Damien Owens: ‘People confuse seriousness with intelligence. Life is a comedy-drama’

The Monaghan-born writer on finding his voice and his fascination with other families

Novelist, scriptwriter and prolific tweeter Damien Owens likes telling small stories about ordinary life. Nothing high concept. No life-or-death plot points. No vampires. Though the latter did make appearances in his childhood work. "I was absolutely obsessed with Stephen King. Every single thing I wrote ended with, 'It turned out he was a vampire.' "

Owens's new novel, Duffy and Son, tells the story of the owner of a small-town hardware store as he meddles in the personal life of his 40-year-old son. It's very funny and moving. At its heart is a flawed but fundamentally decent older man. "People are always surprised when they find older people voting for same-sex marriage or abortion," he says. "I'm never that surprised. It's not like they were a different type of person. Conservative opinions aren't inbuilt in them, it's just the way they were brought up ... I'm trying desperately not to say 'woke', my least favourite word, but I was trying to make him reasonably 21st century. But he's still a man, more specifically an Irish man, so the emotional stuff doesn't come easily to him."

"In my family it was very tense and stressful, and I used to go to friends' houses, and everything would be happy-clappy. I would be astonished"

Owens grew up in Monaghan, where his father worked for Monaghan Bottlers. He died when Owens was about 18. He thinks this partly informs Duffy and Son. "When he died, I was still absolutely in unbearable teenager mode … We never came around again to the bit where you're kind of buddies … My sisters, who are slightly older, had gone to live in London for a while and my mum and dad and I went over [to visit]. I just remember being absolutely mortified by them constantly … As far as I was concerned, I was cool man in the big city, and they were harshing my buzz. There's a photograph that my sister has of me in front of them, and I've a face like thunder on me. It mortifies me that that was the last he knew of me, this unbearable arse of a teenager."

He used to show his father the stories he wrote. “He was always very pleased that I’d written them, but he always hated the stories, quite rightly, because they were terrible. I can just picture his face reading it going. ‘This guy is going to turn out to be a vampire, isn’t he?’ ”

Six-figure sum

Owens was still in his twenties when he wrote his first book, Dead Cat Bounce, which earned him a six-figure advance and a wave of hype. “There was one of these periodic interests in Irishness,” he says. “I got a ridiculous amount of money and very foolishly quit work. I was just so naive. I never had any rejections. It was literally my first attempt at writing a book. It went, in a dreamlike way, perfectly. But the book itself wasn’t a big hit. I had this idea that you weren’t a writer unless you were a full-time writer. Almost nobody is a full-time novelist. I had this huge crisis of, ‘I’m a complete fake. I wrote this thing, got a big advance, but then it didn’t sell and now the advance is dwindling away and I’m going to have to go back to real life in a real job and it’s going to kill me.’ The term I used was, ‘It will kill me’.” He laughs. “I really thought it would absolutely destroy me.”

Owens then wrote two novels that weren’t published. “Because you’re so close to it, you can’t understand why the world hasn’t fallen in love with your genius. And then you put it in a drawer, and you give it a couple of years and read it again and you go, ‘Oh, that’s why.’ ”

His mistake with those books, he says, was that he moved away from the terrain in which he’s comfortable “which is always, in my case, small-scale domestic stuff”.

"I don't have ideas for high-tech thrillers set in the cold war. The only ideas I have are about people trying to rub along together in some small way

The problem with writing those kinds of novels, he says, was that no one expected them from a male writer. "People go, 'What about Nick Hornby?' But everybody says 'Nick Hornby' which proves Nick Hornby is just in the genre called 'Nick Hornby'. Then somebody said, 'You'd have much more success if you write this kind of thing but with a woman at the centre of it'. I thought 'I can do that' and wrote another book called The Bright Side."

His publishers at the time wanted to put a woman’s name on the cover of his books. “That just felt like cheating,” he says. “Eventually we compromised on picking a name that could be male or female and went with ‘Alex Coleman’. And it’s ridiculous because I was doing radio interviews just as I was. I’m really not happy about that, looking back, purely because I would hate anyone to think, ‘Oh, he decided to write chick-lit but was ashamed to put his own name on it.’ Which is 180-degrees wrong. I really wanted to have my own name on it.” He laughs. “It made no difference. Nobody bought those either.”

Making peace

There is some truth to what his publishers were saying, he says, which is that many male readers are more interested in nonfiction and genre fiction. “So, they either want the story of a Colombian drug lord being taken down or they want some superspy sneaking behind enemy lines. They don’t want the stuff that occurs to me, which is, ‘This man was a bit sad’.”

He also thinks funny books can be disregarded because “people confuse seriousness with intelligence … If you excise [humour] you’re excising a huge part of actual life. Life is a comedy-drama. It’s not all miserable but it’s not all hilarious either. I don’t see how po-faced literary fiction is a clearer representation of life.”

He has made his peace with the stories he wants to tell. "I don't have ideas for high-tech thrillers set in the cold war," he says. "The only ideas I have are about people trying to rub along together in some small way. I'm kind of obsessed with Anne Tyler. She's had an entire career just ploughing the same furrow brilliantly. All her books are set in Baltimore. They're all about a brother and sister not getting along, or parents and kids not getting along, or husband and wife not getting along – very small-scale stuff. She's an incredible miniaturist and I just love that sort of thing."

Why does he love it? "You know that feeling you have when you're a kid and you go to your pal's house for tea and you're looking around going, 'Wow, they don't have Heinz ketchup, they have Chef ketchup!' and it's deeply exotic. I have that sort of feeling writ large about families. They're just endlessly fascinating to me. In my family it was very tense and stressful, and I used to go to friends' houses, and everything would be happy-clappy. I would be astonished. I assumed every house was as tightly wound."

Bruising TV work

A decade ago he took his talent for writing "small-scale stuff" to the small screen with the RTÉ comedy-drama Trivia. It was based on his own fun-ruining obsession with pub quizzes. "I was like a really average second division footballer behaving like he's Messi," he says. "I'm really, really happy with Trivia. I'm just disgusted that it didn't get finished. In my head there was going to be a third series. I found that really bruising."

He paraphrases Douglas Adams, who said that trying to get a film made was like putting a piece of raw steak on a table and cooking it by having people "come in and breathe on it". With film and TV, he says, the logistics required can drain creativity from the process. "But you could write a book if you had a stick and a big enough beach."

"For the past few years, everything had to be about a woman on a train with a tattoo and a mysterious past. These things just come and go"

Owens works as a technical writer during the day and writes his books in the evenings. “With Duffy and Son I was hoovering the stairs and I was thinking about how, if Sinéad hadn’t plucked me from the shelf, I’d be an old bachelor. And then very quickly I got on to an old bachelor interfering in his son’s life.”

As someone who has written six published novels and two series of a TV show, has he any tips for wannabe writers? “Just keep going,” he says. “When you go back and read over it and think, ‘I shouldn’t be allowed to breathe the same air as normal people; this is atrocious,’ just remind yourself that that’s because you haven’t fixed it yet. The entire thing is about fixing it.”

And don’t worry about trends, he adds. “For the past few years, everything had to be about a woman on a train with a tattoo and a mysterious past. These things just come and go. As somebody said: by the time you see a bandwagon, it’s too late.”

Duffy and Son is published by Harper Collins on March 31st

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