Interview with writer David Butler
I think I always felt the compulsion to write. When I was in 4th and 5th class in St Brigid’s, Castleknock, a few stories I wrote were read out to the whole school. Later, like many teenagers, I had the hormone that spontaneously produces bad poetry, though one or two did find their way into print. Pretty derivative stuff, really, all Plath and Hughes with a dash of Leonard Cohen. In my twenties, the poetry hormone morphed into the one that leads to over-written prose, very stylised, very self-conscious. Only in my late thirties did I finally manage to tame these sufficiently to produce publishable work.
Can you remember your first “proper” adult published writing? What was it?
My first proper adult publications were undoubtedly the poem ‘Swallows’, published in Poetry Ireland Review in 2000 which went on to win their Ted McNulty Award; and the story ‘Dubliner’, which featured in issue 9 of the Stinging Fly in 2001.
How do you move between forms? I mean how do you know if an idea you have or a note in your notebook or an overheard scrap of conversation will end up in a poem or a play or whatever? Or do they sometimes show up in more than one. Or move?
I’ve usually no idea how or where such scraps and ideas and thoughts will wind up. That said, as a modus operandi, I’ve found that having something on the go in different genres has often got me out of jail in terms of the dreaded writer’s block. I wrote my first published novel, The Last European (2005) while supposedly doing my PhD in Trinity, and whenever the novel got jammed, I worked certain passages into poems which eventually led to the Via Crucis collection. Likewise, a large chunk of my current work in progress, Under the Sign of the Goat, has evolved into a one-act play, Blue Love. My reading would be just as various, jumping from poem to play to story…my mother always used to say I’ve a grasshopper brain!
Can you give me some examples of the mix of things you’ve been reading recently and which you would recommend?
One great thing about drama is that where a novel might take 10 to 20 hours, you can read most plays in under two. Over the last few weeks I’ve reread Jez Butterworth‘s Jerusalem, Tom Murphy‘s House, David Mamet‘s American Buffalo and, in the run up to seeing it, Marina Carr‘s By the Bog of Cats. The last novel I read is John William‘s wonderfully restrained song of despair, Stoner, and I’ve now entered the haunting world of Orhan Pamuk‘s Snow. I’ve been dipping in and out of the collected short stories of Eudora Welty and the new Young Islanders anthology. Oh, and my favourite living poet is Carol Ann Duffy…
I read Stoner. The writing was terrific but really, I didn’t enjoy it. Plus he was rubbish at writing believable, rounded women, which always disappoints me. Not a fan of Orham Pamuk either, My Name is Red is one of those few books I stopped reading part way through. But Carol Ann, now you’re talking!
I wonder how long a drama takes to write compared to a novel? I haven’t read a play for a long time.
Writing good drama is supremely difficult. People often confuse it with writing good dialogue. Even at their peak, some of the top playwrights take two to five years to hone each new play.
Have you written a full length play? Would you say it would take about the same amount of time to write as your novels did?
I had a full length play shortlisted for the Eamon Keane Award in Listowel in 2011. More correctly, I’d call it a full length draft. To give an idea, I’ve a 10 minute play called Forwards just published in the latest Incubator Review in Belfast. This evolved over several years, at least 12 drafts, and was much tightened over its various performances. Only now would I call it finished.
And how long does a novel take? Mine seem to require a minimum of three drafts with gaps in between (often of several years).
What is your approach to writing? Where do you write?
My desk overlooks the sea. It’s a magnificent arena to face down the silence of the keyboard. That said, the majority of my new writing (as opposed to compulsive rewriting, which is probably 9/10 of what I actually do each day), is composed while out walking, or while listening to the voices and phrases that haunt my insomnia. Luckily, I’ve a decent memory.
I’ve a shockingly bad memory. It’s an advantage when I come back to something I’ve written recently and I can’t remember writing it at all. I can read it with a remote eye.
Any tips for new writers?
