A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Welcome to Trevor Byrne, author of the superb new novel, Ghosts and Lightning (which I reviewed here). It’s been a while since I had a ‘book crush’ – the first was (of course) The Lord of the Rings, and more recently there was Laura Dave‘s London is the best city in America. Ghosts and Lightning is my latest book crush, so when Trevor Byrne contacted me, I jumped at the chance to interview him. Cards on the table, I think this is my favourite Vulpes Libris Author Interview. The piece is quite long as Trevor is very open and generous in his answers, but they’re so interesting (IMHO) that I couldn’t bring myself to cut any of them. However, there was also an unofficial shadow interview going on, which included a discussion of hobbit homes, a heated disagreement about chip shop pickled onions, the uncanny likeness of harvestman spiders to currants, thoughts on the Armenian genocide of 1915 and an appreciation of Irish rebel songs. For the sake of our professional reputations, this material is definitely not included…
Lisa Glass: Could you tell us a little bit about how you became a writer? Did you always know you wanted to write ‘great novels’, or is it something you came to late?
Trevor Byrne: Maybe what I want to do is not write ‘great novels’ but rather create ‘great characters’ who tell stories (who are great stories). In working class Dublin you’re surrounded by great characters. My mad uncles and aunties and cousins and friends, the slackers and low-end entrepreneurs, the addled urban seanchai, the young Poles working shit jobs, the guys on building sites, the old men at the bar gulping Guinness and the junkies braying at the back of the bus – they’ve all got stories and they’re all happy to tell them. I grew up around that and I think that’s helped me immensely as a writer. For me, character (as Stephen King and probably others have put it) is plot. When I think of the books I love I think of the characters – Gollum/Sméagol in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, Judge Holden in Blood Meridian, Francie Brady in The Butcher Boy and John Egan in Carry Me Down.
Anyway, to return to the first part of your question I have to go back twenty years or so, when I stole The Hobbit from school as an eight year old and started something that would ultimately culminate in the publishing of my first novel. I sat on my bed and opened the nefariously acquired book and I remember, right at the beginning, reading about Gandalf ringing the bell at Bag End, Bilbo’s home. This puzzled me as I assumed someone in a place peopled with dwarves and hobbits and dragons wouldn’t have an electric doorbell and I momentarily considered putting the book down. But thankfully I persevered, sticking with Bilbo and the dwarves through Rivendell and Gollum’s subterranean island and into the fire-blackened hall of the dragon Smaug and back again to Bag End and Bilbo’s anachronistic doorbell, about which I was no longer worried because these great characters had swept me along, had really convinced me. It was only years later that it occurred to me that it was an old-fashioned ‘ding-a-ling’, manual type bell. I‘ve hardly had a period since when I‘ve not been reading a book.
I got into writing properly when I moved to Wales eight years ago, at twenty. During my teens I’d juggled wanting to be a musician (I still play guitar) an illustrator (I no longer draw, though would like to take it up again sometime) and a writer. Writer won in the end. After abandoning a degree in History and Classical Civilisations in Dublin, I started an English degree with a Creative Writing element at the University of Glamorgan and bombarded my tutor (the Welsh novelist Desmond Barry) with short stories. I’d left behind fantasy by then and was really into horror, especially Clive Barker and the weird pulp writer H.P. Lovecraft. My stuff was dark, off-the-wall, speculative splatter-punk. And almost all of it was set in America, a place to which I’ve still never been. Once I got to Wales, though, I began to realise that I was from somewhere – suddenly I was a foreigner. I was Irish. I had an accent, a history and culture. It really did take moving away from Ireland for me to become interested in the place, and that began to seep into my writing. I kept the darkness but it became more human, and I set the stories in Ireland, in places I knew. I broadened my reading list, too – in came Cormac McCarthy, Patrick McCabe, Edna O’Brien, Flannery O’Connor, Roddy Doyle, William Faulkner, James Joyce, Niall Griffiths. I finally started making the important connections, as happens to people at certain points in their life – and which for me was the connecting of great literature, the oral storytelling tradition of Ireland, a clear-sighted determination to ‘be a writer’ and all of the frightening, sad, inspiring, trapped, mad and/or wonderful characters I’d met.
LG: Writers often complain about the difficulties of achieving publication. Was your road to publication smooth (or bumpy)?
