A poet’s novel: in conversation with Garth Greenwell

On a recent visit to Cape Town, Garth Greenwell chatted with ALEXANDER MATTHEWS about writing prose, poetry and his acclaimed debut novel, What Belongs to You.Garth Greenwell What Belongs to You is one of the best novels I’ve read in a long time – so brilliant, so haunting, piercing open some private, tender part of myself with a painful precision that, at times, made it difficult to read.

When I heard its author, Garth Greenwell, was coming to Cape Town for Open Book Festival, I knew I had to meet the man who wrote it. I meet him in the lobby of his hotel; we head out into the breezy sunshine in search of a lunch spot. In the end, we settle for an Italian restaurant overlooking Cape Town’s Bree Street. I dive into the questions almost immediately, by asking when he knew he wanted to be a writer.

“It was the first thing I wanted to be when I was a kid,” he replies. “I had two older siblings and I remember being so jealous that they could read and I was so eager to learn to read… I loved stories.”

The urge to write faded as he grew older. “For a long time I didn’t write anything; I didn’t have any real connection to the arts.” Then he studied opera singing in high school and university and this, he says, “took me back to art, and took me back to writing. Opera I think is really important to how I think about narrative. I encounter in music much more than anywhere else what seems to me like the ideal of art.”

For a long time, art “has been central to my sense of the source of value and meaning in my life,” he says, admitting to “very romantic notions about art as a calling and as a source of a system of value that stands in contradistinction to the system of value that is capitalist commodity culture”.

For Greenwell believes in “the whole Matthew Arnold art-as-replacement-for-religion shtick” but doesn’t think it’s limited merely to writing. “What seems important to me is access to that system of value and a way of trying to understand one’s experiences as deeply as possible” – it doesn’t matter whether that’s through poetry or music or sculpture

Over 15 years, Greenwell published “a lot” of poems and poetry criticism but never a collection. After dropping out of a PhD course at Harvard, he finished a manuscript when he first arrived in Bulgaria to teach English at the American College of Sofia. He put these poems away, thinking he would take a break before returning to revise them. “And instead I started writing [What Belongs to You] – and it really was that I just started hearing sentences that I could feel were not broken into lines. It was very disconcerting to me because I was so attached to the identity of poet.”

When he finished what would become first the section of the novel, called Mitko, “I just felt very strongly that it kind of destroyed the poems. And I haven’t wanted to go back and write poems – all of the projects that I imagine are projects in prose.”

“One of the things that made prose able to accommodate things that poetry couldn’t accommodate for me is the question of training,” he says. With a poetry MFA from Washington University in St Louis, as well as a MA in English and American Literature from Harvard, he was “really well educated as a poet – to the point that basically any choice I made as a poet I felt like had a kind of lineage – I could think of another poet who had done it.” He adds: “I had all of this language for craft, and all of this knowledge of the moves that a poem could make, and in prose I didn’t have any of that because I had never studied prose, I had never written prose for anything other than scholarship.”

Being in a space where you don’t know what you’re doing, “where you don’t even have a measure for failure or success because you don’t understand enough to know what those things would be”, he says, “was really valuable to me as a writer of fiction.”

Poetry fed into his prose “in a lot of ways,” he says. “Because I lacked all sorts of equipment that fiction writers have, I think I made do with the equipment I did have”. What Belongs to You is, to him, “a poet’s novel in a lot of ways”.

While he’s drawn to the syntax of Henry James and Proust (who both “attempt to try to dramatise and act out and embody the shape of thinking as an action, not of thoughts as discrete things”), he thinks the novel “owes even more to poets” – especially the Latin poetry he studied, and American poets such as Carl Phillips and Jorie Graham. “The way I think of scene is quite indebted to a kind of lyric shape,” he says. “I think the way the book makes use of time is quite lyric.” This happened subconsciously, he says: “It wasn’t anything I was thinking about.”What Belongs to You

The protagonist, too, is “quite mysterious” – he “doesn’t deliver certain information about himself that you would expect in a novel [and] I think that’s because for lyric speakers you don’t have those expectations.”  When you’re reading a poem, you’re not busy wondering why someone’s ended up in Bulgaria, he says. “Poems are interested in seeking out emotional intensities and intellectual intensities and are not really too worried with the nuts and bolts of cause-and-effect-based plot.”

Greenwell, who wrote the entire novel while he was living in Sofia, describes Mitko as “a self-contained narrative – it has a full narrative arc in the relationship between these two men” (one an American teacher of English, the other a rent boy he finds while cruising a public lavatory).

“When I had that, I didn’t know what it was or what to do with it,” he remembers. He showed it to his only fiction writer friend, who said that because it was too long for a magazine but too short to be a standalone title, he should send it to Miami University Press, which has a novella prize. When it ended up winning this in 2010, Greenwell thought the piece “would be a standalone thing” and that he’d go back to writing poetry.

