Claire Kilroy was born in Dublin in 1973. Having taken a degree in English at Trinity, she worked in film and television for four years, and then returned to Trinity to complete the M Phil in Creative Writing in 2001.
Her first novel, All Summer (Faber & Faber, 2003), was awarded the 2004 Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. Her second novel, Tenderwire, was published by Faber in June 2006.
Can you tell me about when and how you started out writing?
I remember starting All Summer, and before that it’s patchy… I know I used to make notes without knowing where it was going. I know I wrote in school. It was kind of vague. I wouldn’t have aspired to be a writer because I would have thought it not within my reach. I loved English and it seemed too large an achievement. I wasn’t setting out to be a writer when it started—I was just putting bits together.
Actually in second year in college, Michael Longley—he was writer-in-residence in Trinity in 1993—gave a class and he was just brilliant. It was open to all undergraduates and some graduates, and there were quite a few poets: Justin Quinn, Caitríona O’Reilly, Sinéad Morrissey. I remember that as an enchanted time. But leaving college and starting work the writing stopped, and I think to stop doing it altogether makes you realise that you really want to do it.
And then in between series—I used to work on Ballykissangel—I think in between series four and series five, I wrote a first draft of All Summer in ten weeks. Which baffles me now, because it took two years to get a first draft of Tenderwire, so I don’t know how I did a first draft in ten weeks, but I did—and the basic form of All Summer was set then.
And then I gave up Ballykissangel.
And what was it you’d been doing on that?
I’d been the Assistant Editor, so I learnt a lot about the plasticity of a story. The script that comes from the writer is not the final broadcast version, you can chop it up and put it in a different order. That seems obvious but it was a revelation to me that you can change the scenes around, and it changes everything, even though they are the same scenes. So I learned about narrative drive from that, I would say.
You say you weren’t thinking of becoming a writer early on, but what were you reading?
The big thing was Nabokov. When I was sixteen I was given Lolita, and that was just one of the best things that ever happened to me. You’re in the Leaving Cert and you’re really confined. I went to school in Clontarf, which was so small-minded, and so dreary. It was the Eighties and the Eighties were a horrible time. Then this book was given to me and it was not within the reference of anyone else I knew at sixteen. It was shocking, and stunning, and exhilarating. I had loved books before that but that was the book.
And it was a novel—a lot of the good stuff we were exposed to at school was poetry and drama, mainly Shakespeare. The novels we got were Dickens, you know, Jane Austen, stuff that I’m still not interested in. It didn’t excite me, but Nabokov excited me instantly, and I found myself copying out phrases from it that I can still remember: ‘the giving crunch of damp gravel’. I wish I could find the notebook where I used to copy these things out. They were so immediate, I could see where he was. Other books were beautiful but I couldn’t see myself—well, not myself, but see the character there, feel what the character felt. The stuff we’d done before would always have an omniscient narrator, particularly Dickens. I think we only did Dickens. Could that be?
The novel, when I was doing it, was not well represented on the Leaving Cert course. We didn’t do anything twentieth century, and I hadn’t ventured into the 20th century at all. So this book with its rawness was the start of the novel for me. Funnily, I did four years of English at Trinity and Nabokov wasn’t anywhere on the course, which is mental. I don’t know why he wasn’t on it.
Can you tell me about doing the M Phil in Creative Writing at Trinity?
I’d left my job in ’99, and had jumped off at the deep end with All Summer—as I said I had a first draft written. I don’t think I knew about the course. I’d chucked in the job, I think it was August 1999, and I just got so isolated. I was living in a flat in town, most of the time on my own, and I hadn’t told anyone I was writing. I was beginning to enter the weird zone. Then I heard about the course, applied for it in March and got it. I’d say I would’ve finished the book anyway, because I went into Trinity with a second draft done. But it made things much easier. Our workshop had eight of us in it, and just to have seven other people all struggling with the same endeavour. Just to have the structure—and also the release. Most of the time we were drinking, but that was really important, to not be cut off.
Also, on foot of it, Clare Reihill was an editor with Faber, and she came along to hear the group read and we all read. I rang her and she recognised my voice, and said to send the manuscript into her—and she bought it.
So this all happened before signing with your agent Marianne Gunn O’Connor? How did that happen?
That came about because I asked around. Two things I liked about her: one, she was a woman, and two, she was Irish. She represented Pat McCabe so she was legit. She also represented Niall Williams. If you’re published in London, and you know no one in London, and you live in Dublin, it’s nice to have one person over here. So it was her Irishness and also her demonstrated ability. She was starting out then—I just met her in an airport and I liked her.
What was the experience of the first book coming out like for you?
