Three emerging Irish writers offer insight into their lives, their work, and what it’s like to be a writer in Ireland right now.
Born in Dublin in 1973, Claire Kilroy is the author of three novels: All Summer, which won the 2004 Rooney Prize for Literature, Tenderwire, and All Names Have Been Changed. Kilroy studied English at Trinity College Dublin, where she also earned her Master’s degree in creative writing. She lives in Dublin. All Names Have Been Changed chronicles the year of a creative writing class at Trinity College in 1980s Dublin. The story is narrated by Declan, the only man in the group – aside from its leader, Glynn, one of Ireland’s greatest writers. The students all idolize Glynn but as the year progresses, the pedestal they’ve placed him on shrinks nearer and nearer to the ground.
SL: How did you come to write All Names Have Been Changed?
Claire Kilroy: I began it in 2006. John Updike had just published Terrorist to mixed reviews, and I wondered what it must be like to have been the foremost voice of your generation, the most celebrated and lauded writer of your time, and to then have that status questioned, to be yesterday’s man. This fused with the image of a poet on the cobbles of Front Square in Trinity, wandering around in no particular direction – he was lost. I saw the poet from above. Someone was watching him from an upstairs window. That someone was Declan, the narrator of All Names, who wants to be a writer himself, and the lost poet was Glynn, who ended up being a great Irish novelist, but one who hasn’t published new work in years. To dramatize the endeavor of writing, which is a silent solitary occupation, I made Glynn the head of a writing class in Trinity. That’s when all the girls appeared, the beautiful, clever, mysterious girls.
SL: You attended Trinity College Dublin, where your novel is set, though you were there a decade after your characters. Why didn’t you set the novel during that period?
CK: I set the novel in the eighties because I couldn’t write about contemporary Dublin at the time. I was unable to understand what was going on. It made no sense to me. All Names was begun when the Celtic Tiger was going at full throttle. There was no suspicion that it would come to an end, and that mindset changed people. It changed the way they thought, changed their values, their aspirations, their expectations, their plans. If you weren’t part of it – and as an unsalaried novelist, I wasn’t – it was like being trapped on the set of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. People you thought you knew were suddenly different.
When the recession first kicked in in 2008, I initially felt relieved. It proved that I hadn’t been deluded, that the property market was a pyramid scheme, that these vast sums of money everyone was talking about, these massive personal fortunes, were notional. The boom had been a period of hysterical thinking. Of course, the recession has since deteriorated into a full- scale economic crisis and I am deeply saddened by that, by all we’ve lost, by all the opportunities we’ve missed, and particularly by the fact that emigration has started again. My anger at the architects of the boom is fueling my next novel.
Going back to why I set the novel in the eighties: the Celtic Tiger sought to eradicate the Dublin I had stumbled into as a teenager. The new Dublin strove to be bling, strove to be Miami, strove to eradicate poor Dublin, eighties Dublin, but I had loved that Dublin. Run down though it was, scuzzy though it was, I found it an exciting place. People were doing things. People were writing things, singing things, filming things. Creativity hadn’t yet been subsumed into jobs in advertising firms and web design companies as they subsequently were. The writers who are winning awards all over the world right now were knocking around that Dublin – Colum McCann, Colm Toibin, Anne Enright, Joseph O’Connor – the list goes on. And so I wanted to commemorate that Dublin as a city where a writer might thrive – “a place where a thought might grow,” in the poet Derek Mahon’s words. And in 2006 when I began All Names, that Dublin was gone. It had been buried under British shops and glitzy bars, which are now steadily closing down. In short, it was an archaeological impulse that made me set All Names in ‘85, ‘86.
SL: Your two previous novels, All Summer and Tenderwire, were narrated by women. What was it like to write from a male perspective, this time?
CK: Liberating. A worry with the first two was that people felt that the female voice was my voice, and that I was Eva Tyne, and that I was Anna Hunt. Although I didn’t let that censor what I wrote, it did make me uncomfortable. So when I did hit upon Declan’s voice, I felt free. I had a male editor, Angus Cargill in Faber and Faber, so I trusted him to let me know when the voice didn’t ring true. The only correction he made was that Declan described a hearing aid as “knicker pink.” No man would use that adjective, according to Angus. It was very interesting to try to write about the girls from Declan’s point of view. I knew what the girls in the novel were thinking, but I’ve had to wonder at various junctures in my life what on earth certain men were thinking, and so in All Names, I tried to join the dots.
SL: All Summer and Tenderwire orbit around art objects that may or may not be authentic yet are capable of producing intense rapture: a painting and a violin, respectively. In All Names Have Been Changed the focus of your characters’ obsession is Glynn, a writer. What were the differences and similarities in creating your characters’ relationships with him?
CK: Rapture is rapture, and you can be enraptured with anything or anyone. It’s all about what captures the imagination, what ignites that spark, and writing about rapture is a shared characteristic of those three novels. They feel linked that way. With All Summer and Tenderwire, the enrapturing object remains aloof, perfect, and as unattainable as it is inanimate. However, in the case of All Names, Glynn, the adored one, has feet of clay, he answers back, and so Declan’s rapture cannot be sustained. It sours into frustration and disillusionment – he’s growing up, really. I loved writing the closing scenes of the novel, about the acceptance of imperfection, about the fragility of your heroes, and about picking yourself back up.
SL: What writers made you want to write? How have they influenced you?
CK: John Banville and Vladimir Nabokov are the two biggies for me. They both write beautifully and illuminatingly and wittily about rapture and its pitfalls. As novelists, they function on every plane – not only at the level of the unit of the sentence (“the greatest invention on earth,” is how Banville describes it), but also at the bigger picture, the arc of a finely tuned and devastating plot. When I read Lolita at the age of 16, I transcribed bits of it into a notebook, as I wanted to be able to write sentences of my own, and I wanted those sentences to be as vivid as Nabokov’s sentences, and as piercing. I wanted to be able to capture the way, say, an afternoon in late September feels, that sadness of summer fading. Glynn is one of those writers. All Names opens – and indeed closes – with the observation that “Nobody wrote about September like Glynn.”
SL: What is it like to be a writer in Ireland right now, particularly in light of the economic crisis?
CK: It’s easier, in that basic necessities are cheaper, getting by is cheaper, and there’s no longer shame in not having the money to go out to dinner. It’s quite peculiar too, in that suddenly the government is looking to writers as the innovators who’ll get us out of this economic crisis. Anything to do with Fianna Fail makes me suspicious. Having said that, writers are on the other side of the fence to the builders and bankers who brought the country to its knees, in that writers create, they invent something new, whereas the builders and bankers simply destroyed. They extracted wealth from the land and left the country with ghost estates, a black hole of debt. A writer starts with the black hole of the blank page and imagines things into being – characters, stories, places. We make something out of nothing. So the country has moved from a period of destructivity back to celebrating its opposite: creativity. That can’t be a bad thing.
SL: Will you stay in Ireland?
CK: In the past, it’s been economic stagnation that has forced people to leave. Bizarrely, the fact that Ireland was thriving was the thing that was driving the likes of me away, for the simple reason that I could barely afford to live here anymore. Yes, I’ll stay, absolutely. Delighted to. I love it here. I always have. I was reared for export, and dreaded the prospect of it, so I still can’t quite believe my luck that I’m here.
SL: What are you working on now?
CK: A novel about the boom and bust. It’s a tale of folly and hubris.