Instinct had other ideas, however: he was seized by a voice. He allowed “it to take me to places I had no intention of going – I had no intention of writing about childhood or Kentucky in the 90s or being a queer person there… It seems so kind of coy and mysterious but it’s really true that I wrote the book sentence-by-sentence without a sense of a grand idea. Sometimes, with a sense of a particular scene, that something would happen – kind of like beats; I might have the three key moments of a scene on a Post-It note beside my notebook, but that would be all. And then there was just sentence by sentence, trying to stay true to the moment-by-moment of what was happening between these two men.”

I ask if the events described in the novel were happening in real time; was it a bit like working on a diary?

“It wasn’t,” he replies. “In large part that was because I really had so little time to work on it. It took me a long time to write the book and part of the reason is that I was teaching high school full-time, so I was waking up at 4.30 to write for two hours before class and so the book inched forward.”

What gave him the discipline to get up at that ungodly hour, I ask.

In the past, “the idea of a writing routine was really kind of repellent to me,” he says, “because it is so painful to sit and not write. It was fine for me to go weeks without writing a poem and then I would spend a weekend where I would do nothing else, I would like sweat it out, I wouldn’t leave my apartment or shower…”

In his first year of teaching high school, he didn’t write a word, he says, “and that really freaked me out”. He realised that if he was going to be serious about it, he needed to write every day. He tried initially in the evenings, but felt “fried” and so started writing in the mornings instead. Initially he had no idea at all that the scribblings would be a novel. Placing words on the page was important “not because of a product but because the day-to-day practise of it really became crucial to my sense of okayness”, he says. Writing “is when I’m most in communion with myself.”

“One of the reasons I’ve been so bewildered” in the months following the book’s publication is “because I’ve haven’t been able to write on the road,” he says. “I’m a super-super-anxious person all the time.”

When working on a project, the “beginning is always anxious and ending is always anxious but the middle section when you’re just sort of turning the page, filling a few lines every day, inching forward, that’s the only part of writing I enjoy and I enjoy it because it’s that practise more than anything else that helps me manage anxiety.”

“All of the external questions that sometimes plague me – like questions of success and questions of publishing – those things just totally fall away. It just feels like I’m doing the real work, I’m doing what I should be doing, and I almost never feel that.” When he’s not writing, he’s “always questioning – I never feel like I’m in the right place, I’m always anxious that there’s some other place I should be in, some other thing I should be doing, some other book I should be reading. But when I’m writing, I don’t feel any of that.”

I ask about the autobiographical nature of the book – does writing about things close to home offer catharsis?

“The book is full of invention and it’s not in any way a sort of transcription of reality… but it does draw on experience; my experience of [Sofia], my experience of my childhood, especially, in the second section,” he replies. “I do think anytime you can take a painful experience and make art of it, there’s a way in which you become grateful to the experience, you become grateful for having been able to make a thing.”

Despite this, though, he says, “It’s not the kind of the work I would imagine one doing in therapy where one really tries to look a truth hard, or look at an experience hard and face-on, and work through it. That’s not what it feels like. You’re creating something separate from you, and then, as you shape it, the questions that lie behind the shaping are not therapeutic questions, they’re aesthetic ones.”

Arriving at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he already had a full manuscript; it was only the third section he workshopped in the novel workshop facilitated by Lan Samantha Chang, the programme director. He did make some revisions based on feedback received there, but nothing major. His agent sold the book in his second semester.

While he’s writing, “I try not to prune or withhold anything – I just try to be as self-indulgent as possible – the slightest little squiggle of thought I want to follow I’m going to follow it and then that does mean that pruning and cutting is the main revision activity.”

In the summer between the two years of his MFA, he edited the book with his editor, the “brilliant” Mitzi Angel. Between the two of them they culled about 18,000 words.

“She, in this sort of hyper-sensitive way, put pressure on every moment and every clause and sort of said, ‘this doesn’t hold up’ or ‘cut it and make it better’ – that was such luck, that the book found an editor that was willing to lavish time and that also had the right sensibility and was tuned to the right frequency and was just the right editor for the book. It was a collaborative thing, I’m very grateful to her – it would be a much, much, much poorer book without her.

“It was very intense and very emotionally hard,” he recalls. “She’s quite a firm, assertive editor… she just made me work really hard and I was scared about this question of what is the meaningful eccentricity and then what is a deforming self-indulgence? What are the things that make a book distinctive and what are the things that make a book flawed? And that’s hard and I don’t think there are absolute right answers. So I think it is just about finding an editor who understands your sensibility and the vision you have of a book better than you do and can see that better than you can.”

A gay couple lunching next to us recognise Greenwell, and interrupt us to lavish praise on his work. Greenwell responds with heartfelt thanks. I ask if the praise he’s been getting for the novel (it’s been listed as a best book of the year by more than 50 publications in nine countries and hailed as a “masterpiece” by Edmund White) has put pressure on him.

“I think probably most artists have a void of doubt and despair and I don’t feel like any of the commentary about the book has even touched that – that feels very secure and solid and not going anywhere,” he replies. “When you face a page, you’re facing a page. Something that the New York Times said about your book isn’t going to help.”

Narrating the audio book recently involved him reading through the book for the first time since sending in the last edits. “I was scared to read it from beginning to end again,” he says, but doing so made him realise the book was solid, like it was the book he wanted to write. “I’m glad – I’m really relieved that I feel that. I believe in the book, but I don’t believe in the things the people say about the book. I’m so grateful that the book got attention because almost no book does.”

