Patrick Freyne: ‘Sometimes I don’t know what I think until I’ve written it’

Patrick Freyne. Photograph: Chris Maddaloni
With his new book of essays, Irish Times journalist Patrick Freyne has delved into uncharted territory and occasionally found himself fighting  his comedic instincts

As a kid, I remember watching The Late Late Show, and being charmed and a little disoriented to find not Gay Byrne interviewing a celebrity or politician, but rather the host himself being grilled by some or other lesser Montrose mortal.

I remembered Byrne making a big show of his disapproval at such a reversal – the lips pursed, the eyes agleam with sardonic admonishment – which made the whole thing that much more enjoyable.

Maybe this happened only once in reality, but in my memory it is a periodic occurrence, as though every time a celebrity guest went Awol, they’d drag Joe Duffy or Mike Murphy or whoever down the hall to interview the big man about his life and work.

I found myself thinking of the old Late Late switcheroo as I was preparing to talk to journalist Patrick Freyne about his new book OK, Let’s Do Your Stupid Idea. The comparison is admittedly eccentric – even, I’m willing to concede, deranged – but it seemed to me that there was something of the same poacher-turned-gamekeeper energy to my sitting down to interview Freyne for the publication that has been his home turf for almost a decade.

Freyne, as anyone who shoots so much as the occasional glance at The Irish Times will know, is not just a writer of consistently funny television reviews and cultural criticism, but also an interviewer of rare sensitivity and depth.

Whether he is talking to homeless Dubliners about the difficulties of life on the streets in lockdown, or wandering around a small town in Lincolnshire soliciting the opinions of random people about Brexit, he approaches his craft with a uniquely open-minded acuity.

His writing has a combination of humour, intellect and decency that is rare in journalism or, for that matter, any other form.

A couple of years back, as he reached his mid-40s, Freyne started to wander outside the formal perimeters of what had, to that point, defined his career. In early 2019, he published an essay called Brain Fever in the Dublin Review. The piece was funny and charming in most of the ways you’d expect from its author, but it was also much more than that: it was personal and revealing in a manner that set it off from anything he had published before.

It took the form of a kind of survey of the sources of its author’s various disquietudes, with sections headed Loneliness, Hypochondria, OCD, Narcissism, and so on. (Here’s Freyne, for instance, on depression: “Everything is too bright. My head hurts. I am exhausted. I am hateful. And underneath the swirling mess of thoughts, when my mind is clear enough to perceive it, there’s a numb and throbbing sadness.”)

I don’t tend to like giving strong opinions, because I don’t tend to trust strong opinions

The Dublin Review’s editor, Brendan Barrington, who is also editorial director at Penguin Ireland, felt there was scope for a collection of such pieces. The prospect of a collection of personal essays by a debut author would have been a tough sell just a few years ago, but with the recent prominence of a number of essayists – your Jia Tolentinos and Leslie Jamisons in the US; your Emilie Pines and Sinead Gleesons here – there has been a change in the prevailing winds of publishing.

Freyne immediately set about testing Barrington’s proposition. He took three months off work, and in that time wrote a significant portion of the pieces that eventually formed OK, Let’s Do Your Stupid Idea.

Although you’d by no means call it a memoir, the pieces are autobiographical in spirit, and structured to a linear chronology. There’s a piece about growing up as the not-particularly-tough son of an army officer. There’s a very funny piece about spending a summer in Bremen with a bunch of friends in 1995. There’s one about being a DJ at a Dublin pirate radio station, and another about Freyne’s years in the indie band, the National Prayer Breakfast.

Patrick Freyne in the indie band, the National Prayer Breakfast.
Patrick Freyne in the indie band, the National Prayer Breakfast.

There’s a lovely, poignant essay on singing, and the irreducibly human activity of adding one’s voice to a choir of other voices. (“I don’t know why singing makes me cry,” he writes. “But I think it’s because we construct a song from the air with our memories and our lungs and mouths; I feel connected to other people in a way I struggle with otherwise.”)

There is plenty of humour in the collection; quite a few of the pieces are straightforwardly funny in a snappy, David Sedaris-ish sort of way. But there are also sustained stretches of more serious writing, where the heaviness of the emotional material is not offset by Freyne’s familiar comic riffing.

