Frankie Gaffney’s advice to writers: ‘give up the booze and break some rules’

‘My aim in Dublin Seven was to present a character whose very life and death is seen by society at large as not worth caring about: the young, working-class male’

Frankie Gaffney: I did fill an artist’s notebook with anecdotes and phrases once I’d decided to write a book. I’d recommend this to anyone; daily life is instantly transformed into research, and life itself becomes more rewarding when you start finding and recording value in the mundane

Frankie Gaffney: I did fill an artist’s notebook with anecdotes and phrases once I’d decided to write a book. I’d recommend this to anyone; daily life is instantly transformed into research, and life itself becomes more rewarding when you start finding and recording value in the mundane

 

What was the first book to make an impression on you?

My Ma started reading to me long before I can remember, so I can’t recall a first book. Where the Wild Things Are made an early impression, though. I remember being simultaneously shocked and intrigued by Max’s rebeliousness. It’s a great ode to the almost Nietchzean will-to-power kids can have at that age. I found it thrilling in its rejection of authority – a theme I grasped wholeheartedly later in life.

What was your favourite book as a child?

An uncle gave me a collection of Tim Hunkin’s cartoons from the Observer (Almost Everything There is to Know). The cartoons are all little informative snippets on different subjects, collections of facts with illustrations. There was something of the old-school British Marxist about it – lots of diagrams showing how manufacturing processes worked, industrial history etc. I read it over and over again. I remember surprising teachers with some of the esoteric knowledge I’d retained about car assembly lines in Dagenham.

What is your favourite quotation?

“Passing through a red-light was like a sip of forbidden burgundy . . .” from Lolita. I think it perfectly captures the pleasure inherent in transgression.

Who is your favourite fictional character?

Leopold Bloom is such a human character. I think Molly Bloom is the sexiest character in literature – but that’s probably because since Bloom the movie I can’t separate her from Angeline Ball. At the moment I’m reading Irvine Welsh’s A Decent Ride, so I’ll have to leave the Blooms aside and plump for Juice Terry – for his sheer joie de vivre and heedless hedonism. Terry’s only legitimate job was as a boy, peddling fizzy drinks (“juice” in Edinburgh English) from the back of a lorry. He describes himself as an “aerated water salesman” ever since. Blissfully shamesless, his sole motivating factor is sex. Irvine Welsh said when you create a character who is motivated overwhelmingly by one concern – whether it be money, drink, drugs, fame – they inevitably become comic. Juice Terry, “the aerated water salesman” from Leith, is hilarity personified. His imperturbably cheerful insouciance is incredibly infectious.

Who is the most under-rated Irish author?

I cannot believe The Butcher Boy didn’t win the Booker when it was nominated – it’s the most perfectly executed and accomplished book – so I’d have to say Patrick McCabe. I think because Roddy Doyle’s genius lies in his humour, his achievement can be underestimated too. They are both huge names, but I still think they’re underestimated.

Which do you prefer – ebooks or the traditional print version?

Print.

What is the most beautiful book you own?

The leather-bound and gilded Gideon’s King James Bible I stole from a hotel room when I was 15.

Where and how do you write?

I wrote most of Dublin Seven in the amazing Anam Cara Writers Retreat on the Beara Peninsula in Cork. If you have a clear plan, and you’re serious about getting the work done, it’s the perfect environment. Three meals a day, beautiful views, amazing wilderness, quiet writing spaces – and a brilliant hostess in Sue Booth-Forbes. It’s certainly my ideal writing space. After the first draft is out, the process becomes much less fraught, and is composed mostly of revision and excision. This is more about craft than art, it’s just a matter of putting the time in. I do this at home.

What book changed the way you think about fiction?

Ulysses showed me that, by revealing the general through the particular, fiction can be as true or truer than non-fiction.

What is the most research you have done for a book?

I’d love to be able to pass off my partying days as research for Dublin Seven, but that might be letting myself off the hook too easily. Nonetheless, the research for it was just living life. Irvine Welsh said after teaching a creative writing course that the advice he wanted to give most of the students was just to live a bit more, have more experiences. I did fill an artist’s notebook with anecdotes and phrases once I’d decided to write a book. I’d recommend this to anyone; daily life is instantly transformed into research, and life itself becomes more rewarding when you start finding and recording value in the mundane.

What book influenced you the most?

Probably Roddy Doyle’s The Barrytown Trilogy and everything by Irvine Welsh. Those books presented urban settings I could really relate to, and most importantly showed working-class vernacular on the page. If I hadn’t seen it done, I don’t know if I’d have thought to do it.

What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday?