“There were responses to the book that did feel very moving to me,” he says. Among these was Damon Galgut’s review for The Nation. “I’ve revered him for years.” His novel, In a Strange Room, “really did unlock some of the problems of my own book for me,” he says. “I feel like I owe him a great deal.”

How did Galgut’s novel helped with unlocking? I ask.

With its structure, he replies. He had been struggling with a sense that the three sections forming his own work were separate pieces, with the childhood middle section interrupting a continuous narrative of the first and third. And yet, he still felt “there was a kind of gravity that held the pieces together”. Reading In a Strange Room he could see that it was “so clearly a novel and yet is made up of these three chunks that are not narratively continuous and yet there’s a kind of gravity in the book, there’s a deep coherence, and structural and imagistic echoes in the book that to me very clearly make it one thing that is greater than the sum of its parts”. Seeing this “was really freeing”.

He also appreciated “the confidence of some of the formal risks [Galgut’s] book takes, the confidence of its reticence – the confidence of its withholding things from the reader and just its implicit faith that the reader would be able to handle that. All of that was just so heartening and enabling for me in my own project.”

Other writers working today that he admires include Colm Tóibín and Alan Hollinghurst, and Lydia Yuknavitch. There are three traditions of writing that he hopes his book is in conversation with. The first is poetry, the second is “the novel of consciousness – especially the three writers who to me are my holy trinity of modern prose styles which are Thomas Bernhard, WG Sebald, and Javier Marias”. He defines this tradition as “the attempt to write in a very deeply immersive way – to immerse the reader in the experience of another person’s consciousness”.

Then there is “the tradition of queer writing that overlaps to a very great extent with the tradition of the novel of consciousness” – that includes Proust, Henry James, Virginia Woolf and James Baldwin.

“I’m drawn to careers, to writers who feel like they make carefully structured books with a kind of architectural integrity about them that are like well-made objects but are also like chapters in an ongoing book,” he says, again citing Proust, Sebald and Marías.

“I have no idea whether that will feel like an appealing model 10 years from now, but right now it does, and the two books I’m working on, I think they are of a piece with What Belongs to You. They’re still interested in queer communities, they’re interested in the queer sexual body, and writing sex – actually much more intensely than in the [first] novel.”

What draws him to explore these themes, I ask.

They’re “the urgent things I want to explore and think through,” he says. “I want to write about the queer community that I think has become hard to write about”; he wants to write about “cruising places”, and “sex as a kind of thinking – that’s the thing I think is often missing. In one way we live in a world that’s just utterly drenched in sex and obviously the internet has given us access to representations of sex unlike at any other time – but it seems to me that we’re surrounded by images of bodies but there’s a real dearth of embodiedness – of the experience of being in a body, the experience of being a consciousness in a body, the experience of being a person in relation with other human persons. Sex as an occasion of ethical regard.”

He believes that even ephemeral encounters, or sex of a fetishistic or non-normative nature involves “acts of intimacy between human persons that engage with the whole gamut of ethical and emotional response. That’s just what interests me.”

My phone’s battery is about to die, our plates are empty, and an afternoon of panel discussions awaits. And so, reluctantly, I stop the recording, and ask for the bill. We discuss his plans. He has found the last few days in Cape Town “especially wonderful” – and would love to return, perhaps for a stint of teaching. After a few weeks back home in Iowa, he’s on the road again, headed to Bulgaria, rounding off a book tour that began almost 10 months ago. He’s looking forward to returning to a far more sedentary life after this – back at his desk, quietly working.

“It has really freaked me out how far publishing a book takes you away from writing – I feel farther away from writing than I’ve ever felt,” he says.

What Belongs to You is published by Picador.

“If only they had the chance”: an interview with Don Pinnock

GARETH LANGDON chats to Don Pinnock about his new book, Gang Town.Don Pinnock

Residents of Cape Town are well aware of its two faces. On one side, the picturesque coastline that runs around the peninsula, Table Mountain watching over lithe bodies sunbathing on white sandy beaches. But travel far enough beyond the green mountain slopes, and you arrive in the Cape Flats, an apartheid relic built to rehouse coloureds and blacks under the Group Areas Act.

Don Pinnock ventures deep into these neighbourhoods to provide a detailed analysis  of their gang violence, poverty, drugs and lack of policing. His City Press/Tafelberg Non-fiction Award-winning book Gang Town is an exploration of gangsterism in the Cape Flats, but is also a journalistic and criminological study, owing no doubt to Pinnock’s background in these areas. He lays his examination out in six parts, including a lengthy appendix which gives it the feel of a doctoral thesis rather than a book, but the structure provides direction for the reader and prevents the boredom that can occur with such lengthy non-fiction works.

