WHAT I LIKE
The writing I like best is that which seems to successfully describe people’s emotions: their desires, their passions, their dislikes, their hatreds, their fears, their disappointments, their happiness. It is focussed on behaviour, interaction, thought and feeling—in response to events of ordinary life. I don’t like action movies or action literature. Life involves sensational and dramatic events, but when these are huge—murders, war—subtlety is too easily lost. Car chases, shoot-outs, explosions drown out the beating of the human heart, submerge the quiet conversation and silences between people in a bath of noise and bathos.
Is there such a thing as an ordinary life?
These are the lives we happen to live ourselves, the life we have been born into or the life that we have somehow found, as we grow up and old. Ordinary life in Calcutta is different from ordinary life in Moscow or ordinary life in Dublin. Ordinary life in the seventeenth century is different from ordinary life in the twenty-first. The ordinary life of a very wealthy person is different from the ordinary life of a homeless person who sleeps in a shop porch on the street, even if both the wealthy person and the homeless live in the same city and the same time.
The only ordinary life is your own life.
I have always though mine was extra-ordinary. Which it is, like everyone’s.
Life is lived in places.
We are influenced by where we live. You cannot be a Dickensian pickpocket in a glen in the west of Ireland. Not only what you work at, but how you think, feel, interact with others and with the surroundings, how you behave, is affected by where you find yourself. Fiction which abandons place entirely is not for me. I like descriptions of cities, towns, houses, mountains, woods, rivers, oceans. I want the author to translate place to words in a way which enables me to imagine I am in the place described. I want to feel the air on my skin, the rain or the sun, to smell the flowers or the garbage or the dinner, and to see things. Images can effect this trick, the painter selecting what she sees, recreating it on the canvas or the wall of the cave. That words, sounds composed of phonemes, or black marks on a page, can perform the same operation beggars belief. It is alchemy, the transformation of things to words and the reverse, the transformation the reader creates, re-translating words to things. The signifier to the signified. This is the most mysterious and magical aspect of writing, reading, talking, listening. When I write ‘chair’ you see a chair. When I write ‘red chair’ you see a red chair. When I write ‘little red wooden chair’ you see that. When I write ‘little red wooden chair with carved back and turned legs’ you see that. The more detail I provide with words the more detailed the image you see—but you will probably not see what I see, when I write, “chair”.
On the other hand, when we read The Little Red Chairs, the title of Edna O’Brien’s novel, 2015, what do we see? The almost twelve thousand chairs which were put out on a street in Sarajevo to commemorate those killed there during the siege? Or a few red chairs in a doll’s house?
The latter is what I see, for some reason, when I read that title. And when I see a chair, sitting in the corner of my living room, I see at the same time the letters ‘c h a i r’. I see the word and the thing at the same time, and it is like this with many things. I see the word in English, first, and at the same time as I see the thing itself.
But, sometimes, these days, I get bored with English. Once I adored this language and its literature. And, indeed, English is a rich language. But age has withered her infinite variety. This language is a victim of its own success. It is worn down by over-use, a car that was once gleaming in the driveway, like the red car in Raymond Carver’s story “Are These Actual Miles?” but whose engine now has too much mileage on it. So alive that it seems half dead.
I read a novel a day, in English, and every novel is drawing on the same old creaky well of words. Sometimes I think this sacrilegious thought: There is too much English on this planet. Chaucer, the father of English literature, wrote in a language that few people spoke and less could read. In 1400, it is estimated that the population of England was about 2.5 million. Today, it is estimated that 400 million people speak English as a first language, and 20% of the population of Earth know it as a second language. About a million books, mainly in English, are published annually in the USA alone. Chaucer’s linguistic context was closer to that of a Dane writing in Danish today, or a Bulgarian writing in Bulgarian, or perhaps an Icelander writing in Icelandic, than to today’s writer of English. (In the fourteenth century Chaucer had many more potential readers than an Irish writer in the Irish language has today, but that is another story.) His language wasn’t a mass-market lingua, verbal coca cola, but something more unique. Good wine, like the stuff he imported from France.
It is not his fault that he was giving birth to the written language that would eventually become the Lidl, the McDonald’s, the Starbucks, of the modern literary world.
But my mood can change. A sparkling book can arrive on my bookshelf. Caitriona Lally’s novel Eggshells. Molly McCloskey’s novel Straying. Writers with the rhythm of ballet dancers, good imagination, deep emotional and intellectual intelligence. Their English sings.
It still happens.
I have been more or less bilingual—in Irish and English—from early childhood, within the peculiar linguistic situation of Ireland. I have no special linguistic gift—I don’t have a fine-tuned ear and I have to work hard to remember grammatical paradigms. On the positive side, I’m quick to ‘pick up’ a language if I’m surrounded by it, and I think this is a result of early bilingualism—something which needs to be pointed out to the enemies of the Irish language in Ireland. (I’ve always noticed, at international literary events, that the Irish speakers are the ones who also speak French and German and other languages—we aren’t afraid of ‘foreign’ languages.) These days I find myself more and more attracted to other European languages and enjoy reading them. Not because the stories or ideas are better—although they are usually quite different, in subject matter and attitude, from Irish/English/American fiction—but just because the words are new to me and therefore seem full of energy and possibility. It’s hard work, of course. Reading a language I don’t know automatically, I have to pick up each new word, like a pebble from the garden, and figure out its shape and its sound.
