Young Irish Writer Part 3:
Three emerging Irish writers offer insight into their lives, their work, and what it’s like to be a writer in Ireland right now.
Paul Murray’s first novel, An Evening of Long Goodbyes, was shortlisted for the 2003 Whitbreat Award. His second novel, Skippy Dies, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Murray studied English at Trinity College Dublin and received his Master’s in creative writing from the University of East Anglia. Skippy Dies takes place inside and outside the walls of Seabrook College, an established Catholic boarding school in wealthy South Dublin. Daniel “Skippy” Juster, one of its fourteen-year-old students, does die, on page 5 of the prologue. Murray spends the rest of the 661 pages telling us what led up to and what follows Skippy’s death on the floor of Ed’s Doughnut Shop – revealing much about contemporary Irish society along the way.
SL: How did you come to write Skippy Dies?
Paul Murray: Well, I finished my first book and I had no idea what I was going to do next. I had a two book contract and I remember the publisher saying “have you any idea for your second book?” and I said “no,” which kind of alarmed them. But then it started off. It was initially a short story, actually, about a teacher, Howard, who gets the feeling that something is terribly wrong with this boy in his class, Skippy. But as soon as I started writing it I found that I really enjoyed the environment of the school. Ideas kept coming to me for characters and situations, and the writing kept going. That’s just the way it works sometimes. You never really know which stories you’re going to feel at home in or an affinity with until you actually start writing them. In this case, what started off as a short story then turned into this 1,000 page monster. Then there was a long period of trying to cut it back. It took seven years to finish. It was fun to write, that’s why it got so long.
SL: How did you enter the mental space of your teenage characters?
PM: I just tuned in. My inner fourteen-year-old is still quite vocal and present. I enjoy humor and comic writing and I found that with school-age characters you can almost have them saying anything you like. I found it quite easy – maybe scarily easy – to regress into my fourteen-year-old state. I’m still friends with a lot of the guys I was in school with and when we hang around together I find that that’s what happens: you find yourself slipping back into that way of speaking. It really wasn’t a huge stretch for me, I’m afraid to say.
SL: You mentioned that you enjoyed working with the environment of a school, which is something I found particularly interesting about Skippy Dies: schools are such specific places, with their own strange populations, rules and possibilities. What did setting your book in a school allow you to do?
PM: It allowed me to write about the world that I had come from, which is the world of South Dublin: one of the wealthiest parts of Dublin and Ireland. It is quite a conservative place – quite money oriented and status oriented – not an especially inspiring place to grow up. I thought that a school was a really interesting prism through which to look at that world. In a school you learn your maths and history, but you’re also inculcated with a set of ideas about how the world works and what it is to be a citizen of that world. So what better way to look at a society than to look at a school? In this case, one where you’re told that to be a significant and successful person is to tick various boxes: study hard, go to college, get a job in business, buy an SUV and a big house and have kids. That’s very much what they presented you with in my school, and in the school in the book.
Writing about teenagers was very liberating since, like I’ve said, they can be quite extreme: they can do and say things that adult characters might not. Also, I would argue, teenagers are the ones who experience the changes in a society most directly. What we adults experience as a change, they experience as a reality. In the 90s and 2000s, Ireland changed really drastically. The morality imposed by the church was overturned and was replaced by this new, very materialistic kind of thinking. Many people were at sea in this new kind of world, but for their kids these changes were presented as established, finished facts. It was the Celtic Tiger, and the kids of this generation were known as the “tiger cubs.” They were the first generation, basically, in Irish history that had never known widespread poverty. Obviously there were many parts of the culture that were still completely marginalized and left out of the discourse, but a lot of kids were very indulged and grew up thinking that they would automatically get jobs and that they would never have to emigrate. All those things that had haunted Irish society for the last one hundred years didn’t exist for them. Then the way they thought the world worked turned out to be a total fiction and now they’re the ones who have to bear the brunt of that. I found school to be a really interesting way of looking at all the crazy changes.
SL: Skippy Dies covers an astounding range of topics: video games, string theory, school life for both students and teachers, drug abuse, crushes – just to name a few – but you bring them together in a way that seems very natural. How did you accomplish that?