The Soul Brothers and Sister Lou (1968) by Kristin Hunter Lattany. A cool, vibrant and wise young adult book detailing the experiences of inner-city African-American teens. Struggling with the temptation of the street, clashing with a hostile, aggressive police force (who often act with zero regard for the law themselves) is something I could really relate to. Hunter Lattany doesn’t shy away from the potential tragedy of circumstance, she isn’t afraid to show that life isn’t always what you make it, and there aren’t always happy endings. As Marx wrote: “Men make their own history; but not as they choose. They do so in circumstances existing already, transmitted from the past.” It’s rare to have such a strong young female lead character, especially one who is really focussed on looking out for the troubled men in her life. It makes for a very interesting perspective.

What book do you wish you had read when you were young?

Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style. Pinker doesn’t always follow his own advice in this book – he assumes a reader with too much knowledge, for example. Its might actually be his most difficult book to read. Yet it remains the finest style guide in existence. As a professional cognitive scientist and linguist, Pinker has an extremely deep, scientific understanding of langauge. He is, unlike most commentators (the “grammar nazis” and punctuation pedants) truly qualified to make prescriptive pronouncements on written communication.

As he puts it, the “rules” of English “are not logical truths that one could prove like theorems; nor are they discoveries one could make in the lab. And they are certainly not the stipulations of some governing body, like the rules of Major League Baseball”. In this one passage Pinker sweeps away a host of misconceptions about “rules” of language. There is no correct or incorrect language, merely effective and ineffective usage. Such a mindset can simultaneously encourage us to improve our communication skills, but also to disregard silly and nonsensical rules that are foisted on us by self-appointed and unqualified language “experts” who have never so much as opened a book on linguistics. Rules such as the silly admonition not to end sentences with prepositions. “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put!”

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

I would very firmly advise budding authors to feel absolutely free to disregard any advice they’re given – including this statement. It’s important to know the “rules”, but maybe even more important to free yourself from them. Writing at its best is an intensely individual act – there simply are no universally applicable rules, only useful rules of thumb. This needs to be recognised by those who proffer advice on the subject. Almost every guidebook to writing (often including pieces in The Writers and Artists Yearbook) frames advice in terms of very hard and fast dos and don’ts. This just does not reflect the real world. If I’d followed stringently every injunction I’d never have finished my book let alone got published. Very often the advice given by publishers too (such as never to break submission guidelines) is given with their own interests in mind, not the interests of authors. I find it reckless to offer unqualified “rules” on a process as utterly subjective as writing and getting published. Giving up alcohol for a few months is a great way to boost productivity for any project, though, and something I think everyone should do intermittently anyway. So give up the booze and break some rules.

What weight do you give reviews?

I was surprised to be almost totally unaffected by getting some not-so-great reviews – maybe because I know I’ve achieved precisely what I set out to. I think a great review would probably still elate me, but I don’t really care about bad ones. Enough people have already connected with the book, understood it, related to it, and invested in the characters to satisfy me. But even if it hadn’t gotten the response it has, I know I accomplished what I was aiming for. If people don’t like aspects of it, or even don’t like it at all, well, literature is subjective. It would be a different story if I felt that at the level of execution I hadn’t managed to realise the project as intended – but I have complete confidence in that, so I’m happy.

Where do you see the publishing industry going?

I’ve no idea. I know myself that I buy and read an awful lot fewer books than I used to, and that scares me. But Liberties Press is an independent Irish publisher dedicated to releasing new high-quality Irish fiction and non-fiction alike. I find its confidence, energy and enthusiasm more than encouraging.

What lessons have you learned about life from reading?

Ulysses taught me that the only response to the ups and downs of life is to embrace them and, like Molly Bloom, to say “yes”.

What has being a writer taught you?

Dogged, persistent, fearless, unwavering, stubborn, unfaltering, relentless determination.

Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?

Donna Tartt, Jane Austen, Maya Angelou, Brendan Behan and William Shakespeare. Including myself at the table, I think that would make for a nice balance of gender, class, tastes and dispositions, and a very lively evening. I’d like to see if Jane Austen would be charmed or appalled by Behan.

What is the funniest scene you’ve read?

The scene in Tartt’s A Secret History where the dissolute classics student “Bunny” Corcoran travels to Italy on a supposed cultural “grand tour”. At the end of his stay, his friend realises the only piece of Italian Bunny has managed to learn is “Waiter, bring me a selection of your local specialties . . .”.

What is your favourite word?

Escalope.

If you were to write a historical novel, which event or figure would be your subject?

My first novel is a historical novel, it just happens to be set in near-contemporary Dublin, about characters nobody ever heard of. This was a large part of my aim in Dublin Seven – to present a character that’s been dismissed as unimportant, whose very life and death is seen by society at large as not worth caring about: the young, working-class male. I wanted to offer a snapshot of such a boy/man at a very particular point in our history: the crescendo of the Celtic Tiger.

Dublin Seven by Frankie Gaffney is published by Liberties Press

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