"High-octane, visceral and uncompromising...Dublin Seven introduces a talent to be watched. Compellingly rough lyricism and a blistering breakneck narrative...most impressive." Patrick McCabe.
Q. With the character of Shane you capture the youthful, naive voice of an eighteen year old very well: how did you find writing from the perspective of an adolescent? Did you channel your own experiences of being that age?
A. Certainly. A friend of mine just read the book, and came up with a theory that the personalities of two of the main characters (Shane and Chops), are aspects of my own psyche divided and fictionalised. It made me laugh, because I actually wrote an essay as an undergrad years back, arguing that the three men in The Picture of Dorian Gray were all different elements of Oscar Wilde’s persona. I’d forgotten all about it. I didn’t try consciously to put myself into the book that way, but I think there’s truth in my pal’s theory. But there’s elements of me in every character, even the women.
Q. You’ve written an article for The Irish Times explaining how the plot of Dublin Seven follows a defined structure based on Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man. In which ways was the writing process of Dublin Seven influenced by your literary research and other authors?
A. This idea, to assign different themes (such as one of Shakespeare’s ‘seven ages’) to each chapter, itself came from Joyce. His ‘Linati’ schema for Ulysses was the biggest inspiration for composing Dublin Seven. Once I’d come up with the grid, the plot was written for me, I actually had very little leeway in deciding what would happen if I was to follow the structure I’d laid out and include all the elements assigned to each chapter.
At the moment I’m doing research on typography and punctuation in literature, and I suppose this makes me more cognisant of these issues when writing. So I asked to use a distinct typeface for the text messages for example (my obliging editor found the perfect font: Nokia). And I’m very finicky about details like using the em dash rather than quotation marks to introduce dialogue. I’m the worst kind of pedant when it comes to this stuff, an editor’s nightmare.
In the past I’ve written academically about Roddy Doyle’s representation of the Dublin dialect - and criticised his deference to standard English in the way he apostrophises deviations away from the standard (so fuckin’ instead of fucking). Although I’ve been compared to Roddy Doyle, presumably because I write a lot in Dublin dialect, the way I represent the language is a lot closer to Irvine Welsh’s representation of Edinburgh English: I don’t apostrophise deviations from the standard (eg. fuckin plain and simple) and I use compound words freely if they are a single item in Dublin English even if they aren’t established or in the dictionary (so earlyhouse rather than early house – you can tell if compounds like this are a single item cause the syllables can’t carry unequal stress for emphasis).
Q. The protagonist of Dublin Seven is called Shane Laochra, other characters are called Griffo, Lawless or Lynchey. When naming your characters, did you give a lot of thought to the actual meaning or sound or was it more coincidental?
A. I tried to imbue every choice I made when writing Dublin Seven with as much meaning as possible, so the name choices weren’t accidental at all. Some carry more meaning than others, but they were all considered choices. Griffo is outwardly agruff, rough, tough character, I hope these connotations are conveyed within the sound symbolism of his name. But this is just an empty facade, his power and strength is fantastical. He’s really just a creature of mythology, no more than a false legend – a Griffin.
Lynchey is more straightforward – Lynch is a common Dublin surname, but if you look up the word ‘lynch’ in the dictionary you’ll see it means an extrajudicial killing. There are clues like this in most of the names. Similarly, the name of the main character’s nemesis, Lawless, is a Dublin name. But the terror he inspires is due to the fact that he’s a criminal who has no empathy or compassion, no moral code whatsoever – he has complete disregard for the unwritten rules of the street and for the laws of the land. He is literally law-less.
There was no great rationale behind the decision to call my hero Shane, it simply suited someone of his age - it just felt right. His second name is Laochra (Irish for hero) because he’s the hero of the book. Joyce initially called Stephen Dedalus ‘Stephen Hero’, and I see a nice parallel between the characters; Shane truly does emulate the Dedalus of Greek mythology in that he suffers the consequences of trying to fly too high. His eagerness and ambition are his downfall. I also liked the idea of making someone our society deems worthless my hero. And I admire his lust for life, he engages with the world, he doesn’t shy away from it. That in itself is heroic to me.
