Before I started writing The Deadwood Encore I had been working on short stories for about eleven years. How I came to write the book was simple in some ways and completely unknowable and difficult in others. Simple in the sense I wrote a couple pages that seemed like the beginning of a short story. This piece had a strong voice, a first-person present-tense narrator Frank Whelan. On the page he was directing his anger at his twin who was lying on a gurney in A and E. The voice was good but the emotion was cartoonish. Often at the start of a new piece of work, I don’t know enough about the characters to recognise the nuances of what they would really say and more importantly why. It can seem shallow emotionally. But this particular voice more to say and I kept it going, adding in bits and new scenarios.
The second big thing that happened for the story was, maybe a year and a half after I had started, another voice spoke up. It was Frank’s father Billy Whelan. This was a surprise to me as the father was dead. But in another way, maybe not that challenging, as all characters in a story come to life only once they are written out of your head onto a page. This, and the fact that Billy himself seemed as surprised as I was to have a say in the story, made it easier. So now there were three of us to discover the story of the Deadwood Encore together.
I don’t know what is going to happen when I write and I find this daunting. But once a couple of things get said and a few people do a few things, or choose not to, the possibilities narrow down. I took some major wrong turns in terms of what I thought happened here. I myself didn’t find out until very late in the writing process some of the Whelan family history.
The trickiest part of writing this book was to get an emotional undercurrent or resonance going. This is partly because is a humorous novel with a lot of dialogue, also because of the first person narrator. It was okay in terms of action but it fell down on the underpinnings of the feeling in, and between characters. So I rewrote the book a couple of times, like a Sudoku puzzle looking at relationships one way and then another, picking out the moments I had missed that could actually deliver more. Then I had to go over it again to make sure I hadn’t gratuitously foisted any false sentimentality on Frank and Bernie, or the Deadwood and the Mater. These were people who were never going to be over the top with pronouncements of undying loyalty and love but a correctly placed ‘ I’ve got your back bro’ from one sibling to another could carry a lot when you got to know them.
If you read a book and feel empathy for characters, with all their ups and downs, that’s a real win by my measure. When I started writing this, it didn’t have enough of what family and friendships bring to the table; the messiness but also a particular kind of love and care. That’s the great joy of writing; by taking care with words and sentences and paragraphs, you take time to discover more. Then hopefully you bring the story closer to the reality of being human and further from off-the-cuff or snappy reactions daily life can force us into making.
I can’t say why I wrote this book or why I took up writing at all. I could never have imagined writing The Deadwood Encore. But that’s part of the thrill of the creative process; completely unimaginable things emerge from the inside of your head, and through the process of writing create a new reality.
(c) Kathleen Murray
About The Deadwood Encore:
A brilliantly inventive and often funny story of family and identity, inheritance and birthright, ambiguous loss and finding your way, Frank Walsh’s voice will stay with you long after you’ve finished reading.
Frank Whelan is the seventh son of a seventh son, so by now should have inherited his father’s legendary healing power, but still hasn’t managed to graduate beyond small-time skin afflictions.
He already feels adrift when his twin, Bernie, reveals a life-changing decision that calls into question everything Frank thought he knew about his place in the family. And then he discovers his father had been keeping secrets of his own.
And so Frank turns to an unlikely source for guidance and finds himself on a quest for answers… from this world, and the next.
A boundlessly inventive novel about the past’s hold over the present, set in an Irish community alive with old magic and extraordinary possibility, The Deadwood Encore is an electrifying debut from one of Ireland’s most acclaimed short-fiction authors.
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