William Wall interview: ‘In my work it’s always love that gives meaning’

Each story in Hearing Voices / Seeing Things has the no-place, no-time of Beckett, combined paradoxically with the concrete, such as the local Supervalu


‘I bought a heart.’

‘It happened the day the Jesus-man called.’

‘I am lost in this house.’

Each of these sentences are from real conversations, overheard by William Wall, immortalised as killer first lines in his collection of short stories Hearing Voices / Seeing Things (Doire Press).

‘Not all begin with real overheard conversations but many do,’ Wall says. ‘In a way, if I had heard the complete story I wouldn’t have written anything. I’m that absolute cliche – the writer who writes to find out what happens next.’

This idea of fragmentation – both verbal and textual – has fascinated scholars and writers. It guides the free spaces in Anne Carson’s new collection Float (Jonathan Cape). Her translations of Sappho’s poetry, truncated phrases from torn pieces of papyrus, leave it to the imagination to fill in the blanks.

‘Hegel,’ Carson tells us, ‘considers speculation to be the proper business of philosophy, but she also implies that it is the proper business of art.’ (Chris Power) The stories in Hearing Voices / Seeing Things are both. There is philosophical speculation to the narratives, combined with an imaginative sensibility. Wall was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize with This is the Country (Sceptre), has three collections of poetry, most recently Ghost Estate (Salmon), and his short stories have won numerous prizes, including the Raymond Carver Award, the Patrick Kavanagh Award and the Hennessy Award. Most recently The Mountain Road was longlisted for the Bord Gáis story of the year and is Wall’s favourite from the collection. No wonder, as it contains all the aspects of his prose which work so well: a poetic use of language, a painful narrative and an atmosphere of fatalism – three elements which illuminate his philosophy about writing.

The Mountain Road begins not with the overheard, but with an incident: ‘James Casey drove off the top of Rally Pier. His two daughters were on the back seat.’ The story is about secrets, how they will eventually surface, just as the sea gives up its dead. It is swift, brutal and poetic.

“I saw the police tape on the pier-head, a tiny hollowness that was not there before. If he left a note what did it say? Suddenly the song came into my head. ‘Dónal Óg.’ Even as the first words came I knew what it meant for me. You took the east from me and you took the west from me and great is my fear that you took God from me.

“When the song was finished with me, I walked back down home. I was accustomed to think of it like that – not that I stopped singing but that the song was done with me.”

It’s a grim story buoyed by beautiful language (like the way Wall’s wicked humour lifts the darkest moments in the collection). ‘The song was done with me,’ echoes Irish, as do many sentences, which have that prepositional poetry of on me, in me, upon me. Wall’s understanding of language and translation, both Irish and Italian, informs his writing. ‘There are borrowings from Irish songs and poems in a lot of my poetry,’ Wall says, such as Adhlacadh Mo Mháthair in Mathematics & Other Poems (Collins). My next collection will, I hope, include a substantial borrowing from Raftery’s great song Eanach Cuain in a sequence about the drowning of migrants between Italy and Africa.’

Wall spends a lot of time in Italy, and has been translating from Italian for many years. ‘As regards absorbing Italian tradition into my work, I’m not really sure,’ he says, ‘although I do sometimes feel that Fellini got in there. Some of the characters in Hearing Voices/Seeing Things could easily have minor parts in Amarcord.’

Each story in the volume has the no-place, no-time of Beckett, combined paradoxically with the concrete, like the local Supervalu. The settings are cinematic in a dream-like realism, something Wall says may reflect his interest in Italian cinema, in particular neo-realists like De Sica.

When you translate, you write something new, but with the same heart – a kind of transfiguration of the original text. Language of course is culture, and being lost in translation is a way of inhabiting, or attempting to inhabit, the lives of others – through their tongue, their humour, their ways of being. Wall says that true translation is impossible, and that sometimes words remain rooted in their context.

‘There are certainly concepts that cannot change country or language. Take my poem Ghost Estate – there is no word for, and no concept of, a housing estate in Italian. Italians don’t live in mass low-level housing; they live in high rise buildings or palazzi or condominiums. They always have, in a way, since the Roman insulae. In fact, there is no solution, no way you can convey to an Italian who hasn’t visited small-town Ireland or England what exactly a “housing estate” is. These are translation problems that bring the translator up against the contingency of culture and language and the limits of experience.’

