What was the starting point for your strange and wonderful book, which has been billed as a ‘gangster ballad love story’?
Parts of it were always there; parts of it clicked into place. I’d always wanted to write something that was full of rain — rain on every page, in every scene — and I’d always wanted to investigate for myself how a myth might be born and develop over time. Then, one day, in a doctor’s or a dentist’s waiting room (I don’t remember which), I was staring vacantly about when my eyes came to focus on a Take A Break magazine cover. The image was of a young, pale, shaven-headed boy, and the headline said something along the lines of ‘A Dad At Twelve.’ Well, my imagination was borne away by that story, by the idea of becoming a father when you yourself were still a child; it stayed with me for weeks (and now years).
The eventual ‘click’ was in figuring out that the story of this (now fictional) boy was going to become, in my work, a rainy myth, built over fictional decades. Everything else — the Earlie Boys, drowning Ireland, Ward — were mysterious consequences of this initial commitment to the idea.
Chaos reigns in Ireland, which is submerged by the relentless, almost biblical rain, and Dublin has fallen prey to violence and crime, awash in drugs and alcohol and plagued by both fire and rain: does this bleak dystopic vision reflect your concerns about the state of Ireland, or indeed the world, today?
In ways, yes. I don’t think dystopia is a possible future; I think it is the actual lived present in our world today. You don’t need to scroll far through the headlines for evidence of this. The homelessness, crime, drug culture and disparity between rich and poor are all things you see every day in Cork, and Dublin, and elsewhere, though I have of course exaggerated them to try to consider where we could end up if we don’t do better. Climate change is obviously a current concern too, and the increasing incidents of flooding in Ireland (and beyond) made it very, very easy to imagine my submerged version of the country.
And, actually, one of my key texts in terms of researching the novel was a history of Ireland in the 70s and 80s. Postal strikes, moving statues, drug gangs, stolen babies, extreme poverty, corruption, and fear of terrorist attacks were all features of Ireland in the 70s and 80s.
But of course dystopias are not hopeless places either, and not without love, and I hope that’s one of the messages my book delivers. So the bleak vision reflects my concern, for sure, but hopefully it also reflects my faith in human love and in the power of story.
"All stories are meaningless," Sweeney said. "Only you yourself put meaning on them…" Myth storytelling, poetry, plays, all feature strongly: was the book for you as much about the power of story as anything else?
Absolutely. I often make this ludicrous statement in the pub about how I think that one day scientists will prove or discover a human gene directly responsible for story-telling. It’s almost too obvious to state, but we are the story-telling animal on planet earth, and our evolution has made us a species which spends most of its time telling the story of itself to itself. Story is our way of processing the things that happen to us and the things we do. Whether it’s journalism, memoir, poetry, fiction, chat, therapy, weather talk or whatever else, the need for story is exhaled by us like carbon dioxide, and I’m endlessly interested in figuring out how that works, what the source of it is, and how story develops.
In Ireland especially we go through this process all the time. For example, I might be watching a hurling match from the sidelines, and a particularly good player scores two or three points. Someone on the sideline then says something like, He’s as good as two players, he is. Then someone else informs us who this player’s grandfather was on his mother’s side, and that explains to us all where he got that particular style of leaping for the ball. By the time we’ve gotten to the local pub, that same player is supposed to have scored twelve points from play, and by Christ he carried that whole team on his back. He becomes a hero, the subject of a micro-epic. Ten years later people will be telling you he had the strength of ten men and scored eighteen points from play and all with a broken hand! So that is how a singular fact becomes a story, and a story becomes a myth. And somewhere along the way that myth will have been infused somehow with a lesson for others to take on board. It almost feels like story is a consequence of being human, and I love it, and if I write fifty books in my life I don’t think I’ll ever get beyond using them to explore how and why that happens.
Do you agree with Jeri that we live in an age where the average person … [has] sacrificed their soul to live in a world of information. To know everything.’?
I think I probably do, though I don’t think that this ‘sacrifice’ was a conscious choice. It could well be a consequence (or the teleological outcome?) of humanity telling the endless story of itself to itself. Humanity is desperate to figure out the meaning of itself, and with the decline of religion in many places this is probably the latest attempt. The Irish philosopher John Moriarty, whose work I greatly admire, talked about the world now being in The Faustian Age (a notion which Jeri takes on in the novel). Faust’s quest was to know everything (and thus, I guess, to have power/control over everything) and to that end he traded his soul with Mephistopheles. I think that our obsession with statistics, our need to categorise and demarcate everybody and everything, and for total surveillance over streets, cities, citizens, the earth and even the stars — I think all that is part of a Faustian quest for total knowledge.
