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MY WRITING LIFE: A Personal Account

Part One.
1. Background and Biography.

My father was half Czech-Bohemian, half Irish, and my mother one hundred per cent County Clare.  I was born in 1954 and my brother in 1956.  We started life as a family in Wicklow, decamped to Dublin, and moved again in 1958, when I was four, to the dreary London suburb of Morden.  Both parents were writers.

My father had a Remington and wrote at night.  When I lay waiting for sleep I would hear him typing in his study downstairs, the sound muffled but soothing.  My mother had a portable and wrote during the day.  When I came in from school I would hear her typing in the garden shed, the sound small and tinny as it carried over the flowerbeds. When I was six or seven, I noticed both parents would send away typescripts and get money back in the post.  The production of art, as my father was fond of saying (quoting Lenin, he said, though I’ve never managed to track down the source), was always an economic activity.  It was a lesson learnt early and never forgotten.

Like so many children in England with Irish roots, my brother and I were sent ‘home’ every summer to my mother’s parents, Michael and Helena O’Brien, who lived in County Clare on a working farm; every morning cows were milked and the churns taken by donkey and cart to the creamery.  In August grass was cut by a horse-drawn mowing-machine, raised into ricks and drawn, once it had dried, on a float to the haggard.  Pigs were stuck in the yard and their meat stored in drums of scummy salt-water.  The farm horses were shod in the smithy, a hot, sooty hole by the river.  In those summers I glimpsed how my nineteenth-century peasant ancestors lived, and when later I came to write historical fiction these childhood memories became very important.

By 1964 my parents were separated, and my brother and I shuttled between their houses.  My mother lived in Putney, where the writer Nell Dunn (best known probably for Up the Junction) was one of our neighbours.  In the summer of 1966 (at which point I was twelve years old) Nell took us to her father’s villa in Mallorca, and there, one afternoon, she gave me L’Étranger, or The Outsider, by Albert Camus to read, in an edition with an introduction by the critic Cyril Connolly. I carried the book to the terrace, lay on a recliner and started.  At this point the sun lit the mountains in the distance.  When I finished, having read the novel and Connolly’s introduction in one sitting, the sun had sunk below the horizon and the mountains were purple and shadowed.

The Outsider was captivating.  The language was thrillingly laconic and direct, like in an American detective story but instead of bringing to life a US city with Buicks and skyscrapers and private eyes, Camus conjured up Algiers, with its trams, tenements and obdurate white settlers. However, as I reflected (and I’d Connolly’s introduction to help), this was more than just a brilliantly told story.  It was about something – the great lie at the heart of bourgeois society.  Society sold itself as fair and just; in fact it was anything but, said Camus. In the novel Meursault’s ostensible crime, for which he’s sentenced to death, is the murder of an Arab on a boiling Algiers beach.  The real reason he’s convicted, however, is because he fails to mourn his mother after her death.  This act of social deviance is so threatening that his French colon society has no alternative but to murder him judicially. 

I was twelve when I read The Outsider, and given that I was just beginning to realize that society was duplicitous, I was always going to be especially receptive to Camus’s vision.  However, something else about the book was even more important than the fact that it confirmed what I was just beginning to grasp about the world, and that was its ingenious technique. At the age I was then, I’d already encountered George Bernard Shaw and Maxim Gorky (my father idolized both), whose works carried a strong ideological message.  My encounters with these writers, albeit cursory, had convinced me that telling a story and at the same time imparting a message were inimical to pleasure.  I didn’t enjoy being lectured. 

What Camus showed me was that a great writer could tell a story and say something without putting the reader off, providing that the work had two drawers, one with the narrative, the other with the message, and that the reader was left free to decide which drawer he wanted to open.  Grasping this (which I did, thanks to Cyril Connolly) was the equivalent of someone taking the back off a watch and showing me the mechanism. After The Outsider, I read with new alertness, much of what I read being books Nell gave me.  Besides more Camus the highlights were Henry de Montherlant’s The Girls and Pity for Women (I loved the pessimism of these novels), Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, and the short stories of Chekhov and Maupassant, whose narrative brevity and stylistic clarity I’ve tried to emulate ever since.