I write in two languages: English, my mother tongue (literally—my mother was an English monoglot) and my father’s language, and my language at school, Irish. My command of English is stronger, and when I began writing it didn’t even occur to me to write in Irish. But by a sort of accident, I got drawn back to this language. And once I started, I felt at home in it. And, yes, I feel there is a certain obligation to write in Irish if one can. Millions of people can write in English, and only a handful in Irish. My family, in my father’s line, have been Irish speakers for hundreds and hundreds of years. I don’t feel like being the one to break the linguistic link. And I provide the link with my books.
Plus. It is a challenge. It’s fun. I feel liberated when I write in Irish.
I went to the sea. To Donabate, a small town and beach in North County Dublin. First you drive on the M1, a very busy motorway, where the speed limit is 120 km per hour; it’s stressful, it’s horrible. But after five minutes, you turn onto a narrow road, lined with trees, which threads through the flat fields of north Dublin. Golden corn fields, fields of potatoes and fruit bushes. Huge sky full of puffy cumulus clouds like a painting by Constable. There is a sandy light feel to the landscape here, unlike the more sombre hilly landscape of the south County. A holiday feel. The beach is sandy but empty because it is an overcast day, not very warm. My friend and I undress in the shelter of black rocks, and then walk out, out, across the wide sand, to the water. It feels cold. It is cold. I wade around for five or ten minutes, and then start swimming. After a minute or two it feels less cold and after five minutes quite comfortable. The water is calm and feels soft on my skin.
An island, Lambay Island, is on one side, and Howth Head, Bray Head, and the Wicklow Mountains, far away on the other. The Sugar Loaf, that triangular mountain, is clearly visible. Into the water terns dive, with their sharp, determined plunge slicing through the surface.
For three days, no writing. Shopping, housework, preparing for house-guests, collecting them from the airport, cooking, entertaining. I fit in some reading—my ongoing novel in Bulgarian, of which I read three or four pages a day, frequently referring to the on-line dictionary, and two novels in English, which I read as fast as I can since both are for work, rather than for pleasure—although both give me plenty of pleasure. I’ve managed some walks also. I’ve written several emails. But no writing.
My life has always managed to squeeze writing into the margins, and now I suspect I organise life in that way.
Perhaps I don’t really want to write at all?
I want to go for walks. I want to learn Bulgarian. I want to read other people’s writing. I want to cook, talk, watch drama serials on television. Sleep. Go for a swim. But do I really want to write?
WRITING A NOVEL
I enjoy inventing scenarios and worlds, and immersing myself in them. Sometimes I have found that writing a novel is not all that different from reading a novel. I open the manuscript—which is not a manuscript, but a document on my computer—just as I open a novel, and move into the world inside the covers of the book, or whatever the equivalent on the laptop is. Out of ‘reality’ and into that other world. Some writers describe this experience as ‘making time stand still.’ A novel or a story can freeze time, and in writing it one is unconscious of the passage of time—but of course a carpenter is unconscious of the passage of time when making a chair, or a surgeon...I imagine...when extracting an appendix. Writing is like moving into a different place, for a while. Moving into a dream, a daydream. Into the sea of the subconscious.
Some writers work very slowly, and describe the experience as agonzing like squeezing blood from a stone. That always sounds impressive to me. If it is so painful, the result must be wonderful! But I have to admit that I don’t find writing agonizing, and never have. It is true that I’m reluctant to start. I’m lazy about it, and I don’t know why, since I’m not really a lazy person otherwise. Perhaps I’m reluctant to let go, to plunge in? To read what is there waiting to be written? Once I get going, however, I write as easily as I read. It is as if I am transcribing some text from...where? A dream?
That does not mean the result will be good—nor does it necessarily mean the opposite. But at some stage, sooner rather than later, I have to hop back onto land, into the ‘real world’ and apply critical structures to my fiction world. That is enjoyable also, but in a more workman-like way.
It is like excavating a big chunk of stone from the ground, and then chipping away at it until it takes the shape (a) its essential nature demands (b) I want it to take.
Dreaming and working are the two essential aspects of creating literature which are at odds with one another. On the one hand, you must let go of inhibitions—that is hard. On the other, you must apply them—and that is also hard.
Talking of dreams. This reminds me of various ‘truisms’ I have come across, in my life, about writing fiction. Often these take the form of prohibitions:
Never describe dreams. They’re boring.
Don’t write about writing.
Don’t be confessional.
Write what you know.
Don’t write what you know. Make it up.
All these rules are wrong.
There are no commandments about writing. The only rule is to write what you want to write—or, as we say, more importantly, to write what you ‘are compelled to write.’ Do it as well as you can. Hope for the best.
A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN
You need it.
That is all that needs to be said about this.