Regular readers of this blog will not need to be reminded that I think Keith Ridgway’s latest novel, Hawthorn & Child, is one of the best books of the year, perhaps of many years – that, in workplace appraisal terms, it stands head and shoulders above its peers. Having spent far too much time on Twitter urging people to read it, I’ve been pleasantly surprised that almost all the responses I’ve seen have agreed with me. As I think this is not the first great book Ridgway has written, I jumped at the opportunity to ask him about his work.
How did the novel find its form? When and how did it become clear to you that this set of stories was a book predominantly about Hawthorn and Child? And when that realisation came, did the writing then get easier, or harder? Did it feel like you were heading for a destination, or still feeling your way?
I wanted to write a book of fragments. Many small fragments that would be impossible to put together – like a shattered novel in a bag. I didn’t even think of it as a novel, just a book. There were working titles like 78 Pieces Of Shit, and 54 Demonstrable Fictions. At some point it became 38 Marching Songs. Then just Marching Songs. Eventually it became Hawthorn & Child. In all that reduction there was a failure to do what I’d wanted to do. Fragments kept on fitting together, cohering in a really annoying way, wanting to become stories. So I went from 78 to 8. That’s all loss. But the tension between what I wanted and what I was doing became interesting in itself. H&C is, without being, I hope, too maudlin about it, a book about the failure to write a much better, much more interesting book. At some point I fixed on these two detectives – who came to me originally just as comic ghosts, turning up repeatedly and ineffectively to haunt the scene of some catastrophe or other – and I recognised myself – the writer – in their feeble interventions. And then I realised that I was writing a police novel. Which was a shock. But at least then I could play with that. And the writing became a little easier I suppose, though of course it never really does, you just shift the difficulty slightly. As for a destination – no, I never had one. That much at least I never lost. Or found. Or what have you.
You’ve spoken before about resistance to telling our days and lives as stories, and of our addiction to narrative. Yet most of the stories in Hawthorn & Child have strong narrative drive, so they satisfy this addiction up to a point. Are you lulling the reader into a false sense of security? Do you want them to want to know if Hawthorn is going to be OK?
I don’t know what I want. I suppose I want them to feel something of what I feel – that stories are subjective creations, personal things. That there isn’t really anything like a shared story – or a shared experience – in reality, and that novels for the most part lie about this. The writer of a novel is assumed, and assumes herself, to be an authority on the world of her novel. And I dispute that. Certainty is the enemy of understanding. And I want what I write to be attempts at understanding. So I am filled with uncertainty about everything that seems to happen in anything I write. It’s very difficult to get that on to the page without either inducing a sort of crisis of perception for myself, or worse, boring the reader. So I’m not lulling, there’s no ‘false’. I don’t know what’s going on. I want to know if Hawthorn is going to be OK. But I have no idea whether he will be or not. Or whether I really care. I’m not sure I like him very much. He’s sort of pathetic. But the important thing for me, as the writer of this, is that he feels like he might be a real character, in the sense that he embodies emotions and attitudes and failures and neuroses that we are familiar with. And he’s a creep. A self-pitying creep. Which is what most of us I think fear that we are.
Hawthorn & Child begins and ends with chapters that foreground the relationship between the two detectives (I’ve heard a couple of people compare them to Bill James’ police procedurals). I could have read a whole book just of the dialogue between Hawthorn and Child. Do you read crime fiction? Do you ‘prepare’ characters by writing more about them and then cutting away? How well do you feel you know them, and the other characters in the book?
I do read crime fiction. Usually in binges. I enjoy crime fiction a great deal. Or two thirds of it. By which I mean the first two thirds of each book. The last third of a crime book usually pisses me off. I love the exposition, getting everything set up and into position, and then the cranking out of the mechanics that are going to get the thing to dance. But in the last third it seems to always end up in a sort of badly choreographed dogfight and the pacing goes haywire and there’s so much chasing after loose ends that it ceases to have anything to do with our experienced world and becomes more a sort of fantasy of resolution, a kind of neurotic tidying of life’s mess, like sport.
I don’t ‘prepare’ characters, but I do write much more than you’ll read. I cut a lot. But this happens when I’m just trying to write. I don’t really do preparation in the sense I think you mean. I might make some notes – but just very general things. Child wears glasses. Hawthorn’s brother is a taxi driver. That sort of thing. As for how well I know them – I don’t really know them at all. Or, no better than someone who’s read the book a few times perhaps. I’m not holding back information – other than locations maybe. I know where Cath goes to school. I know where the shooting in ‘1934’ happens. I know roughly where Mishazzo’s office is. But anyone reading the book can imagine those things for themselves. I have ideas about some of the characters that aren’t in the book. But so will any reader. I don’t know anything.
Your first two publications, Horses and The Long Falling, are more traditional narratives than the later novels. Since then the structures have become bolder and there’s a greater presence of the uncanny. What do you attribute this to? Were you shaking off influences or Irish traditions with your early work?
This is an example of story telling isn’t it? I’ve no real idea what I was doing in those books. I’d only be guessing. But Horses is very much a bit of traditional Irish rural gothic with the stock characters and the silly plot, and I think it’s a piss-take. I remember writing it, and I remember that I wrote it very quickly, and that I really enjoyed it. And I’ve never written anything as quickly since, nor enjoyed writing anything as much since. I haven’t looked at it in ages though and don’t feel responsible for it.
