In July of 2016, I was in China, travelling by train from Beijing back to Shanghai after a couple of weeks spent exploring some of the northern part of that ridiculously vast country. Still an hour or so out from Shanghai, we crossed over a small, dull thread of river. I'd been watching the passing landscape and keeping check on the horizon, hoping that the sea would come into view and feeling surprised at just how much I missed the sense of it in my life, contemplating, I think, the notion that when you're born within smelling-distance of water you carry some need of its presence with you always.
The river had nothing much about it to speak of, except for a little wooden boat, some six- or eight-feet of scrap lumber nailed together to create a high-sided trough, but in the few seconds that it took to pass in and out of my field of vision an entire story fell on me.
I can remember the sensation, the breathlessness of the moment, as if it had been just waiting there for me to pass. I felt at the same time knocked stupid and heightened. I suppose because of the soothing tranquillity of the train, I'd been daydreaming, and thinking a dozen or a thousand thoughts at once; but in that instant, something about the sight of the river, the boat, or maybe the thin yellow-white fall of the light on the water, bound all my strands of thought, conscious and otherwise, together in a particular and specific way, much as how I imagine stars are formed.
I had a notebook in my backpack and struggled to keep up with how fast the story came. I kept getting in the way of it and having to cross out words and whole sentences. At the station in Shanghai I got off the train and transferred to the subway, hitting the rush hour crowds so that the carriage I boarded was packed almost beyond breathing space. I kept scribbling, stooped down and using the bodies around me for balance and the top edge of my suitcase as support. By Heathrow, some fifteen or twenty hours on from that first moment on the train and fit nearly to drop, the story was done, the essential rags of it, anyway, which would be stitched together over the following couple of weeks, the edges trimmed and seams refined.
With neither intent nor expectation, I'd written a new story, called 'The Boatman'. The links within the final text to China, or to that river boat, were almost non-existent, yet something in what I'd seen or felt in that moment on the train helped prompt a deeper and more personal story into being. The finished story, fictional though it was, seemed so much a part of me that I refuse even now to believe it hadn't been smouldering away inside me always, biding its time, waiting to be told. But I also have to wonder, if I'd not been on that particular train in that far corner of the world at that precise second, whether the story would still have been written, or written differently. Would it have been lost to me, and maybe picked up by somebody else, to be slanted the way they needed to see it?
In the manner of its arrival, 'The Boatman' was very much an anomaly, and while my life would be so much easier if all the stories I want to write could drop into the world so complete and with such speed and assurance, it also doesn't matter that the opposite is far closer to my reality. The truth is, I'm not necessarily chasing easy, and I seem to get as much from the actual forging of the work, the struggle of getting it into a shape I want and need it to be, as I do from its completion. Once a story has gone as far as I can take it, there's a feeling of relief, and I suppose of accomplishment. But it doesn't last, and probably shouldn't. Because there are so many more stories to tell.
If my stories are at all a reflection of who I am—and I can't help but feel that my better ones are—then it is probably correct that they should come slowly and without certainty, that every sentence needs to be wrestled into place. I am not writing autobiography, except in the sense that what comes out, when it comes out well, speaks of how I see the world, and also my place in it, however peripheral that might be. What I hope for, and strive for, is something that reads as truthful, even when it doesn't always match the facts.
Where the stories themselves come from is, I'm afraid, imprecise. To paraphrase the Greek poet Seferis: a lion is made up of the lambs he's digested. Generally, my starting point seems to be with theme. The elements of life that most trouble or haunt me start to coalesce. Some make themselves apparent over a long stretch of time; a few—rootedness and exile, isolation, love and its absence, loneliness, time's passing, guilt, and the ability to endure in the face of deep trauma or turmoil—feel permanent. And it's from this slow fog, largely, that stories emerge, vaguely tormenting, looking to be explained, or made sense of or put together in a way that becomes bearable.
The feeling that sits me down over a page is probably, more than anything, one of being lost, or of not belonging fully to the world around me, and it's in the writing, in the process of dragging strands together, that I find myself and, at least for a while, can feel secure. If something keeps me away from whatever I need and want to be working on, emptiness pervades. It's gotten so that, after some twenty years of putting myself constantly to the task, stories have become my compulsion. Without their detail in my day, a void opens. It's not about therapy, or healing; it's about having somewhere to be.
Like almost everyone, my mind is most of the time a muddle of worries, dreams, hopes and fears. Life has its beautiful days and its occasionally terrible ones, and the equilibrium is ensured by routine. Every morning from 7AM until around noon, unless I absolutely have to be somewhere else, I sit down and try to get my thoughts on paper, sifting them for grains of story. Stopping to make tea, to water the flowers on my small apartment balcony, to feed the magpies and jackdaws that come to perch, but bobbing always in and out of the work, keeping my head within it, standing occasionally to read a paragraph, walking it around the room, as if that should make a difference.
