This interview with Claire Kilroy is in “conversation” format, because it felt more like that than a question and answer session when I met Claire in her hometown of Howth (also the setting for her new novel) After chatting and being unceremoniously turfed out of the local café, which was closing, we relocated to the local Dart station where – punctuated by drunken lager louts and train horns – the following conversation took place.
DF: Tell us about your new book, The Devil I Know.
CK: It’s about the international debt crisis … I was slightly surprised to find myself writing about the international debt crisis. In many ways, it’s kind of a companion to All the Names Have Been Changedbecause that was about the recession … the last recession, in the 80s … and as I was finishing it in 2008, we entered a recession again. And I thought, now is the time to write about the Celtic Tiger, now that it’s finished. So it started off being about the ruin of a builder … this guy, Hickey … and obviously all of us were completely unprepared for what was to come, as was I, so the more bleak the Irish situation became … first Lehmans went down and then we compromised our sovereignty with the transfer of the bank debt … the more bleak the Irish situation became, the darker and more gothic the novel became. So, in some ways it feels like the first novel that didn’t come out of me. It felt like an act of journalism. I was responding to something I was hearing each day. I’d listen to the radio and think “Oh, Jesus …” and then go to the desk. And obviously, I’m a novelist so it doesn’t come out as fact, it comes out as fiction. But because of the severity and what felt like a state of terror when I was writing …
DF: Constantly being bombarded with this stuff every day …
CK: Every day with threats and fear-mongering … which actually wasn’t fear-mongering, y’know, we’re in deep shit. We have sold our souls. So, it became ten, twelve-hour days, seven days a week, to try to respond to what was happening. And it really got weird when the IMF came in. First there was the whisper campaign that they were coming in, and our politicians were like “Oh no, they’re not” and the whispers were “Oh, yes, they are”. The foreign press were going “They’re packing their bags, lads”. And I remember that heavy snow, which is completely un-Irish. So the country had basically shut down and the IMF were coming in or were they? And we didn’t know what that meant anyway. There was talk of all the ATMs freezing, and the hospitals and schools being closed, and we’re all going to have to start buying tins of peaches, you know? Everything was in a state of chaos. So that’s when the book took the very sinister turn it takes.
DF: It’s very interesting that you say, initially, the main character was to be Hickey. [In the finished book, the main character is an aristocrat named Tristram St Lawrence]
CK: I started writing in Hickey’s voice but, first of all, Hickey didn’t have that much to lose. As with a lot of the builders that have left us with these ghost estates. Because they didn’t come from anything, they didn’t build up anything. A lot of them are just opportunists who made a lot of money and then they lost it. Some of them are still in their mansions, as far as I can make out. So, it wasn’t a sad story, if a guy comes from nothing, makes a load of money and loses it all – so what? So, it had to be someone who had a huge heritage to lose. So I picked the local castle there … Howth Castle. And I thought, well, that’s something substantial, that’s a whole way of life, that’s something that’s been here 900 years and lost through pacts that should not have been made. And also, Hickey was just too stupid to sustain a novel …
DF: He’s a great secondary character …
CK: He’s good … he and Tristram work together but, I thought after All Names, which had been a very erudite voice, that I wanted to do a bawdy voice, but I soon realised that a bawdy voice won’t take me where I want to go. It works for some writers but I needed a voice that could reflect on its own actions. The boom was orchestrated by people that don’t think. [Laughs] They were short-term thinkers, par excellence.
DF: So is Tristram a sympathetic character? Are we to feel sorry for him? Does he have regrets about what he’s done?
Oh, he’s filled with regret. Is he sympathetic? No, I don’t do sympathetic characters, which seems to be, for some reason, a real requirement of a novel. My favourite novel is Lolita which is narrated by a paedophile. I think it’s possibly the greatest novel ever written but a paedophile is not a sympathetic character. [Tristram’s] not sympathetic but he’s capable of perceiving the depths of his own folly and his own culpability in what has happened. He feels sorry for himself as well, but he makes a point of realising that that guy will pay for it, the guy over there will pay for it. Everyone’s gonna pay for it.
DF: And when you were writing it, were you cautious at all about the fact that it was all unfolding? Were you thinking “Well, this story is still going on”?
