Nick Laird was born in County Tyrone in 1975. He studied English at Cambridge, then went on to study law, and to work for a number of years as a lawyer. He lives in London.
In 2005 his first poetry collection, To a Fault (Faber and Faber), and his debut novel, Utterly Monkey (Fourth Estate), were published. He was awarded the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature and the Ireland Chair for Poetry Prize. To a Fault won the Aldeburgh Jerwood Best First Collection Award and Utterly Monkey has been shortlisted for the Hughes & Hughes Irish Novel of the Year.
TSF: I read in an interview you did with one of the newspapers that there was no real history of reading or writing in your family. Is that right?
NL: Yes, that’s right, but it was printed as my saying that my parents aren’t readers, and that’s not quite right. Like most houses, ours wasn’t the kind of house where Dostoyevsky or Germaine Greer was on the bookshelf, and there was no poetry. I read all my mum’s books but those were books like Maeve Binchy and Jeffrey Archer. When I got to Cambridge they gave me the reading list of all the Classics and I hadn’t read any of them. In fact, for a long time I thought I’d read Moby Dick and Great Expectations, but I’d actually only read them in abridged versions. There were lots of books, children’s encyclopaedias, antique guides and that kind of stuff in the house, but not literary fiction or poetry.
So that didn’t happen in school either?
I did my GCSEs and I was given The Great Gatsby, and that was the book that turned me on to prose. And then I was given Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist and that turned me on to poetry. So that came through school.
And then writing yourself?
The writing has always been around. I’ve been writing poems since I was a wee kid, not really knowing, I suppose, why—if you ever do know why. After I’d looked at Heaney, I went on to buy anthologies, particularly the Lifelines books by Niall MacMonagle. That was quite an important series for me, because when you see people like Michael Longley talk about his favourite poem, or Heaney or Muldoon or Mahon, you start to think that this is something that people do spend their time on, that it’s a legitimate occupation, a legitimate interest, and it’s an interest that you can do things with.
And when I’d read Heaney, and from him going to people like Kavanagh, it’s very easy to then validate your own subject matter. You realise that your experiences are just as worthy of being written about as anybody else’s. I was in a perfectly decent comprehensive school in Cookstown, but it wasn’t like we were reading lots of poems and doing that kind of stuff. From reading you see that at least three people who lived in the area—Heaney, Muldoon and Kavanagh—had all done this, so you begin to think, it’s not a closed shop, why should I not try this as well?
You went to Cambridge and became involved in a literary magazine there.
I did. I started a writers’ group when I got there because there wasn’t any, or at least none that I wanted to be part of. With the writers’ group we produced a short-lived magazine of our work. Then in my second year I took over the editorship of the May Anthologies which are professionally produced books of Oxford and Cambridge writing, short stories and poetry. I got Simon Armitage to guest edit the poetry, and Penelope Fitzgerald to do the short stories.
Were you writing fiction and poetry at this stage?
I was writing less fiction in college than I had done in school. I’d written stories in school, but then I stopped that to concentrate on poetry. But I kind of spread myself too thinly in college. I was running the college bar, sitting as college councillor, some friends and I started a charity and drove ambulances to Bosnia. Then in my third year I dropped all the extra-curricular stuff and just studied and wrote. I hadn’t written a lot of fiction really until much later when I gave up my job.
How was it for you to be in Cambridge?
I found it surprisingly difficult. I was at a small, very middle-class college. There weren’t a lot of state school students there. I thought once you got to Cambridge, everyone who studied English would be incredibly into it, and into reading books and talking about poetry and plays and fiction. That wasn’t the case. A lot of these people had just applied to do English because they were half-way smart like I was, but they wanted to be lawyers or accountants or stuff. They didn’t really want to write, or seem to really care about writing. I was always obsessed with it.
The Northern Irish thing was strange as well. First of all no one could understand a word I said, which was difficult. I spent the first year really homesick. I thought about dropping out a few times, but didn’t. I’m glad of that now of course. They make you study the whole of the English canon there, all the way through from Anglo-Saxon literature to the present day. Being naturally lazy, I don’t think I would have had as thorough a grounding if I’d gone elsewhere. It’s very good to have that overview and to see which bits you’re interested in. I was interested in American fiction, in poetry I was interested in the Metaphysicals and that kind of stuff. It’s good to know what you like.
And the writing group you were in there, how useful was that?
Not useful at all. (Laughs) But quite fun. I don’t know if writing groups are very much use. It depends who’s in them, I suppose. I never got much out of them. I wanted to write, but I didn’t know what to do. I knew I didn’t want to move back to Cookstown. I didn’t really want to teach either, and I didn’t want to do further academic stuff, because I always found it very (sighs) insulated and a bit pointless. Unless you’re going to write broad books about various things, you end up doing research in a tiny area, like leather shoes in Victorian literature or something, and I didn’t want to do that.
