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My novel’s roots? A rootless half-life roaming ghost estates

I like love stories that are terrifying and thrillers that are beautiful. Nothing on Earth is in between. I wanted a tale that would creep the bejesus out of all who entered in

A ghost estate in Co Laouis. Photograph: Eric Luke

Have you ever actually gone into a ghost estate, some evening in early summer? Do. You’ll find the eeriness absolute and different to derelict places where people once lived. The houses feel haunted by lives that someone hoped for, but which never came to pass.

Books begin long before their writing. When did Nothing on Earth begin?

Nothing on Earth is about a family of four in the show house of a never-to-be-completed development. One by one, they simply vanish

My marriage broke up in 2008. When that happened, we were already living in Manchester. I moved from the family home into a repo loft conversion in the city centre’s Chinatown. I lived there for six years. It was my choice, my doing. But that doesn’t make the experience hurt any less. I lost a lot of friends, and pretty much any community I might have had. I lived a weird half-life there, mostly alone, among football fans and hen parties.

Conor O’Callaghan in Chinatown, Manchester. Photograph: Eve O’Callaghan

I went home to Dundalk every other month. Odd long evenings, nothing doing, I used borrow my mother’s Micra and spin the by-roads of Louth. At the time, the county was being described as Ireland’s ghost estate capital. 2010? I haven’t researched the statistical truth of that. But I did, driving fairly aimlessly, happen upon umpteen half-finished housing developments: middle of nowhere, uninhabited, overgrown.

I would park discreetly, squeeze through the metal barrier and drift around. I remember bare breeze-blocks, graffiti, ragwort and poppies in among the rubble, scraps of glass and scaffolding. I remember occasionally calling “Hello”, for company’s sake, into hollow space. Nothing. Not even an echo. There were moments there when I felt fear like never before or since, and legged it to the car, and sped back to a world marginally more populated.

Nothing on Earth is about a family of four in the show house of a never-to-be-completed development. One by one, they simply vanish. The last is the 12-year-old daughter, who runs in a blind panic to the nearest occupied residence. A man in late middle-age answers and lets her in. When the girl disappears under his care, the man insists repeatedly upon his innocence.

The story draws upon trips home in those low years and cruising the ghost estates of Dundalk’s hinterland. Less obvious is my novel’s implicit elegy for the family of four I broke up

The story obviously draws upon trips home in those low years and cruising the ghost estates of Dundalk’s hinterland. Less obvious, though, is my novel’s implicit elegy for the family of four I broke up. The house of its setting is even the first we owned. It was a new development that did get finished, but one that remained a building site for a whole summer after we moved in. All of that was invisible to me at the time. It is only now, writing this, that I see it.

I went to Tuscany for two months in the autumn of 2012. I found a couple who had a son in Lancaster and who, incredibly, wanted to swap their hamlet in the hills above Lucca for my flat. The first pages of the final chapter were written on my first morning there. A man in exile recalls his past and insists upon his innocence. The more he insists, the guiltier he sounds. The man is not me. But after all that had happened, I understood where his voice was coming from.

The man turns out to be a priest. Priests in Irish fiction are seriously corny, so initially I resisted his vocation. But I knew the story hinged upon the girl finding refuge with a man who lives alone, and there was something attractive about the cliche of the priest. The element of pre-supposed guilt? Something… The resulting story has been likened by one friend, filmmaker Eamon Little, to an episode of Father Ted directed by David Lynch.

What else is in the mix? All those horror movies watched with our teenage son and daughter when they stayed with me: The Shining, The Innocents, Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Blair Witch Project… A story on BBC Radio 4 about tsunami survivors who had ingested masonry. A member of my community workshop who was serving life for republican activities. His flat had been bugged by MI5. Because the tapes were presented as evidence at his trial, he received copies. He spent his days in prison listening to his past.

I like love stories that are terrifying and thrillers that are beautiful. Nothing on Earth is somewhere in between. I never wanted to write a heart-warming slice of life. I wanted a tale that would creep the bejesus out of all who entered in.

There is no resolution. This seems to spook readers more than any of the strange events described. Resolutions feel unrealistic. I didn’t know what happens, and still don’t, and I wasn’t going to make up a resolution just to give the reader a safe landing point. Far truer to me is the idea of the reader feeling into darkness for something solid to cling onto, and being frightened by the gradual realisation that there is nothing there.
Nothing on Earth was released in paperback last month by Black Swan Ireland, priced £7.99. However, it can be purchased for only €4.99 if bought with a copy of The Irish Times in any branch of Eason until April 14th. Eileen Battersby interviews Conor O’Callaghan at the Irish Writers Centre in Dublin’s Parnell Square on Wednesday, April 26th, at 7.30pm. It will be available as a podcast on April 30th