What is most interesting about Gang Town is Pinnock’s focus on adolescence, mostly male adolescence, and the role it plays in forcing young boys to turn to gangsterism. This makes sense in light of Pinnock’s background in criminology, and in his work with the Usiko Trust, but the core of Gang Town actually came to him in a dream:

One night before starting work on this book I dreamed I’d been allocated a house in a rural village. It turned out to be a single wall with an old door and dirt floor, nothing else. I spent some time cleaning the floor and, as evening fell, there was a knock on the door. I opened and a horde of ragged, hungry-looking local children flooded in. I thought: ‘I have nothing for them.’

They were very sweet but rowdy, so after a while I asked them to leave, but they wouldn’t. Eventually I shoved a few through the door saying: ‘Go outside now.’ A boy looked at me then at the sky where the roof should be and the sides where walls should be and said: ‘There’s no inside.’

When I woke up the meaning of the dream was clear. For around 30 years, on and off, I’d been highlighting the plight of young people at risk in Cape Town in books and lectures. I had co-founded an organization, Usiko Trust, to take young men from distressed families to beautiful wilderness places and help them build resilience in the face of absent fathers, poverty, shame and the hyper-masculinity of gang life.

The message from the world of dreams was that this was just a start. So far all I had was a wall with a door through which children could enter. The structure was incomplete with no roof for protection from the elements. There was still a lot to do before the building was habitable. And children in need were not people against whom I could shut the door.

The obvious explanations for adolescent gangsterism remain – poverty, crime, a lack of adequate role models and education – these are all neat explanations for why someone would join a gang like the Americans or the 28s, but Pinnock notes a more interesting nuance. He notes how, young men, during their most vulnerable stages of development, crave adult attention and have a natural tendency towards aggressive and territorial behaviours.

“People see gangsters and I see kids with enormous potential if only they had the chance,” he says. “I treat them with the respect they deserve and they respond with warmth and trust. So many burn up and far too many die before 25.”Gang Town

In the past, traditions served to curb teen boys’ dangerous tendencies, but in a society where family has disintegrated and children are largely left to their own devices – their parents on drugs, in jail or even dead – these traditions fall away, and new rituals take their place. Here we find the gang symbolism, initiation rituals and strict rule books that govern these gangs. For Pinnock, gang ideology is simply a replacement for what is lost when society breaks down – albeit a dangerous and criminal replacement.

“The most frightening thing is the way far too many young people in high-risk areas are dealt with by mothers and especially fathers unconcerned or unaware of the impact of their poor parental care,” he says. “And also pretty scary is the failure of government – local and national, pre and post apartheid – to provide decent conditions for kids to grow up in. We are thereby really cooking trouble in the future.”

This danger is clearest when Pinnock enters the Flats to observe children as young as 5 and 6 playing in the streets. When asked to draw something, they draw a gang symbol. When asked to name a role model, they name a gang leader. When asked what they want to be when they grow up, they say gangster. Their games are about territory and shooting, stick fighting to emulate their panga-wielding older brothers and fathers. Rescuing these adolescents, catching them as young as possible, is the solution Pinnock proposes – one which goes beyond the vast societal problems which the individual is powerless to defeat, and focuses on what we can do to help the kid on the street, slowly preventing gangsterism one kid at a time.

The lack of an elderhood of men seems to be what, according to Pinnock, is most lacking in these poor areas. One of the most uplifting stories he can recall centres around a teenage boy finding the belonging and pride he so desperately craves from older male role models:

In Nguni culture, when a young man is a kwedien – uncircumcised – his opinions aren’t valued. When he speaks he’s tolerated but not regarded. He’s a child. The makweta ceremony is the time of manhood. In traditional areas, several weeks into the ceremony, there’s a time when the young man is invited to a beer drink.

I attended one while researching adolescent traditions in the Quamata area of Transkei. There were about 50 men sitting in a circle on stools and upturned tins passing a large can of beer. I watched the young man come down the mountain and approach the group. He was nervous. His eyes were downcast.

As he walked up to the circle the men made space for him and he sat down. They continued talking. He just sat there and nobody paid him any attention. But when the beer came round it was passed to him and he drank and handed it on.

After about 20 minutes – I guess he was plucking up courage – he said something. Nothing special, just a comment in the flow of conversation. But every man stopped and listened to him. Then they nodded, agreeing with him and the conversation flowed again.

I was watching him closely. His shoulders straightened, his eyes brightened and he looked the men in their faces. In that moment, in that instant, he became a man. His story had been heard. He’d been accepted.

Larger issues of this kind are often difficult to address in a society strangled by bureaucracy and poverty, but Pinnock notes that there is still progress being made in certain areas. The key is knowing where to start:

“Cape Town has started by looking at systemic solutions and, rather gratifyingly, it is using Gang Town as a reference text,” he says. “Working one-to-one has great value for both the healer and the healed, of course, but solutions can only come from the underlying systems and failures of those systems that underpin what I call life-course-persistent deviance. I would start by utterly changing the school curriculum (it’s neck-up and boringly impractical), decriminalise drugs (it would halve the prison and court population) and turn prisons into educational centres and not the hell-holes they presently are.”

While Pinnock’s prose is at times stiff and dense, the interspersal of interview extracts, the words of real residents of the Flats as well as police officers and jail wardens, helps to break the monotony and provides detailed context for the more academic passages. Pinnock has also included pictures he shot, as well as archived images, of District 6, the Flats and Cape Town youths which are a nice touch.

