All Gods Dead is my fourth novel, or so I tell people. The truth is it’s my fourth published novel but, behind those neatly bound, completed tomes, are years and reams of disjointed rambling prose randomly sectioned into chapters and called ‘books’. I’ve kept them all, they are an embarrassing, but necessary background to any finished product and they show a progression in my understanding of how fiction works.
I suppose why people are drawn to writing fiction can be as broad a question as ‘what is art?’ In my case writing, even the turgid, self conscious, meandering adolescent attempts, has, from the beginning being an exploration of the concept of fiction, and by fiction I mean lying. My characters are usually dishonest to themselves and to their world; they create and inhabit their own ‘fictions’. They split their internal thought processes from their external actions. They hide their motives, present themselves to others in a less than truthful way, they lie to themselves, they twist their realities to suit their expectations and the stories evolve from the confusion and misunderstandings that result.
Perhaps I’m wrong, and this is an embarrassing admission, but I think that this is something that we all do to a greater or lesser degree, and usually it works to soften reality. As the protagonist in All Gods Dead says about the romantic imaginings of her friend,
“In the beginning I’d try stopping her, but that was before I saw that she was doing, what we were all doing – coating her reality with sugar, except she was using words instead of drugs.”
We all need something to help us through, dreams, drugs or fictions. Things only begin to unravel when we are forced to accept a truth we’ve been avoiding, or our world discovers a truth about us. When you think about it that is the basis for a lot of stories; like an affair rumbled, or the parentage of a child being revealed, or an alcoholic admitting to the hidden bottles.
With All Gods Dead the fiction that is revealed is the fiction of a woman’s life. Brigit Egan, a respectable, upper middle class pillar of the parish, is 90 years old and dying. Floating in and out of consciousness she is remembering and, when she is able to, relating memories that describe her in terms her daughters have no reference points for. She begins to talk of her life in Paris, in the twenties, living among writers and artists. Her years working as a dancer, an escort and later something baser. It is a life that her daughters, convinced that she has slipped into senility, do not recognize. It is one featuring Picasso, Paris, Burlesque and Berlin, circuses, carnal pleasure and shame.
Ever since I did my degree in art history and English I have been fascinated by this era. It has been something I have always wanted to write about but it was difficult to find a format to carry it. The challenge was how to make it relevant to a modern reader, how to make it something more than another biographical piece. Because way too many of them have been written, I suppose because way too many people, who deserved mentioning, were around at the time. In about a five year period, spread over a small section of a small city, populating maybe five bars and clubs, a wealth of twentieth century geniuses gathered. Just imagine walking into a, small, ordinary working man’s bar and being confronted with Picasso, Joyce, Hemingway, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Faulkner, For Maddox Ford, Peggy Guggenheim, Katherine Mansfield, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound . . .I could go on.
The fringes of this world is the past my protagonist is remembering, leaving her daughters to disentangle the facts they know from the fictions they are being presented with. The dichotomy between the two force them to question the realities they were reared with, the realities they based their life choices on.
As I have said, All Gods Dead is my fourth book, not counting those earlier ‘books’, and so I was used to dealing with fiction. In my other books I dealt exclusively with fiction. Seeforge is basically magical realism so by definition needn’t any factual basis and the other two, Daddy’s Girl and Miss Harrie Elliott are based, in my head, in Dublin but I even fictionalised the city. I never mention any specifics, no landmarks, street names or dates are included so there is no framework to pin the story to, All Gods Dead was, quite literally a completely different story..
Brigid Egan is remembering a very concrete world, one set in an actual time and place, and one populated by real events and characters. These aspects can be fictionalised a little as they are seen through her eyes, and as they are recalled from such a distance and by a questionable witness but they are still pinned to a recorded history and so the facts of them must be respected. This was the first time I ever set myself the task to write within restraints and I did find it very challenging.
Brigid’s story had to be blended with the structure it was parachuted into. It had to doctor itself to an actual history but I feel the challenge was worth it. It demanded a more delicate approach to writing fiction; to draw doubts and nuances out of hard facts demanded a more rigorous and much more subtle approach to the material.
But the basis of this book is the same as all my others. Brigid has presented herself and her world with a fiction of herself, and whichever truth her daughters believe, the fact remains that their reality was built on something far more nebulous than the concrete moral framework they have trusted in, and restricted themselves to.
All Gods Dead is published by New Island and is available in all good bookshops.