Leonard and Hungry Paul is a novel about gentle people making their way in the world. I wrote the first draft over the course of three months, writing six nights a week at my bumpy dining room table, starting once my children had gone to sleep and working until midnight or later. There were hundreds more of those late nights spent editing but I look back on that period as the happiest of apprenticeships.
To begin with I was a songwriter. I released three albums of storytelling songs about exhausted priests, deposed Salvadorian presidents, production line workers, drowning men, and lost souls finding redemption in a German canning factory, as well as more personal songs about the loss of my parents and fatherhood. But I was a miniaturist: I condensed stories into verse-sized vignettes and couldn’t even countenance writing something as expansive as a novel, which I thought would pull my creative instincts inside out.
At the end of 2012 I semi-retired from music, quietly and more or less unnoticed. I felt creatively sated but also mentally exhausted. I needed my headspace back and fantasised about being bored again. But it took almost five years for me to understand myself more clearly and to realise that creativity is not about what I do but is instead part of who I am.
It is purely a description of how my mind works, which has something to do with resemblances and seeing one thing in terms of another
It was hard to shed my self-consciousness about stepping out of the armoire as an arty type. In the suburbs of northside Dublin where I grew up, that sort of thinking implies an upperosity punishable by a reaction of eyeball rolling. But it is actually a statement free from status and even identity. It is purely a description of how my mind works, which has something to do with resemblances and seeing one thing in terms of another. I see a dog’s tongue hanging from his mouth as a rasher. I see Leonard in a kitchenette stirring his own milky loneliness. I look at Hungry Paul through the eyes of his mother, Helen, who sees him as the sunfish in an aquarium: loving him, knowing that he might otherwise go unloved. Creativity relies on this fungibility of insight: a simple thought in one place can be used to unlock a complex thought elsewhere.
When I sat down to write the book I had no clear plot or plan in mind, other than a dim sense that I was pregnant with a gentle adult bachelor called Leonard. On one level the book is simply about two best friends: Leonard, a ghost writer of children’s encyclopaedias who is struggling to process his grief for his mother, and Hungry Paul, a judo white belt who enjoys board games and who has a deep connection with the silence all around him. More generally, it is about gentle people and their struggle to find the right balance between engaging with society and protecting themselves from it. In a world that values people who stick a flag in their viewpoint with a disconcerting degree of certainty, the book asks: where is the place for those who are unsure, both about themselves and everything else? What do they have to say?
Leonard and Hungry Paul is not meant as some modern retelling of the Tortoise and the Hare where the bumbling nice guys come out on top. Though not autobiographical, it is a tribute to the kindness I have experienced all my life and which can sometimes seem absent, largely because it is so often expressed in private. I kept in mind people like my mother’s friend, who, after my Dad died in 1983, helped to keep our household running; or the families of friends and neighbours who, when I was a child, included me in their plans for dinners and days out. All this has taught me something about the way kind people change the world. They don’t do it by force or effort, but by simply finding something they can do and offering it to others. That’s it. That’s enough to keep the planet spinning.
This created the space to depict the details of life that tend to get overlooked not because of their obscurity, but because of their everydayness, like bird feeders
This novel, then, is about human nature. But in order to allow the characters’ humanness stand in contrast, I had to mute other things. There are no surnames or place names, there are very few physical descriptions, the language is not particularly idiomatic, it takes place in a closed world and the era and location are not specified, other than a general sense that the book is set at a time and place not far from here and now.
In painting terms, it would be considered more of a portrait than a landscape. This created the space to depict the details of life that tend to get overlooked not because of their obscurity, but because of their everydayness, like bird feeders, which I use in the book as a symbol of everyday unrequited kindness. Another is silence, both in terms of the peace and quiet we experience when we stop for a moment, and that deeper internal silence that holds our sense of the profound.
The forces of attraction and separation give the characters plenty to think and talk about
One of the most influential statements in literary history was perhaps Tolstoy’s claim that all happy families are alike, implying that they are unworthy of being written about. Writers are trained to seek out drama and conflict and motivation, which means that families in books tend to have a default setting of “dysfunctional”. But is Tolstoy correct? Happy families – like the families of Leonard and Hungry Paul – are full of idiosyncrasy. Families are innately interesting in that the individual members undergo constant change and with that, a recalibration in their relationships, all the while purporting to belong to a stable social unit that they struggle to hold together. That is what goes on in this novel.
The forces of attraction and separation give the characters plenty to think and talk about, but what makes it interesting for me from a writing perspective is that they are trying to make it work. It is their commitment to each other that raises the stakes.
While this is a positive book, it is not championing unthinking positivity. The world is a big bad place and there are plenty of causes for concern – as Leonard himself reflects, the true tale of history is worryingly short of comeuppance. It is, however, a book that shows faith in human nature and which honours, in its own way, all that is at once both mundane and special. I would hope that Count Tolstoy, in his wisdom, would forgive a debut author for attempting that much.
- Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession is published by Bluemoose Books, at £8.99