Unsurprising that these elements – translation, mutability of language, inhabiting the other – are all intrinsic to Wall’s writing. These limits of translation and of culture – that some things are untranslatable – leads to a discussion of whether or not we can tell stories which we have no experience of, which are not ours.

The Mountain Road is about a father’s murder-suicide and his lover who faces the opprobrium of small-town Ireland. It’s the story that bites hardest in the collection – but is it Wall’s to tell? ‘I don’t understand it at any level,’ he says. I find those events heartrendingly painful just as an observer. I have no idea how the people close to it can possibly cope. How can a mother cope after that? Where could one possibly find the resources? I found this story extremely difficult to write. In the end I realised that it had to be inexplicable.’

Yet Wall’s empathetic reach as a writer gets even to those inexplicable dark places. Here, the lover goes to see the body of the murdering father, James Casey:

“You stupid bastard, I said, you stupid murdering fucking bastard.

“There was more like that. I surprised myself at the flow of anger, the dam-burst of fury. After a time I stopped because I was afraid I was going to attack the corpse. And then I thought I might have been shouting. No one came but perhaps funeral directors and their secretaries are used to angry mourners. I stepped back and found my calf touching a bench. I sat down.

“They’ll all blame me, I told him. They already blame me.

“Then I cried.”

Like Wall, writers have always told difficult stories, occupying the minds of characters in other, stranger circumstances. Recently, some old chestnuts have been bashed about, from John Banville’s comments about writing and parenting, to the question of an author’s accountability to the cultures they write about. Lionel Shriver recently spoke about the dangers of this current cult of ‘cultural appropriation’.

Wall says the question is complex, and simplistic arguments about cultural appropriation aren’t helpful, whilst identity politics serve to distract from bigger issues such as capitalism and class struggle. ‘I think the feminist concept of “intersectionality” is an appropriate one here,’ Wall argues. ‘In essence, what feminists mean (I think) is that any issue has to be situated in a complex context and certain struggles intersect with other struggles. So the struggle against cultural appropriation intersects with, among many others, feminism, anti-colonialism, anti-racism and socialism. The corporation is the ultimate cultural appropriator. As regards the resurrection of the author, I think it’s mainly the result of the Rise Of The Marketing Department, which is essentially the same as The Death Of The Publisher.’

Paul Beatty appropriated different cultures to write his Man Booker prize winning satire on race relations – without which, he says, The Sellout would have been impossible. The Washington Post put it succinctly in a tweet on October 28th: ‘Hamlet is about a rich, Danish prince whose father is a ghost. But here’s why it relates to everyone.’ Wall’s stories have that same universality about them, despite their unique and strange tragedies. There is a Shakespearean sense of inevitability throughout the collection – characters are driven to action determined by their past, their mistakes, lending a fatalism which is European at its heart.

‘I was deeply influenced by studying and teaching Shakespeare, and by the Greek models that lay in Shakespeare’s remote past,’ Wall says. ‘Overlaid on that was my university reading in Existentialism – de Beauvoir, Sartre and Camus. Absurdity struck me as a very real conflict back then. I think this was partly due to the fact that I suffered from a painful and debilitating long-term illness, contracted as child. For a time as a 13- and 14-year-old, I had looked for the meaning of suffering in all the usual places, especially religious places, and found none, of course. The myth that suffering is good for the soul is pernicious and in many ways has no currency now. But to a bright, hopeful 13-year-old trapped in a screamingly painful body, the promise that my suffering somehow ennobled me was very seductive – for a while. Camus came as a great relief. I started reading him when I was about 15 and realised I was Sisyphus and I might as well get used to it. Before I turned 17 I was an atheist. From then on I sought my meaning in human relationships.’

These experiences can be detected in Wall’s writing. The narratives in Hearing Voices / Seeing Things are artful, sharp, the work of a philosophical imagination. Some start with words from strangers’ mouths, building an imaginary world upon the real. They are intense stories of bereavement, lust and loneliness which expose damaged people, broken worlds, and the tender complexity of love. And in the end, Wall says, it’s love which counts.

‘In my work, it’s always love that gives meaning, and loss of love is experienced as a profoundly spiritual void – the state of lovelessness is bleak.’

Hearing Voices/Seeing Things by William Wall is available from (Doire Press €12). Ruth McKee is a writer and editor, PhD TCD @ruthmckee

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