I got offered a job while I was still at college. A law firm said they’d sponsor me through law school for two years. So I thought I’d do that, and it would be a stopgap, and I’d keep on writing and reviewing. When I finished college I’d started reviewing for the Times Literary Supplement and some of the papers. I kept on doing that, and it got closer and closer to the time. I’d done the law school exams, and then I had to start at the law firm, and I always thought that maybe I won’t qualify, maybe I’ll leave before the two years are up. Then I thought that once I qualify, I’ll leave, but I never did. It got to the stage where I was either going to be a lawyer, or make the break and try to do the writing properly, and that’s what I did.
At what stage was it then that you felt you had a manuscript of poetry together?
I’d always been sending stuff off from when I left university, and it was always coming back rejected. Then I applied for the Eric Gregory Award, and they were very kind, and very enthusiastic, so I thought this is me on track. I was still working as a lawyer, so I took a sabbatical for seven months from the firm, and they said I could come back in September. I left in January 2003 and went to Harvard, and while I was there Picador accepted the manuscript, and then Faber also accepted it, and I went with Faber.
Then I started working on the novel properly. When I went back to work I’d done about a hundred pages of it. I got back on a Monday morning, and by lunchtime I was back in the same barristers’ chambers, with the same client, and the same counsel, the same technical expert on the same case that I’d left in January. It had kind of gone into hibernation for the seven months I was away, just by chance. I stayed there for two months and I thought (a) I’m not going to finish this book if I stay here, and (b) I really don’t want to do this anymore. Not that I had any money, which was a big thing. I resigned at the end of November and I had to sell my house. The book was then sold in February, so I was alright.
How had you gone about getting an agent?
I sent it to someone at AP Watt and he didn’t like it. He was very nice about it, but he said it’s not for me. He was talking about the book to another agent in the building and my agent overheard and asked if she could have a look at it. She had just started her fiction list and she decided she wanted to take it on. She was very enthusiastic.
What are the differences for you between writing fiction and writing poetry?
They’re completely different beasts. It took me a while to get back into the swing of writing fiction again. With poetry you work and rework all the lines, and fiction too of course but it has to be a lot brisker and more frictionless than poetry, I think. The baggage restrictions are entirely different. What you can get into prose is totally different to what you can get into poetry. You can get a lot more humour, more ribaldry into prose. It’s more of a social form, it’s about relationships between other people. Poetry, at least for me, tends to be about my own relationship with the world, or subversions of me and subversions of different people.
They’re just very different. I can’t usually write them both on the same day.
And ordering the poems, arranging them in the collection, how did you go about that?
I worked at that a lot, because I’d too many poems. Whenever I was in Harvard I went through the hundred or so pieces that I had, trying to order them. Then I went through them with Jorie Graham. I sat in on some of her classes in Harvard. She took an afternoon, and said to me these are good, but they shouldn’t be in here. She was brilliant. She could see a thread through the collection, and how it should stand and how it should look. She really showed me how to put a collection together.
There’s a real skill to it. I hadn’t thought of it as being a skill, and now since I’ve done it, I go back and look at other people’s collections and see much more how poems stand together, how they inform each other—even the way they face one another on the page.
And are you working on your second collection now?
I’ve kind of finished the first draft of a manuscript for another collection, so I’m putting it in a drawer for six months, while I move on with the second novel, which I’m about fifty pages into. The bones of a collection are there, the guts of it. It’s just a question of fleshing it out. It’s got one very long sequence with thirteen parts, which is called ‘The Art of War’. It takes its chapter headings from the chapters in The Art of War, by Sun Tzu, which is about getting married. I was reading through The Art of War and it’s got these really wonderfully resonant chapter headings like The Use of Spies, Nine Varieties of Ground. That helped me structure my own thoughts. There’s another section, ‘Playing God’, about faith, or lack of faith. It’s kind of there, it’ll just need to be tinkered with.
There’s a political strain running through the poems and I wonder if that is connected with where you’re from.
I suppose it is. You can’t grow up in Northern Ireland and not be sunk waist high in politics, even if you’re not aware of it. Everything’s a political act in Northern Ireland. I was in a cab coming home from Belfast to Cookstown yesterday, and the news came on about the McCartney sisters not getting on the platform with Margaret Thatcher. I’d written a bit about the McCartney sisters [in ‘The Dogs in the Street Know That,’ published in the London Review of Books] so I wanted to hear the news. I asked the driver to turn it up. And then I thought there’ll be a moment here when we decide whether to talk about this. And we didn’t talk about it. You know why you don’t talk about it, you don’t know what he thinks about it and he doesn’t know what you think about it. That wouldn’t happen in England, or probably not in Dublin either. It’s a different thing in the North, everything you say is potentially revealing, problematic, a political statement.
