Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Q and A with the author of This is the Way by Gavin Corbett - Winner of the Irish Novel of the Year Prize 2013

Irish Novel of the Year 2013

This Is The Way by Gavin Corbett won the Irish Novel of the Year Prize at this year's Listowel Writers' Week.   The 15,000 Euro prize is the largest one available to only Irish authors.   I have been very interested in Irish Travellers since I first became aware of their
culture through reading the short stories of Desmond Hogan so when I read the glowing review by Kevin Barry on this book in The Guardian and learned it was told from the point of view of a young Traveller man hiding in the poor areas of Dublin from members of a rival clan, I knew I wanted to read it soon.  

Previous winners of the award include  John McGahern, Anne Enright, William Trevor and John Banville

I first became aware of the Irish Traveller culture through the short stories of Desmond Hogan.  How do you think Irish Travellers originated.?  Was it when Cromwell invaded, are they descended from tribal  groups that did not convert to Christianity as some claim, or is their origin more recent.?  What drew you to focus on Travellers in Dublin rather than in Caravans?

I am not an ethnologist, a folklorist or a professional historian, so I have no idea whence the Irish  Travellers came. The Travellers have their own theories, none of which are backed by scientific or historical proof. The fact is, nobody – not ethnologists, not folklorists, not historians, not Travellers themselves – is sure where the Travellers came from, and I’m not sure if it’s possible to find out. I have heard all of those pieces of speculation that you mention, and probably until the end of time they will remain speculation. What drew me to write about Travellers in Dublin was not any particular need to represent a whole section of Irish society in fiction; I simply wanted my character Anthony to come from this interstitial, in-between world – not belonging to the city, and feeling outside his own traditionally  nomadic culture too.

Tell us a bit about your non-literary work experience please.  What drew you to leave Ireland for New York City?

I worked in an Irish newspaper called the Sunday Tribune for a good many years. I was a sub-editor: I put mistakes into other people’s articles, and wrote headlines. It was a great newspaper to work for: left-leaning, campaigning. When that went out of business in January 2011, I left Ireland for a while, to live in New York. I struggled to find work there, but then I got a pretty good book deal, so I could breathe easier. But I’m back, for the time being, in Ireland now.

How did you research the dialect and vocabulary of Anthony and Arthur?  Is there a distinct Traveller version of Hiberno-English, can the dialect be traced back to older periods?

I didn’t do any research into the dialect and vocabulary of my characters. I made all of that up. I trusted my own ear, and my knowledge of how Travellers spoke. I just had this sound in my head, and wrote Anthony and Arthur’s words with that humming away. There certainly is a distinct Traveller version of Hiberno-English. It’s called cant, or shelta. Like every other language in the world it does, of course, have old, deep roots. I didn’t try to learn it, or even consult a shelta lexical guide in my writing of This Is the Way. I just went with the sound, and tried my best to convey that sound, and to get across the gear changes in Anthony and Arthur’s speech.  

   Your novel, This Is the Way has been named the Irish Novel of the year. Congratulations!   How has this great honor begun to impact your career?   

Well, the prize money has been a huge help. It’s bought me a few extra months in which to write my next novel. And for my name to go on that roll of honour, alongside the likes of John McGahern, Anne Enright, William Trevor and John Banville, is like, “fuck”. But it’s early days yet. The Irish state broadcaster RTE was very good in giving the prize-win a bit of attention, but the newspapers have shown very little interest. They’ve been terrible, really. The book shops too: shocking. They just don’t give a damn. You can hardly find my book in a Dublin book shop.

Who are some of the writers whose work you are drawn?

Russell Hoban, Hubert Selby Jr, William Faulkner, JP Donleavy, James Kelman, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett and lots of other people I’m forgetting.   

What the last three novels you have read?  Last movies?  Do you have favorite TV shows?

The last novels I read were ‘Dublinesque’ by Enrique Vila-Matas, ‘From The Mouth of the Whale’ by Sjón and ‘There But For The’ by Ali Smith. Movies? Blimey, I’ve stopped watching movies. I don’t know why; I love cinema. The last film I went to see was probably Woody Allen’s ‘To Rome With Love’. Oh no, I saw a terrible film a few months ago called ‘A Late Quartet’ with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Christopher Walken in it. And I re-watched Mike Leigh’s ‘High Hopes’ on DVD the other week ahead of a trip to London. TV shows? I’m addicted to an afternoon game show on the BBC called ‘Pointless’. I watch a lot of documentaries and sport too. I have no patience for these epic drama series that take up 160 hours of your life.

