What was the first thing you wrote?
I can’t remember a time I wasn’t writing something. At some point very early on it must have occurred to me that I could best make sense of the world by transcribing it. And I was a pretty creative (or possibly weird) kid. I wrote reams, I played with paperbacks as if they were toys, I made my cousins read for parts in atrocious plays I penned, produced and directed. I still have a novel I wrote when I was eight, which was about a magical horse, of course, and tragically mistitled Tundercloud.
I’m not surprised that you wrote plays. There is a theatricality in your writing, in your dialogue, the “size” of the characters, the anarchy of some scenes, and situations that border on farce. Have you ever considered writing for the stage?
The notion never presented itself and I like to think there’s a reason for that. I’m very conscious that there are different kinds of writing and fiction and different skills and outlooks required for each of them. I should probably just leave it to writers whose love for the stage makes them far better candidates for creating beautiful plays. I realise this may be a strange point of view for a writer from Gort, where Lady Gregory lived and held court.
What made you start a blog?
It was around 2006, and blogging was all the rage. At the time there was a lot of talk about how good writing was no longer good enough in publishing. That year I remember the Sunday Times anonymously sending the opening chapters of VS Naipaul’s In A Free State to 20 agents and publishers and every one rejected it. It was an anxious time and I had no background in the arts and, it seemed, no way in. But blogs were getting a lot of attention, and it seemed a nicely democratic way of going about things. I was very clear about what I wanted from it – a platform and a profile from which I could eventually launch a career.
So what I used to do was write about the world I lived in – a council estate in Co Galway, then a selection of much nicer houses in Cork – and treat it in a kind of gonzo way: largely hyperbolic and usually through a character – an amplified, wittier, crankier version of myself.
Your journey to publication is quite a modern story... writing a blog, building an audience, getting the attention of literary world leading to a publishing deal. Is that really the way it happened?
I suppose it is. There were quite a few writers and artsy people in and around the Irish blogging community at the time, and I was encouraged by people like Sinéad Gleeson, who remains a champion of and huge influence on so many new writers, Julian Gough, Belinda McKeon, Arlene Hunt... It was a really constructive and supportive environment. People took an interest, opened doors, made introductions. Blogging and new media was a fresh and exciting setting. It felt revolutionary but the process was just the same in the end: you write something, someone loves it, someone offers to help you develop it. As simple and as difficult as always.
A lot of authors have a mentor or champion when they start out (you mentioned Sinéad Gleeson) and Kevin Barry seems to have been that for you too. I remember interviewing Kevin in London on the release of Town and Country and he was raving about you then.
Ah, where would I be without Kevin? He emailed me asking for a story when he was compiling Town and Country and I thought some wag was taking the piss. I wrote Saturday, Boring, he liked it, and career-wise things progressed then at a rate of knots. You really couldn’t ask for a better champion, in that he’s generous and frighteningly clever and subsequently his attention is validating. And scary – I live in mortal fear of letting him down. And, of course, his work is brilliant. He gives all of us a standard to aspire towards, does he not? As we’d say in Cork, he’s pure daycent.
You’ve said a few times that you have mixed feelings about the short story. It seems you try to stay away from them but they keep seeking you out – Town and Country, The Long Gaze Back, Radio 4... is the universe trying to tell you something?
There are times I stick my fingers in my ears. Short stories are concentrated, ergo intense and vivid in a very different way to novels. I tend to wallow in characters and plot and so I’ve had to train myself to write short-form pieces. But there’s nothing quite like reading (or even better, writing) a good story. I suppose the fact that Irish writers have always been so good at the short form, and that it’s held in such high regard here too, is intimidating. Nothing will expose a writer’s weaknesses quite like the short story, I think. I tackle them only when I’m feeling indestructible, which isn’t often. There’s so much more room for making, finding and correcting mistakes in a novel.
Also I’m very lazy and if you take two years to write a novel no one gives out to you.
Your debut novel The Glorious Heresies is set in Cork. What’s your relationship to the city?
Romantic and borderline obsessive. Ah no, I have family in Cork so I spent a lot of summers there as a kid. Then I moved down to study in UCC at 17, met a Corkonian, married him, and developed a very strange dyadic accent. It’s a funny thing: my being a little bit outside of things amplified Cork’s linguistic idiosyncrasies, and I fell hard for Cork Hiberno. I worked for years in construction in Cork and a couple of my colleagues took great pleasure in nurturing my interest in Corkonian expressions. But ask me their Galwegian equivalents and I’d be lost. I think it’s easier pick up on regional quirks once you have a bit of distance from them. I had to move back to Galway to miss Cork enough to write about it. Maybe when I go back to Cork I’ll miss Galway enough to remember all of our native slang and write a Galwegian novel.
Your novel is populated by murderers, drug pushers and prostitutes, and this is reflected in the style which is wild and bold but rides on a wave of black Irish humour. Tell us a bit about the story – what drew you to this cast of characters?
This is an odd one. A couple of my characters are, admittedly, exceptionally accomplished in their chosen illicit fields, but most of them are barely a bad decision from what we’d call normal. Certainly I know a bunch of people who made similar choices and ended up in similar messes, though I’ll say no more about that. I think it’s a case of people being a bit sheltered (positively so!) that makes my cast look depraved or deranged. But I digress.
Heresies came to me in brief images and snatches of dialogue. I had one image of a woman of late-middle years, walking through the city, marvelling that she had just killed someone and nobody around her could tell. I had the character of Maureen in my head already, and so it occurred to me that maybe this woman could be her and that maybe she could spin out the yarn for me. Ryan, Karine, Tony and JP had also existed in one form or another for years. They just needed a story, and that first image kick-started it. I wrote it in a bit of a mad rush, which I think contributes to the pacing and to that very peculiarly Irish gallows humour; it’s a breakneck and rowdy thing, I think. Kind of bouncy, but hinting at murk. Like a stone skipped over a lake!
You’ve finished your next novel. Can you tell us what we have to look forward to?
The plan was always to write three novels set in Cork and drawing from a certain pool of characters, so the second is supposed to function as a loose sequel but one that works on its own merits, too. I suppose in a kind of Barrytown Trilogy way. And I wanted my three novels to adhere thematically to the classic “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” hendiatris. Which makes the second novel about drugs, perhaps not always literally...
One shouldn’t play favourites with characters because it can lead to erasure of flaws, provision of easy ways out, all that carry-on. That said, Ryan is my favourite character to work with, because he’s so allergic to sensible decisions. He took the thread of the story from Heresies and ran off with it, into the second novel, not looking where he was going. Anyone wondering how he gets on after Heresies will find out soon enough.
Spoiler alert: he makes a hames of everything.
The Glorious Heresies is out now in paperback (John Murray, £8.99)