That storytelling instinct

We’re chuffed to have Keith Ridgway read at the Centre on Friday 9th November at 1.05pm, as part of the Lunchtime Readings series. His most recent novel, Hawthorn & Child, published by Granta has been met with huge acclaim. His novella, Horses, was published by Faber & Faber in 1997, and was followed in 1998 by the novel The Long Falling (which was awarded both the Prix femina étranger and Prix du premier roman étranger in France). He won the Rooney Prize for Irish literature in 2001 for his short story collection Standard Time. His novel The Parts followed in 2005, and Animals in 2007. His stories have appeared in various anthologies and periodicals in Ireland, Britain and the United States, including The New YorkerDublin ReviewZoetrope, and Granta. Here, IWC intern Ferdia Lennon interviews Keith about storytelling, subversion, and preposterous thrillers.

The protagonists of Hawthorne and Child are detectives, yet it is far from being a traditional crime novel. Was subverting readers’ expectations part of what attracted you to these characters? Well, it was more the other way around. I was attracted to detectives because they are involved in a formal way in what I wanted to write about – our desire and our instinct to shape random events and experiences into narratives that make sense. That’s what policemen do. It’s what we all do, to some extent. I didn’t set out to subvert a traditional crime novel. But you become aware in the writing that having policemen on the page sets the reader up in a certain way. And I played with that, a little.

A chapter from Hawthorne and Child appeared as a stand-alone story entitled ‘Goo Book’ in the New Yorker, and you have described the novel as having a deliberately fragmented structure. Was Hawthorne and Child initially planned as a novel, or did you first envisage it as a short story collection? It was always a novel. But it was always, in my mind, very fragmented. In fact originally it was far more fragmented than it is now. I wanted dozens of tiny bits and pieces. As it is that instinct that I spoke about – that annoying story-telling instinct – came on pretty strong, and there was this tension between coherence and fragmentation in the writing of it. But it’s very much a novel. In the sense that there is no other name for it. It’s certainly not a short story collection.

Previously, you have cited Roberto Bolaño as a major influence. What other writers have been important, both in terms of inspiring you to write, and, then later, in your development? As a reader, I love Bolaño. As a writer, I’m very wary of him. I hope in many ways that he is not an influence, though our thoughts sometimes align. He is of course a sort of inspiration in terms of his ambition for his writing and his fearlessness. There are a lot of writers who I think of in a similar way – from Beckett to Gombrowicz, to Dennis Cooper, Gary Indiana, Flannery O’Connor, Dermot Healy, Cesare Pavese, José Saramago, Muriel Spark. I mean, there are dozens.

You have published novels, short stories and one novella. Do you have a preference for any particular form? No, not really. I just write, and things tend to find their own length. I am increasingly ambivalent about the divisions between these forms. I dislike a short story that is very like a short story, or a novel that it very much a novel. I say dislike, I mean I suppose that it gets boring, now.

You teach Creative Writing, do you find teaching writing has affected the way you approach your own work? I don’t teach creative writing. I don’t know what that is. I teach fiction writing. And no, it hasn’t affected the way I approach my own work.

Your short story The Spectacular looks at the plight of a struggling literary writer who attempts to write a commercial novel about a terrorist attack on the Olympics. Have you ever, in darker moments, been tempted to do the same? For example Sixty Shades of Grey? Well, not the Fifty Shades stuff. But I like preposterous thrillers and well crafted crime-books. It takes a huge amount of skill to do that sort of thing well, and is embarrassing in the extreme when done badly – especially by writers who think they can do it as a sideline. The writer in The Spectacular is one such – he’s lowering himself to writing a thriller. And you see that attitude in quite a few “literary” writers. It’s not one I share. I try to learn what I can from genre writers, and I try to apply it. And in most of my books there have been elements of genre. The Long Falling is a murder story. Horses is a small-town whodunnit. The Parts involves prostitution and kidnap and conspiracy theories. Animals bumps up against terrorism. So I’ve been writing half-genre novels my entire career. It’s just that nobody really noticed until I wrote one involving a couple of detectives.

What are you currently reading? Denis Johnson’s Tree Of Smoke, very slowly; Anthony Burgess’s Napoleon Symphony; and some science stuff from Lawrence Krauss and Douglas Hofstadter.

Are you working on anything at the moment? Yes.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers? Read more. Write more. But mostly, live more. Live an interesting life. Never settle. And always be ready to kill, and get out of town.

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