As told to Kathryn Buckley
From a very young age I would replay conversations to my advantage which I realize now is what I do as a writer. Part of the reason I used to do it was because I think in our lives we can feel very powerless, and when I would recreate the scenes without the intention of writing I would readjust things so that we were all a little bit more heroic. I specifically remember being given an assignment at school to write. I couldn’t stop rolling it around in my head and it was the same tool I was using to reinvent the conversations. So instead of using conversations in life, now I was using fictional characters and having them come to various outcomes. That was really it for me.
In terms of conflict as a writer, I think I find it extremely difficult to take myself seriously because I don’t have an academic background, if that makes sense at all. Writing was a vehicle for expression that was useful and I still find this useful. The more isolated I was the more authentic my writing felt. Not because I was necessarily writing about isolated characters but because in some way I was channeling something I didn’t know I had access to or wouldn’t have had access to otherwise. So initially it was a way for me to bring that stuff out of myself. And in terms of craft or satisfaction with craft or with my work in general I feel mostly quite disappointed. I feel like there’s something I’m surrounding all the time but can’t quite get to; there are moments I sense I am getting to them but not really. Maybe that’s just the way it goes. I think I’ve gotten better though and I’m fairly judicious when it comes to editing.
I’m quite lucky because I don’t put pressure on myself to write. I never have. If I’m writing something I’m writing something. It always starts with a character and then the world builds around him. Once I can get a couple of lines in that character’s voice then I have something to work with and it just keeps kind of rolling around. I’m not impatient with the time frame and I think that helps a lot.
If you’re being lofty about it when you talk about a good story you are talking about good art. Certain technical attributes make the thing work, make it stand up but then there’s something else, that other aspect that makes us respond to it as humans. And I think that’s the part where when a line is correct, we feel something. It moves us in whatever direction it’s supposed to. It’s very powerful when that happens and I don’t think it can really be denied. I know for myself I care a lot about dialogue being honest and yet if not done right it’s the quickest way for something to sound false. If dialogue is not authentic it falls down, flat. We all have our pet peeves and I think I’ve read some technically brilliant lines but have just not cared. There has to be something at stake.
I’ve been fascinated lately with very ordinary things and how in these almost microscopic snapshots of people and situations we can really read the world through them. My characters are humble people for the most part. If someone can read something I’ve written and come back from that with a sense of something greater then I feel like I have achieved something. There have been interpretations of my work that have puzzled me but my stuff isn’t for everybody. It’s not supposed to be. I remember hearing something and I’d love to take credit for it but it’s not mine. This writer John McGahern talks about the idea that even though we write it is not until the work goes and has its own life that we understand what it even was. I believe that you don’t write in a vacuum; it is designed to be read so that others can have their own experience with it.
Whether or not my work is based on my own personal experience is a subject that has come up before. It’s manipulated in such a way that it should feel that it is me to someone else. I have some horrific things happening in Eve in Dublin, the novel I’m working on now, but thank God it’s not about anything that’s ever happened to me. The logistics and the plot points are pure fiction but you have to find your way into that. I like to have death in my writing. It seems to work. Most of my stories start with a funeral.
I’m genuinely fond of Eve in Dublin. Now in six months I’m sure I’ll hate it, but right now I’m enjoying it. It is a love story of sorts. There is a random beauty and cruelty in young Sonny’s life. He wants to escape Dublin in the 1980’s and the narrow future that awaits him there when he finds Eve, an older woman, who seems to be everything that he has wanted. But Eve has a dark past and many secrets that will eventually test Sonny, dividing him from his community, his family, and finally Eve.
My career as a writer has been narrow for someone my age and I would like that to change. When you are doing anything outside of the norm you are the vehicle that perpetuates the thing. It’s self motivated work. I have to get up at five to write but that works for me; I’m actually a morning person. So most mornings, like this morning, I wake up at five, work for a couple of hours and then start my day. The point is that you get up every day and you go to work. Times where I have not done that, work didn’t get produced. It’s as simple as that.
I’m rewriting Eve in Dublin now and it’s a bit easier. My work schedule is also different than when I was writing it. What I would do then was work on it at about nine. I started off at the library, but then I found it was better to actually sit in the car outside of the library. Then the cops started looking at me like I was this weird guy for doing that, so I would ask myself where I could park each day so that wouldn’t happen. I would write eight hundred words daily at that time, but now that I’m rewriting I’m working on a chapter a day from home either at my kitchen table, or if it’s winter, beside a fire. There are fifty small chapters in the novel and I complete a full cycle of rewrites per month. Someone actually once said to me that writing is like a boxer or athlete getting into shape. I thought to myself, “Well, I’m neither of those types but I do get that idea.” I know that if I haven’t written for awhile the first day back is sluggish. It’s really after a week back that I feel like I’m doing some work.
