8 minute read
What is the role of isolation in your creative process?

Sometimes you see it said that writing is a lonely business – or lonesome, maybe – but unless you remove yourself, how can you disappear into your book? Only my children were allowed to come in when I was working, but even then I might let out a roar at them. It’s hard to have your head dragged back from 1870s America, say, into the present. Isolation just comes from the word for island, doesn’t it? You have to heap up a few rocks at the centre of the lake and build your hut there, metaphorically. And then gratefully return to the fray when you’re done!

Pick five novels that we could read during a pandemic and tell us why you chose them. Thank you
Tuam, County Galway

I think, Marion, maybe it’s a time to reread the novels that made you chuckle, like Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. Have you read that? Then those long novels that made you what you are as a writer, in my case Nostromo by Joseph Conrad, Hardy, etc. Then those novels that defeated you (or me, rather!) like War and Peace by Tolstoy, Ulysses by James Joyce. Or maybe we can even return briefly to the safety of childhood and read The Wind in the Willows!

When you had completed Days Without End, did you know at that point that you would be writing Winona’s story from her point of view in your next novel?

No, I don’t think so. Partly because I didn’t dare to think I could, being a straight, white, old Irish man! But in the end, she seemed to decide it for me. She crept very quietly into my workroom and instructed me to start. So, I borrowed a smidgen of her great courage, and did. In answering this question I am reminded of what a very strange business writing actually is.

How did you go about creating and inhabiting a Lakota teenager from a different century, giving her such truth and feminist autonomy? Thank you for your exquisite prose in this new eulogy to love, it took my breath away!
Christchurch, Dorset

Thank you, Patricia. Well, for both these recent books, I spent a good number of years trying to find out the fate of English in the mouths of Americans – both Native and European – just as English had a journey to make into the imaginations and mouths of Irish people, with different results. All those nationalities and cultures bearing down on it, rinsing it out, sometimes even ‘wrecking’ it, remaking it – that extraordinary adventure language sets out on sometimes. So that helped a little. But it’s also ultimately a question of allowing instinct full rein, allowing, for instance, your love for your own daughters to help you find a path to Winona – that mysterious language. You can read a hundred books, and I did, but for me someone like Winona is also to be found still living, breathing, talking and writing there in her own time. Gone out of our temporal reach, perhaps, but still there, still there.

Do your personal surroundings play a role in forming your novels?
County Wexford

I am very superstitious about where I work, and I have written here in this little workroom (the rector’s old office in an old rectory) for twenty years. And the table I write on, an old post office desk, was always with us wherever we lived. I don’t work on trains or in hotels. I like to feel the great clock of the year around me in the form of our acre of garden, the cantankerous rooks, the sequence of flowers. The queenly mountains over all.

Writers create literature, shape it, but how to be unique in that art of creating some new styles of writing?
Durgapur, West Bengal

I think the work of the young writer is to write away and try to identify what is distinctive about their own use of sentences. Or arrive at that identification without really knowing what it is, but sensing the destination. Every bird has its separate birdsong, though all the birds are using notes. That’s what I like about Thomas Hardy, or Conrad – you know them immediately just reading a few sentences. But it has to be as if you are the first person ever to write, if you know what I mean. The first person ever to speak!

Is there a book by another author that you would love to have written yourself and, if so, which and why?
Tuam, County Galway

Well, I don’t know. I was asked this good question recently and I said Joseph O’Connor’s novel Shadowplay. I could have said Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, or George Eliot’s Middlemarch, or . . . Well, there are outrageously good books, and maybe, outrageously, we would like to have written them. But at the same time I am eternally grateful that my life arranged itself so that I could at least devote my time to writing my own. That seems victory enough.

I love the monologue at the end of The Steward of Christendom and use it as an audition piece. I find the rhythm and attention to detail reminiscent of Beckett, Krapp’s Last Tape in particular. Was Beckett a strong influence for your playwriting?

The mere existence of Beckett was a powerful example. However, when I lived in Paris (very poorly) in the late seventies I might have met him, but decided not to. When I was at Trinity College Dublin, I used my meagre pocket money slowly to buy all his books, even those impossibly slim Faber editions. I felt I needed to have them near, but I knew also that he was a dangerous writer to be influenced by. Nevertheless, the first couple of plays I wrote at college were definitely horribly minor copies of his! It’s that note of sublime nihilism that’s so hard not just to emulate, but to progress further. I hope the monologue has been successful for you! Actors are the true gods of theatre.

Are you planning to write any further novels about the Dunne family, as the last one was On Canaan’s Side in 2011?

Well spotted! And I hadn’t quite realised that. Heavens. There are eight novels now that are talking to each other, as it were, and the score for each side of this family of books is, yes, three Dunnes and five McNultys! I must be thinking about that.

Which do you find most challenging writing for, the theatre or novels?

I think theatre in that, having faced the challenge of writing a play (the present one took ten years), you then have to march out into the world as its ambassador, as it were. Which can be daunting, yes. For years I haven’t been able to sit in with an audience at one of my plays. It’s a strange phobia. I was somewhat comforted to read that no less a person than Samuel Beckett had the same problem!

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