I met Freyne in a cafe near The Irish Times building. It was early March, and although the virus was already asserting its presence, the world had not yet ground to a halt. (Freyne’s collection was, at that point, due to be published in May; like a lot of books lined up for the spring, it got pushed back to this autumn.)

I asked him what it was like to strike out in the new, more serious direction with many of the collection’s pieces. “Humour is useful,” he told me, in his quiet and deliberate speaking voice, “as a way of making points, because it’s counterintuitive. But there was a balance to be struck in writing some of these pieces, because humour can also completely deflate your points. With the essays where I was trying to explore how I felt about things, I realised that I had a real tendency to put in a drum-roll gag at the end of paragraphs. It was a way of releasing tension because I myself was uncomfortable.”

Much of this unease, he said, had to do with ranging into uncharted territory. “I was learning something new. I had never written about myself. I don’t have a personal column, and I don’t think I’d be interested in doing that. And apart from in the guise of jokes, I rarely give my opinions about things. I don’t tend to like giving strong opinions, because I don’t tend to trust strong opinions.”

There are essays where I am telling funny stories about things that have happened in my  life.But then there were those pieces where I took things that I wanted to explore, because writing is a kind of thinking

Freyne told me about a broadcasting training session he once did, about 10 years ago. He’d been putting in some time as a cultural pundit on radio, and he wanted to boost his confidence about being on air. Part of the training involved doing mock TV and radio slots, where he had to talk as though he was on air.

The session facilitator pointed out that Freyne kept using the phrase “I think”. Radio listeners didn’t want to hear “I think”, he was informed; he should express his views without reservation or equivocation. “It was kind of interesting, because it made me realise that the mediums don’t really want prevarication. They want strong views. But I don’t think that’s how most of us are built.”

The essay, unlike radio punditry, is purpose-built for the accommodation of ambivalence, for groping your way, sentence by sentence, toward illumination. It was for this reason that Freyne found himself drawn to the form. “There are essays, like the Bremen piece, where I am telling funny stories about things that have happened in my life; you know, those stories that are the personal standards, the classic hits. But then there were those pieces where I took things that I wanted to explore, because writing is a kind of thinking, and sometimes I don’t know what I think until I’ve written it.”

Although he prefers to hold back from directly stating his opinions in his newspaper work, Freyne’s political motivations are clear in the collection, and clearer still in conversation.

His journalism, he told me, has caused him to move further and further leftward over time. Talking to young people from disadvantaged backgrounds – something he has been doing more of recently – has clarified for him how much potential is lost to Irish society through deepening economic inequality.

“A lot of these kids are so smart and so funny,” he said. “And you know that they are going to struggle to get even a quarter in life of what some much less bright kid from a much better background is going to get. And that seems to me to be not just wrong, but also a huge waste, a clearly bad way of organising a society.”

Some of the writing in the collection, the stuff about mental health and so on, is quite raw

The lighter pieces, Freyne said, were much easier for him to write; he knows where he is with the funny stuff. “Those funnier pieces, a lot of them came out already in a structure. Because I do it every week in my job, I have a sense of what should go where, and how it should be paced.” (He admitted with some relish to being a “real bore” about funniness. If he reads a piece of humour writing that he doesn’t think is working, he’ll immediately start to deconstruct it, deciding which bits should have gone where to make it work better.)

The more serious pieces – on bereavement, on his and his wife’s decision not to have children, on his personal experience of care work – were, he said, the cause of a great deal more fretting. Those were the pieces that went through the most drafts, before he ever sent them to Barrington.

“The consensus among writers,” he said, “is that you shouldn’t write about things when they’re too raw. And some of the writing in the collection, the stuff about mental health and so on, is quite raw.”

He’d been thinking a lot recently, he said, about something he’d heard the novelist and short story writer Kevin Barry say: that good writers always betray themselves in their work. And what made those more personal pieces difficult to write was the anxiety about revealing himself in ways he hadn’t necessarily meant to.

Some of this anxiety surely has to do with the fact that Freyne already has a significant readership, and that most of those readers tend to think of him as a certain kind of writer: the guy who does the witty television reviews, the reported features about social issues.

In publishing his first collection, he is presenting himself as a different sort of proposition to these readers and also, with any luck, a lot of new ones.

Ok, Let’s Do Your Stupid Idea by Patrick Freyne is published by by Penguin Sandycove and is out now