Authors and Editors in Conversation
Mitzi Angel: I particularly enjoyed your portrait of Dublin in This Is the Way. It’s an inside-out portrait of a city, seen through the eyes of someone who does not feel at home there. How have your own experiences of that city influenced Anthony’s Dublin?
Gavin Corbett: Funnily enough, only last Thursday afternoon I had an experience that strongly reminded me of the sense of Dublin I used to have growing up. It was one of those typically Dublin days, weather-wise – drizzly, misty, the light diffuse. I went down this canyon-like street I’d never been on before, this street with seemingly nothing in it, just high brick walls on either side. And I found myself behind a notorious former Magdalene laundry. Have you heard about these Magdalene laundries? They’ve been in the news recently.
Mitzi Angel: Yes, those Church-run laundries the Irish prime minister apologised about?
Gavin Corbett: Yes, Dickensian institutions, slave institutions, where unmarried mothers and other women who’d fallen foul of Catholic Church doctrine were locked away. The last one closed, I believe, as late as 1996. Anyway, I was standing across from this sheer brick wall that was blackened with smut, when I saw, set into it, about 30 ft in the air, a Christian cross in glazed white brick. And there was something about that moment, standing there, in the mizzle and the gloom, looking at that cross, that seemed so quintessentially Dublin. Just a feeling I got. I’m not saying I suddenly sensed the heel of Church oppression or anything like that. It was a gentler feeling, an ‘every day is like Sunday’ sort of feeling.
There was another laundry in Dublin when I was a child called The Swastika. Presumably it pre-dated Nazism, but still. We used to pass it on our way into town from the suburbs. It was by a river, near a bridge. We’d pass this tall chimney with the word SWASTIKA painted on it, and an actual swastika painted on it, and smoke coming out the top. It was kind of the gateway to the city, and it seemed a most suitable entrance. Dublin was portrayed to me, growing up, as quite a sinister place. The city centre was where bad things happened. There were dirty old men there, there were drunkards there. The air smelt of dregs in a beer glass. There was always trouble in town – social unrest, protests that turned nasty. My uncle had been killed in the city in the seventies, in a bomb blast. I guess in the eighties, when I was a child, Dublin really had gone to rot.
Well I’ve lived here for so long now that it’s got into my bones. It has a tendency to do that. Literally – the place is so damp; I think Dublin has one of the highest rates of lung disease in the world. But I love this town. I’m so proud of it. It’s where all my family history is located, and I suppose that’s why I feel so affectionate and so sad about it. But there’s triumph and beauty here too. The fabric of the city is Georgian – as in 18th century. A classic history of Dublin, written by Maurice Craig, begins with the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the scholars of that city fleeing with their codices of western art. Eventually the Renaissance message washes up in far-western Europe, in Dublin. And the entire story of western culture’s foundation can be found in Dublin’s buildings today. I get all the entertainment I need just looking at those buildings. At the same time I’m aware of a threat around me. There is still a savage snap to the air in Dublin. I’ve lived abroad and travelled widely, and I don’t sense that anywhere else. Maybe it’s because I’m oblivious to the threats in these other places. But no, the threat in Dublin is uniquely visible. People come up to you in the street and give you hassle. There are so many lost souls in the street just giving you grief and hassle.
What I’m trying to get around to is this: Dublin seemed the right place to set large parts of my book in. It would have been more obvious to set a story about Irish Travellers in the countryside. But my main character is a guy who’s hiding out from a threat and so is alive to his environment. I wanted the reader to first encounter him in this city where barbarism and beauty are proximate.
Mitzi Angel: I will quote from a wonderful letter I received from the writer James Meek, who put this question to me out of deep admiration for your book: “I would love to know how the elements of the narrative were moved in terms of sequence in the course of editing. The last book I was so curious about in that respect was Bob Dylan’s Chronicles.” Could you respond?
