Kevin Curran 'The Books that made CITIZENS'

Every book I read, in some shape or another, ultimately becomes an education on how to write - or not write: what to focus on in a scene, where to enter a scene, leave a scene, use dialogue - what type of dialogue. There are, however, while I write, a certain amount of books I return to in order to try and get something of them into my writing.

It's not straight forward appropriation, more like sampling - subtle sampling, be it sentence structure, tense usage, a way of showing action and what not. Each of my books are a collage of sampling snippets of beats and trumpets, guitar licks and Rhythm and Blues riffs that fuse the different tones of my reading history and bring forward a whole new sound - something old into something new. CITIZENS has the riffs of many books sounding off inside its jacket. Here are a playlist of a few.

"Each of my books are a collage of sampling snippets of beats and trumpets, guitar licks and Rhythm and Blues riffs"

The contemporary sections of the novel are heavily influenced by JM Coetzee's Youth. Coetzee always amazes me with his brevity of description - yet maximum impact of character development. Like Youth, CITIZENS' contemporary section is a short 200 pages. In that time I was attempting to be light with my touch, brief and succinct in scenes in order to wring the most from them in the smallest possible space. Coetzee's use of the fluid present tense, close third person - almost first person narrator - is inspiring also.

For the grandson and grandmother relationship I had my eye on two novels, that probably seem - for the type of book I have written - a bit strange. The first was Jennifer Johnston's The Captains and the Kings. Again, it's a short, succinct novel that seems to glide through the development of the character's relationship. And, just like CITIZENS, Johnston's novel deals with two characters coming to terms with the differences between them due to their age, but also, a slow dawning understanding of how they have come to rely on one another. The other novel I looked over a few times was McGahern's The Pornographer. In this, like The Captain and the Kings, the hero has a distant, and somewhat strained, but loving relationship with an older person. In McGahern's protagonist's case, it is an aunt. If I could watch how the relationships were played out, keep a close eye on the movement of their dynamic, I felt I could transpose some of that into CITIZENS. Capture the mood of their pieces.

 

Don DeLillo is called the 'chief shaman of the American school of paranoia.' I wanted to tap into some of that. I read and read and read DeLillo during my writing of CITIZENS. My book most obviously resembles DeLillo's Libra in its attempt to somehow take a factual event (my great-grandfather's involvement in The Rising) and turn it into something novelistic, create from it a wider meaning through which a whole culture or period of life in a culture can be interrogated. Of course, CITIZENS doesn't get close to the heights of Libra, but I hope it does, in some little way, at least take a little guitar lick and sample it slightly so that it somehow can be heard reverberating in the background of my contemporary pages. The novella Pfako at the Wall (or the beginning of Underworld) again with its sweep of scope, was a big influence, as was Running Dog (DeLillo writes about a secret pornographic film staring Hitler that was recorded in his bunker before his suicide surfacing in a contemporary New York antique market) and White Noise with its post-modern, ironic take on the place of the image in contemporary society gave me things to think about, ways to approach discussing the impact of the image on a generation.

To finish off, to try and sprinkle a bit of magic dust on the final cut of the contemporary novel, I reread Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms purely to track the way in which he manages to contain and then unleash his devastating ending. Think of it like a Led Zeppelin tune starting off low and working up into a mind-blowing solo of epic proportions. The pared back language builds up over time and the paragraphs become pages and the pages become chapters and before you know it, this supposedly simple language has a complex, visceral effect on you. Grasping a moment of truth, like in A Farewell, is something I'm always looking to emulate. Sample.

My 1916 sections of the book take their drum beat and bass line from two texts. My great-grandfather's account of his actions between 1916 - 1921 for the Bureau of Military History give the scaffolding to my novel's character. Every move my great-grandfather made, I had my character take too - literally. And Will E. Hudson's I shoot the News (a kind of memoir of his newsreel days) provided the know-how and jargona newsreel cameraman would use in 1916. It is Hudson's 'cinemachine' idiosyncratic term that made it onto my pages. 

"Every move my great-grandfather made, I had my character take too - literally." 

Whereas the above books gave the content and back-bone to CITIZENS a number of other texts added the flourishes, melody and style.  Andrew Fox's blog piece for The Stinging Fly on how he wrote for Dubliners 100 was a key text in helping me get my head around the structure of early 20th century writing.  James Stephen's Easter week diary provided the local Dublin dialect of 1916, and Joyce's Dubliners and Frank O'Connors Guests of the Nation gave me valuable phrases and examples of early twentieth century writing techniques, sentence structure and habits.

I read and reread the collected works of W.B. Yeats to try and soak up the ambiance of the times. His language and turn of phrase, his attitude and reaction to the political upheavals from 1913 to 1923 can be traced throughout his maturing work.

Synge's collected works as well as Sean O'Casey's Dublin trilogy added that much needed production value to my piece, a grubby, raw edge to the sound I was trying so hard to emulate.

So, at the end of it all, not only do you have a divided novel with two disparate voices conversing over a century, you have a range of books jostling to have their snippets and riffs heard too.  All I can hope is that in placing each sample in a suitably subtle mix of inspiration, narrative dynamism and originality, I was able to bring each voice from 1916 and 2011 to the surface, and somehow, in the mix, merge them into one coherent affecting power-chord that doesn't just enter through the ears, or sound through the brain, but impacts through the gut too.  

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