Friday, December 19, 2008

Kevin Power, an interview

As you all know, yes all of you, I’ve been plugging Kevin Power’s brilliant debut novel - Bad Day in Blackrock, for quite a while now, even before it came out, and with good reason too. I first met Kevin a year or so ago at a writing workshop set up by the benevolent Declan Meade and facilitated by Sean O Reilly. We all submitted one short story, which we all shared in advance, and then spent the day commenting on each other’s work and on writing in general. I remember that Kevin mentioned his book at the time, but little did I know it would become the fantastic success it is now. I managed to grab a chance to have an online chat about the novel with Kevin last night. Check it out, the spirit of Myles Dungan is alive and well.

So, without further ado….

me: Mr Kevin Power, welcome to my lair!

Kevin: Thanks for having me.

me : So, you wrote a book I believe, care to describe it to me?

Kevin: It's called "Bad Day in Blackrock" (though the original title was "Inishfall", which I prefer), and it's about the repercussions of the death of a former private-school boy outside a nightclub in Blackrock. It does its best to explore things like class and money, which contemporary Irish writers don't seem to me to be writing about in any real way.

me: Inishfall is a good title, but I suppose meme-wise Bad Day in Blackrock has more stickability, and goes straight to the heart of the matter. It was a very bad day.

Kevin: Yeah, it's a little flippant for my taste, but a lot of people don't agree.

me: Inishfall though, why would you prefer that?

Kevin: Inishfall is a (fictional) island, where one of my fictional families ends up - the book begins and ends there, and one key chapter is set there, and the first and last lines of the book invoke it, so it seemed like a natural title to me. But it wasn't "sexy," apparently...

me: yes it's very unsexy.

Kevin: Thanks...

me: I know the chapter you're speaking of, the key one. I'm thinking though, if other writers aren't writing about money, and more importantly i think in this novel, about class. Why should you, why did you think it had to be written about, and I can't ask that question without also asking, why write about that class in particular?

Kevin: Because they're so fascinating! When I first came across the south Dublin middle classes - those private-school boys and girls - at university, it seemed amazing to me that all of this material was just lying there, as it were, waiting to be written about, and no one had done it yet. They're running the country, and nobody has noticed!

At least, so it seemed to me.

So I think we need fiction that addresses the question of who DOES run the country, and what they're like, and why they're like that.

Plus there’s a kind of soap-opera appeal to the wealthy middle-classes. They're a joy to write about.

me: And I found them a joy to read about.

Kevin: Well thank you.

me: Did you think they needed taking down a notch, to be brought down to earth somewhat?

Kevin: No, I didn't write the book to show them what for or anything like that. I was interested in describing them. One of the things that motivates me as a writer is this very basic urge to describe things accurately... I'm more interested in that than in waving a banner saying "The bourgeoisie are terrible!". It's a question of writing about what interests you, rather than what you know.

Though they do have some terrible qualities, I'll grant you that.

me: Well personally, when reading the book, your precision is what struck me

and you're inclusivity (if that’s the right term). The way you kept the picture as round as possible.

Kevin: Yeah, you have to feel sympathy for every character, otherwise your writing will end up unbalanced, and therefore less true in some ways.

me: especially the Barry character, he was quite sympathetic.

Kevin: He's the sensitive one... but he does help to kick a boy to death. And I found the contradiction interesting. How someone can be well-educated and sensitive and intelligent and so on, and still have this tremendous violence in him.

me: Do you think that contradiction is resolved in your book? If I’m right it's just left as it is, as a question about us, people in general, really.

Kevin: Yeah, absolutely. In life contradictions aren't resolved. They just sort of continue, causing friction, fucking things up.

me: Exactly - so i didn’t miss anything then.

Kevin: Nope, you're on the money.

me: the boy who dies - and I wont go through any effort to clarify that he's completely fictional, that's been done elsewhere. He is never exactly a complete member of his peers circle, he's always on the edge somewhat, because he's not real money, how did he as a character develop, was it in terms of what was going to happen or did you choose him to have it happen to?

Kevin: Conor Harris both is and isn't One of the Boys, so to speak. And this arose from the need for some kind of tension between him and Richard Culhane, the boy most centrally involved in his death... I wanted to suggest a plenitude of reasons for Conor's death, and his ambivalent social status was just one more reason.

me: oh yeah i see, so you didn't want one motivation? Conor Harris "Sometimes he could be a real cunt." That’s one of my favourite lines.

Kevin: Yeah, We all know people like that...

me: I really liked that though, Conor wasn't a victim in life, and it was his successful nature that almost doomed him, doomed them all. I should right that in caps ‘doomed them AAAALLLLL’ – ahem….but again we’re back to that roundness, the realness of the situation.