Perhaps my first tip for new writers: Don’t be in a hurry. Don’t be satisfied with ‘pretty good’ or (worse) ‘mostly good, except for…’ A huge problem is differentiating what’s in your head from what’s on the page. I think you need to allow enough time to ‘forget’, which in my case means (a) months on end and (b) writing other projects in between. It’s a good practice to hear your work read out by someone else, someone who hasn’t been primed in advance with ‘what I’m trying to do is…’ Related to this tip, don’t be defensive…
The other tip: READ! Then read more. Read widely, but also deeply (as in re-read good stuff again & again). Also re-read your own stuff, aloud if it helps.
Oh, and don’t give up. I’ve yet to meet someone who gave up who was subsequently published!
Thanks David, that’s terrific advice.
Have your plays had staged readings? Do you know the backstory behind your characters even if it’s not used in the play/novel?
All three of my one-acts which have received awards to date were indeed workshopped and received staged readings and/or performances, which I put on a dictaphone (it’s amazing how much redundancy, repetition and clumsiness comes to light by listening several times). Being a member of several amateur dramatic groups is a big help here, but other routes include the Cork Arts Theatre, which staged Blue Love in February, Theatre Upstairs (Lanigan’s) which did a staged reading of Sweet Little Lies last September, and the Scottish Community Drama Award, responsible for staging ‘Twas the Night Before Xmas in 2013 and Sweet Little Lies this coming November.
By the way, acting is also a terrific help in non-dramatic writing. To act convincingly rather than simply playing a caricature, you need to believe in your character (Believe they exist but also buy into their world view, however twisted). To WRITE a convincing character, you have to do the same…And in answer to your question, yes, I think you need to know far more about your character than is actually shown, whether acting or writing. The real skill is to orchestrate convincing, vivid encounters which bring out those aspects and facets you want shown in such a way that the audience/reader intuits the solid mass behind them.
What about your non-play writing? Is that generally workshopped? Are you in a writers group or do you have a reader?
My other half, Tanya Farrelly, is also a writer, so she regularly gets works-in-progress inflicted upon her!
I’ve also been part of a writers group that has been meeting up fortnightly over the last year. Typically, you get to submit a piece of about 2000 to 3000 words without commentary every second month. It’s then helpful to listen in on the discussion that follows, as is hearing your work read out…
Your publishers are a mix of UK and Irish. Do you think there is an advantage being an Irish writer?
One advantage to being an emerging Irish writer is that you can approach the publishers here directly, also the many high quality literary journals like The Stinging Fly, Gorse, The Moth, The Incubator etc. In contrast, the bigger UK publishers require the intermediary of a literary agent, and securing an agent can be extremely difficult, since (in round figures) their 10% of the author’s 10% of sales needs to make it worth their while. With five books in print, getting an energetic, pro-active agent would be high on my wish-list for the coming year.
Good luck with that David and thanks for your time.
David Butler has been writing full-time since 2010. His novels are The Last European (Wynkin de Worde, 2005), The Judas Kiss, (New Island, 2012), and City of Dis, (New Island, 2014), which was shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year 2015. A poetry collection, Via Crucis, was published by Doghouse in 2011, while a short-story collection, No Greater Love was brought out by London publisher Ward Wood in 2013. His one-act plays, Twas the Night Before Xmas and Blue Love won the 2013 Scottish Community Drama Award and 2015 Cork Arts Theatre Writers’ Award respectively.
KATE DEMPSEY runs writing.ie's Poetic License blog and is our poetry guru. She is a writer and a blogger living in Maynooth. She writes fiction and non-fiction as well as poetry and is widely published in Ireland and abroad, in magazines, anthologies and on the radio. She fits this around her family and a full time job, writing on the sofa, on the train and in that little coffeeshop on the corner.
Poetry can be a solitary activity and she appreciates the support she received from the online community, particularly when starting out. She is excited about continuing the dialogue with her blog here.