Language excites me, the way it can layer meanings into itself, even seemingly in its most simple state, and how it feels ‘off’ if it should be forced to carry a syllable too many or stand a syllable shy. Painting has brush strokes, music has notes and rests, but both are so much more than the sum of their parts. So it has to be, too, with language. Words are old magic, and the best stories, poems and novels cast spells that crack eternity and let the light come streaming in. On good days the sentences sing to me in the stillness, and I glow with them. On the days of struggle I sit there and ache, trying to pull the story along, trying to kiss it back to life, slow to take no for an answer, stubborn as I am in most things. But whether the mornings flow or feel mired, I am, for those few hours, the happiest version of myself because that's the part of the day when whatever mask I feel the need to wear falls most easily away and I can get somewhere close to the truth of things.
As a child, until the age of about seven, we lived with my grandmother, my mother's mother. She died in her early sixties, which by today’s standards is no age, but to my young eyes she was ancient. If we are shaped to a large degree by our backgrounds then mine is as ordinary and as simple as it gets: poor, working-class. For all of those who went before me, education, at least of the classroom variety, was not prioritised and, apart from in the most basic sense, not really an option. But I suppose there is more than one way to be taught a lesson. My grandmother wasn't at all a writer, but the tales she told, and the way she told them, lit a fire in me that burns to this day. What she imparted was a love of stories, a passion for them, and a sense of their worth, making it clear that existence would be less without their magic. At some critical point in the telling, her voice always softened to a murmur, and sitting at her feet, my small fingers fumbling with the buckles of her shoes, I'd lean in to catch the words, and I'd see her eyes shining with wonder in the cold light and feel that I was being let in on all the secrets of the world.
I got them all, stories sworn to be true, of hauntings and apparitions, of Jack O'Lantern and the Banshee and the fairy fort half a mile up the hill from our house, but also of her own school days, and the Black and Tans, and about her own father, who was born in the workhouse with nothing more than his name, and who'd gone into the Munster Fusiliers in order to feed his family, survived the fronts of two wars, the Boer War and then again, in middle-age, the First World War, coming through the bloodbaths of Loos and the Somme, only to be broken finally by the death of his fourteen-year-old son, my grandmother's brother, Jimmy, after the child had taken a bad fall from the back of a pet goat. The parts I struggled to comprehend were explained with patient care, and even as young as I was, I gradually came to understand, probably without really thinking about it, that while the walls of my world might have been flat and grey, the surfaces weren't necessarily all there was to see.
That start, my early education, set about filling my reservoir and primed me for the books that followed. And living a two-minute run from the local library ensured that I was well nourished. In the years that followed, I read everything I could get hold of—partly out of a desire to feed my curiosity; partly, I think, seeking the sense of awe that I'd experienced with my grandmother's stories. I found it, too, again and again, being held spellbound by the notions of treasure islands and Arabian nights, Transylvanian castles and hell-hounds haunting the Devonshire moors. These books, and a thousand others, kept me dreaming.
My childhood wasn't anything like the poverty endured by previous generations, but neither had it much in common with the affluence enjoyed by the generations that followed. Growing up in Cork in the 1970s and 80s, at least in the version of it that I knew, a place fairly mired in recession, an older mindset still prevailed. You had your level, and for the most part didn’t expect to rise above that. Even when I finally began writing, tentatively in my teens and more seriously in my twenties, I did it without believing for a single minute that it was something the likes of me could ever actually do. As far as I was concerned, writers were mythical creatures. I knew of course that Frank O'Connor was from Cork, and my grandmother used to talk about Lennox Robinson, the Abbey playwright, speaking with a kind of reverence not about his work, which I doubt she even knew, but the fact that he'd been born in Douglas, our village. For me, though, they were too much like school work and too long dead to feel quite real. The writers I was drawn to seemed of a different ilk, or at least weren't so obviously black and white. Their names existed on the covers of books—usually slightly exotic-sounding: Hemingway, Steinbeck, Bradbury, Michener, L'Amour, and even, later on, say by my mid-teens, the likes of Mailer and Updike—but were galaxies removed from the world I knew. Certainly no one in Cork had such names. And measured against their novels and short stories, my own early writing was small and hesitant, defined by shyness and insecurity. Looking back, maybe what kept me going was that I lacked even the least expectation of success. For a long time, I felt like I was just writing to fill the space beneath my bed. I hadn't yet learned how to get down to the heart of what mattered in a story, or how to tell it in the way it needed to be told. And I thought, foolishly, as many do, that I lacked material. Time cured me of that notion, at least.
That boy has long since grown, and I've learnt a lot along the way, mostly from the mistakes I've made. My education has been the life I've lived, the places I've seen and people I've known, and also the stories I carry with me from my grandmother, and from my father, who being one of sixteen children knows some that could put your hair standing on end and some that would break you clean in two.
I continue to devour books, and the notion of not being in the middle of a novel is incomprehensible to me. And while my tastes have grown, broadened and deepened, the sense of awe at discovering something great has never waned. The masters, the many gone and the precious, treasured few still living, writers like John Banville foremost among them, still working to produce monumental art, make me feel inconsequential as a writer, and I wouldn't wish it any other way. I like that such books set the bar so out of reach, because while they inspire, and in their best moments reawaken, my sense of wonder, they also help focus my attention and steel my resolve. Because when I am burning up with a story, I understand then that it is okay to sit down to write it purely for myself. I am my audience. Of course, once it's done I hope that people will seek it out and read it, but during the writing process I am not thinking about outcomes. There's the story, for better or worse, and nothing else. And in that way, I keep myself honest.