You grew up in such a rich storytelling environment, learning more than most about your family’s history – especially contrasting here in the States, where we’re more “mixed breeds,” often without any clear ethnic heritage at all. Do you believe you would have chosen writing as your vocation if you’d grown up without such moving stories as incentive to pass on your ancestors’ tales (which tell so much about the history of Ireland)?
The strange thing is, my family was full of both stories and silence. Pregnant with silence. As a child there were versions of things, in particular my mother’s rather ferocious retelling of her childhood, available. My maternal grandfather also told me stories, since we shared a room in my childhood, about his travels all over the world, and indeed he kept an accounts book in which he always intended to write his autobiography – but how could he, when there was so much to keep secret? So even around these voluble stories there was a silence, or silences – very interesting silences too. So as I child was a short-trousered spy among them, trying to piece things together from clues, lies, admissions, and absences. Not very consciously maybe, but it was all such a tangle and a muddle there was an instinct to try and make sense of it. The other ingredient was, the sense of a prohibition on talking about many things. Why did my other grandfather never go home to Cork? What happened to those great uncles that disappeared? My painter grandfather taught me to paint, and I went to his house once a week religiously, but in all that time he never mentioned his own mother to me – because much to his shame she had been a Protestant. Awful in many ways, but also, wonderful, for a child at least – the mystery of it, and the strange anguish in these grown-up people, whom I adored unconditionally.
So in answer to your question, I could never have been a writer if I had been a true believer in all those stories – it was the silences that decided it.
The literature of the southern U.S. – I’m thinking of William Faulkner in particular – bears a strong resemblance to much Irish literature, due in part to several historical similarities: enduring/surviving civil war, the oppression/prejudice of some groups by those more powerful, the breaking away of part of the country from another (temporarily, in our case) and the resulting violence afterward in the way of racial prejudice (partly religious there): lynchings here, bombings there. etc.. Have you read much literature of the American South and do you have any thoughts on similarities between the two?
I haven’t read enough of the literature of the South (I confess) but I have taken a sort of tumultuous interest in the history of it – and you are right, our own Irish history is written there, mutatis mutandis, which I think primes the Irish reader to feel the full measure of the sorrow that rises from it. The binary madnesses of our species, religion against religion, race against race, gender against gender, are tragically universal, aren’t they? And written on the wind everywhere.
But Faulkner, aside from being a Southerner, is the prime instance of the writer going his own way. That in fact is what Seamus Heaney said to me years ago, when I was about 30. ‘You have to go your own way.’ It’s very simple, very true, and very hard to do.
The intensity of your writing, and the reading experience for your readers, is so great. Does it exhaust or upset you writing such personal material and do you sometimes find yourself needing to separate (i.e., take a break from) your work before resuming writing?
The disreputable fact is I love to work, especially when I get off the bank and finally into the river, and the boat heads away on the current of a book – even if the inevitable waterfall is to be heard far off in the distance. I take long breaks because I am old enough to realize that one of the sins of writing is to force it, despite what some people say about writing every day. You can’t run all day, day after day, and you can’t write like that either, unless you want to write ‘on sticks’ as it were. So it goes for me anyhow. What I am interested in is the fact that at some point a book makes itself possible, and I am so grateful for that that it is somehow immaterial to me if the subject matter is ‘dark’ – there is no dark in the writing of it, somehow, or at least the light shone by sentences seems benign, and language itself maybe is a form of courage.
In the current literary world newspapers are eliminating or reducing space dedicated to books and literary culture, while blogging about the same subjects seems to be filling that gap formerly owned by professional journalists. Some doing a better job of it than others. Do you see that as a negative, i.e., should we be mourning the loss of more structured, professional reviewing, etc.? (Please ignore that I have a blog and don’t worry about offending.)
The greatest change in my writing life, of about 33 years, is the new availability of the thoughts of your readers. The sense of readers out there, beyond your ken, and yet existing in remarkable intimacy to you. No book is read communally, the reader is usually alone, in whatever place he or she reads. And yet there is a community of readers for a book, a sort of constellation of lights on an unknown map, each lit point representing a reader. And thanks to blogs and sites like goodreads, a writer if he so desires can hear the thoughts of this mysterious, deeply human, deeply personal and private demographic. It isn’t that it will make the writer write for his or her readers, but that he or she will write now for the first time among those readers – in their midst as it were, in a way that didn’t quite exist before.
Otherwise there are still the places that review, despite the shrinkages of space. What has partly compensated for that is the availability of all the reviews online. Previously, an individual bought The Times and what the Times said was the whole story for that particular person, and so on. So in a way, there is a sense that there are more reviews. Australia, US, Canada, and all the translation territories… So reviews do still dominate, strangely enough. And it is necessary to have that, it is as old as Greece and older. But maybe in the final analysis reviews are for readers, not writers. Maybe when the writer reads a review of his own work, in that instance he mutates, becomes a reader. Because the source of books, the well of a book, is not to be found near that ground. Then there is also academic criticism, another creature altogether, most usually written by someone who has a chosen love or regard for the work being written about. And curiously enough, I think as far as I can see, many blogs work at that level, as if there is a hidden academia of interest, empathy, and enthusiasm, called the blogosphere. This is the new dispensation, and I think all in all it confers a blessing on writers.
It’s ubiquitous to ask about your own personal reading. How much reading time are you able to fit in and what have you read lately that you’d recommend?
I read like a tramp travels. Instinct, weather, where the wind blows me. I have about fifty books on my worktable at the moment, about bomb disposal, gun-running in Africa, all sorts of arcane things. I sometimes imagine in my mind’s eye, as I order yet another obscure title, the bookseller in some far away place, packaging up the book he or she thought would never be sold. That he or she had placed bets on would never be sold. ‘The Wonders of Modern Engineering’ (1927) for instance, which just arrived today… Otherwise I get quite a few galleys and try to read them religiously, because to write a book is a very hard, unlikely achievement bordering on the miraculous, and sometimes indeed crosses over into the very heartland of the miraculous.