For a reader seeking a detailed exploration of gangs in Cape Town, one which goes deeper than the conventional media circus often associated with these myths, or indeed the total silencing of these desperate communities, then Gang Town is a good place to start.

Gang Town is published by Tafelberg.

“Pulling things up and out”: an interview with Colm Tóibín

On a recent visit to New York, ALEXANDER MATTHEWS sat down with the renowned Irish author Colm Tóibín.

Colm Tóibín

It’s almost 5, an April afternoon. I stride into Columbia’s nearly deserted Philosophy Hall, and climb the stairs, heart thudding from exertion, or nerves, or both. Colm Tóibín is on the sixth floor, waiting for me behind a big desk in his little office. Ahead of my New York visit, a mutual friend put us in touch, and he’s agreed to an interview.

His bibliography bulges with reportage, essays – but it is his fiction that has enthralled me the most. I’ve been a fan for years – ever since I read the Dublin IMPAC Prize-winning The Master about Henry James when I was at school.

Did he always know he was going to be a novelist? I ask.

“No,” he replies, explaining that throughout his teens, he wrote poems. When he moved to Barcelona at the age of 20, this stopped. Not only had the feedback he’d received from readers been less than effusive, the city itself “just didn’t lend itself to anything other than just being out. It was all too exciting.”

He remembers feeling “very clearly that the mechanics of fiction seemed to be so close to the mechanics of journalism – and clunky and not worthy of my attention. In other words, the images were always burdened down by having to connect things and explain things.”

He did attempt a few short stories, however – “which were no good. I couldn’t find a tone for [them]. I was so nervous that I couldn’t get the open, clear rhythm that was like somebody breathing naturally in my opening paragraphs.” He would cram in too much information or insert too startling an image. “It just didn’t work, so I stopped altogether.”

Out and in.

Back in Dublin after three years of teaching English in Spain, he became a journalist, writing for, among others, The Sunday Tribune and In Dublin. He remembers telling friends in 1981 the outline for what would become his first novel, The South. He started working on it tentatively the following year.

Tóibín says many Irish journalists were writing novels, but they were mostly based on their work as journalists. “Mine was the opposite: it wasn’t about that at all. It was about painting, exile, Spain, civil war – it was as far away from what I was doing in the day as possible, really.” He was drawn to that story because of “the poetry”. “Whatever was there first was image-based or language-based rather than about exploring the society or attempting to write a novel that was about the real world. Things came to me as sounds or as as melodies or as images. I couldn’t have gone on writing sentences that were really informative or indicative.”

The South was published in 1990; his second, The Heather Blazing, about an Irish judge, came out two years later. He recalls having dinner with the editor of his first book, who announced to him that she had only just discovered that he was gay, pointing out that homosexuality didn’t feature at all in his novels.

“It just would be unthinkable that you’re going to go on writing novels and this thing that is at the very centre of your being is not going to be explored,” she told him.

Why hadn’t he broached it in his early work, I ask.

“It would’ve been very difficult in Ireland – and indeed in England… the idea of being put into a category and not being able to get out of the category,” he says – especially when he “was interested in history, in many other things”.

“But also my own homosexuality was something that I hadn’t come to terms with in many ways. Although I was having probably a whale of a time, I was doing it the way that many gay men did.” He was, he says, “out and in” – out to his close friends, but closeted to the rest of society. “It wasn’t as though there was a huge gay community in Dublin who were all friends of mine and we could all hang out together – it wasn’t like that. So I didn’t have a sense of how I could write about it, what it would look like if I wrote about it.”

“The problem is that once you let the genie out of the bottle, trying to get it back in is hard… so writing [The Master] was one way of navigating that – where I could write about a character whose homosexuality was something hidden and present. And I knew about that, so I could write that book.”

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Before 2004’s The Master – long before it – was the exquisitely erotic The Story of the Night (1996) about a gay man living in 1980s Buenos Aires. Tóibín remembers reading an excerpt at a literary event in London, where the editors and writers present expressed surprise that he was gay. “There was a certain pleasure in that,” he says.

He was reassured by a friend who told him shortly before the book was published: “You cannot be assaulted in this country because of the books you’ve written now and the way in which you’ve presented yourself in this society. You could say anything and it’ll be OK.”

The novel was partly inspired by his time covering the trials of the generals who had ruled over Argentina’s military dictatorship. After a day spent in court, he would drift through the narrow streets of Buenos Aires’ El Microcentro, which was “filled with guys looking at shop windows pretending to be very interested in some suit or other – but actually they were just using the window to see who was stopping and who was coming by. It was the cruisiest place I’ve ever been because there was nowhere else you could go.”

The novel was also, he says, “set in a version of Ireland – in the sense of a society where homosexuality was almost unmentionable”. In 1985 Buenos Aires there were no gay bars; the gay guys he did meet would tell him that no one knew they were gay, that they had a girlfriend they were going to marry.

“I had a pretty good time of it because I was Irish… no one worried about having sex with me since clearly I was going home. I just took full advantage of that situation,” he smiles.