My writing is good old fashioned fiction. I wish it was more specifically genre driven because it would probably be easier to find a home for it, like The Hunger Games which I won’t read but am not knocking. I haven’t tried multiple genres and have no interest. I know people talk about it in terms of publishing but at that price I couldn’t.
When I’m reading something one of the worst things I can say – and this applies to not just writing but also art, painting and music – is that it’s clever because it just says to me that it’s all cloak and mirrors. There’s nothing authentic about it. I also think a lot of clever writing doesn’t sustain itself. It doesn’t last; it has an expiration date. I like work that I can pick up in x amount of years and still find something in it.
I’m reading James Salter’s new book now. I’m a huge fan of his as well as the writer I mentioned, John McGahern. I think when he died it was a huge loss to Irish Fiction- no one in the last two hundred years has been in the same class as he was. I enjoy the classics and think American fiction from the twenties and thirties is unbelievably good as well. Tender Is the Night cut me in two and continued to for days afterwards, and a book called All the Living by C.E. Morgan was just gorgeous writing. It’s the most dark, simple and beautiful book. I think what’s great about the south where it was set is that you can still be eccentric down there and they’re the people we like to read about.
I’d never belonged to an established writing group, so I took some writing classes. After that a few of us broke off and met up for a while. It was fantastic but then it got real social, which I didn’t have a problem with, but people wouldn’t talk about the work until about an hour in, and when they weren’t even reading it anymore I stopped going. What I liked about the gathering initially was that it had started off as a writing group. We didn’t know each other. And then of course people get more familiar and we fell apart, but it was a shame because we were a good writing group. I don’t think that happens often.
I don’t really have a picture of myself as a writer. I’m deeply committed to my work at the moment, and I want to know how Eve in Dublin will read as a completed piece. I know how it ends, and the rewrite is so different than what I set out to produce, which is great. There are these constant little surprises that keep me interested. I knocked out a whole chapter this morning; it’s all gone but that’s fine. To set myself up for grandeur wouldn’t work for me, but if I’m writing simple stories then hopefully they’re all grand in their own little way.
I got my start as an actor after I came to New York from Ireland in 1989. Michael Almereyda was making a black and white film in the early nineties called Nadja that was being produced by David Lynch. It was a vampire story and he wanted to pay homage to Bram Stoker, which is a nice old tie into some literary Irish world. His way of doing that was trying to find a Renfield character who was Irish, and I might have been the only Irish guy knocking around his neighborhood then. I was running a café on St. Mark’s Place called Sin-é and he asked me to be in the film. Until then acting was completely outside of my field.
I’ve done theater on Broadway and this sounds pretentious, but I didn’t like it. I don’t like live performances. What I like about acting on film is that there’s a technical aspect that I respond to; I think visually, and I can mold myself into a visual understanding of a character. Put me on a stage for two hours and I am lost. I’m naked but not in the way I would like to be. A lot of the contemporary plays are unbearable, and I think they’re written for a narrow audience who can afford them, whereas what I like about film is that there’s socialism to it: we all have access and we should have access to art. And I think that’s what is nice about writing as well; we still have our secondhand bookstores.
I recently had an experience in Dublin where I worked with the director Ken Loch whom I adore and admire. I think he’s one of the great icons of contemporary cinema. I love his ethos, his goals, his political views, everything, and so to spend two minutes in his company was golden for me. The man is seventy eight years old and he bounces around like Leonard Cohen. He’s amazing. If I have the opportunity to work in independent cinema with someone like that, I grab it.
I’ve done scenes in cinema where I’ve felt a tremendous amount and watched it afterwards and the camera didn’t pick up on any of it. And vice versa as well. Once I was thinking about whether or not I washed the dishes before I left the house while filming. When I watched the film I thought, “Wow, that’s such an emotional scene.” I think men don’t become interesting until they get a little older and have more baggage on their face that they can bring to the part, and that’s just pure aesthetic. What I mean is that a John Hurt type can say hello to you and you’re in tears. A lot of acting is about that. I, unfortunately, have a face closer to a Justin Bieber’s than to a John Hurt’s, so I’m waiting for my face to catch up with me. I think when I am decent as an actor I can bring stillness to a piece, and I can ground it, but not every piece requires or wants that. I have to be in the right part for it to work.
My all-time favorite role was my gig in Morocco on the second day of the war in Iraq. America had just invaded Iraq and Morocco is a progressive Muslim country. However, there was a very strong anti-American sentiment present at the time and my character, Deecy was his name, was a drag queen. I had to walk around Morocco under less than friendly circumstances in a mini-skirt and heels. It was a road trip movie and I really got a lot out of doing that, not so much for the tiny part but because I insisted on staying in drag for the duration. Oh, it was a learning experience.