“I saw a squirrel walking into work today…”
The Dublin launch of Talkin’ Squirrel Blues, my surreal comedy novel, took place in the Irish Writers Centre last week. Chris Stevens gave the introductory speech, followed by a speech and book signing by myself. As I signed the books, I couldn’t help thinking: “This all started with a mistake.”
James Joyce said that mistakes are the portals of discovery. And Freud argued that mistakes can reveal repressed aspects of our subconscious. (You say one thing but mean your mother…) Sometimes mistakes can even be sources of inspiration.
The day I saw a squirrel walking into work, I made a mistake. But then again, we all sometimes make mistakes when we use the English language, don’t us? It’s a complex system of words, rhythms, rules, irrational preferences and pedantic hang-ups. It’s easy to mangle it. And it can be prone to being wilfully misunderstood, no matter how carefully you try to express yourself. Just ask the priest who tried to discuss the high cost of living with several elderly women!
A few years back, I saw a squirrel walking into work. When I shared this breaking news with a friend, I felt compelled to clarify that it was I, and not the squirrel, who was walking into work. However, the image of a squirrel walking into work giggled me up, and so Floyd the talkin’ squirrel was born. I pictured an executive squirrel scurrying to work, flash suit neatly wrapped around him, leather briefcase jauntily swinging by his side. And from that image would evolve Talkin’ Squirrel Blues, a comically surreal tale about a young marketing executive’s search for love in Dublin’s nightclubs.
I set the story aside for a while, but I found it hard to forget that squirrel. Perhaps his furry tail could extend all the way to a full-length novel.
So I began to populate the story with a cast of eccentric characters: Moses, the lovelorn marketing executive whose career path was strewn with missed deadlines and abandoned goals; Jesse, the grumpy neighbour with little patience for Moses’s martyr complex; and Fingers Flaherty, a dead blues singer whose voice continues to bawl from the dusty speakers. Which one will be able to guide Moses to happiness? Should he listen to a talkin’ squirrel or a dead blues singer?
Music was always going to be an important theme in the book. Back in the heady days of the year 2000, I had cheerfully welcomed in the new millennium by listening to a collection of old blues music. Blues singers could encapsulate the epic turmoil of human emotion in a few well-chosen words. Their lyrics might make you laugh out loud one second and then despair for the fate of humanity the next.
Consider James Alley Blues by Rabbit Brown. Here’s how he describes his domestic bliss: “I bought her a gold ring and I paid the rent/ She tried to get me to wash her clothes but I got good common sense.” There’s a novel buried in those two lines alone. By the time he gets to the end of song, Brown is lost in a septic tank of toxic emotion: “Well, sometimes I think you’re just too sweet to die/ And other times I think you oughta be buried alive.” Not exactly the moon in June, is it?
Because Moses had a jaundiced view of the world, it made sense that he would spend most of his time listening to blues music. Enter Fingers Flaherty. This somewhat ridiculous Irish version of a Delta bluesman could act as a croaky Greek chorus, commenting on the main action and generally making a racket in the background. Writing pastiche blues lyrics for Flaherty to roar proved to be the most enjoyable part of the writing. Whenever it felt like the novel was getting a tad pious or portentous, I knew I could rely on Flaherty to put his scruffy boot through the crystal palaces.
Flaherty made his first shabby appearance in 2012, in A Blanket of Blues, a self-published collection of short stories based on Flaherty’s blues lyrics. He reappeared in Dimestore Avenue Blues in 2013, a novella where he guided Jesse, the burnt-out Madison Avenue refugee, through his nervous breakdown.
And now Flaherty has found a new lost soul to console. Can Moses find a new love to help him forget the girlfriend who walked away? Or will the past always rattle in his brain like a half-remembered song?
Because of recent technology advances, self-publishing has become a viable option for many authors. It’s not an easy route, of course. Technology rarely does what it’s supposed to do. Interfaces can be vindictive. Computer files can hold a grudge. Electricity is not always your friend. And a careless click of the wrong button can cause an aged computer to flounce into egg-timer whirring meltdown. There will be days when not even the bitterest blind bluesman could express the aching despair that you feel about the whole wretched project.
All writers make mistakes along the way. But just maybe one of those mistakes will provide the seed for the next story. Or inspire a blues song…
(c) Padraig Hanratty
Note: this article was first published in The Irish Times.
About Talkin’ Squirrel Blues
Who speaks the most sense, a dead blues singer or a live squirrel? Moses McNamara isn’t sure.
After his girlfriend suddenly leaves him, Moses must rebuild his shattered life. His companions in this quest include a trendy squirrel, an elderly neighbour and a blues singer with six strings and a grudge.
Moses was never the world’s most motivated marketing copywriter. After a disastrous performance review, he feels lost in a career he hates, glaring at a cruel world through defeated eyes.
When his self-esteem is on the floor, Moses meets Floyd, a talkative squirrel who helps restore his confidence. He also consults his neighbour, Jesse, an old man with little patience for the young man’s martyr complex. And through it all, Moses listens to Fingers Flaherty’s songs. The melodic ranting of the belligerent bluesman helps Moses to keep his own problems in perspective.
Can Moses find a new love to help him forget the girlfriend who walked away? Or will the past always rattle in his brain like a half-remembered song? As his romantic quest becomes more complicated, Moses doesn’t always know whose advice to follow: the well-dressed squirrel or the dead blues singer.
Which one would you listen to?