I recently read Strumpet City by James Plunkett (the 2013 Dublin One City One Book Selection). It presents a culture whose very life blood seems to be whiskey. Drinking seems much more a factor in Irish literature than Indian, Japanese or even American. There are rude sayings like “God Created Whiskey to keep the Irish from ruling the world” and “Without Guinness the birth rate in Ireland would be near zero”. What do you think are some of the causes of this or is it just a myth?. It seems to me from my reading of Irish short stories that few important conversations or events happen without drinking. Is anything like this a factor in your work?

This is a huge area worthy of several PhDs, but to answer your question in as simple a way as possible: the pub is the focal point of social life in Ireland. The smallest village will have at least one pub in it. Sometimes the pub is the village; look at a map of the east of Ireland and you’ll find “settlements” called “Jack White’s” and “The Golden Ball”. An average-sized town of 3,000 people will have about 15 pubs in it. Why is the pub so important in Irish life?The average Irish person’s front parlour is not big enough to accommodate all his friends where they might comfortably observe the latest Japanese Noh drama. Nor do we have the weather here that allows us sit in the evening sun for hours playing chess and boules and sipping cafés au lait. We’re a cold, wet country. We like to huddle. We like to talk shite. Huddling is uncomfortable without a glass of liquid under one’s nose to stare into at silent moments, and shite-talking comes easier with alcohol in the system. We have a dearth of sporting facilities in this country tooA lot of Irish men feel the need to prove that they are not homosexuals by showing that they can drink huge amounts of alcohol in a single sitting. If there were tennis courts or climbing walls in every Irish town, perhaps the young males would not so much feel the need to prove that they have the stamina to deal with high levels of toxicity. I guess, also, we have problems with depression in this country. There are many reasons for this – genetics, lack of opportunities, being an island nation, being a Westernnation, being a northern nation, constantly feeling that you’re being judged by eerie blue-eyed versions of Jesus and Mary.

R. F. Foster has said that Irish History has been turned into a theme park to draw in tourists-do you agree with this-where do Travellers fit in this theme park?  I have seen travellers stopped by the road waiting for tourists to photograph them for a few Euros.

True, probably, but isn’t that the case with the way history is assembled and presented anywhere? History is tendentious. That’s the nature of history. History, as opposed to the past, is just a story. The past is immutable, but unknowable; none of us are immortal and omnipresent. What we must make do with is “history”, which is basically a flawed, corruptible system of notation.
Now, I’m not R.F. Foster, nor do I holiday in Ireland, so I’m not familiar with the contents of our many interpretive centres and museums. But I do keep my eyes open for how Ireland, and Ireland’s past, is represented when I go abroad. Our writers figure a lot. As do politically neutral protagonists like saints and hermitic monks. Little else does, as far as I can see. Official Ireland, Diplomatic Ireland, tends to play things safe. History ignores the people by the wayside – both metaphorical and literal – anyway

Declan Kiberd has said the dominant theme of modern Irish literature is that of the weak or missing father?   Do you think he is right?   how doe this show up in your work?  

I’ve no idea if he’s right. I’m not well-read enough. But thinking off the top of my head – and when you think off the top of your head about modern Irish literature the first thing that comes to mind is Joyce – I know, so I’ve been told, that one of the main themes of Ulysses isthe absence of a father; all that shadowing of Telemachus and Hamlet. I didn’t try to work the theme into my own novel. When you try to write your way into future students’ theses your book is dead in the water. But lo and behold – there is a weak and absent father in This Is the Way! I don’t care to psychoanalyse myself to discover why. (Although, lest there seem to be any ambiguity, can I just state that my own father was a good man, always there for me.)

   What is your reaction to these lines from Susan Cahill about the beauty of Ireland-”There is a hopelessness that a glut of natural beauty can create when there is a cultural and intellectual morass”.  Is the beauty of Ireland is two edged comes from nowhere and changes everything be over because of this?  
  All I have read about Ireland and all the images I have seen on the net present a country of amazing beauty.  How much does this saturation in natural beauty impact the writing of the country   Does it inspire and defeat at the same time?  