Gavin Corbett: I didn’t do a lot of moving around, in truth. I edited as I went along. That’s the perfectionist sub-editor in me. But I was pretty sure-footed from the start, and the book was written more or less in the sequence that you read it in. I guess I followed a dramaturgical instinct. I just had a good idea of the rises and falls in the road that readers should feel in their stomachs. I’m one of those writers who, for better or worse, follows a feeling more than a storyboard. Another Irish writer, Paul Lynch, put it to me that the book’s form is its philosophy, that life is a patchwork of trying and mess and regret. I think he meant it as a compliment! I suppose I believe it’s true, that life is all of that. And certainly This Is the Way is a story that begins tentatively, that feels its way through, but that becomes more novelistic as it proceeds. Which is exactly the way I wanted it.
Mitzi Angel: I suppose the unexpected—and rather mysterious—appearance of the dog at the very end of the novel might be an example of you following a feeling. I loved that moment. Can you tell us something about it?
Gavin Corbett: Well, I read somewhere recently an interview with Colm Tóibín in which he talked about endings to novels. You need to think hard about your exit from a novel, he said. It never feels right to just finish on a climax, which is obvious, but nor is it satisfactory to finish on the final tying up of ends. And I didn’t want, in this novel, either to suddenly truncate it, or to glide softly home. There are many ways to end a book, but with This Is the Way I had this idea to pull the reader up by the collar and dump her on high ground. To finish on a moment of oddness and suspense. What can I say? It just felt right to make that shape in the graph.
So then I thought of Anthony back in his bedsit lodgings, and I thought of Dublin again. I thought of a chapel in town called Saint Martin’s. My grandmother used to make shrouds for the priests in there. Their main concern was the salvation of souls in Africa. Anyway, I thought of a stuffed black dog with hideous glass eyes in that chapel, named Fred. There’s an inscription beside him that says: “On three separate occasions he jumped into the Liffey and saved a person from drowning. We had him preserved. We felt it was his due.” I decided to resurrect him completely. And I put him at the end of my novel. So that’s what that is in the last chapter. That’s Fred. He’s the most Dublin thing in Dublin. The pathos and bathos of him.
Most people I’ve spoken to who’ve read the book love the ending. Some people are confused. And it will confuse further people, I imagine. It’s open to interpretation. I remember you telling me some months ago, Mitzi, that you thought the dog represented another way of being. And that’s fine by me.
Mitzi Angel: Arthur, the lovable rogue in the book, loses a toe for love. There was something about this missing toe—and the grim physical comedy of it all—that made me think of Samuel Beckett. How did you come up with the idea for the toe? It’s so weird! And is Beckett a particular influence?
Gavin Corbett: It’s amazing the stuff that springs from left field sometimes. Very early in the writing of the book, when I was thinking about Arthur, I got my computer fixed by someone who quite obviously had a big toe transplanted in place of his thumb. I just couldn’t keep my eyes off it! I’m very tactless that way. But an idea immediately formed. Arthur does lose a toe, it’s true, but he loses it to replace a thumb. The thumb was the thing. The opposable thumb is one of those key characteristics that separates us from other animals. At the point in the story that we meet Arthur we don’t know how he got his injury, but I wanted to create the sense that it’s an injury to his very humanity. He’s had it from all sides by this stage. He’s tired of life on the road, of the stigma of being an Irish Traveller, of the enmity with other Travellers, of being made to feel less than human.
Is Beckett an influence? Yes! I prefer his plays to his prose. Probably in his prose he stretches the joke a little too far for human endurance, which is of course the point, and I love it and laugh along with it all the same. I had an early introduction to Beckett. I guess most people, if they come by him at all, encounter him in their teens or twenties over strong coffee and funny cigarettes. I was aware of him much earlier; Beckett was born and grew up on Kerrymount Avenue, Foxrock, Dublin, and I grew up on Kerrymount Rise, Foxrock, Dublin. I would recommend to anyone seriously interested in Beckett to spend some time in Foxrock. It crops up in a lot of his work, most obviously in All That Fall, but it’s right through the Trilogy too. Our schoolteachers were always banging on about that, and about him. I remember one time a teacher took us to see Beckett’s house, Cooldrinagh. A classmate noticed that the gatepost was scarred with little holes, and asked the teacher about it, and the teacher told us that not long before there’d been a shoot-out between soldiers escorting a security van and members of an Irish republican subversive group. And of course we were all far more interested in hearing about that than about some bloke who wrote about tramps in a wayside. I like to think Beckett would have appreciated that.