I’d always written stories, and by the age of fifteen, by which time I was a boarder at Bedales School in Petersfield, Hampshire, I was writing short plays, film scripts and stories.  Everything I wrote was produced in great haste, was often unfinished and rarely revised.  I did, though, complete a half-decent script based on Otto Nückle’s Destiny, A Novel in Pictures, and shot it, with help from school friends, on Super-8mm, just after I’d finished A levels.  On the strength of Destiny, I was commissioned to shoot a Super-8mm version of my mother Edna O’Brien’s novel Night for Aquarius, the ITV flagship arts programme; it was transmitted around Christmas 1972.

In 1973 I went to the University of York to read English.  Having had a film on television I’d decided I preferred directing to writing.  I joined the university drama society and directed some plays, including Beckett’s Play and Happy Days.  When I graduated in 1976 I went to the National Film School (now the National Film and Television School).  As part of their training, aspiring directors (like me) had to videotape dramatic scenes under the supervision of a professional; I was assigned to Bill Douglas, the Scottish film director whose reputation rested then on two dark but exhilarating autobiographical films, My Childhood (1972) and My Ain Folk (1973). Bill provided the actors plus the short script - a two-hander about marital breakdown.  Though I had anticipated the script’s bleakness it had an unexpected, and novel, typographical feature.  There were no full stops in the stage directions at all and only occasional ones (for sense) in the dialogue.  Bill explained that as films didn’t have full stops he didn’t see why scripts should either.  By avoiding them where possible, he continued, the script replicated the one-thing-after-anotherness of film.

Bill’s thinking was so startling and original that I opted to work with him on my graduation project, an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s In the Ravine, which, having relocated the story to nineteenth-century Ireland, I proposed to shoot in Connemara under the title The Beneficiary. I wrote my first draft and presented it to Bill.  While I sat watching he read through it, pencil in hand, cutting, paring and querying.  Then he returned the typescript and asked me to write a new draft.  Over the following months I wrote many more drafts (perhaps twenty), all, in varying degrees, long-winded, laborious and febrile reproductions of Chekhov’s story. 
My failure to please Bill was at first puzzling, next exhausting, and finally infuriating.  Then, one day, I saw suddenly that a story was like a line of falling dominoes (where the first knocks down the second knocks down the third, and so on), and that if a story was to have the same perfect forward motion, there must be neither gaps nor obstructions nor, indeed, full stops.  Only what followed from what had gone before and led on to what came after could be included, and everything else, no matter how wedded as a writer one was to it, had to go if it got in the way of the flow.  It was a lesson once learnt that I’ve never forgotten.

I shot The Beneficiary and graduated from the film school in July 1979.  Over the following eighteen months I made Over Here, a documentary about the Irish in England, for the Arts Council of Great Britain, and Rating Notman, a cinema short for the National Film Finance Corporation.  This was based on a true story taken from Rebecca West’s The Meaning of Treason, about a Second World War Royal Navy rating forced to become a Gestapo spy after he was taken prisoner.  Like The Beneficiary, this work sprang directly from my reading. 

While making these films I realized directing was not as glamorous as I’d imagined and that actually what I wanted was to write.  To this end I produced several short stories.  I had no success in publishing them so I decided to mine a buried seam of childhood hurt.  In the summer of 1961 I was seven and staying with my grandparents in County Clare.  A day at the seaside had been arranged and a car hired to take us – my brother, my grandmother, a family friend and myself.  On the morning we were due to go, an elderly female relative appeared and said she wanted to come.  As the hired car sat only four this meant somebody in our party would have to stay behind.  Because I was the older child, it was believed that I would understand, and therefore wouldn’t mind.  But I did mind - I minded very much. I wrote ‘The Speech of Birds’ in the simple past, building it out of concrete details remembered from my childhood in Ireland.  The Literary Review paid me thirty pounds and published it.  The chasm that separated never having been in print from being in print had been crossed, an event of extraordinary significance.

2. Development

I published some more stories and began a novel about an unhappy love affair.  I made little progress with this because in trying to replicate what had happened I stopped my imagination working.  I abandoned it and decided instead to revisit the Irish part of my childhood, but this time, instead of retelling a real event, as in ‘The Speech of Birds’, I proposed to take facts and improvise a story around them. Fact: my grandfather drank and raced horses.  Why not, I thought, imagine going as an eleven-year-old with him and his favourite horse to a race meeting, the horse breaking a leg and having to be put down, precipitating a drinking binge? 

