Having a busy and varied career in business and management spanning twenty years, Eamon Harrigan has consistently written little pieces here and there – often observances on his career in business and the people and places he encountered. He couldn’t seem to shake off the writing bug, and now his debut novel, Where the Dead Go, soundly announces Harrigan as a strong voice in an under-the-radar genre, Irish noir-fantasy fiction.
Four years ago came the watershed moment; Harrigan applied and was successful in getting a place on the M.A. in Screenwriting at the Huston Film School at N.U.I. Galway. He gave up the day-job and took writing and study on full-time. “It (the course) opened my eyes to a lot of things; I had a lot to learn about the craft of screenwriting. We were shown what writing for screen meant and what could be produced. I do believe screen writing is a craft more than an art. There are certain rules you have to follow, as opposed to fiction and writing a novel.”
“Then I won a scholarship from that course (M.A. in Screenwriting) to go and study in University of California at Los Angeles to do a three-month professional screenwriting programme, and I really enjoyed that. The tutor worked with Pixar and was fresh from working on their film Up, so it was an amazing experience. It was a very practical and commercially orientated course. You quickly learn you have to write the very best screen play you can in order to get it produced. If you write even a bad first page, it will end up in the bin. We learned an awful lot about pitching your writing and your screen play to various companies and how best to present your work.”
Having already pitched the idea for a gritty noir fantasy story, but unable to find a home for it, Harrigan’s idea would form the backbone for his novel.
Much of the action takes place in a city Cafè where outside and inside people’s lives are intersecting, and at the same time hurtling to a crashing and violent end. The story has two main sections: the first being the events leading up to the passing from one life into – not an afterlife, but a ‘Hereafter’.
As you read on through the novel, picturing its dank cafè and back-alley type streetscapes of the opening sections, it is obvious that Harrigan blends and finely balances the base elements of writing for the screen with writing for the page. Where the Dead Go is a dark fantasy with some real moments of intense and stark imagery. This type of dark fiction genre is one that is becoming increasingly popular with Irish readers.
Harrigan outlines how his novel came to being. “Where the Dead Go started life as a short story about six years ago. I wrote other short stories that influenced the characters like Foxy and the character of the bird in the afterlife, but I knew the story I wanted to tell. I wrote a story about a guy waking up after death and that would become a central point to the novel. It sat for a number of months and down the line things like a change of editor really gave me a perspective on where I could take this story.”
Harrigan’s descriptive language is incredible rich, detailed and evocative. If people think Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane has some of the most intriguing and blackly brilliant scenes and settings in Irish fiction lately, they would do well to read Harrigan’s skilful debut.
Where the Dead Go hints at the feeling of a sprawling urban landscape but much of the action takes place within a few streets. The cafè is like a waiting room for departure to the ‘Herafter’, a key character, the Waiter lives just a few streets away from the Cafè; in a nearby alley-way, Winston, the leader of a group of hobo patrols their turf looking out for intruders like the young girl Foxy. Again, the screenwriting elements help to give the reader a real ‘hold-on’ ride through this noir graphic novel-like story.
The opening scenes and chapters are short and episodic, various couples and colleagues, such as Dave and Helen who battle through their own relationship struggles or the office based lives of Jonathon and Dave, keeps the story and plot building thick and fast. Time passes in hours, the story unfolding over a short few days rather than years of the characters lives. This is, until, the ‘Herafter’ arrives, where time and even the meaning of time and life are put to question.
Looking past me and really gathering his thoughts when asked about how much religion is a theme of the novel, Harrigan answered that he is at odds with calling religion an overtly strong or deliberate theme in the book. But it is certainly not irrelevant to the story. “In my opinion, religious beliefs are an accident of birth. You are born into the Muslim faith in a Muslim country and into the Catholic faith in a Catholic country for example, and how things end-up depends largely on how you live your life and whether you live it as best you can, rather than following strict beliefs. Any story or novel looking at death and life in some form in a spiritual realm is automatically going to bring the position of religion into the bargain.”
Outside of the religious sphere, Harrigan really develops through his characters the realisation that people have many spheres of their own. We lead such different lives and indeed may have a different character when in the company of friends or family compared to work colleagues. The private Vs the Public Vs the Professional masks that people wear determine the outward world they inhabit. In Where the Dead Go, the night-watchman at the Light-Bulb factory is one such (borderline unsettling and excellently written) character who is a self-created loner who learns about the lives of people in the factory he guards simply by monitoring their desks, workspace and offices. He is friends with their ghosts – their presence and is living a very much deluded fantasy. Other characters such as the Waiter and Esme are selfish, calculating and resourceful, but driven by a force and need for evil from within.
Unlike Bohane, the place of action is unnamed and according to Harrigan, “I purposefully wanted it set nowhere. I wanted the characters to be from everywhere, not just a view of an Irish setting.” If the afterlife, or the ‘Hereafter’ is indeed where the dead go, then the pre-afterlife seems even more dead, purgatorial and bleak. The ‘Hereafter’ is a whole other world of fantasy.
I asked Eamonn if it’s possible to pinpoint a time that you can be deemed to have ‘arrived’ as a writer. He is not so sure. “I’m not certain if you ever ‘arrive’ as a writer. How far you want to go or how much you want to do depends on your own self and beliefs. If you get on well with something, the next challenge is always around the corner. I write stories I want to tell and that I believe in. If you write to be commercial you are fooling yourself really.”
When I asked Harrigan about looking for publishing outlets and the challenges that presented, he leaned back, exhaling, and said honestly; “Sure, they were plenty of rejections, in Ireland and in the States also. Solstice were the fourth publisher I spoke with in America and looking at their market, the audience for the books they published, I thought they would be able to do a lot for the novel. The audience of each publisher is a big factor. You want to go with where the market is for your work.”
Talking about developments in publishing and future of book sales Eamonn Harrigan is a fan of Twitter as medium for publicising new works. “I’m a big fan of Twitter. Social networks are being encouraged by all publishers now as a way for writers to target your audience. You can post excerpts or samples of new work on your blog, people like it on Facebook and can also retweet it. If sales of your book can be determined or helped from this then that has to be a good thing for writers and publishing.”
Harrigan recently gave a public reading from his novel at the Over the Edge literary event in Galway city. “Initially I thought I would be nervous but I really enjoyed it. I gave an introduction to the story and characters and read for about 15 minutes. It was great, I loved it. I have seen a lot of writers whom I admire read publicly. I was impressed by the delivery and I could remember certain words and phrases so it is something (a public reading) that can really work for writers.”
Harrigan’s next project has the working title of Wind the Clock and is based on story where two men, including The O’Rahilly, from opposite sides of the conflict found themselves holed up in a room in the upper floor of the G.P.O. towards the dying end of the rebellion of Easter Week of 1916. “I’m not sure if it is going to be a screenplay or a work for stage yet, but it’s next in the pipeline. I am also working on another screenplay so I’m keeping in touch with that side of writing as well.”
With his debut novel, Harigan has certainly set his stall out as a writer who writes with a very clear purpose: to write his own stories with his own style and unapologetically to make readers and audiences think. As he experienced himself when he listened to writers reading their works, the words of Where the Dead Go will stay with you long after you read it.
Where the Dead Go is published by Solstice and is available on Amazon here