I’m very much a Dublin writer. The countryside makes little impact on me as a novelist. I’minspired by the danger and dullness of the city streets. That’s not to say that I’m not familiar with the Irish countryside. I think it’s a unique landscape. It’s a gentle rather than dramatic landscape, characterised by rolling hills and flat, wet tracts, and it’s truly very luridly green, except where it’s very, very brown. England has a gentle landscape too, but everything there seems mowed and pruned. Scotland is like Ireland, but with more and bigger mountains. Our countryside is neither genteel nor sublime. It has its great charms, but it’s sort of docile. Definitely defeated. There’s a sense almost everywhere that things have been left to go to seed. Fields full of puddles, and tufts of weeds. Read into that what you will.

William Butler Yeats said in "The Literary Movement"-- "“The popular
poetry of England celebrates her victories, but the popular poetry of Ireland remembers only defeats and defeated persons”. I see a similarity of this to the heroes of the Philippines. American heroes were all victors, they won wars and achieved independence. The national heroes of the Philippines were almost all ultimately failures, most executed by the Spanish or American rulers. How do you think the fact Yeats is alluding too, assuming you agree, has shaped Irish literature.   It is interesting to me that the American short story writers most admired by Irish writers, like Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty and Katherine Anne Porter all came from the American south, the only part of American to be crushed in a war.   Does defeat bring wisdom more than victory?

Well, Ireland was once a part of the United Kingdom, and played a role in the creation of the British Empire, but when we gained independence, the downtrodden took the reins and the ruling classes were told they weren’t wanted anymore. If I were Wellington or Kitchener or Shackleton I’d be full of jingo too. But I guess I’m from the other side (although, as in the case of many Irish people, it’s complicated) and so my national heroes are martyrs andwriters. What am I to do? Who else have I got? I might as well glorify defeat, and deify the tragic, and welcome back into the fold all those banished writers, otherwise I’d be embarrassed.

 "To creative artists may have fallen the task of explaining what no historian has fully illuminated – the reason why the English came to regard the Irish as inferior and barbarous, on the one hand, and, on the other, poetic and magical."-is this right? Kiberd, Declan (2009-05-04). Inventing Ireland (p. 646).   It is interesting to me in that not to long ago many white Americans viewed African Americans as very skilled at music and dancing but otherwise inferior and barbaric.  Do the Irish project bad characters onto Travellers?

There’s no doubt that the ‘settled’ Irish do project bad characteristics on to Travellers. The ‘settled’ Irish view Travellers today similarly to how the Anglo-Normans viewed the Irish as a whole in the 12th century. I have a quote at the start of my book from Giraldus Cambrensis, a scribe attached to the earliest Norman colonial expeditions to Ireland, that hints at how the Irish were thought of at the time: they are described as “being exceedingly averse to civil institutions”. That’s only the start of it as far as Giraldus and his kind were concerned; if you read the Topographia Hibernica, from which the quote was taken, you’ll find the Irish described in the vilest, most bestial terms. You’ll hear the same terminology used today by ‘settled’ Irish people towards the Travellers. It’s what groups of people do to elevate themselves. They invent an antipode; create this notion of the ‘other’ in society to be setagainst. At various times in our history the Travellers have been embraced by certain groups as having something of great value to contribute, as being possessors of magic and poetry andmusic and Gaelic authenticity, most notably by that artistic circle that revolved around Yeats and Synge and Augusta Gregory. But I can’t imagine that any of those people would have invited Travellers into their salons to eat off their plates.

In his book The Commitments Roddy Doyle has the father of the family say, as if it were something commonly seen as true, “The Irish are the niggers of Europe and Dubliners are the niggers of Ireland”.  There is a lot of self loathing expressed in Irish literary works from Joyce on down to Doyle.  Is this just a family fight where one might say something terrible about a father, mother or brother or wife and kill an outsider who says the same thing or is it really how people feel?  I do not see this level of self hate in other literatures.   There is nothing like it, for example, in the literature of the Philippines.  Talk a bit about how you feel or think about this.  Do you sense a  feeling of inferiority in Irish society not found in other cultures?

