Meet the new wave of Irish literary novelists
Irish crime and thriller writers have made quite a mark in recent years. Now it’s the turn of a new wave of Irish literary novelists. Five debut writers introduce their books
Liz Nugent: ‘I seem to find screwed-up, sociopathic male characters intriguing.’ Photograph: Aidan Crawley
Rob Doyle: ‘It’s a novel about growing up in Dublin – and the dark side of all that.’ Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Léan Cullinan: ‘I was interested in looking at the first generation to grow up in an Ireland that is not dominated by the violence of the 20th century.’ Photograph: Alan Betson
Daniel Seery: ‘I always wanted to write a piece with a character who was lonely and on the fringes of society’
Darragh McKeon: ‘It’s quite a Greek story, in that fates are conspiring against people’
All That Is Solid Melts into Air
Set in a crumbling Soviet Union at the time of the Chernobyl disaster, All That Is Solid Melts into Air follows a group of characters – a doctor, a piano prodigy, a journalist who has been silenced – as they try to cope with the fallout. Darragh McKeon lives in New York.
What made you choose this particular story? I grew up in Tullamore, Co Offaly, and Adi Roche’s Chernobyl International brought children from that region to Tullamore for recuperation. They were among the first group of outsiders I had ever encountered, and I was just fascinated. Through them, people would talk about the meltdown. Also, Adi Roche and Ali Hewson made a TV documentary in which they talked to some of the farmers who had refused to leave the Chernobyl area. I’m from a farming background, and I got that immediately: the relationship with the land. That was probably the key element when I sat down to write.
Among other influences on your work – Colum McCann, Neil Jordan, Michael Ondaatje – you cite the Russian novelist Andrei Makine. Why? I’ve just come to him in the past three years – it’s hard to find good contemporary Russian novelists. He’s very lyrical but highly realist as well. It’s a beautiful crossover, and quite rare. He’s from Siberia, and there’s something about the sweep of his language that I think comes from his sense of place.
Your book is many things: a love story, a study of a country on the point of collapse, a portrait of everyday heroism. How would you describe it yourself? I think it’s quite a Greek story in that fates are conspiring against people so they have little or no influence on what’s going on. Like any novelist I tried to put myself in the characters’ minds and think, “How would I go about my day-to-day life in this situation?”
Are you writing another novel now? Yes. I’m starting a novel set in South America. That’s all I can say.
Penguin Ireland, March
“I expected more of a reaction the first time I hit her,” is the opening sentence of this study in deception and psychopathology. Oliver Ryan’s attack on his wife, Alice, has put her into a coma. The novel uses a number of narrators, all of whom try to explain – to themselves, and to the reader – an extraordinary act of savagery.
What made you choose this particular story? I seem to find screwed-up, sociopathic male characters intriguing. I was very taken by John Banville’s Freddie, Sebastian Faulks’s Engelby and, on TV, Tony Soprano and Walter White from Breaking Bad. Not in real life, I hasten to add: my husband is an absolute saint.
The book is partly set in France. Have you really spent time in a sprawling chateau? In 2005 my mum rented a chateau near Bordeaux in France and invited all of us – children, partners, husbands, boyfriends, grandchildren – to stay for a week. That’s the place I describe in the book.
How do you feel about your sociopathic central character? Everyone who has read the book talks about how horrible Oliver is - but I quite like him. I know readers will hate him, but I hope they will also understand him. Maybe even find some empathy with him.
Does your novel fit into a particular genre? I didn’t write a genre. I wrote the kind of book that I like to read. I don’t actually read crime novels or thrillers, so I didn’t think of it as a crime novel. I keep saying to people, ‘But did you not find it funny?’ Sociopathic. That’s my genre, if I have one. I’m not sure that I do.
Are you writing another novel now? I’m actually, right at the moment, in 1980, murdering a prostitute.
Here Are the Young Men
Lilliput Press, May
This book gets into the heads of a group of Dublin teenagers who have just done their Leaving Cert and who find that freedom is a double-edged sword. After years spent travelling and working in Europe, Asia and South America, Rob Doyle lives in Rosslare, Co Wexford.
Why did you choose this particular story? It’s a novel that’s about growing up in Dublin – the new Dublin – and the dark side of all that. I felt that I had had a very extreme experience of growing up in this city. Something painful; something that was curdling inside me; and something I had never seen represented, certainly not in fiction.