The Long Falling is different. It was written before Horses, and it seems terribly earnest to me now, but I have a sort of love for it. I was a different person when I wrote it – young and quite unworldly – and it seems to me at this distance that it was a brave novel for me to write. I like that it was my first book and yet I made these choices : it is largely told from the perspective of a middle aged woman; the character closest to myself – young, gay – turns out to be a bastard; it has lots of gay sex; it speaks very directly about the X Case, and it’s angry about that; and it foreshadows, to some extent, the suspension of kindness that came with the boom years. I wanted to write a book about all of that. And I wrote it in the way I found that I could – conventionally, without much thought about narrative or structure. But again, it was written by someone else, and I admire him – naive little creature – but I can’t really see the connection to me.
The way my writing has changed over the years comes down I think to dissatisfaction with what I’ve done before. I felt after The Long Falling that it wasn’t true. Which is a dumb thing to say about fiction. But I felt that it was faked. Forced. Contrived. The next novel I wrote – The Parts – was an attempt at not-faking. It is almost entirely fake. It’s a terrible book. And it so shocked me that I had written it that I completely stopped what I was doing and tried to start again. And Animals feels to me now like my proper first novel. I began to use what Bolaño talks about – memory and ethics. I stopped trying to write novels and just wrote, and wrote out of myself, relying on my own experience and perception, and shaping something that I feel is true.
Hawthorn & Child is a composite novel in stories; Animals began as a short story. Do you find the short form more satisfying than a long single narrative? What effect, if any, did publication in The New Yorker – the holy grail to many practitioners – have on you as a writer of stories?
As I said above – I try to just write. And what I’m writing tries to find its own length. I don’t find any form satisfying – or no more or less satisfying than any other. And I think the distinctions between various forms – the short story, the novella, the novel – are being blurred, particularly with the emergence of digital media, and I think that’s a really interesting thing for writers, and is something we should welcome and enjoy. I write things sometimes that are too short for publication. Or which, if I put them aside to collect, wouldn’t reach a reader in years. And so I put them on my website. And I love that. That I can wake up in the morning and write something I like but which is finished almost as soon as it’s started, and I put it on the website and by afternoon it has its readers. It’s the most satisfying form of publishing in a way. And no money changes hands. There was a piece that was originally in H&C called The Spectacular, which was too long for The New Yorker or The Paris Review or places like that, but not long enough to put out in book form on its own. And I persuaded Granta to put it out as a digital only thing. For 99p. Like a single that precedes an album. And that seemed to work very well. So different ways of doing things are opening up, and I think, I hope, that will change the way writers write.
The New Yorker pay well, and I got to work with a really wonderful editor there called Cressida Leyshon. So that was great. But I don’t really get that Holy Grail thing. Cressida’s editing on that one section of H&C I think had a ripple effect on the rest of it. Nothing structural, just at sentence level, word level. I went through the whole book again having borrowed her eye as it were, and just tightened everything up a notch. As to what effect that’s had since – you learn from a good editor. You can hold on to their perspective to some extent and return to it.
A sense of place is strong in your work, either named (Dublin in The Parts, London in H&C) or unnamed (in Animals). Is setting important to you? You wrote about London when living there for ten years; now you’re back in Ireland. Where will your fiction go next?
I react to what I’m surrounded by. Maybe I don’t have a very good imagination. But I think of both Animals and H&C as London novels, though yes, it’s not named in Animals. I’m back in Dublin now. So that will bubble up, I have no doubt. Though before I moved back here I had planned a novel set largely in Ireland anyway – though not much in Dublin. And that’s still the plan. But my writing is for the most part about filtering my own experiences and perceptions through whatever set of assumptions I’m currently making about human beings and the state of the world, so it’s what’s to hand that I use.
I’ve been reading Witold Gombrowicz’s Bacacay after reading your praise for him. You said “he’s the only writer I know of who has come close to putting a stop to literature.” Can you elaborate? And explain too why you’ve “gone off Beckett”?
I’m not sure I can elaborate. Literature is all failure. And is therefore without limit. He is so good that he comes close to success. On his terms of course, and for readers to whom those terms make sense, seem right, ring true. Maybe I mean that he came close to putting a stop to my literature. I read Cosmos first, after I’d written Animals. And I just thought – Oh. So that’s what I was trying to do. It is unnerving to read books that feel better than my best possible hopes for my own books. He seems to have been in my head. And he seems to have looted all the good stuff. And he seems to have written it all down – before I was even born – with the sort of direct, honest, fiendishly wicked, clarified insanity and utterly cold conviction of an Old Testament prophet. And he’s hilarious. And he was sexy, and intricately intelligent and well read and cunning. And he led an interesting life. I hate him really.
I don’t remember saying that I’d gone off Beckett, though it sounds like the stupid sort of thing I would say. Someone who goes off Beckett goes off. I love Beckett. Though it does annoy me a little when people (I think I mean reviewers) latch on to that and talk about my writing in the light of it. And it’s invariably people who have an idea of Beckett that is superficial and inaccurate. The Beckett stereotype. I’m not that interested in the plays. It’s the fiction that I love, though it’s been a few years since I’ve read any of it. But it’s the warmth and the funnies and the subversion that I love. And I love the man, if that’s not creepy. He was a wonderful person, by all accounts. That’s really rare in writers. There is a tiny snippet of film on YouTube of him talking. And you get the south Dublin accent that some people in my family have, and it’s very clear, and you get a real sense of kindness from him, and honesty, integrity, even in just a few seconds, talking about a play somewhere. And I find it genuinely, peculiarly, moving.
Can you recommend an overlooked book or author to readers of this blog?