A certain modest-mousery prevails among the Irish. I see it in Dublin, anyway. This is summed up for me in our attitude to new buildings. Every so often, a plan for an exciting large building will get approved by the planning authorities. Immediately the building will be scaled back to half its size, thus losing one of the elements – its scale – that made it impressive in the first place. We just don’t feel we’re big enough or good enough to live among large, adventurous buildings. Instead we fill out Dublin with diffident pastiche garbage that makes us feel we’re reconciled with our past.
I’ve just come back from a long walk through that same modest, meek city of Dublin.I’ve seen more drug addicts stumbling around like zombies today than on all the visits I’ve made to other European cities in the last 10 years combined. I’ve seen about five people shamelessly throw litter on the streets. I’ve had to skip over puddle after puddle of vomit. I passed an endless gallery of bruised and scabbed faces. This is just a normal day in Dublin.There is something terribly broken about this place. Nobody gives a shit about these people, and these people don’t give a shit about themselves.

Please make up a question and then answer it.

Q: If you were sitting in some sort of recliner-type chair and there was a bee at your face and a cat at your feet, and if you stayed as you were the bee would sting your face and if you got up from the seat the cat would bite your ankle, what would you do?
A: I’d get stung by the bee.

  When you do readings of your work, what do you hope to bring to the audience.

Properly articulated Ts.

   When you are out of Ireland, do people sometimes expect you to act in certain ways because you are Irish?

One day, in one of my first weeks residing in New York, I went for a walk down Central Park West, and I saw coming towards me a bunch of girls – they looked like a team of cheerleaders – carrying a sign that read “Free Hugs”. The nearer I got to them, the bigger the smile I wore on my face. When I got right up close to them I let out this big, hammy, Irish, “Ah sure, you might as well!” One of the girls shrieked, “Oh my god! He’s got a Briddish accent!” Next thing I knew I was swamped by pretty young girls that smelt of apricots and strawberriesFrom that moment I decided: to hell with playing the green card, I’m going to let people over here think I’m British. And that’s what most people did think; they just assumed by my accent that I came from a region of northern England or something. Which was fine, because I was to discover that American people absolutely and utterly idolise the British.

 Quick Pick Questions

a.  tablets or laptops?
Laptops for eating, tablets for when I have indigestion.

b. dogs or cats
Dogs. I love dogs so much. I still have conversations with the dead dogs of my youth.

c.  best way for you personally to relax when stressed?
Go on a long walk with a camera.

d.  favorite meal to eat out-breakfast, lunch or dinner?
Breakfast. At either the Popover Cafe, Amsterdam Avenue, New York, USA, or the Three Star Coffee Shop, Columbus Avenue, New York, USA.

e. RTE or BBC or American PBS
I’m sorry, RTE – but the BBC has the best range of TV channels and radio stations in the world.

f. Yeats or Whitman
I don’t know Whitman at all, so I’m not in a position to answer this.

g.  Starbucks, McDonalds, KFC-great for a quick break or American corruption?
Eh… both. I have my political convictions, but hunger breaks them down.

h. night or day
I like both of them, equally. Day is great for getting shit done, night is ideal for relaxing.

i  Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights?
Wuthering Heights. If you read Wuthering Heights at an impressionably young age you’ll never get over it. Kate Bush discovered that too.

j-best way to experience a new poem-hear the author read it or read it in a quiet
undisturbed place?
Definitely the latter. Poets and prose writers are often terrible at reading their own work. Have you ever heard Yeats? Ugh.

k.   favorite music, country, rock, traditional Irish, ballads, opera or it just depends on the mood your are in
My favourite band is Crass. They fit into none of those categories.

Gavin Corbett


Gavin Corbett was born in the west of Ireland and grew up in Dublin, where he studied History at Trinity College.   He lived in New York and is now back in Ireland.

I offer my thanks for Gavin Corbett for taking the time to provide us with such interesting responses to my questions.  I hope to read more of his work in the future.

Mel u


fdfgdafgdfsagdfs said...

I enjoyed this post. Thanks!

Unknown said...

I'm puzzled too at the lack of coverage in the media. It's a great book - as Irish Novel of the Year should be. Thanks for the q & a, Mel and Gavin.