TB: I definitely can’t complain. Ghosts and Lightning is the first novel I attempted, so there aren’t any other rejected manuscripts in the drawer. I started the book as an undergraduate and finished it on Glamorgan’s M.Phil. in Creative Writing. It took longer to write the thing than I’d have liked, as life got in the way (as it tends to do) and there were long periods where I didn’t work on the book at all. For a period of over a year I had to come back to Dublin for family and money reasons, and worked in a horrible giant fridge in the industrial estate across the road from my parents. I also worked on a building site in Wicklow and in a Coca Cola factory for a while. I did a lot of thinking while cycling to that factory though, along the Royal Canal, and made some important decisions about the book, even if I didn’t actually write during that period. Once the book was written though there was a really short period between sending the book out, getting an offer from a publisher, getting an agent, said agent saying the first offer wasn’t good enough (if it was left to me I’d have taken anything), having a few other publishers making offers, then going with Canongate. I spoke to Jamie Byng a few times, and my now editor Francis Bickmore, and I felt like the vibe was a really good one. I think me and Canongate are a good match. I did a reading in to a crowd of liquored up literature aficionados in Edinburgh a few weeks ago and it was bookended by DJ sets from Francis and Jamie. They’re mental in the best possible way.
That was last year. I’d just turned twenty-seven and hadn’t been writing seriously for very long, so it was pretty mad. Other writers are probably shaking their heads and glaring at the screen. I can understand that. I remember I was eating stew in a canteen with a friend and one second I was complaining to her about having too many onions polluting my bowl (I hate onions) and the next I had a phone call saying I was about to receive an opening offer for the book. I was walking round in a daze after that.
LG: Are you writing at the moment? If so, what’s the book about? Is it set in Ireland again?
TB: I’ve begun a new novel. Don’t have a definite title for it yet, although the working title (which I won’t reveal) is lifted from Paradise Lost. It’s a cool phrase (and not too pretentious, I hope), though I’ll probably change it. And yes, it is set in Ireland again. This time I think it might be less Dublin-centric, though. Essentially, it’s about two brothers of disparate age (roughly twelve and twenty-two) and how the elder of the two returns to the family home after a mysterious six year absence. He’s been into drugs and all sorts. The younger brother, who narrates the novel, doesn’t quite know what to make of his elder sibling – he’s part frightened of him and part transfixed, having in his absence sort of deified him, built up stories about him and his absence (he doesn’t have any other siblings). Without wanting to blow the story, the elder brother steals a huge chunk of his father’s redundancy money (the novel’s set right now, during Ireland’s economic crash) and the two end up on the run, in Dublin and Ireland at large. It’ll include run ins with all sorts of interesting, crazy characters, and will be broken up by odd, hallucinatory, revelatory sections that fill us in on where the elder brother’s been all this time. As the story reaches its conclusion (a pretty dramatic one), the two narratives’ll increasingly begin to dovetail, to make sense.
I’m still in love with Ireland, and working class Dublin especially, in a literary sense. Yeah, it was one of those late-blooming loves (like when someone starts to notice a friend in a certain way after years) but in a way it’s stronger for that. Working class Dubliners are held together by their stories. Clondalkin, which is where the characters in Ghosts and Lightning hail from, and where I’m sat right now, in my parents’ house, is a place left behind by the dreamed-up affluence of the now lamed Celtic Tiger and its keepers – the ever myopic, morally bankrupt and self-serving Irish government. The ghosts of the nineteen eighties and nineteen nineties heroin epidemic, of unemployment and a fomented lack of aspiration still haunt Clondalkin. And it’ll get worse now that the economy’s wrecked. There’s no library in this area. What’s that all about? That’s just despicable.
And so, people tell stories. They make sense of the world through story, they make connections, they mythologize people and places and build a world that makes sense. Dublin, class and myths both ancient and modern are what interest me at the moment. I’m happy to stick with that.
LG: How did you get into teaching Creative Writing, and is it something you’d consider doing again in the future?
TB: While at the University of Glamorgan I’d done a degree in English with some Creative Writing modules, then an M.Phil. in Creative Writing, so when the offer to teach some classes in the subject came up I thought, why not? Seemed like a logical progression. The lecturers at the university knew me well by then and were confident I could pull it off. While living in Wales I’d worked some pretty shoddy jobs, like a horrendous nightshift in the clothes section in Asda (I got caught on camera dragging myself around the aisles in a trolley for hours, half asleep . . . they didn’t fire me because no one else was mad enough to take the job), a mind numbing stint (mercifully short) in a Halifax branch inputting and amending standing orders (yawn) and loads of other crap, so lecturing was a step forward. I was still studying on the M.Phil. and working on Ghosts and Lightning when they made the offer. I was twenty-five and when I first walked into classes a lot of students didn’t realise I was in charge. They’d still be sitting around talking and waiting for the old guy with the leather patches to show up with a megalithic, heavily annotated, dog-eared copy of Paradise Lost and Gandalf-style protruding eyebrows. Instead they get a long-haired Dubliner with big boots and an Undertaker tattoo.