PM: That’s part of why it took so long to write. Writing is a strange game: the links between things sometimes aren’t apparent for a long time. You’re looking at your own book, and those secret correspondences and resonances in it take a long time to appear.
The fact that it had the single setting of the school was really helpful. Because that architecture was there and was something people were familiar with, I felt I could do more left-field, disparate things with the knowledge that this setting, this scenario, was going to be strong enough that readers would still be able to understand how the book worked. In school you’re thrown into this pool with 200 people who are completely different: there are stupid people and really smart people, there are chronic over-achievers and chronic overeaters and gifted tennis players and so on. The beauty of setting a book in a school is that you can really have as many stories as you want. They’re all right there and you can pick them up and you can put them down and it’s all focused for you by this single setting. My first book was a first-person narrative so everything was tied together by a single voice. But it was also limiting because this one character couldn’t really express all the things you might want him to see and feel. … When I came to the second book I really wanted to write in the third person; I wanted to go to different places. Also, all the [characters] are studying different subjects in school, which was really useful because I could bring in history or poetry or science and it wouldn’t seem contrived, It was something they could legitimately come across as part of their every day.
SL: What writers made you want to write? How have they influenced you?
PM: Well, if you grow up in Dublin you’ve got some pretty heavy hitters. In college I read Joyce and Yeats. They’re inspiring in so many ways because they both had an astonishing range and astonishing courage. For me humor is really important and Joyce and Beckett were unafraid to tackle the biggest themes and the darkest themes, but they also weren’t afraid to do it with humor… They were not afraid to say that humanity and existence are in some ways pretty silly. Pynchon was also really important to me. He writes books that are absolutely as ambitious and complex as it’s possible for literature to be, but are also, again, extremely funny. I think that there’s a certain compassion that comes with humor.
SL: What is it like to be a writer in Ireland right now, particularly in light of the economic crisis?
PM: I think that Ireland was actually a very difficult place for writers during the Celtic Tiger. The country was just so nakedly obsessed with money, and I know that sounds like a very judgmental thing to say, but it was honestly very cynical. If you were poor or part of a marginalized community, you were left behind in that society. Ireland became, very quickly, quite an uncaring place. And one corollary, another effect of the boom, was that culture became sort of unimportant. The outdoor hot tub became the defining purchase. If you’ve ever been to Ireland then you know you do not need an outdoor hot tub in this country! But many people just weren’t interested in introspection or looking into their souls or what it is to be alive because it seemed like we had the solutions to those questions and they were the hot tub and the panini and the new kitchen. Artists were out of the frame in a really strange way.
So what’s happened since the crash? Well, the cost of living is a bit cheaper, which is nice…And people are turning back to art again. The artists kept plugging away at a time when no one was really interested. They weren’t looking for medals or anything, they just kept doing what they were doing and stuck to their guns.
Now the tide has sort of turned. At times like this the outdoor hot tub no longer ticks the boxes and you find yourself needing to read a book or a poem or go for a walk in the park – you need those things more than you did in times of plenty. It is a really scary time, but the argument could be made – and I’m wary to make it since there are so many people suffering right now – that maybe there will be some good. Maybe people will become a little bit more alive to what’s going on around them. Hopefully there might be a recovered sense of community and place that was lost in the feeding frenzy of the Celtic Tiger.
SL: Will you stay in Ireland?
PM: There is this slightly annoying thing: they’ve capped the artist’s exemption. It used to be that, as an artist, you didn’t have to pay taxes in Ireland. So obviously that was really great for Bono and Enya, but it was also a sort of cultural apology for the appalling way artists were treated in the early years of the state, when they were censored and often had to leave the country. It basically means that if you spend 5 years writing a book, not making any money, then in the year that your book comes out, you’re not going to get buried with taxes when you actually earn something. But now they’ve capped it at €40,000. Most Irish artists don’t make anywhere near that so it doesn’t matter in a lot of cases, but given that it’s still a very expensive country to be an artist in, that does make it slightly harder to stay here. But that being said, my family is here, all my friends are here and I think that Dublin is a really great city. It’s small, it’s easy enough to find your way around and there really is a sense of community here that is increasingly rare in the world. As I get older I value that more and more: the importance of friendship and the importance of having people around you who you trust and you can talk to. It would take a lot for me to leave that.