About The Author
Karl Geary was born in Dublin, and moved to New York City when he was sixteen. He has worked as a script writer (Coney Island Baby), and an actor (Michael Almereyda's Hamlet and Ken Loach's Jimmy's Hall), and has adapted and directed Dorothy Parker's 'You Were Perfectly Fine' for the screen. He lives in Glasgow with his wife and daughter.
His debut novel, Montpelier Parade, is a quietly powerful account of an adolescent boy's coming of age. Born into a life that seems to offer limited possibilities, he steps outside the frame proscribed for him when he begins an affair with an older woman and sets in chain a sequence of events that changes the course of both their lives and the lives of those around them.
Exclusively for Foyles, we talked to Karl about how the character of Sonny was partly born from a Rembrandt painting, how the narrative style is both a confession and a finger pointed in accusation, and how to navigate longing and desire without a vocabulary.
Questions & Answers
Was it always Sonny’s story or did the book start somewhere else?
Yes, Sonny was always the starting point for me. It was very important to see the world from Sonny's perspective and from that point in adolescence where he's beginning to understand how the world operates and his place within it. Sonny has been cast by society and his dreams and hopes don't match up with the plan society has for him, so there is this inherent struggle from the beginning. I'd seen a painting over a decade ago in a Glasgow museum. A Carcass of an Ox by Rembrandt. It depicts an almost crucified carcass, with a small face peeping around a corner. It really affected me. In some ways, Sonny was born out of that, so much so, that the novel's working title was, 'A Carcass of an Ox.'
You’ve written in a striking narrative voice, the story seen through Sonny’s eyes though told by an unseen narrator who addresses Sonny as ‘you’. Can you say how this came about?
The novel is told in a second person narrative. But not what I'd consider a pure second person narrative, meaning, that although we have 'you', what starts to emerge is a protagonist who has not yet come to terms with his own story, and must remove it once from himself. The 'I ' first person narrative is too close, it suggests an ownership that Sonny is unwilling or unable to accommodate. And so we're left with 'You'. It becomes both a confession and a finger pointed in accusation.
I was reluctant to use this second person narrative, but the story kept revealing itself in this form. I'd chucked it several times for first and third person, but always something was missing. I needed the story to have an intimacy that at times felt uncomfortable, and it was through this narrative voice that I was able to get closest to Sonny's truth.
Sonny experiences, ‘A howl of feeling, an alone feeling you couldn’t keep from yourself…’ Is wanting more, the way Sonny does, a blessing or a curse?
I love the word 'howl' I can't hear it without thinking of Ginsburg's great poem of the same name.
‘The weight of the world is love.
Under the burden of solitude,
under the burden of dissatisfaction
the weight, the weight we carry is love.’
For Sonny there is no other way, he has that 'burden of dissatisfaction'. If seen through the lens of mythology, he has to enter the underworld to satisfy his thirst. It's dangerous, but that's where the real knowledge is kept and even if he escapes and makes it out alive, when he returns to his own tribe with this knowledge, they'll see a change and may well reject him and he's stuck between worlds. Knowledge and isolation or ignorance and ease? A blessing or a curse, depends on what is valuable. It's a tricky path for Sonny, he can't unlearn. There's a point of no return.
For example, When Sonny is working with his father and they're building walls. Always walls. It's a very important image, this fortification, because it sets up this conflict within Sonny, on one hand he wants that safety of a community, he wants to be his father’s son. But he's peeked over the wall and he's curious, but he can't have both.
The silences between your words have great power and contribute to the book’s particular atmosphere. Did you find yourself having to cut and rework to achieve this, and in particular having to pare down the character of Vera?
I was interested in how to navigate longing and desire without a vocabulary, I was interested in the Irish vernacular, in terms of how we communicate these very complex feelings. How we communicate after the banter, and the silence in between. I thought of it in terms of music, that silence between the notes, that's where I wanted to tell this story from.
Vera is this great mystery to Sonny and I had to be very careful not to disrupt that. I wanted to know her the way Sonny knows her. I wanted to know her beyond facts. She's omnipresent throughout the book, she's reflected in so much of what Sonny does, and she’s mirrored in every detail of the house. But mostly, she's obscured until the final piece of rubble is clear, and then she comes into perfect focus.
You’ve worked both as an actor and as a script writer, for example on Coney Island Baby. How did these experiences affect the writing of your first novel?
I'd written a first novel in my early twenties, thankfully never published, and although the writing wasn't successful, it served as a good apprenticeship. And so even though I went on to do other things, I thought of myself first as a prose writer. The one useful aspect of those other skills, I suspect is, through storytelling they look to reveal something truthful about human nature though the one thing they don't train you for is the loneliness of long form prose. As Edna O'Brien says, writing is an eminently masochistic exercise.
How did writing your first novel come about, given how much else you seem to have on?! Was it always part of the plan?
Wouldn't it be great to have a plan? I wish I could say it was as clean as that.
Everybody's busy now, it seems. No matter what we're doing - and I really don't know what the hell we're doing - but we're all extremely busy doing it.
I think two things happened for me. First, after years of trying, a shift finally occurred. I finally prioritised where I wanted my energy to go. And secondly, I finally learned to sit with myself long enough for something worthwhile to come, something that would sustain the long journey through a book. I suppose it was what Louise Bourgeoise talked about, how solitude enriches creative work. Or as the wonderful Mary Oliver, said. 'It is as it must be. The tire goes flat, the tooth falls out, there will be a hundred meals without mustard. The poem gets written.'
How far, if at all, did you draw on your own upbringing in Dublin to bring Sonny’s family to life?
I grew up in an 80s Dublin, so I knew the terrain fairly well. My own upbringing would have helped a little with Sonny's creation, but not much. My job was to not to say what happened, facts are useless in a fictional landscape. It was more a matter of foraging through the city, pulling from different places. Something that was helpful was remembering the way time plays out in youth, the way in which time slows and there's this real intimacy with place. We never know a street better than the first one we learn. This map, like some topographical map of our inner self. And in that way, the book has the tempo of a rural novel that plays out in a city.
Sonny’s parents are completely unable to understand their son. Are they a product of their time or is something else at play here?
That's certainly true of their understanding of Sonny's relationship with knowledge and Vera; here they are at a complete loss. I think it's their need to protect him that disturbs their ability to connect. When Sonny's mother humiliates him after he brings home a book, she says, 'Books? Come winter its lumps of coal is all.' She understands it's her job to protect Sonny from what he wants – it's well-meaning. She's already been beaten into society's mould, so she knows the difficulty, the pain of it. She warns him, 'She's laughing at you, Sonny, they're making a fool of you.' What a thing, to protect your child from dreams - but that's poverty.
Sharon is an interesting counterpoint to Sonny (‘You were the same as Sharon, you were Sharon.’) and has her own complex history as well as being full of life. Was it hard to limit her role in Sonny’s story?
I really enjoyed writing Sharon, she came kicking and screaming into life. And yes, I think she works well as Sonny's counterpoint. Initially, she would only appear alone with Sonny. Allowing her to be yet another of the many secrets Sonny keeps. But it was too tempting not to put her in with Vera, and later on I felt we needed to see where her life was headed. And even at that, it was difficult to limit her role, she tended to spill over into every area of Sonny's life. Because she is so brutally honest and blunt, she challenges Sonny at every turn and mirrors him.