Where the CDs are.

“I can work anywhere,” he says. “I’ll work in a hotel room. Often I’d love to make this room into where I’d live. Put in a top floor with a little ladder and a desk up there and a bed and a little kitchen and a little bathroom and just live here.”

He sometimes goes to Spain or California (where his boyfriend lives) to write. And then there is Dublin. “I always think someone of my generation, home is where the CDs are,” he grins. “My CDs are in Dublin.”

I can’t resist asking him about the uncomfortable chair he apparently writes at when he’s in Dublin. He groans before I’ve barely phrased the question – it’s come up with painful frequency in interviews over the years.

He explains anyway: “If you think of writing as a form of self expression – a form of pleasure, a form of comfort, a way of comforting yourself, a way of even amusing yourself – I think you’re missing the point. For me, it’s a way of pulling things up and out – guts. Things that have not been spilt before. It depends on memory, on imagination. It depends, for me, on things that are very difficult,” he says. Sitting on “one of those master-of-the-universe swing chairs that are made of some extraordinary fabric that’s soft on the bones – well, I don’t think that would be good for me.”

So, does the chair make him focus? I ask.

“It’s one thing that focuses you. The other thing that focuses you is just not looking up. Just settling down to the fucking thing and doing it.”

If it’s so difficult to do, why does he bother?

“I think that I have some basic urge to communicate levels of feeling – things from the nervous system, and from memory, to other people,” he replies. “It’s a basic urge, it seems to have always been there – that somebody wishes to record or set down feelings or things of what they were like on a given day,” he says. “In the same way as when people went hunting many thousands of years ago, someone stayed behind to paint the hunters on the walls of the cave. It’s a mysterious thing because it really has no material value.”

He says his answer “sounds slightly metaphysical and precious; but there it is, there isn’t any other answer.”

Pulling out.

Is there a particular time of day he writes?

No, he answers: “If you have to finish it, finish it.  The urge to finish sometimes is a big one, that you’ve really got to try and develop. I can do a lot in a day, but only when I’ve got everything in my head.”

“If you have the character, if you’re me you have everything then because you can work around and you can build up the story. You always will know what they would do, or what they must do in a given situation. Then you can work from that.”

While Brooklyn (2009) developed quickly, his novels typically have a long gestation period – he admits to having four in various stages of development currently. 2014’s Nora Webster, his most recent novel, he started working on in 2000. It’s closely based on his childhood, on the aftermath of his father’s death. “That was the big one that I couldn’t get an arc for. And also, the material was so personal – giving it up was going to be difficult.” He dreaded “not having that story to tell anymore” – “because once I finished it, I realised I can’t really revisit this material – I have to sort of let it all go”.

The hardest part of the book was a passage where the title character (who was inspired by his mother) sees a vision of her late husband. He grabs a copy of the book from his bookshelf, and reads it, the words emerging so quietly that my voice recorder barely catches them.

He closes the book. He tells me about how he went alone to Wexford – the setting of the book, where he grew up – specifically to write it. He spent the whole of Saturday at his desk.

“The reward was going to be a big swim. And it started to rain – being Ireland, of course,” he smiles. After writing it, he went swimming anyway. “I stayed in the water for quite some time just thinking, ‘I will never have to do that again; I will never have to do that again.’” Afterwards he packed up the car and drove back to Dublin – he didn’t want to be in the room where he wrote it.

“With that, you can’t do a second draft of it. It’s one of those bits that you write down as though it’s happening in real time to you, now, and you can change words or make little cuts but you can’t rewrite it – you can’t start again; you do it once.” It’s not a vision, he emphasises – “you’re in full control over it. You’re concentrating fiercely; it’s an act of will.”

I ask him if writing something so personal results in catharsis.

“No – you’re manipulating, pulling out and you’re using, you’re not releasing. It’s funny – if anything it hardens it.”

A recent story Tóibín wrote for the New Yorker he based on his experience of hypnosis with one of Ireland’s top psychiatrists. I ask him if therapy has influenced his writing.

“It’s been useful,” he replies. “It gives you a sort of knowledge so you can see things more clearly. So if you’re dramatising things you actually know why you’re dramatising them – or you can see the conflict; you can know why, as you turn a page, you’re suddenly going into this territory – without doing it blindly or foolishly.”

Value for money.

I ask him how time away from Ireland influences writing about his homeland.

“My problem is that I don’t have any real sense of contemporary Ireland. A few times in short stories I can do it, but I don’t have any real sense of the society.” He thinks that’s because “I haven’t had children there and lived in the suburbs and watched them going to school… I’ve been very solitary and I have not had a job [there] for a long time.”

“I think when you get to a certain age it doesn’t really matter where you live. I know people disagree with that – I talked a lot at one point to your compatriot Nadine Gordimer about that. She was very intent, very emphatic about the idea that if you missed the small daily, businesses of a society – not even one that’s changing, but just one that’s there – then you lose a flavour for your book, the things you just won’t know. But in my case, I’m not that interested in societies anyway – as she was,” he says. “The flying in and out has been good,” because returning after time away results in “a sudden re-familiarisation – a smell, the look of something, the sound of someone’s voice, when you’re not used to it”. “If you’re there all the time, you might not feel that as sharply, it wouldn’t seem so stark or oddly interesting.”