Mitzi Angel: One thing I admired about the book is how unsentimental it is. And, in some ways the book is partly about how easy it is to be sentimental about “Oirish storytelling” or “the gift of the gab”. (There’s a lot of comedy in the way the Anglo-Irish set romanticize Uncle Arthur in the book.) Might you say a few words about that?
Gavin Corbett: Partly that came from a stubborn desire to defeat readers’ expectations. Which is easier to do than you’d think: if you find yourself drifting one way, just stop and go somewhere else. And partly it was to do with not wanting to romanticize the Travelling community. That would have been unforgiveable. But I hate this notion of Irish people as a race of storytellers. There’s probably some truth to it, but I don’t hear much evidence of it myself. Most Irish people, when they talk at length, succeed in being both boring and distressing to listen to. That’s why we’ve produced such great modernist and post-modernist writers – they’re all rebelling against this bullshit idea of great Irish storytelling. We’re very inarticulate as a people, I think. The most inarticulate, illiterate person on an internet thread is invariably an Irish person. The worst soccer analyst on British TV is an Irish guy called Roy Keane. I get embarrassed by it all. But still this reputation persists. You see it when Colin Farrell is interviewed on TV. The interviewer will talk of how profound and lyrical the Irish seem and then Colin Farrell will scrunch up his eyes and try to answer in a profound and lyrical way. He always makes an arse of himself, and yet the interviewer will say, “That was beautiful, Colin.”
Mitzi Angel: When I first read the book I was struck by the force of Anthony’s voice. I’ve been trying to figure out how it works. You don’t use much in the way of punctuation; the voice makes itself heard as though from beyond the flat, visual representation of it on the page. We, the readers, supply the sound of the voice so at odds with what it looks like on the page. As though what it looks like on the page is a clue to what it sounds like but not precisely a faithful transcription of it. In other words, by not trying to over-inflect your sentences, the sound rushes in. Or am I over-complicating things?!
Gavin Corbett:That’s interesting – you make it sound like sheet music! And I suppose I wrote it in that way, as a type of notation. Writing in a strongly accented idiom is basically transcribing: you hear it first, and then try to capture it in bald, naked print. I made a decision in the beginning not to force the voice. So immediately I dispensed with the idea of writing phonetically. Also, I chose to restrict my punctuation to periods and commas. So no question marks, exclamation marks, colons or dashes. In doing that, I aimed to convey a certain flatness or deadness behind Anthony’s voice, a bass note in it, like the drone in bagpipes. Punctuation is what regulates reading speed too, so when I heard the voice as leaping and bounding over every punctuation mark in its way I thought, well, most of those punctuation marks will be impediments then, so I’m not going to use them. There were other tricks to getting the reader’s eye moving along: a syntactical elision here and there. But the scarcity of punctuation marks also meant that, when I did use them, they really had to count. It’s not all leaping and bounding. One important aspect of the writing in this book is the sense that this man is telling a story. It’s absolutely necessary that this sense comes across. I want the reader to feel that Anthony is being careful.
And all I can say after that is I hope I’ve succeeded in bringing to life this voice. Weirdly, or perhaps not, Kevin Barry in The Guardian said he heard an English West Country accent in Anthony. Which I’m okay with, actually. I don’t mind if the reader hears the broadest Boston in it, so long as it’s the broadest Boston from beginning to end!
Mitzi Angel is the publisher of Faber and Faber.