CK: No, I actually felt I was writing as fast as I could to get it out there because I think the story that’s out there … you know, to quote Enda Kenny, “We all went mad and now look at us.” And, I think actually, that we were had. This elaborate hoax was played on us. Yes, a lot of people went mad but if you’ve been poor for so long, you can’t really blame them, can you? And other factors, other people, made out like bandits off the Irish property boom and all the lending and the transfer of wealth, not just around Ireland, but around the world. It was something internationally sinister. Something very big and sinister and self-serving was at work and “Paddy” fell for it. That’s how I feel actually.
DF: I was going to ask you about the research but you didn’t do that much research then, did you? You were just working as you were hearing this stuff on the radio?
CK: Yes, I mean I read some books. It’s been a renaissance for non-fiction books about contemporary Ireland. There’s loads of really well-written and well-researched books about this period, and I read a few of them. And then, after that, I was just listening and looking at these people and … I mean, now there’s the whole Sean Quinn thing and I just think, “There’s another novel.”
DF: And you’re probably one of the first fiction writers who have responded.
CK: Anne Enright responded … she detailed the boom and bust and its effect on a narrator my age. And it’s the thirty-somethings who, in my opinion, really got hit because of negative equity. They really got had. And that’s the bus I’m on, so I was really impressed that she should do that. I think that’s one of the first of the literary novels to respond. Mine is possibly the second. But I do know that Paul Murray’s on the case and Kevin Power’s on the case. Chris Binchy may well be on the case.
DF: It’s interesting. It’s almost like the way American novelists reacted to 9-11.
CK: It took a while.
DF: It took a while for it to permeate slowly down, and it didn’t come out directly as a story about the towers.
CK: Exactly, yeah. I thought about that comparison and then wondered is it appropriate to compare debt crisis to 9-11 but, at the same time, in terms of a monumental event for a country’s history, yeah, it was … and we still don’t know the shape of it, that’s the thing, we still don’t know how big the hole is.
DF: You mentioned Nabokov and you also say that John Banville is a huge influence as well. Why?
CK: The vividness of their prose, the way they put a sentence together that you can see it, that’s something I hope I’ve learned that I write something that can be seen, it can be felt. They’re very sensuous writers …
DF: The five senses …
CK: Yeah, the senses. I’m sure they’re very sensuous as well. [Laughs] They’re masters of the sentence. The first time I picked up Nabokov and the first time I picked up Banville, it really hit me that this is what a book can do. It can nail a scene and pin it into your imagination. I think that Banville said that the sentence is mankind’s best invention and it is.
DF: So how does it feel having John Banville’s quote on the front of The Devil I Know?
CK: Amazing. I actually got it on my wedding day.
DF: Best wedding gift ever!
CK: Yeah. I don’t know why I had my phone on but it was preceded by … my editor sent it and said, “Well done. Here’s a lovely quote”. Then, he sent another one saying, “Here’s the original response”, which was “Thank you for this handsome proof. My name is a much-debased coin and, therefore, I will not be offering a quote to Ms. Kilroy. Please wish her the best.” And then, two weeks later, another one saying, “I’ve decided I have to make an exception in this instance. If you want this quote, it will be as follows …”
DF: So presumably he read the book in the meantime …
CK: Presumably, yeah. Well, I presume he read it. [Laughs]
DF: I mean he hadn’t read it before when he said no, he just gave an outright no.
CK: Yeah, outright “No, I don’t do quotes anymore” and then he read the book. But then, my editor said it was too late to put it on the book. And I was like, “Are you kidding?” So, I said, get it on the book.
DF: I know you’re not a huge fan of crime fiction or thrillers and I wondered what you thought of John Banville’s “Benjamin Black” novels.
CK: I read one of them and I liked the beginning but not the end. I think what troubles me about crime writing is it has to have a sort of purging at the end. The story has to be neatly tied up which … I don’t think stories are ever neatly tied up. I respond better to evil still lurking at the end of a story. [Laughs] Or things just being “incorrigibly plural” to quote Louis MacNeice. That seems a more honest reflection to me, than the fully-realised ending.
DF: I get the impression reading interviews with you that you really don’t want to be pigeon-holed as a certain type of writer?