I think it helped that I was close in age to my students. I knew exactly what I would have liked in my classes while I was an undergraduate, and what I hated too, so I was able to draw on that. I had tremendous fun teaching. My classes were informal but I feel we really made it work. If talking about East Enders or professional wrestling or allowing (or personally indulging in) swearing or joking about helped us out in some sense, then it was fair game. Joyce and Maupassant and Borges and the Bronte sisters will always be around. It’s important to read those writers and appreciate them, to understand what they do and how they do it, but you can make some room for other, less vaunted stuff too, especially if it engages your class, which is ultra important. If I needed a knockout literary story like Flannery O’Connor’s ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find’ or Hemingway’s ‘The Light of the World’ to illustrate something, fair enough, we’d use that. Equally, though, if Clive Barker’s ‘In The Hills, The Cities’ was the order of the day, to get us talking about a new kind of speculative, transcendent horror, then happy days, too. Once you’re all on the same page the class will work out fine. We’d established a level of trust between myself and the students, and between the students themselves, and that’s fantastic for a Creative Writing workshop. I was honoured to be in a position to help validate young writers’ work in their own, and their peers’, eyes. If there’s any justice some of those students will go on to be published. I loved the job and would definitely do it again at some point. I think I’m a better person for the experience and that helps you out as a writer, too. That said, I only ever worked part-time hours (at most three workshops a week) and didn’t have to deal with too much horrible administration stuff. Writers I know have warned me about how a heavy teaching load can really grind you down as an artist. Obviously I wouldn’t want that. I’m pretty low maintenance, though – no mortgage, no kids, no significant other, so I don’t need to get in too deep.
LG: How do you cope with negative reviews (if there have been any)? Are you A) a weeper? B) a stormer? C) a brave-facer? Or D) other?
TB: The reviews and feedback in general about the book have been good. There have been some that have liked the book less than others, but I think that’s fine. In that sense, out of the list above, I’m D), other . . . and in my particular case, maybe a ‘so-whater’. To a large extent reviews are subjective. But I do have to admit that it’s cool when you read a reviewer or speak to a reader who’s either really ‘got’ your book (that’s to say, has identified with your concerns and sensibilities, that kind of thing) or has picked up something odd and wonderful you’ve missed, some angle or symbol or way of seeing. Because ultimately that’s what you want to do, you want to make a connection with people.
Of course (coming back to reviews), living as we do in the internet age you don’t have to wait on the review section in The Times to get an opinion on your book as you get reader feedback all the time, on sites like Amazon and others. It’s healthy to have opinions out there and I think it’s important not to get too caught up in them either way. That said, as a professional writer you can’t blank out reviews completely because they do have an effect on your book in a sales and advertising sense. In the major newspapers I’ve picked up some quotable bits from reviews that can go on the second edition of the novel, which is cool. Novels, once they’re published professionally, are both art and a commodity, that’s the reality of it. Even a pretty radical publisher like Canongate has to make money.
If I were cast in the role of reviewer (and I probably will be at some stage) I’d like to try to avoid ever having to publish a scathing review. I’m a pretty effusive person and although I don’t enjoy every book I read as much as the next, if I were to publish a review it’d be to recommend something, to share the experience with someone else. In a pub I’ll always be going on about some great new book I’ve read, or a film I’ve seen or a band I saw live. (Which reminds me, I caught a band called O’Death last week, a crazy bunch of Cajun bluegrass fiddle-punks, and they were awesome live. Check ‘em out.) To me, there often seems a kind of meanness in publicly lambasting someone’s art.
LG: What part of writing a novel do you find most difficult?
TB: Probably self-discipline. I find it hard to stick rigidly to a plan. I think about the writers who say they have a set time and place to write (probably most writers, really), who have a set of rules which they stick to, and say they won’t move until they have their thousand words a day, and think, wow, I wish I was like that. At times I’ve been able to stick to a routine, but then, at other times, I’ll be really erratic. If I could stick to a routine I’d write a couple books a year, so maybe that’s something I need to work on. When I’m full of good juice, as Hemingway might say, I’ll write like crazy. The long chapter in Ghosts and Lightning called The Stiletto in the Ghetto (the séance one, which is probably 7,000 words long or more) was written in one sitting, in a few hours, straight through. Lots of the book was written that way. If I did that every day I’d be turning out books at a rate comparable to Joyce Carol Oates (who I really like). But somehow it doesn’t work out that way. Ah well. I’d like to find a middle ground sometime, find a balance between discipline and inspiration . . . I don’t know, be disciplined enough to be inspired every day, or something like that. If I could bottle that, though (to paraphrase John Lennon), I’d be a millionaire.
LG: What’s the best thing about being an author?
TB: I suppose you can generalise to begin with, and say that one of the best things about being an author is that it was something I hoped for, worked at and eventually achieved. It’s like wanting to be a fireman or a doctor or a footballer and actually making it – there’s that genuine sense of achievement, of validation.