I wrote this as a short story.  Then, when I had finished, I realized that what I actually had was the start of a novel.  I also realized I ‘knew’ what the novel’s structure and content were; it was my most complete experience of prescience before writing a book.  There would be a prologue and an epilogue set in the 1980s bracketing twelve chapters set in the 1960s.  It would read as a third-person omniscient narrative but at the end the reader would discover the author was actually the main character, Paul Weismann.  This decision was of critical importance.  The Eleventh Summer would draw heavily on my childhood and as I knew from the novel I’d abandoned, my imagination stopped working when I tried to replicate what had actually happened. However, if I pretended the author was someone other than myself then I’d be better able to make something up, I thought. 
I also knew from both parents that only blockheads wrote for free; I needed a commission.  The young English novelist John Milne arranged for me to meet Julian Evans, an editor at Hamish Hamilton.  I showed him the aborted first novel and then the opening chapter of The Eleventh Summer.  He asked to see the second and third chapters.  I wrote them: he liked them and commissioned the novel.  It was as simple as that. The Eleventh Summer was published in 1985 and the American publisher, Dutton, bought the US rights.  Publisher, editor and author were delighted: there was no higher validation of a book than a US sale. My second novel was August in July.  It tells the life-story of August Slemic, from childhood in Poland, through service in North Africa during the Second World War with the Polish Free Army, to middle age in 1980s London.  In response to The Eleventh Summer, which was in the third person and chronologically conventional, this was in the first person and was chronologically devilish and complex.  Hamish Hamilton published it in 1986.  The book received favourable reviews although the US publisher of The Eleventh Summer turned it down because it wasn’t Irish.  The relief I felt at having published a second novel (and proving I wasn’t a one-novel wonder) tempered my disappointment at this. 

In reaction to August in July, my third novel, Work and Play - the story of Fergus, a middle-class Dubliner and ex-heroin addict at large in 1980s London - had a simple chronology yoked to a third-person narrative, and was published in 1987.  Evelyn Waugh might seem the obvious influence but my biggest debt was to Anthony Powell’s astringent, socially acute pre-Second World War novels, especially Afternoon Men (1931).  Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City (1985) (which was not an influence, I hadn’t read it then) having recently done so well, and with mine seemingly telling the same sort of story (how a nice lad is ruined by drugs), Work and Play was bought by a US publisher who hoped it might appeal to the same readership as McInerney’s.  Sadly, it didn’t.

Julian Evans, my editor at Hamish Hamilton, was keen on travel writing (which enjoyed a renaissance in Britain during the late 1980s) and had noticed that Cuba hadn’t been the subject of a travel book for some years. Because I’d published travel pieces on Greenland, Camus’s Algiers and the Falkland Islands, he believed I could do a book about it, and in January 1988, with my partner and her seven-year-old daughter, I flew to Havana to start. On arrival it became apparent that there were two parallel economies in Cuba, one based on the Cuban peso, the other on the US dollar.  The first was for Cubans (who were prohibited hard currency), the latter for tourists.  I was interested in the Cuban rather than the tourist experience so I bought Cuban pesos and, for the next four months, we lived (largely but not entirely) in the Cuban economy.  The hotels were terrible and the food uneatable, but when I returned to London in May, I’d several notebooks full of notes.  With this material, plus what I’d culled from my reading (Hugh Thomas’s magisterial Cuba, or The Pursuit of Freedom was especially helpful), I produced Driving through Cuba: An East-West Journey (1988) published in the US as Driving Through Cuba: Rare Encounters in the Land of Sugar Cane and Revolution.

Driving through Cuba, though my fourth published book, was my first of non-fiction.  It mixed a chronological first-person account of a journey with sections of narrative history.  As my first travel book it couldn’t have been written in reaction against a predecessor: there wasn’t one.  However, my encounter with Cuban society and my reading of Cuban fiction during research  made me decide that my next adult novel must describe the miseries visited on the innocent by ideology, which in part Malachy and His Family was to do. But before I got to that there was something else to write.  Back in 1986, while I was writing August in July, someone at Walker Books, a new imprint for children, had wondered whether, since The Eleventh Summer was told from the perspective of an eleven-year- old, I’d write a book for children.  I told Julian Evans, who directed me to Hamish Hamilton Children’s Books, and my next work, The TV Genie, the story of a mischievous genie and a gullible schoolgirl, was for them.  From this modest beginning, thanks to the law of unintended consequences, much would follow.