I'm interested in the genesis of the story as it is now too. Like, when did writing about these people become linked in you're mind with violence? How did the event you outline become impossibly connected with the people you wanted to 'document'?

Kevin: I was looking for a way in - a story that would allow me to use all of the material I'd gathered (material I gathered accidentally, by the way, just listening to people and going to their houses and whatnot).

And a violent event is always a great hook - as a writer, you're interested in people in extremis, because it reveals character.

me: Haha going to their houses, I wonder will they have you back!

Kevin: Some of them probably won't...

me: It's cool that it's that simple, merely a hook idea.

Kevin: Yeah, when something terrible happens, then you've got a story. This is a rule I live by...

me: well said.

Kevin: I loved your Tribune story by the way - Bret Easton Ellis meets Mark O'Rowe, with some nice lyrical touches, captures the club scene brilliantly.

me: Cheers.

If it's okay i'd like to ask you questions about the actual process of writing a novel, because seeing as you did a good job, you might have some useful info's for my tens of readers.

Kevin: Tens! Fame at last!

me: Yes Kevin, being on this blog is like being on the Simpsons, you can rest easy now. You’ve made it.

Kevin: Okay then. Fire away.

me: Well, rather than ask lots of misdirecting questions. Would you care to tell me how you wrote this novel? (just don't reveal the secret ingredient - you can keep that to yourself). Like in, maybe, one paragraph or so.

Kevin: Tall order...

me: I think people will love this part - i know I’ll find it useful. Don’t make your brain explode or anything - just whatever comes to mind, make it look impossibly easy for you so people will get disheartened and give up writing. In these punishing times the less writers the better.

Kevin: Gimme a minute to put my thoughts in order...

Kevin: Ok...

The thing I learned - and this might be completely specific to me, it might be a failing unique to Kevin Power - was that I had to throw off all kinds of ideas about "style".

Almost the first note I made about this book said "NO STYLE" - by which I meant, write it like you'd say it. Because my narrator, I knew, was going to be part of the world he was writing about, I knew he wouldn't sound like - say - Saul Bellow or Martin Amis or Vladimir Nabokov.

He was going to sound something like me. And it was realising that I could write in this NO STYLE style that freed me up a lot I think...

me: You know, its that fucking lack of style that makes your style I think. It's clinical, and robust. More soldier than ballet dancer. There’s something tenacious in it, the lack of acrobatics means the story is slammed home all the more.

Kevin: My next book might start with a note saying ALL STYLE. Who knows?

The actual shape of the novel - the inspiration, I guess - all came to me in about four hours. I was walking home from UCD and the line "I can't tell this story" came into my head, and I realised - That's the first line. In the end, it wasn't the first line, but it's in there.

me: yeah all style, it can be your sergeant peppers album. So did you write it in one straight line and redraft? That line by the way. Instantly drew me to the narrator

it made him transparent. I decided to trust him when he said that.

Kevin: Yeah, made him transparent to me too...

I took a couple of months off in the middle of the book to think about it too. You need to let the subconscious do the work... If I may sound Freudian for a moment.

me: And did anything come out of that break?

Kevin: I dunno... There is a kind of witchcraft element to the process, I shy away from examining it too closely.

me: okay cool. Now hear this tens of readers - Kevin says don’t examine too closely! That's good advice though.

Kevin: Yeah, it's all about trusting your subconscious, having faith that at least one section of your mind knows what it's doing.

So i think that's enough on the process

me: Now. Kevin may I ask where to next?

Kevin: People keep asking me that... I'm reluctant to talk about plans etc because everything could change by next week! I'll keep writing though. It's the only thing that keeps me sane.

me: Make sure you keep writing. If you do that, Ireland will be a more enlightened place. I think we can finish up now.

Kevin: I don't know, I'm not Barack Obama...

me: haha.

Kevin: Grand, it's time I had a smoke!

me: a tiny tiny tiny bit more enlightened

Kevin: Great stuff though, was that alright?

me: yeah cool man cool, and it was enjoyable too.

Kevin: Great. All the Best!

And then he was gone, pen in hand, onwards from gracing this blog with his presence to bigger and better things. Kevin Power's book, A Bad Day in Blackrock is available from all good bookshops. So stay out of those dark and evil ones and you'll find a copy easily enough.

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Shane said...

Liked the interview--thinking about buying the book, even if the subject matter is a tad close to the bone. Should have fought for the original title though!

Anonymous said...

dear Kevin power. Am currently reading you book in spanisnh "Un mal día" its a very simple tittle title for a tough and well written story? My question to you is: Would that death at Anabels could have happened without that complex nouveu riche milieu or was it just by chance...Can u ever justify it?

agustín pulido ramírez from spain