“I didn’t plan to start living in America,” he says. “I just got offered jobs and suddenly sort of drifted into it.” He loves “everything about” Columbia. Instead of teaching in the creative writing faculty, he lectures for one semester in the English literature department. Surrounding him are theorists, academics who have written serious critical books. “I’m the writer in the department. I think there was a bit of suspicion to begin with that I wouldn’t know what I was talking about, and that the students wouldn’t be getting value for money,” he says.

On Mondays, he teaches to postgrads a course called Ordeal and self-invention: the heroine from Jane Austen to Edith Wharton; on Tuesdays he gives one on Irish prose to undergrads. Instead of looking at literature through a theoretical prism, “I’m looking at the thing as it’s being made, as though it not been made yet – and looking at what the strategies are to create something.”

Today he explored with his 15 students that sometimes “a novel is a way of rescuing a novel – meaning that half-way through a novel you realise that if I don’t get involved in the rescuing of this book, then I’m going to lose the book. And often it’s because you’ve given characters too much definition, and they’re now only going to live in character for the rest of the book. We talk a lot about not having settled characters”. Henry James realised “he had to soften characters or make characters seem more foolish or give characters moral agency they didn’t have before.”

“You’re talking book all the time,” he says. “It feeds its way back into the books some way or the other. But it also keeps me alive – in the sense that you really fucking worry about these classes before you go into them.”

Alarming in some odd way.

One of several books Tóibín has edited is the Penguin Book of Irish Fiction (1999). I ask what the common threads tying together the tapestry of Irish literature are.

“We can’t really do domestic bliss, and we can’t end a novel in a wedding,” he says. “There is always a bit of a propensity to break up any peace that’s been had… There’s a problem always with chronology: many novelists feel you cannot handle time directly, that time has to be the first thing you play with – you usurp, you turn around. There’s a lot about death, and dwelling on death and dwelling on solitude and grief.”

“Irish prose fiction tends to be poetic,” he adds. “The sentences are constructed for their sounds, their melody as much as for what they might signify. And so you’re always listening to a rhythm.” This stems from “an aboriginal set of feelings” – “the impulse itself comes from the same impulse as to sing and make music.”

There is something discordant, uneasy about these stories – because “nothing was communal or politically agreed”; “everything was disputed or broken or ready to be burned down – or ready to be erased, including memory.”  He can sense the contrast between Irish and English writers “very emphatically” when sharing the same platform. “Their thinking and their speech and everything they’re doing is entirely different.”

“Being in New York is much easier for me than being in London,” he says. In the Big Apple, “nobody has any preconception that if you’re Irish you’re one of two things” – the English either perceive you as “alarming in some odd way, or that you also have a natural talent with words that the entire society has – that words are sort of pouring out of all of you all the time.” The English think “you’re always storytelling and your grandmother must’ve told stories… I hate storytelling,” he says, defining the form as “arising from an oral tradition which is unmediated by a literary tradition and which makes its way unstructured onto the page as though it’s a sort of form of flowing water”.

“You’re constantly trying to get them to stop fucking making a cliché out of you.”

Nora Webster is published by Penguin in the UK, and Scribner in the US, who will be publishing Tóibín’s next novel, House of Names, next May. Steve Pyke took the portrait at the top.

Finding and losing the self: an interview with Patrick Flanery

Patrick Flanery tells GARETH LANGDON about the themes of surveillance and identity that swirl around his thrilling new novel, I Am No One.

Flanery Patrick 2015 photo credit Andrew van der Vlies

Sit around any 21st century bar, in any boardroom or coffee house, and the issue of globalisation, our online lives, privacy and the fragmentation of consciousness and self is bound to come up in conversation. Open a newspaper, or online publication, and at least one article that day or week will lament the rise of the internet, the invasions of privacy committed daily by our governments, and the loss of individuality we suffer at the hands of social media. As marketers try and capitalise on a changing world, philosophers continue to fear it but, once in a while, a writer comes along who engages critically with it.

In I Am No One, Patrick Flanery writes of ageing history professor, Jeremy O’Keefe: an American who, after a difficult divorce, expatriated to England and taught in Oxford for some years – long enough to earn a dual citizenship, encounter some strange characters and engage in a romantic relationship. When we first meet him, he is back in the US, teaching and supervising students. The novel opens with a scene that suggests Jeremy is ageing faster than we expected. He has arrived for a meeting with a student, but when she doesn’t arrive, he goes back to check his email and discovers that he had cancelled the appointment a day prior. This complete blank in memory troubles him, and leads him to confide in his young daughter who suggests professional advice and an fMRI. Jeremy is hesitant. His paranoia then begins to grow as a series of mysterious packages arrive at his home. Dropped off anonymously by a bike messenger, each subsequent package reveals more about how much can be known of Jeremy’s private life – from full email records, to browsing history and telephone history. The question is clear – is Jeremy losing his mind, or is he the victim of some ghastly invasion of privacy? Jeremy grapples throughout I Am No One with the various possible explanations for the strange packages, as well as his own uncertainty of his own sanity, personal and national identity, and future as a father and husband or lover.