What I’m not one hundred percent sure about is what ‘soul’ might be. I’m not a religious person, but I do believe in some kind of collective human spirit or desire for connection. It could be called a collective consciousness; it could be called spirituality. It could simply be love, and shared existence. I don’t know. On that front I have only questions, and dark spaces that I want to go out into and explore. But, going back to the world of information, I don’t think the quest for total knowledge is good and I don’t think it’ll be successful. And I hate the notion of reducing humans to statistics, or numbers on documents.
You use a range of narrative devices and viewpoints to move the story along. How did you work out the structure and how much did you plan from the outset?
I knew that if a story was left with only a few people for long enough it would grow arms and legs and twist and morph and evolve. I also knew that significant incidents in most cultures or histories later re-surface in several forms: historical, poetic, fictional, oral. So when I wanted to embark on a similar project, I knew that the ‘narrative’ (for want of a less prescriptive word) would be similarly fragmented. So I did plan to switch between oral testimony and misremembered poetry and myth and fiction and theatre. However, I let which form described which moment be dictated to me by the story as I discovered it. It might sound glib, but writing this story was like driving through thick fog. I could always see a little way down the road but never too far, and what I encountered was often surprising and sudden. Sometimes I got to see a good way down the line, perhaps because I turned a corner or something (for example, I knew the ending about halfway through), but in general I was feeling my way, concentrating feverishly the whole time in case I missed anything and ended up in the ditch.
Pairs abound in the novel, from the Earlie King’s stooges Bart and Leg, to the destructive Vincent Depaul and Mister Violence, Sweeney and O’Casey, Sissy and Ker, even the fire and rain and T’s ability to understand the Kid’s poetry…. Why was this balancing of the elements important to you?
I will say this: the truth is always between two extremes, or between opposite elements. The mystery lies in the contradiction, between love and violence, between truth and lies, between fire and rain, between good and evil, between light and dark, between knowing and not knowing (and so on). Chasing the mystery (which is all I hoped to do, for long enough that everyone might catch a glimpse of it) involves running the gauntlet between these opposite elements, so I tried to do that as often as I could.
Another pairing, the statue of the Virgin Mary and the séance, are presented as marks of desperation in troubled times, a search for ‘answers in the dark’. What can people put their faith in today?
My fond belief is that we can put faith in each other, and in our ability to love each other, and our ability to understand each other through our stories. I think it happens every day, everywhere, but still not enough.
The kid is an enigma: he recites poetry with great feeling but claims not to understand it, he has been caught up in extreme violence and yet in other ways is tender and innocent… There is a sense that he is fighting not just for the future of the baby but for a whole other way to live. Does this alone make him heroic or simply doomed?
Heroic, I hope! I think he does a very brave thing in the book and whether he’s doomed or a hero is a question each reader must answer themselves, for readers are the ones that actually finish books. Authors give readers the story; readers decide what it means. But I would propose that living in this world is a great risk and a great adventure. To love — be it romantic, parental or otherwise — is an even greater risk on both counts. I think that the kid risks both, and for that I’m in awe of him.
What does it mean to live in a world without names or with invented names, initials, functional titles, and so on, each carrying its own mythology?
Going back to the quest for total knowledge (and thus control of the people), I think misremembered poems and shifting names and elusive initials and so on are all a type of resistance to that, a refusal to be defined, logged and categorised. Where facts become vague (even with names) myth runs rampant.
How do you follow such a book?!
More chaos, more apocalypse, but in a slightly more familiar place — the Cork I know and love — and with the sense of doom present in the growing threat of terrorism (in London, a former home). This next one, which I’m not far off resolving, is more a novel of voices, lost in the void of the everyday, in which a pretty standard fellow who is addicted to radio talk shows ends up taking to a strange road on a strange road trip. Again, I think it’s about how all of our talk — broadcast or not, story, joke or complaint — accumulates towards one polyphonic babbling cry of WHY AM I HERE? While this new novel takes place in a much more recognisable world, its voices are still forcing themselves out into the darkness.