Kevin Curran: ‘writers should be writing against power’
‘Not one big name in Irish literature has even attempted to gauge the feelings on the street and engage with contemporary social realism without sentimentalising it’
Kevin Curran: write for no one other than yourself because, believe me, when you read that manuscript for the 50th time, if you’re not into what you’re trying to get at, you’re screwed
What was the first book to make an impression on you?
The one that sticks out is The Lord of the Flies. I’ve a vivid memory of sitting on my parents’ couch as a youngster and being dumbstruck by the death of Piggy.
What was your favourite book as a child?
I’m going to cheat here and say any of The Adventures of Tintin.
And what is your favourite book or books now?
Every week there seems to be so many new writers and old writers I’m only discovering, but Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers really blew me away. And Frankie Gaffney’s Dublin Seven is such a breath of fresh air, and alongside that is Karl Parkinson’s The Blocks. Between the two of them they’re creating a whole new literary scene!
What is your favourite quotation?
John Updike writes about the collapse of the Twin Towers in a short story, Varieties of Religious Experience, with this line: “when, as abruptly as a girl letting fall her silken gown, the entire skyscraper dropped its sheath and vanished with a silvery rippling noise”. To make you see something new through words (especially with an event that is synonymous with television) is some achievement. And Saul Bellow has an amazing few lines at the beginning of his short story, Something to remember me by, that I can’t quote (it’s too long) but it concerns a turntable and a vortex and how we sometimes see life as moving along smoothly (the turntable), but really it’s spiralling downward (the vortex). Again, incredible imagery.
Who is your favourite fictional character?
JM Coetzee’s David Lurie from Disgrace. He’s disgusting, lecherous, obnoxious but, most importantly, he’s perfectly realised. That’s a quality fictional character.
Who is the most under-rated Irish author?
I’m going to cheat and name four. Liam O’Flaherty’s version of Ireland just isn’t in vogue anymore. Sean O’Reilly mightn’t be under-rated, but definitely under-appreciated. Philip Ó Ceallaigh’s work seems to have been forgotten in all this “new wave” talk, and Christine Dwyer-Hickey definitely deserves to be much more highly rated.
Which do you prefer – ebooks or the traditional print version?
Print all the way.
What is the most beautiful book you own?
Three first edition, leather-bound monstrous slabs of books containing The Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry by William Carleton. (Got them online from a garage in Boston.)
Where and how do you write?
I write wherever I can get a moment – standing waiting for the train, in a car park, anywhere and with anything that will put words on a page. Pens, pencils, markers, anything.
What book changed the way you think about fiction?
The Barrytown Trilogy. I was about 12 when I read it and suddenly a new world of writing possibilities opened up.
What is the most research you have done for a book?
My most recent novel, Citizens, is a dual narrative from 1916 and 2011. So, the 1916 bits were heavily researched. My great-grandfather’s Bureau of Military History report was my prime source along with a book written by a newsreel cameraman from the 1920s. On a practical note, I went to O’Connell Street two years ago around April 20th and stood where I reckoned Pearse might have when reading the proclamation and then took pictures of the shadows I cast…. I was checking where would be best – if I was a newsreel cameraman in 1916 – to stand for the best light. Not quite Kevin Barry camping out in a cave, but field-work nonetheless.
What book influenced you the most?
Don DeLillo’s Libra. As I was reading it I had to remind myself it was fiction, such was the level of intensity and insight given to the lives of the main characters, most notably, of course, Lee Harvey Oswald. It’s an incredible book with a wide-screen scope that manages to encompass a defining political and cultural moment for a whole nation while opening up new avenues for fiction along the way.
What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday?
Since none of my friends have kids that age (the oldest is about 4) I’ll hold off on that one for another 14 years. Who knows, by then there could be a book I’ll really want them to read.
What book do you wish you had read when you were young?
Anything and everything by Camus. I only got into him in my mid-twenties. Amazing writer.
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
Get out into the world and live. Then write. And write for no one other than yourself because, believe me, when you read that manuscript for the 50th time, if you’re not into what you’re trying to get at, you’re screwed.
What weight do you give reviews?
I’ve mixed feelings about this. The official world loves them, and they do get your book out there, but a tweet from someone I respect or a recommendation from a fellow writer can, and probably would, be more gratifying.
Where do you see the publishing industry going?
Nowhere, I hope. Especially the independent Irish publishers. That’s where the cutting-edge literature of our time is coming from. Liberties, New Island, Lilliput, Tramp Press, Stinging Fly… think of the stuff they’ve put out recently, and what’s to come with Oisin Fagan and Roisin O’Donnell amongst others. Incredible.
What writing trends have struck you lately?
Navel-gazing literature is all the go and anything that is overtly political, or even subtly political or confrontational is kind of ignored or pushed out of the way. Maybe it is the unhealthy mixing of state funding for full-time writers or things like “The Laureate for Fiction”, but writers should be writing against power. Not one big name in Irish literature has even attempted to gauge the feelings on the street and engage with contemporary social realism without sentimentalising it.
What lessons have you learned about life from reading?
Absolutely everyone has a story and tragedy isn’t exclusive to a Shakespearean stage.
What has being a writer taught you?
If they don’t reply to your email in a matter of days, as much as it hurts to accept it, stop hoping and move on – they’re not interested. (Other writers will know what I mean… I hope.)
What writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?
David Foster Wallace, James Joyce, Sam Beckett, Edna O’Brien, Maria Edgeworth, Maeve Brennan, Bill Shakespeare and Ernest Hemingway. Stick on the X-Factor or The Kardashians and it’d all kick off.
What’s the funniest scene you’ve read?
All of Don DeLillo’s White Noise.
What is your favourite word?
“Our.” It’s a Balbriggan term that I’ve had to remove from anything I’ve ever published on the editors’ insistence. It’s “our” pronounced as “au-wer” and it’s used as a substitute for a name, like a kind of personal pronoun, as in, “How’s it going, our?” “Our lad” is my second favourite – for the same reasons.
If you were to write a historical novel, which event or figure would be your subject?
Michael Collins during the Treaty negotiations.
What sentence or passage or book are you proudest of?
In my debut, Beatsploitation, I have a scene where the teacher listens through a partition to two African kids talking. It captured perfectly the essence of the whole book, and, as far as I’m aware, a scene like that – with two black characters just talking – hadn’t been written before in Ireland.
What is the most moving book or passage you have read?
A scene in John McGahern’s The Leavetaking when the main character’s mother passes away. Powerful stuff.
If you have a child, what book did you most enjoy reading to them?
My son, Sebastien, is nearly three, so every book he reads at the moment brings with it a whole new world of enjoyment.
Kevin Curran is the author of Citizens and Beatsploitation (Liberties Press)