At the same time, maybe more in the second book but certainly in the first book too, there are poems that attempt to be about a wider political idea, an historical political idea, poems about Iraq, say.
There’s the poem ‘Imperial’ in To A Fault. Will you tell me a little about that?
I think I was interested in talking about the effects of man on nature. That sounds very grandiose, I suppose, but my way of doing that was to talk about how the dumb beast endures. There’s that great line from the book of Jonah that I quote at the start – ‘And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle.’ That’s how the whole book finishes. The cattle have always been around. I wanted to spin it that way, think about that, how humans have used and abused the things they’ve been given or grown alongside.
It’s very hard to write a political poem, and I’m not sure that one succeeds. Whenever you start talking about oil fields in a poem, you’re probably in the wrong department. But you have to feel though that your writing is engaging on some level, and that’s what this is trying to do, and I will try to do again. It always feels very ham-fisted, thick fingered. You have to go so lightly in poetry.
It’s something that interests me though: how much of the political you can bring into it. The problem is that you have to try and strive for a wider truth, a ‘poetic truth’ is what Edna Longley calls it, which looks at all sides. Heaney does it very well. There’s never a Heaney poem you could really over-interpret and say he’s on this side, or that side. There’s a wider understanding, and politics, being partial, prescriptive, doesn’t fit in with that.
Let’s talk about the novel, Utterly Monkey. One of the big things that’s been thrown back at you is the autobiographical elements that are mirrored in the book.
Of course there’s autobiography in it—there is in most people’s books. Maybe I was silly to make the actual circumstances of the lead character very similar to mine. I used a Northern Irish man working in London as a lawyer. That’s what you do. You pick bits from lots of people to put into your characters, and it’s obvious that you’re going to pick things from yourself. But once you’ve got your characters, then you make things happen to them that haven’t happened to you, and that’s how books work. So it seems a strange tree to be barking up, the autobiography tree. It wouldn’t be as interesting for people if I wasn’t married to Zadie.
So you hadn’t thought about this as a possible reaction while writing the book, or prior to its publication?
You can’t care what people say. I think if you care what people say, you’d never write a book. The thing about the girl in the book being black is weird to me as well. All that says to me is that there aren’t enough black women in fiction. I worked with black women in my law firm. They weren’t my wife. This idea that if you write about a black girl, it must be… it’s strange to me. It’s understandable really—people always take the path of least resistance, the most immediate handle.
The character of Danny, the main character is trapped to an extent by his own past. He’s unable to put it behind him.
Yeah, I was writing the blurb for the book, and I wrote ‘You leave home, then home follows…’ That seems to be true to me. It happens to everyone, it’s not just being Northern Irish. You have to, I think, get out of range of where you grew up in order to really change. But it’s difficult to do that. You know yourself, whenever you go home it’s lovely to see your family but after about twenty minutes you feel like you’re twelve years old again. You don’t necessarily want to get away from your history. But sometimes it’s hard to be the adult you are when everyone knows you as the kid you were.
In some of your poems you celebrate your family and its history.
That’s true. Certainly I come from a very big family. It was always something to be proud of, to have very close ties with people. My dad’s from Donegal, and we still have family there and all through Ireland. I did a reading in Edinburgh and some guy put his hand up and asked: ‘Why do you write about Cookstown when you seem to hate it?’ I was amazed. I’m obviously not writing the thing right, if that’s what he could think.
Everyone’s relationship with the past is completely mixed. You love where you grew up, but also things about it intensely annoy you, and that’s how it works. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t form your entire imaginative hinterland.
You’re over for a reading in Belfast this evening. How do you find doing readings?
Is it getting any easier?
It gets a wee bit easier. I realised coming up to Belfast today that I hadn’t brought my reading notes with me from London so I’m going to have to do the explanations off the cuff. If that had happened six months ago, I would have been wrecked by it. I’ll just do it now. So maybe it gets easier, but I still get very nervous and smoke too many fags.
In terms of explaining your poems, it’s not always clear to the reader what is being said, or what a poem is fully about.
That’s been said to me before. I’m not really interested in poems that tell you things you already know. The poems that I like best are the poems in which something happens. You go through to the end and you ask what was that about, and then you go back over it and have another look at it. There has to be enough stuff on the surface to hold your attention, and you can do that with lots of different things, with imagery, or sound, or whatever you want. But then there has to be an element of worrying at the poem until you get something from it. Something draws clear, something very small perhaps is clarified in it. That’s how the best poetry works, I think.