And to be specific . . . well, I feel there’s something deeply important in the role of storyteller. Storytelling (this goes for both the teller of the tale and the listener or reader – it’s a two-way deal, a communion . . . a telepathy when we speak of books and a ritual when we speak of the oral tradition) is a unique way of coming to terms with the world, to understand what it is to be human. I don’t want to start sounding like Yoda (especially not latter-day Yoda, in those awful new films) or Salman Rushdie (a beautiful writer but a bit self-important), but I do think that books are a kind of miracle. So that’s the best thing about being an author – you get to take part in something miraculous. That’s your job.
I mentioned this somewhere before, but often when I’m passing through security at an airport I get stopped and grilled. I suppose it’s because I looked (still look) like an IRA bomber transported from the seventies to the present (the long hair, the accent, the get up) or someone who’d smuggle drugs. Anyway, you have to fill out forms and sign all kinds of stuff before they let you go (and usually they seem disappointed that they haven’t busted you). One of the main things they want to know is, what’s your occupation? For years, I had to write ‘student’ (I couldn’t bring myself to acknowledge the Asda nightshift worker part). Now, I get to put ‘writer’. That’s pretty cool. That’s one of the best bits.
Up yours, security guys.
LG: Please recommend three of your favourite books.
TB: It’s difficult to choose three, but here goes. I’ll go back to three I mentioned earlier.
1) The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.
I know it’s published as a trilogy, but Tolkien conceived it as one book. Plenty of people scoff at The Lord of the Rings because it’s high fantasy, it’s set in a world peopled with elves and orcs and ents and hobbits. That’s pretty snobby, I think. I remember, when I was eighteen and in Trinity College in Dublin, I’d written a short story set in a fantasy world and handed it to my English lecturer. In the story, the protagonist (a good-hearted rogue) is thrown into jail and reminisces about his life. He was banged up for stealing a gold ring from a dwarf. My lecturer said it’d be better if it was set in a real jail, like Mount Joy in Dublin, and the if the dwarf was some regular guy from Cork (well, he wasn’t that specific about the county). That annoyed me. Fantasy is a genre in its own right – there’s good fantasy and bad fantasy, like there’s good literary fiction and bad literary fiction.
Anyway, I think The Lord of the Rings is a great book. Terry Pratchett knocked it once, saying that, by the end, the characters are ‘just’ symbols. Maybe they are. But that’s perpetuating the idea that there’s only one kind of writing. Tolkien’s stuff is grand, mythic. Cuchulainn, the great hero of Irish mythology, isn’t a detailed, three-dimensional character in the modern literary sense. We don’t really get access to his inner life, his psychology. So what? Who cares?
For me, The Lord of the Rings is wonderful. I read it as a kid and it delighted me, and I’ve read it a few times since as an adult and am left feeling blessed that such a book exists, such characters, such ideas and ideals. Even speaking dryly and ‘technically’, Tolkien is a fantastic writer when it comes to nature and landscape. Gollum/Sméagol is a brilliant creation, too, a brilliant character. In many ways the book was a kind of design for life for me. All of the high-minded thoughts I had and have about love and friendship are in there. There are some truly beautiful moments in that book, even if those moments are shared between hairy-footed, pipe-smoking hobbits.
2) Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy.
Assuming that anyone has stuck with this interview long enough to get to this point, I’ll try to keep this relatively short. Blood Meridian is a masterpiece. I love two things about it. First, the incredible, biblical, miraculous, apocalyptic language McCarthy uses. It’s a joy to read, it’s beautiful on its own terms, even when employed to describe horribly violent acts. And secondly I love the book because Judge Holden is such a great, memorable character. He’s seven feet tall, completely hairless, possessed of knowledge no nineteenth century scalper should have access to, and dances and plays and kills with a terrifying, amoral grace and glee. He’s a great favourite, the judge.
3) How about Carry Me Down by M.J. Hyland?
A brilliant feat of literary ventriloquism. John Egan’s a fantastic creation. I love how often he’s actually pretty awkward and unlikeable and yet I was always brought back from too-harsh judgement by the fact that, look, he’s just a kid, he’s struggling, he’s hurt, he’s damaged. It’s such a subtle and powerful book. Utterly convincing.
And that’s that, I suppose. I feel like I’ve betrayed Tobias Wolfe’s heartbreaking Old School and Julia Blackburn’s better-than-a-novel biography Old Man Goya and Niall Griffiths’ triumphant Grits and Edna O’Brien’s scary-as-fuck In the Forest and a host of others. Ah well.
Many thanks, Trevor. Good luck with Ghosts and Lightning (and avoiding those onions).
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