Keith Ridgway: ‘I was completely content with the idea I would not write again’

Irish novelist on his return to writing with A Shock and the characters he fell in love with

‘If there’s an optimism in this book, and I think there is, it’s in the way people share stories with each other’: Kevin Ridgway’s A Shock is released this week

‘If there’s an optimism in this book, and I think there is, it’s in the way people share stories with each other’: Kevin Ridgway’s A Shock is released this week

 

“I never read interviews with writers, ever. They just don’t interest me,” says Irish novelist Keith Ridgway. “I know I’m supposed to be promoting my work, but I don’t know what that involves, so I always find them kind of weird and stressful.” This is not his opening gambit – interviewer beware – but a reply to my question about whether he likes doing this sort of thing.

In fact Ridgway, for the hour we spend looking at one another’s houses through a webcam, is perfectly affable and open in answering my other questions about his new novel A Shock, which is released in Ireland this week, the UK next month and the United States in July. And anyway he hasn’t had to do it for a while: it’s nine years since his last novel Hawthorn & Child, which not only delighted long-term Ridgway-watchers, but attracted a new fandom in the likes of Zadie Smith (“idiosyncratic and fascinating”) and Ian Rankin (“whatever it is, it’s great”).

I realised after a while that I hadn’t written anything in quite a while. And I felt really no desire to

Disappearances are nothing new for him. After the publication of Hawthorn & Child, Ridgway deleted his website, where he previously published new short pieces of writing for a hungry following, and deactivated his Twitter account. He’s back on Twitter now but deletes all his tweets after a week.

Where has he been? For most of the nine years, he wasn’t writing. He wasn’t blocked: “I just decided to stop.” He had started a new project after Hawthorn & Child “but it wasn’t very good” so he decided to take a break for a year. “But that year just extended. And I realised after a while that I hadn’t written anything in quite a while. And I felt really no desire to. So I thought, ‘Okay, that’s the end of that then!’”

He found himself announcing his retirement from writing to his publishers. “I was completely content with the idea that I would not write again.” But what happened next was: “ Having stopped writing, the weird thing was I stopped reading. For a year or something. And I didn’t like that.” Ridgway weaned himself back via Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels, and “I found myself jotting down ideas, and gradually over a period of a few months the characters who end up in A Shock began to emerge. And then I had to do the embarrassing thing of calling up publishers and saying, ‘Actually . . .’”

So A Shock’s arrival was – sorry, but – a shock. And now we can all read it, this multifaceted assembly of the stories of a group of people living in a particular part of London. That in itself makes it sound a bit like Hawthorn & Child, but while both are novels made of linked stories, A Shock feels more a single unit than the previous book. Did he approach it the same way?

With Hawthorn & Child, Ridgway says, “I wanted to write a really, really fragmented book . . . and with this one, it was the opposite, there was much more thought at the beginning of a bunch of people in a particular geographical place. It ended up becoming slightly more fragmented than the original idea. So yeah,” he says with a laugh, “it is another one of those books. I’m going to get people insisting that this is a short story collection, and it’s absolutely not, it’s a novel. It’s a polyptych, one of those altar pieces made of panels. You can take one of the panels away but they only really work together.”

It’s also another London book, like Hawthorn & Child and his 2006 novel Animals. Does he think of himself as an Irish writer these days? “Yeah I’m an Irish writer, I have an Irish passport. At the minute I just happen to be writing London books.”

But, he says, “I feel much more like a Dubliner than I do an Irish person. And now I feel like a Dubliner and a Londoner. I certainly don’t feel English, but I am a Londoner. And it just so happens that I’ve written a kind of London trilogy. But that’s over now, so what I write about next . . . who knows.”

Loving characters

One of the remarkable things about A Shock is how the characters get under the reader’s skin – or they did for me, as someone with no usual desire for “relatability” in fictional characters. I found myself caring about the people in A Shock, from Gary (“good heart, bad head. Always a bit high or a bit low”) to drug-addled Tommy and even shifty, nebulous characters such as the man known variously as Yves or Stoker.

“When I’m writing characters,” says Ridgway, “I kind of need to fall in love with them. And there isn’t a character in this book that I didn’t fall in love with, one way or another. They’re an act of the imagination of course, and they come out of me . . . but I really do love the characters in this book. All of them. I think they’re a mess, most of them. I’m really glad you have that feeling towards them as well because that’s what I want to do.”

Is there one character he loves more than others? “No, I can’t have a favourite. That would be appalling!”

But what we also get in A Shock, amid the well-observed portrayal of how people behave, interact and try to live, are some strange moments. There’s one which I will describe only as “the mice!” and in the longest chapter, The Flat, Ridgway leaves behind the narrative’s intimate tone and describes a man, David, moving into a new home, with no insight into his thoughts at all. The reader watches him like a camera, yet it becomes the tensest chapter of all.

“Yeah, it’s weird, isn’t it?” says Ridgway. “I mean, what is that guy’s problem?” But this chapter’s impersonal approach, he explains, comes from that love for his characters. “There’s a sense in which I believe the characters are entitled to some level of privacy. From me, even . . . which sounds bonkers, but there’s some kind of weird way in which, as a writer, you have to trick yourself into believing they’re real.”

That chapter, he says, was influenced by the novels of Jean-Patrick Manchette. “Some of his books are written in this completely observational narrative voice, where you don’t have access to the thoughts of the central character at all. And they work really well as thrillers, because it raises the tension. You don’t know what anyone’s thinking. Anything could happen at any moment.”

That power writers have – to create tension, to make us love their creations – seems relevant too to the political background of A Shock. “I find it difficult to write about politics directly,” says Ridgway, “but I wanted the book to be very much about the way in which politics is experienced.” It’s set in the time of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the UK Labour Party, and some of the characters are “trying to organise kind of hopelessly around the Labour Party”. The characters are, says Ridgway, “drifting towards a sense of hopelessness” and – as one of the characters puts it – “just trying not to get absolutely f**ked over every hour of every f**king day.” At one point a character talks about how little exterior power, in the real world, a writer has. Would Ridgway like them to have more?

“It depends who the writer is,” he says. “Some of them, it might be terrifying. But I don’t think it’s just writers, it’s all of us, right? There’s an appallingly lopsided distribution of power in the societies we live in. Writers are way down the list of people who should be given more power.”

What writers can do is tell stories, and A Shock is full not only of the characters’ own stories but the ones they tell each other. It flows over with invention and imagination. “If there’s an optimism in this book,” says Ridgway, “and I think there is, it’s in the way people share stories with each other.”

The central chapter of the book, he says, is titled The Story and consists of two characters sharing stories with each other, “and there’s something beautiful in that, that’s where the love is. That’s what I believe, that fiction is something that has love in it, and the writing of fiction that I do, that comes out of that very basic, human, emotional need to share stories with others. And there’s real power in it.”

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