Music and computer games feature strongly in the book – the title is taken from a Joy Division song. Is this also a reflection of your own experiences? Experiences and obsessions, yeah. I had a very strong urge to write about atrocity porn, if you want to call it that; growing up in a culture where you’re assaulted by images of violence, playing violent video games and all that. I had just moved to London and found myself looking back at Dublin – and I don’t think I could have written it if I hadn’t left Ireland. It gave me the perspective to see it from outside.
One of your characters is called Rez. Why? It took me a while to get the names right but when I settled on that one, it felt good. He’s the most likeable character in the book. He’s Richard. I don’t know why they call him Rez. Although it could be something like “high-res”. He has too analytical, too high-definition a view of the world. That’s his problem.
Do you think people will compare your novel to Paul Murray’s ‘Skippy Dies’? It never occurred to me. I don’t think so, because Skippy Dies is lighthearted and funny while my book becomes horrendously bleak and dark and violent. I wouldn’t see too big a parallel, apart from the age of the characters. Also, his book has the teacher, so there’s an adult perspective, which mine doesn’t have. But that’s the way it has to be. It’s an intense, immersive experience in the heightened consciousness of these young people who are very messed up in a lot of ways.
Are you writing another novel now? I’ve got the bones of a short-story collection, which will probably be the next book. And I’m writing a lot of essays and criticism. But yes, I love the idea of getting stuck into another big project.
Atlantic Books, June 5th
Cate Houlihan has just got a job with a small Irish publishing house, which is about to bring out the memoirs of a Republican activist. Cate sings in a choir, has a great circle of friends, falls in love. But then she realises she’s being followed.
Why did you choose this particular story? I started with the characters. I was interested in looking at the first generation to grow up in an Ireland that is not dominated and overshadowed by the violence of the 20th century. (Fingers crossed.) I’m dealing with the long aftermath of conflict, really – about what happens to the people who are left to go on after. The book opens with that very important, almost Freudian thing of Cate trying to find a place to have sex. That’s the central movement of the character – from being immersed in her family’s story to starting to tell her own.
There’s a great sense of playfulness in the book, but there’s also an element of the spy thriller. Or would you agree? It’s not a thriller. The thriller elements are a sort of reification of the inner thing – that Cate is being followed around by the representatives of the past old ways of thinking, and she’s under surveillance by the generation that has come before.
And then there’s your cheeky title. I really like ‘The Living’. It feels a bit bold. Who do I think I am, referring to Joyce? My editor said, “Um, there’s a question about the title. Some people think it sounds too much like The Dead.” Then she relented. And here it is.
You come from a literary family; your grandmother was the novelist Eilís Dillon, your father has published crime novels as Cormac Miller, your aunt is the poet Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin. Is that an advantage or a drawback? To grow up in a family where to write is perfectly normal has to be a huge plus. I was very close to my grandmother, and from an early age I knew that she sat down every day at her desk at 9.30am or 10am and stood up at 1pm. I had that template, as it were; and I also began to write when I was very young. On the minus side, there were many years where I couldn’t write down any sentence that might not rewrite western literature. I got over that.
Are you writing another novel now? Absolutely. They’re queueing up to be written! The next one will be about the boom, set in Paris in 1994 and Dublin in 2008.
A Model Partner
Liberties Press, March
Tom Stacey is looking for love. He knows his perfect partner is out there somewhere; but after 22 dates with the Happy Couples dating agency, he has nothing to show but a dent in his bank balance and several complaints about “eccentric behaviour”.
Why did you chose this particular story? I always wanted to write a piece with a character who was lonely and on the fringes of society. Tom actually came about when I heard some voices mumbling through a wall, and I imagined this man listening in on his neighbours. I wanted to investigate how he ended up being isolated at work and isolated at home. I also wanted him to be a character who was fighting against loneliness and depression in his own peculiar way.
This is a real topic for our times, isn’t it? The dating agency, the online searches, the obsession. There’s a lot of talk about men’s role in society now. Tom doesn’t know where he fits in, so I suppose it’s topical that way. We’re sold this notion of perfection a lot these days. He begins to think about the perfect partner, and he starts to do research into physical and personality traits – which leads to a lot of trouble for him.
You’ve published a collection of short stories. Did you find it very different, writing a novel? Yes. With a novel it’s so easy to get lost. I have a young family, so that was on my mind when I started writing; how I could make best use of my time? My wife does a course on Tuesday and works on Wednesday and Thursday nights, so when I put the kids – Maya is six and Emma is three – up to bed, that’s my time to write. I don’t like to plot everything out but I knew where I was heading for. That kept me on the straight and narrow. I loved writing it. Tom’s a great character to write about; you can have great fun with him.
Are you writing another novel now? Yes. It’s about a fellow who won’t leave his house, and his neighbours are wondering why.