I was so worried about Michael as I walked towards it. When I got there, the tables were all set up outside. The kitchen had obviously survived [the bombing] and Michael was out there ready to have lunch, with smoke pouring out of other parts of the hotel. Only in Belfast. So I sat down and we had lunch.”

She says she loves the “pensiveness and the deep mindedness” of Irish poets including Longley, Medbh McGuckian and Ciaran Carson. Gallagher has Irish roots herself (Quigleys, McSweeneys, Owens). Her maiden name is Bond and the Gallagher comes from her first husband Larry. She says Ireland is still the main inspiration for her poetry.

And while she has travelled the world and taught at universities across America, she is happy to be based back in her native Port Angeles.

“I’m like the salmon; I have to come back to my river.”

:: Tess Gallagher will appear at the Market Place Theatre in Armagh next Thursday at 11.15am (along with Anne-Marie Fyfe) as part of the John Hewitt Society International Summer School (johnhewittsociety.org).