My fourth novel sprang from the humus of family history.  My father’s first wife was an American, Leatrice Gilbert, and they had had a son – Karl.  In 1953, when Karl was one, Leatrice returned to the US and divorced my father.  In 1954 he married my mother.  I was his second child and he called me Karl, too; this double naming was the starting point for my next novel. In Malachy and His Family there are two half-brothers called Malachy, both born in the 1950s.  Malachy 1 is the American-born son of John Garrett, an illegal Irish immigrant in the US, and Amy, an American girl.  Malachy 2 is the British-born son of John Garrett and his second wife, Teresa, an exile from Budapest following the 1956 Hungarian uprising; Malachy 2 also has a sister, Eva.  In early adulthood, Malachy 1 visits London to meet his father and half-siblings, and during the visit he keeps a diary from which the novel is supposedly constructed.

Malachy and His Family, in reaction to Work and Play with its third-person narrative, was in the first person, the story-telling burden carried by the protagonist-narrator.  It was also written in reaction to August in July.  In that novel, August Slemic described his past in order to make sense of his present.  Unfortunately, the calamities of his past outweighed those of his present (they were mostly marital), with the result that his past was more engaging than his present.  Anxious not to repeat this error, I made certain that the protagonist-narrator in Malachy and His Family has a lot more jeopardy in his contemporary life than August has in his: he and his half-sister fall in love.

Did it work?  Hamish Hamilton thought it not only succeeded but was my breakthrough novel, and promoted it energetically, hoping it would appear on the Booker long list.  Sadly, it failed.  Neither did it find a US publisher. Julian Evans had left Hamish Hamilton just as I was finishing Driving through Cuba and the company’s managing director, Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson, had become my new editor.  Believing I might succeed, as a travel writer where I hadn’t as a novelist, and noticing that Sicily, like Cuba, hadn’t recently been much written about, he suggested I go there and write a book about it. In the summer of 1988, having agreed to this, I went on holiday to Donegal with my partner, her daughter and our newborn son.  While we were there I had to collect a friend from Irvinestown in County Fermanagh and, as we drove back towards Donegal, she talked about the places we were passing: here, where a policeman was shot; there, where a head had been found in a litter bin, and so on.  As I listened it occurred to me that all the Troubles books I’d ever read were about Ulster’s conurbations.  Maybe, I thought, rather than Sicily, I’d come to County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, specifically Enniskillen, which was still hurting after the IRA’s bombing of the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday 1987, and write about that.

When we got back to London I went to the London Library, where books were grouped by subject rather than Dewey number, to see if I was right that Troubles books focused on cities.  It was as I’d suspected: all the books were about Belfast or Derry and there was next to nothing about the countryside and the small towns. I wrote to Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson suggesting, instead of Sicily, a travel book about Enniskillen and County Fermanagh.  He thought it a great idea and agreed to commission it. In the months before we left for Enniskillen, I read Jean Rhys obsessively.  I agreed with her description of society as pitiless, impersonal and unfair.  I also agreed with her counsel that the only response to the awfulness of life was to endure it. As I read Rhys I began to wonder what, if anything, had changed since the 1920s and 1930s, the period she mostly wrote about.  Dentistry was certainly better and abortion easier to procure but otherwise society, I decided, was as capricious and vindictive as ever.  As these thoughts were swirling around, my agent, Antony Harwood, reminded me that fiction, not non-fiction, was what I wrote, and urged me to publish a novel in tandem with the Northern Ireland book so that critics and readers wouldn’t think I now only wrote non-fiction. 

Prompted by this I started Life of a Drum (from the German proverb, ‘What is born a drum is beaten to death’) in the spring of 1989.  The novel tells the story of Catherine Janowski (née Baring), who lives on the outer fringes of London bohemia with her husband, a petty criminal, and who, after he dies, is passed from one lover to the next.  From the outset it was a novel in the past tense and the first person, with the heroine, who was both witness and protagonist, being responsible for the story’s organization, shape, vocabulary, pace and pitch.  Unlike the last time I’d tried this, with August in July, I was determined to be chronologically straightforward. In July 1989, the unfinished manuscript of Life of a Drum in the car boot, we drove to County Fermanagh.

to be continued.......


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