I had the privilege of exploring these and other themes of writing and the self with the novel’s author when he came to South Africa for the Franschhoek Literary Festival earlier this year.

What strikes the reader with I Am No One is the way in which it is able to fragment and cohere seamlessly, moving across time and in and out of Jeremy’s head smoothly. Flanery suggests this arose from the new approach he took for I Am No One in which he “consciously set out to write in a very different way than the first two (novels)”.

“I decided because I was going to have this single narrator and single point of view that I wanted to do what I could to guard against it becoming too claustrophobic,” he says. “So I decided to borrow the process of an Argentinian writer who I admire whose name is Cesar Aira… he has an idea for a book which he holds in his head and each day he writes forward and he doesn’t go back and re-work until he comes to the end of the composition, and if the story changes over the course of that composition then it changes and he ends up with what he has.”I Am No One

This allows for what Flanery calls a kind of “free association” as he sits down to write, and this lends itself to the kind of novel that I Am No One is – the central character constantly exploring his own consciousness and self as he faces these confusing invasions of his privacy and what appear to be lapses in memory. This technique also drives the plot, allowing for “forward momentum”.

For Flanery though, the real trouble in I Am No One is not the loss of the mind and the free flow of consciousness but rather the loss of the self and the fragmentation of identity in light of our ever dwindling privacy. He relates to me the anecdote that sparked the novel:

“[We] were staying with a friend who was living [in New York] and as we got back to her building, I could see her in the window of her bedroom and I waved from the street but she didn’t see us, and when we went upstairs I said to her ‘You know, I could see you from the street’ and it was the first time she had realised that she was visible in that way. And I began thinking about the way in which New Yorkers are so often kind of living these half public lives but they have to kind of shut off that awareness of the ways in which they are observable in order to maintain a sense of sanity.”

Not long before Flanery began writing the novel, the Snowden revelations had become big news and they remained in the back of his mind throughout the writing. The interplay of his personal experience with global events got him questioning the nature of privacy, and how our being watched affects our identity. With lives lived online in this way – and furthermore in a world that is increasingly globalised – where do we place ourselves; where do we find ourselves? Can we find ourselves at all, or will we live in purgatory as Jeremy feels he has to?

The technology we can now use to increase our reach and social circles seems to excite and terrify us. As our world grows more connected and our reach extends, our localities seem to shrink simultaneously. Flanery notes the “excitement amongst some people about the ways in which technology can be mobilised not just by government but by ordinary citizens to create this world of certain transparency”. However, as we know all too well from recent phone-hacking scandals, and acts of terror, these same technologies can be used to hurt others or protect perpetrators. The trouble is, Flanery notes, that the technologies have become so ubiquitous, that we can’t help but be seduced by them – they are designed to seem as though they should be there and we should not question them – they are extensions of our selves.

Many in the world have responded with a kind of “hyper-nationalism”, which we often read about motivating many acts of terror. Human beings are searching for ways to assert themselves in a world that is fragmented and pays them no heed. There is simultaneously a drive for individuality stoked by social media, and a constant reminder of the insignificance of the single self (or even single nation) in an enormous and globalised world.

Flanery is able to weave all of these themes and debates through the consciousness of Jeremy as he fights to find his own place in his country, his family and even in his own head. This is not a totally foreign struggle to Flanery, noting his own experience living both in Britain and America, and how he is often mistaken for British when he is at home in the U.S. However, he is careful to skirt around the issue of auto-biography, noting instead that he sees “every novel engag(ing) with the process of self-examination”.

The novels are not autobiographical at all, but are rather “always responding in some way to the things that I am thinking,” he says. “Because my thinking is kind of inherently political because of the way I grew up, you know. I see political relationships and the politics of relationships in everyday life, and the kinds of things that can contaminate those.”

I Am No One could be seen – as I think all novels can be – as brief intrusions into the minds of the author. In this way, writers tend to feel the urge to censor themselves at the fear of being exposed or misunderstood. The fear from the first novel, Flanery notes “is a fear with every book you publish… you’re in constant fear of how the people closest to you will respond to it” but that is something that must necessarily be overcome. In this way, we may go so far as to draw a parallel between authorship and our online existence, where censorship is necessary for fear of being “found out”. Jeremy fights this, Flanery is aware of this, and each of us feels this every day as we live out our lives online.

At the end of our conversation, my mind is racing with more and more questions and I want to continue to dig deeper into Flanery’s mind  – but like his privacy, his time is precious and we bid each other a polite farewell.

I am left wondering how I should engage with the conversation on paper, and how it will come to be read. Then I think of how I will be perceived in this feature, and where it could lead – and as these wonders of the internet and writing and my personal investment in any piece of writing (and the inevitable feedback) start to overtake my thinking, I stand up and decide it’s time for some fresh air. Outside, no one will be able to interrupt me. Hopefully.

I Am No One is published by Atlantic Books. The photograph at the top was taken by Andrew van der Vlies.