'I write because I don't quite know how to live'
Keith Ridgway recently returned to Dublin after a decade in London. He tells SINÉAD GLEESONabout the changes he sees, his new novel, ‘Hawthorn Child’, and the trade-off between writing and life
‘I’M CHAOTIC IN MY approach to work. I can go for months without writing, and regularly do, but I’m always thinking about it,” says Keith Ridgway. “Actually sitting down and writing is something I find very difficult. I have to drag myself to the table, and I’ve never enjoyed it.”
Today Ridgway is sitting at a table by the open window of a Dublin hotel bar. Quietly spoken, he has to raise his voice each time a bus trundles past. We’re here to discuss his latest book, Hawthorn Child, an accomplished novel that takes several literary risks.
The title refers to two Sweeney-type London police officers Ridgway has installed in the centre of the book. It’s difficult to call them protagonists, as they drift in and out of a narrative of motley characters that include a criminal big gun, his pickpocket driver and a Premiership referee.
One of the officers, Hawthorn, a hardworking gay policeman in the Met, stands out as the most intriguing. Thwarted, he suffers inexplicable crying jags, when he’s not participating in well-rehearsed good-cop/bad-cop routines.
“I don’t think Hawthorn’s issues are particularly unique or special,” says Ridgway. “He’s just baffled with living. What’s weighing on him greatly is life. He’s a character who finds living difficult, and that’s his problem, but then that’s a problem we all have, to one extent or another.”
Hawthorn finds fleeting connections and short-lived joy in gay saunas, but contentment eludes the characters in this book. One man, a petty thief, finds love, which sustains him through a nerve-racking career of chauffeuring a crime lord. This section, Goo Book, originally ran as a story in the New Yorker. Although Ridgway says that Hawthorn Child is a novel, he has an interest in experimenting with form and point of view, as is evident from his past books The Parts and Animals.
“I’m told this is a novel,” he says with a laugh. “I usually start off knowing what I’m writing, but one form can drift into the other. The novel just requires you to take a slightly deeper breath than a short story.”
In Goo Book the thief and his girlfriend tie each other up and dictate sexual demands, but they are unable to verbalise their intimate feelings. They resort to a secret notebook, which they fill with tender words that they can’t say out loud. Does Ridgway believe the act of writing things down is a way past the verbally inexpressible?
“I find I get very frustrated, particularly when it comes to lovers, that I can’t express what I want to say,” he says. “Days later I write a long letter, and not only does it say what I want it to say, it’s devoid of anger. Any kind of love affair has those private moments that no one else will ever know about. There’s something terribly sad about that. When a relationship ends you grieve for it as much as for those moments. Even if it’s written down, and documented, it will never mean anything to anyone else.”
This precision in putting words on a page is evident in the way Ridgway approaches a novel. He says that he doesn’t write drafts but edits as he goes. “I write a lot of notes that pile up. There are offcuts, and it’s not pretty . . . The aftermath of a manuscript can resemble a slaughterhouse floor. When I get to the end of a book I put a full stop, burst into tears, have a drink of whiskey and send it to my agent.”
He smiles and sips his coffee. As someone who acknowledges the difficulty of writing, and the potholes of articulation, Ridgway thinks carefully before he answers a question. These days, he admits, he is more relaxed about life, in contrast to the time before he came out.
“I was pretty closeted until my early 20s. I would surreptitiously wander past the gay section of Books Upstairs and linger.” He laughs. “Eventually I became more comfortable with who I was and figured that I just had to get over it all.”
Ridgway was a big reader as a teenager – “I read the Russians devotedly; Dostoevsky was a huge influence” – but didn’t particularly seek out gay writers. His first published story was in Quare Fellas, an anthology of gay Irish writing edited by the current Gay Community News editor, Brian Finnegan.
Hawthorn is one of many gay characters Ridgway has created. Five or 10 years ago, he says, he would have denied there was anything of himself in his fictional creations, but now he’s more accepting of the bleed between his work and his life.
“There are a number of things that are integral to who I am as a person and as someone who writes,” he says. “I’m a queer writer, I’m an Irish writer and I’m a male writer. I was a Londoner for a while and am a Dubliner for life. It’s impossible for me to disentangle these parts or to say how much each contributes to my writing. They all make up part of my perspective, and all a writer does is try to impose their perspective on the reader.”
After 12 years living in London he returned to a much-changed Dublin last year. In his affecting story How to Drown, from his collection Standard Time (which won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature in 2001), a brother and sister discuss the inevitability of emigration. In the years between that book’s publication and the present, the boom pumped up Dublin, its buildings and its inhabitants’ idea of themselves. Ridgway admits that he found it difficult to write about the city from a distance, especially when the pace of change was so frantic. He doesn’t identify with the Joycean and Beckettian idea of the exile as chronicler, wanting instead to write about what he is surrounded by. Over the past decade he returned frequently to Ireland.
“I hated what I saw,” he says. “It was obnoxious, and it became a parody of gross commercialism and consumerism. Thankfully, that has started to recede, and Dublin now is a much better place than it was six or seven years ago.”
We discuss storytelling nights and the numerous artistic ideas and spaces that have emerged from the dregs of the boom. He is glad of the creative atmosphere here now but laments the fact that the country “see-saws in terms of economics”.
Ridgway hails from a different generation from that of the emigrants who are leaving Ireland now. This is the Facebook generation, who Skype, tweet or text any time a twinge of homesickness hits.
“There’s a different attitude to today’s emigration,” he says. “The yearning and exile is not there any more. Instead there is a come-and-go attitude, a sense of trying to grasp an experience. There’s also a lot less finality about those moves, and it’s good for Dublin to have people return with new ideas and experiences.”
The constant communication enabled by today’s technology is potentially distracting for a writer, but Ridgway embraces it, regularly blogging and engaging on Twitter. Generally he writes his fiction longhand in a notebook, but if he’s online, and happens to be editing, he doesn’t mind being interrupted by notifications or chat requests.
“You live in the world, and if you can’t write in the world, then you can’t write,” he says. “If you need to retreat, you need to think about what you’re doing. If I’m at the computer, sometimes communication flashes pop up – and I love that. I value it, and it informs and helps my writing.”
Since his return to Dublin, teaching creative writing has helped to sustain him. For many writers, even ones as good as Ridgway, the income from book sales is not even close to a small salary. Perseverance is as important as inspiration.
“And with writing there’s a trade-off between the work and life,” he says. “If I was a happy, contented, settled person, I don’t think I’d be writing. Writing well, for me, involves starting with a sense of something being wrong or that I’m unhappy with something.
“That’s not a situation I’m happy about – but I write, as well as I can, because I don’t quite know how to live.”
He half-smiles. An hour previously he apologised for being bad at interviews, but his candid words linger in the room as the photographer sets up his camera.
Hawthorn Child is published by Granta