There’s an opacity on the surface, but then it’s only by spending time with the poem… there are some poems that I thought I knew well which are still coming clear to me now. There are lots of different things going on in good poems, and you can live with a poem for years and then suddenly think, ah, that’s what that’s about. I think that’s a good thing. If you instantly think you’ve got all that a poem offers, either it’s not a very good poem or you’ve made a mistake.
Who are the fiction writers you most admire?
I like Frank O’Connor a lot if you’re talking about Irish writers. I like McGahern and I like Banville, but it would mostly be American fiction. I’m reading Saul Bellow’s collected stories at the minute, there’s no one else like him. I read a lot of Updike over the last few years. It goes back to Fitzgerald. The Great Gatsby is the book that hit me hardest early on and I didn’t really understand why I loved it so much. It’s one of those things that gets to you before your critical faculties are intact, and you end up loving it, and you can’t ever think of it critically.
You wrote a critical review of Patrick Kavanagh’s Collected Poems in the London Review of Books. What was your reasoning there, and what sort of reaction did you get?
Brendan Barrington [editor, The Dublin Review] e-mailed me to say that he agreed with me but that he didn’t think I should come to Dublin for a while. I like Kavanagh a lot, I always have done. His short lyrics mean more to me than almost any other poet’s—apart from maybe Heaney’s—and Kavanagh did it first. He’s an incredibly important poet. But I also think if you had to sit down and read through that Collected Poems, you would be irritated and bored by a lot of it. That’s because a lot of the stuff he wrote wasn’t good, and there are lots of reasons for that, to do with alcohol and other difficulties. It seems to me silly to try and build someone up to be more than they are. We should talk about him realistically. He wrote some amazing things, two really fabulous long poems, ‘The Great Hunger’ and ‘Lough Derg’ which are wonderful. And without him you wouldn’t have Durcan or Heaney or Muldoon or any of those people. But you have to look at his faults as well. That book doesn’t work as a book. His Selected Poems is a wonderful book.
Sinéad Morrissey has a poem in her latest collection that celebrates these books of collected poems because they show up all the flaws and the mistakes, and give her the strength to go on.
That’s true, but then it’s a book for poets, it’s not a book for the reading public.
It has been a madly busy year for you, and you’re married to Zadie Smith who has also had a very busy year. Where is the time for writing within all that?
There hasn’t been a lot of writing this year. There has been quite a lot of poetry, but poetry I’ve always written on the hoof as it were. It’s been really, really busy and I really want to settle in and get back to my desk, not see anyone, not do anything, certainly not do any more readings. I really want to write now. I’ve got the first draft of this collection but I need to spend time on each poem. I really want—my fingers are itching—to have a big clear space of time where I can sit with an ashtray and the computer screen and just write. I’ve got to go to America in the last week of January, the novel is coming out there, and I’ve a short book tour, but only for a week. Really up until next autumn, I’m just going to be writing, and that’s when the second novel will be done.
Are you under a certain amount of pressure with the second novel?
No more pressure than the first time. There’s always pressure. If I sat down—I did it a couple of times when the books came out—and googled myself, that is just a mistake. The amount of vitriol and stuff written about you by people who never met you, it would break your heart. So you just don’t do that, and you ignore the reviews. You have to develop mechanisms that will allow you to continue working. The pleasure in writing doesn’t lie in prizes or commercial success, it’s personal, it comes from writing well, or as well as you can. So you have to bear that in mind. You just write the books you can write. If I had a choice about what I wrote, I’d be writing John Updike’s or Saul Bellow’s books. But you just have to do what you can.
Do you enjoy writing poetry more than writing prose?
Prose is more of a job definitely. That’s partly because it’s amazing to me that anyone pays you to write poetry. They don’t pay you that much of course—but that they pay you anything at all is surprising. Why would anyone be interested? It’s kind of a privilege to think that someone wants to publish it. It’s difficult to say that it’s a job. It’s prose that pays the bills. While I enjoy it, it’s difficult to sit down at nine o’clock in the morning and think I have to write a thousand words by six o’clock.
But you have to have a job, and it’s certainly better than any other job I’ve tried. Whenever it’s going well there’s nothing like it, when you’re really in the book. But you need time, you need to have a clear week to get back into it. If you’re away every other day, you forget what you were thinking, where you were, you forget what you wanted the characters to do. So yes, it’s hard.
The short answer is, I think poetry does come to me more naturally, but I’ve been reading and writing fiction for years and years, and reviewing it for ten years, so I’d hope I’ve learnt a bit about how it works.
(In interview with Declan Meade in Belfast, November 2005.)