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A Soundtrack to my Summer: Kevin Curran on Citizens

Writing.ie | Magazine | Literary Fiction
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Putting the finishing touches to my second novel, Citizens, over the summer, I hit a wall. Every writer hits this wall at some stage or another. It was draft twelve or thirteen and no matter how I thought the story was shaping up, it just felt like a waste of time. The summer nights were long, the weather was good. I could have been out drinking with my mates, chilling out the back garden, but there I was, at my desk, my back to the window, the garden below, crouched over the computer, cutting and pasting and deleting. It just felt, at the desk, secluded and quiet, like a waste of time. But then a sound from my neighbour’s garden started up. It was ten o’clock at night, too late for the sound, but it gave me some heart. My neighbour was beginning to sand and then cut some wood. He would assemble this unknown object for the rest of the summer, at this time, for a few hours under a small spotlight. Heartened by his show of commitment, I remained at my desk and silently, echoed another’s toil and continued to work too.

I can’t offer any searing insights into how to write (I’m still learning myself) but what I do have is the confidence in describing and advocating the pleasure and purpose I found by creating two alternate spaces to work. Both spaces and their routine have resulted in my second novel, Citizens – and so, the spaces and routine become my advice.

For Citizens, because it is a dual narrative, I decided to approach the writing of the two characters differently. Kevin Barry speaks about the energy of towns, a kind of feeling you get from streets, a character that in some ways inhabits them. I get this. I heard him speak about places like this at a talk in the Irish Writers’ Centre. And then again, in Beatlebone, the narrator mentions the energy that comes from places. This is what I tried to tap into when writing the contemporary, 2011 part of my novel.

kcurranpic12 (1)The 2011 pieces of the novel were hand-written in journals. I wrote in work, I wrote in my car for six hours straight while waiting for my wife to finish her shift, I wrote in libraries, I wrote on the Dart, on the train, on the bus. I wrote the 2011 pieces for my novel in long-hand all over Dublin, from the city to the county, to the country: Sligo, Wexford, Cork. And I did it for a simple reason. Like Kevin Barry said, I too think that places have particular feels and vibes, essences. And I thought the vibe of places, the feel of the streets and the people, the atmosphere of the places would seep somehow into the writing, onto the pages. The pages were messy scribbles with only one side used for writing, the other side used for revision, but they became the scaffolding, the foundations for my novel, and they were written wherever I could write. I’m not sure what exactly made it in to the finished book, probably very little when you consider they had to be typed up then drafted, and drafted again and again. But I hope the spirit of Dublin from 2012 to 2015 in some way has become a kind of hidden watermark on the pages.

The second narrative voice in the novel is from 1916. For this I had to be disciplined. I had to try and get a different feel for the sentences, the paragraphs. A different approach totally. So I wrote this voice only at my desk facing a wall. But the wall wasn’t blank. Above my desk in the spare room for the past three years has been a collage of images and words.  Black and white A4 pictures from the early twentieth century became my city. A two page excerpt from Don DeLillo’s Paris Review interview my street names, three lines on New Sincerity a quick sign-post, a Sean Keating painting ‘Men of the South’ became the neon lights that imprint themselves on your mind’s eye long after you encounter them. The black and white A4 printouts of Sackville Street, the old Abbey Theatre, a Manchester Guardian picture of a rebel’s silhouette at a window, a Pathe Newsreel man in action and a Pathe Kok cinecamera all became the characters I hoped to get energy from; became – by osmosis I hoped – the texture and feel of the 1916 parts.

As James Joyce grew older a white suit became part of his routine. His failing eyes needed all the help they could get and the white cloth was used to maximise the light. While writing the 1916 parts of the book, the images on the wall over my desk became my white suit.  They were objects that could give my imagination some clarity, maximise the sense of place in the book. But the desk and the typing and the seat became part of the process too. The stiff, upright wooden chair became a perfect aid for the antique voice. My straight back and ninety-degree elbows were rigid and stiff which mirrored exactly the voice I felt I needed to write. Any of the Bureau of Military History reports I read from men who took part in the Rising, especially my great-grandfather’s, had that stiff, almost self-conscious feel to them. It was almost as if they carried a weight, a definite strain to them – like the uncomfortable seating and typing arrangement on my rickety desk I sat at. Yes, there was an undoubted idealism, but also a heaviness of expression, of exposition, of clarification, duty and explanation. Antiquity and irregularity in expression oozed from them. This is something I hoped to tap into by sticking at the desk. Stuck, stiff and stranded at the desk.

And so, after the early drafting was done, I arrived into the summer, and I stayed at my desk. I worked through that self-doubt by going night after night to that secluded space for work. The only soundtrack to my summer was that tap tapping from the keyboard and my neighbour out the back, sanding, sawing and hammering. At his shed, under his spotlight – much like my desk lamp – crafting something that would, after his long hours of toil, be a thing in the world. I felt an affinity for the work he was doing and I thought how lucky I was that the end result of all my work would become something corporeal too; an object in a world of increasingly diminishing artistic objects. Because that’s what we do it for, isn’t it? To bring something new and tangible, something of ourselves, our experiences, our life, of our own toil into the world of things.

(c) Kevin Curran

About Citizens

Citizens is a gripping account of a modern-day character discovering his great-grandfather’s memoir of 1916 Dublin. The diary brings him back to the turbulent years surrounding the formation of the Irish State. A timeless story of lost love and broken dreams that brilliantly counterpoints today’s globalised generation with Ireland’s nationalist revolutionaries of 1916, Citizens creates a conversation across a century in a unique novel that has echoes of Don DeLillo’s Libra (Penguin, 1989) and Transatlantic (Bloomsbury, 2014) by Colum McCann.

Citizens is in bookshops now or pick up your copy online here!

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