Where does it come from?
It starts with a dialogue: one voice talking to another. The voices, then the light falling on the bodies they come from and the space around those bodies. I may be walking alone, or on the bus, eyes relaxed at the passing scenery, or at home engaged in some repetitive task. The voices might be mid-conversation, or teasing each other with nonsense. They might barely be talking at all, rather skirting around one another, saying much in not saying anything. There’s always reading between the lines before I can get the lines down. This could go on for only minutes before I start typing, but some of these dialogues between one character and another haven’t reached a conclusion since I first heard them years ago.
…'and what is the use of a book,' thought Alice,'without pictures or conversations?'
I don’t know if this is a strange way of working, if it seems affected, or if it will be my way of working forever; it is simply how stories come to me now.
What does it mean?
I learn nothing about myself when I write, and I don’t feel I’m missing out until I have to think about what writing does to me or means to me or means coming from me. Apparently it’s imperative that a writer be prone to bouts of intense self-reflection, otherwise how will she know what the drag to writing is, or what she hopes to do with herself? If she cannot explain why she focuses on a particular theme, or uses so many semicolons, or whether she’s trying to say this or that about society, she will be of very little use to the world of writing, meaning the people or entities that rely on her work: readers, critics, journalists, bloggers, book festival audiences, university lecturers, booksellers, people who like to make lists, people who like to make inspirational memes, essayists, hipsters, philosophers . . . Perhaps one day she’ll even disappoint a historian or two.
The act becomes an idea only in dissection.
Why do I do this?
When a character comes to me — I believe characters are less created than they are excavated — I try to find aspects of his life that I can’t easily understand, so as to make sure of some distance between us, something that I have to work to appreciate. I don’t necessarily think this is something all writers should do, but it helps me feel less lazy. (I imagine that the supposed criticism “they’re secretly lazy” is the great horror for all Irish writers, because the importance of hard and physical labour is knotted into us very early on, and held as a great measure of our worth. Sitting on your arse all day making up stories; what kind of carry-on is that?) If I’m only writing about things I already like to do or already believe in, am I creating at all, or am I just waxing lyrical? What’s the purpose of writing about people, if not to try to understand them better?
The distance I create between myself and my characters is artificial, because it’s at this point I am most evidently thinking of myself as the writer and the characters as constructs and their quirks as negotiable. The more distance I tell myself I need, the more unreal the characters become, but, conversely, the better the writing is. This can feel very wounding.
But apart from this, my characters are very familiar to me because they’re people I feel the need to represent in fiction, people similar to those I know and love in real life, who are often passed over in literature. I’m asked about this a lot: Do you feel it’s important to write about people who aren’t often found in literary fiction? I do and I don’t. I write about people on the periphery, from the working or welfare or criminal class, because these are the people I’m drawn to. I don’t write characters like this in order to tip the scales or because I think of myself as some sort of unelected representative for my community. On the other hand, I’m drawn to these characters because I can’t find the right representations already in fiction: I write what I want to read. A lot of us like to write about people who are very, very like us, and not only because it’s easier.
When I talk about writing, which I don’t always do successfully (it is such a strange demand to make of people whose vocation is so solitary and so deeply personal), I tell listeners that writers should feel responsibility for their stories. If you don’t write this, no one will. Therefore on some level I must see myself as a representative.
I carry characters around in my head for months or years or even decades. I am in the middle of writing my third novel in which the protagonist is a Corkonian feen named Ryan Cusack. I know Ryan better than I know myself, which is fine; I’d rather know him better than I know myself because I’m not writing about myself and frankly, I’m very boring. In order for me to feel less lazy, I needed to find things out about him that were unfamiliar to me. The first is plain and simple: he’s male. Which is not to say that there’s any real difficulty in writing a character with a different gender, at least no more than there should be when writing a character of the same gender. The same rules apply: take this character’s physical presence, see how the world might react to them and then let that inform every sentence, every line of dialogue. Because I tell myself I need more distance, I come up with other anomalies. Ryan is musical; I admire people who are musical but I cannot play an instrument myself and did not study music at school. Ryan is bilingual. I have English and only a smattering of Gaeilge. Ryan is handsome and ostensibly confident in how he presents himself. I’m confidently forgettable.
His story comes to me as I ask myself endless questions about him. These range from the important (his political leanings, his willingness to share his feelings, if he’s a good liar) to the stupidly inconsequential (is he afraid of spiders?). I put him in a scenario and I see then how he reacts. I follow him around, taking notes.
As to what worth his story has to readers, or what good I think he’ll do in the long run: these are the questions, aren’t they? Why do I feel the need to tell this story; what is compelling me to freeze it on a page? I say it’s a compulsion because I believe it’s a compulsion; the only thing that makes me more miserable than writing is not writing.
Who do I do this for?
I don’t do it just for myself; why would a writer risk putting their work out into the world if it’s so deeply personal as to make the question of a projected readership irrelevant? Despite all of the writing about writers, writers write for readers.
For a long time I puzzled over writers writing about writers. Why are so many characters in novels and short stories writers? There aren’t many of us, not in comparison to builders, civil servants, stay-at-home parents, teachers. Even if the writer character is a hobbyist, his kind is still over-represented in fiction; there must be many more readers, runners, hikers, cinephiles and gamers. And writers are not especially interesting people. We spend all day typing, staring into space or talking to ourselves. Occasionally, we go out in public to try to talk about a thing that only makes sense once it’s written down.
But maybe writers write about writers so as to make writers more appealing to readers; maybe writing about a writer is a sort of yearning love letter to the reader. Maybe there’s an overlap in my fiction. Ryan is a musician because I understand what it means to perform art. Isn’t all art performance art? Does that mean, then, that what I do is inextricable from ego? Do I, despite any proclamations of humility, think I have something important to say? But I learn nothing about myself when I write, and I don’t bloody know what the drag to writing is, or what I hope to do with myself. I don’t feel I’m casting any great light on Ireland, or helping readers better understand themselves or their society. What purpose is there in writing, then? Is it just a madness that gives of itself? Or worse, a madness that wants an audience? Am I just singling out voices from the chorus in my head?
It starts with a dialogue: one voice talking to another. No one asked for the transcript; I choose to share it. What is fiction, but an indulgent translation of a person who exists only in my head?