CK: I would feel that my publisher would prefer I do different things, and I either actively or passively rebel against expectations from other parties. I think it’s very important that you tell them what you’re going to do, it’s not about them telling me what to do, or about the reader asking for a sympathetic narrator. It’s about, this is the book I write and I would hope that it is original and that it bears a certain integrity, in that I don’t worry too much about how it’ll be received or what people want from me. Which is not a very female trait. I’m not a people pleaser.
DF: Do novel ideas simply come to you or do you sit down to write a certain type of story?
CK: It’s painful. I almost have to stare at the crack in the wall for three years you know? There’s very few eureka moments in my writing day … my writing decade , actually. I’m not an ideas writer. I don’t get good ideas. But, where I am good, is the sustained concentration. I’m a marathon runner, not a sprinter. But it’s so slow. I hate starting novels because I don’t get the big idea. There’s no big pitch, it’s just wandering in the dark for me. Until I finish it, I don’t know if there’s a novel there. And it takes me two years to get a first draft.
DF: Tell us about your writing day and how much time you spend writing?
CK: My writing day now is I’m not! [Laughs] It depends on where I’m at. When I’m starting, that’s when I’m really delicate and if I put in two to three good hours a morning. By the time I’m finishing, I just get up, have a cup of tea, I work, I eat breakfast, I work. I’d be putting in 10-12 hours and my body hurts. But that’s towards the end when there’s actually something to work on.
DF: Would you have a word count you’d aim for?
CK: I’d go for a word count, yeah. A thousand words of absolutely random anything, which I put into a file marked “Notes”. By the time “Notes” is finished, there’ll be 200,000 words in it, of which 40,000 are useable. It’s speculative and … hopeless, in many ways. [Laughs] Hopeless and yet there must be some hope because I pursue it.
DF: And do you find it very difficult throwing away 160,000 words?
CK: I do, of course, yeah. God, do I even enjoy writing? [Laughs] I enjoy the moments when you get a gift of a sentence which begets another one. It’s beautiful and that’s why you do it. It’s tremendous and happy and I’ve learned to relish that. But it takes so long to get there, maybe that’s why I can’t face it at the minute.
DF: But writing is pretty much a day job, isn’t it? You have to get up every day and sit at the desk, like any other job.
CK: I wish it was a day job! If it was a day job, you’d get paid. You’d have colleagues, you’d have a structure of a lunch where you’d chat to someone, you’d have to get up and get dressed, which I don’t always do. I’m not structured in myself enough to make it a day job. It just becomes a guilt thing that follows me round and until I do some time at the desk, I feel guilty.
DF: But a lot of people think writers just lie around on a couch all day like Oscar Wilde coming up with these wonderful stories.
CK: Do you remember Murder She Wrote? When I was a kid, there was Murder She Wrote and there was the sunny credits at the beginning with the theme tune [mimics theme tune] as she’s typing away. And she’s all into it, and the fingers are flying across the keyboard and there’s a story by the end of the 45 minute show.
DF: And it’s not like that at all.
CK: There’s no theme music! [Laughs]
DF: And do you find now that you’re part of a certain generation of writers?
CK: I am, yeah, Chris Binchy, Paul Murray, Kevin Power. The three of us published our debuts in the same year … me, Chris, Paul. And we all made met up the next year, 2004. And the three of us just get on really well. And now’s it just a very firm and loyal friendship on which I draw and on which I rely. And myself and John Boyne are great friends as well. I met him later, in 2007 at a launch for the Irish Book Awards. And the new kids [laughs] are the two Kevins – Kevin Power and Kevin Barry. But, yeah, there’s a great scene in Dublin. And no-one hates anyone else, which is apparently quite unusual. That has been commented on by senior writers, that we’re not at each other’s throats, that we actually really like each other and like each other’s work.
Listening to Claire talk about her process, I was reminded of a (possibly apocryphal) story about James Joyce. Joyce was hard at work writing one day, when a friend dropped by and asked him how it was going. “Awful,” said Joyce, “I’ve written seven words.” “But that’s good for you, James,” the friend replied. “Yes,” said Joyce, “But I don’t know what order they go in.” The words may come slowly, with many of them taken out, but the end result is certainly worth it. The Devil I Know is many things: a modern fable of greed and avarice; a gothic horror; a hilariously funny book; and – as they say – a fast-paced, rollicking read. And it’s on sale now.