Q. What did you edit out? Did the plot ever deviate from your original idea?
A. I edited out a lot – about 20,000 words. But the plot didn’t deviate at all from my original conception, there actually wasn’t actually much room to manoeuvre if I was going to represent the themes I’d assigned each chapter. The pieces I took out are just scenes that were there to convey atmosphere and set the stage, but didn’t actually further the plot. For example, a lot of banter between the lads (that was almost transcribed conversations between my mates – maybe wise to have removed it). Liberties Press might let me do a sort of editor’s cut for the second edition and I’ll put all these pieces back in.
Q. If you had to pick a cast for a tv or film production who would you choose for your key characters?
A. I don’t know if I’d mind very who played who, but I very firmly believe the best approach to successfully conveying any sort of realism in any portrayal of working-class life is to cast working-class people in the roles. I really can’t understand why programmes and films portraying the Dublin underworld persist in having actors play these roles who very obviously do not come from that background. It completely spoils the illusion of reality for me. Whatever your background, I think you can just tell something is not quite right, no matter where you’re from.
Tom Vaughan Lawlor is a very notable exception to this rule - his impression of a working-class Dublin accent is amazing – and that’s speaking as a linguist, not just a writer! But I think his immense popularity is due to the fact he’s the exception that proves the rule – he was convincing in a way a lot of the other actors weren’t. If someone was making a drama about Soweto, they wouldn’t cast white actors in the roles and have them put on black-face. It’s almost on that level to me, I see no reason for it, and I find it offensive. The Dublin dialect, my dialect, is the most common dialect on this island. There’s plenty of people who could play those parts, and the show/film will be more successful as a result. I think the producers of Love/Hate realised this as the show went on, there’s been at least some improvement on that front.
Q. What was your favourite and least favourite part of the publishing/writing process?
A. My favourite part of the publishing process was a surprise. I walked into the Liberties Press offices to collect a contract. Ailish, their Publicity Director, who I’d never met before, introduced herself, and then asked me about some minor plot detail in the book. Realising that someone I’d never met before had read the book, and invested emotionally in the characters, meant I’d accomplished my mission as an author – I felt it was job done at that moment. I realised I wasn’t really concerned about reviews or sales. Since then I’ve had loads of moments like that, where people will ask me about something in the book, or tell me a little phrase or scene they enjoyed, and that’s absolutely what it’s all about for me. It’s been especially gratifying seeing people who don’t read novels much, or even at all, fly through the book. I’ve also had a lot of people that have been part of the world portrayed in the book get in touch to say how accurate it is, and that means a lot to me.
I didn’t really have a least favourite part. There was a lot of rejection involved, but I always knew it was going to be a tough slog and didn’t take it personally. I was absolutely of the mindset that I wouldn’t stop until I got published, so it was water off a duck’s back. I interviewed Colum McCann recently, and he said that being a successful writer is less about talent, and more about ‘desire, stamina and perseverance’. I think this is true. I definitely had an absolute unwavering- near pathological - determination to get published, I wasn’t expecting it to be easy, so the ‘downsides’ didn’t get to me.
Q. Which book do you wish you could have written from any living author?
A. The Butcher Boy by Pat McCabe. It’s without a doubt the most perfectly accomplished novel I know of. It’s so unique and idiosyncratic stylistically. I admire McCabe so much as an author. I can’t say he’s been an influence at all, his mode of expression and way of thinking are so utterly unique they defy imitation. There are so many little turns of phrase and jokes in The Butcher Boy that make me jealous as a writer. His idiom itself is utterly hilarious, but also incredibly poignant - very gentle and humane despite the terribly dark and shocking subject matter. There really is something of the sublime in his work, I don’t know how he does it, you can’t see the craft behind the art at all in his writing. My publisher sent Dublin Seven off to a few different authors in the hopes of getting a quote for the cover, and I couldn’t believe it when Pat McCabe replied – he was the only one to get back. The book had already gone to print. Fortunately they hadn’t started printing the cover yet, so his words just made it. The quote he gave captures something of his style too: ‘High octane’ makes me think of diesel laundering on the border. It’s a great compliment.