The most significant period was getting the yes from Faber—that happened on Friday, October 19th 2001. On the Wednesday, Peter Carey had won the Booker for The True History of the Kelly Gang, and that was published by Faber. I was thinking that they’re going to be out celebrating tonight, and that’ll just push it, that they’re in a state of euphoria. I got the call on Friday afternoon saying we want to buy your book.
The actual publication, that was lovely, everything went well, but that moment of Faber saying yes, that was the most significant moment of—well possibly—of my life so far, and it was the happiest moment. It felt like you’d been frozen for a very long time, and suddenly you were thawed. I’d been so tense. Writers tend to put everything into this one thing. I didn’t have a backup plan, I didn’t know what would become of me if they didn’t buy it, and I was in a state of panic. So when they bought it, it was such an immense release.
With the publication, I was delighted because the reviews were good, and that’s kind of all you care about. You’re not as pushed about sales. I don’t know why, but I expected to be slagged off—because it’s Ireland. I anticipated snideness and there wasn’t snideness; they just said, she’s gone and written a book and it’s alright of a book, so I was happy.
At what stage in this process had you begun writing the second novel?
I delivered All Summer before Christmas, 2002, and I tried to begin immediately. I started writing something else and it was rubbish. If you’re writing something that you know doesn’t have legs, that’s really dismal. Tenderwire began in February 2003 and All Summer came out in May 2003, so I had a fair notion of what I was doing by then.
I don’t keep proper notes of what I’m at and I wish I did. Now that I’m writing a third one, I’d like to compare. Did I feel this lost with Tenderwire? I remember vividly how lost I felt with All Summer, but with Tenderwire, I seemed to know the ending from very early on, so there wasn’t the same level of wandering involved. I think it’s important to go into the publication of your previous novel with a fair notion of what you’re going to do now. I like that security.
There’s an element of the thriller in both of the books, in how the story is told.
Certainly when all the reviews came out for Tenderwire, they were all saying it was a literary thriller, which I’m not sure about. You’re always a bit cautious to end up in a genre, and I’m not sure exactly what that genre is. The last review I got was in the TLS, and it said the publishers are pushing this as a whodunnit and it’s not. It’s one of those things: you want people to read your book, so if the publishers say calling it a whodunnit means that more people might buy it, even by accident, that’s fine—it’s better than people not buying it at all.
Going back to Nabokov, he composed chess problems for relaxation. Chess is a game for two people—a game of wit and a game of cunning. His novels play similar games with the reader, and I’d like to think there’s a space in my books for the reader to try and figure out, based on the knowledge given, what is really the case. I enjoy giving limited information and calculating the effect that this will have. Having said that, the book I’m writing now, there’s nothing thriller-ish at all in it.
Both novels have great pace to them, and the reader is pulled along very quickly. Does the writing follow that pace, or is it something you have to consciously create afterwards?
The endings certainly follow that pace but I start very, very, very slowly. The endings are written really quickly because I’ve spent so much time thinking out the beginning that it’s like cards falling. It’s great—the endings for both books were just so easy to write. You struggle so much at the start that it makes it feel great. Both books took three years to write, and they’re not very long books. I feel like I’m slow to the point of subnormal sometimes. No, I don’t suffer from flashes of inspiration or voices speaking that I only have to transcribe—I struggle.
Where does the novel begin for you? Is it a certain character or a setting?
The character is almost innate. The voice and the character, that comes without thinking, you just sort of know what that’s to be. The plot has to click. You have to work out the trajectory in your head—in All Summer it’s a painting, in Tenderwire it’s the violin—but that to me isn’t so important; if it were a house, the plot is a brick, it’s not the design. It’s a tool.
The actual writing process is you just start writing notes—and notes and notes and notes and notes. For both books there would’ve been a hundred thousand words of notes, more notes than novel. You just keep adding until something gets legs and you go in that direction. It’s just trying everything you can possibly think of.
What are you looking for in those notes? Is there a ‘eureka’ moment within that process of note taking?
There’s never quite a ‘eureka’ moment. There was one in All Summer when I realised who Kel was. I’d written it all and it’s only when the narrator says who Kel is that I figured out who Kel was. Then there was a series of minor, not-quite-eureka, just ‘ah right’ moments with Tenderwire.
On a minute-to-minute basis, writing isn’t very rewarding. At the end of your working day, sometimes you feel great satisfaction, but when you’re actually doing it, it seems so slow—you almost wish you could take steroids for the imagination.
How much research do you do for the books and what role does it play?
In these two it played quite a large role. When I approached the conservator of the National Gallery of Ireland, there was no conservator in All Summer. There was an art detective but I couldn’t get any help from the Gardaí, so I had to ask this guy instead about stolen paintings, and when I was in there and looking at where he worked, the whole operation, that grew legs. And Tenderwire, to make it work I had to understand a musician’s world so I did quite a lot of research for that—and I was wrong about an awful lot of things, so the research corrected what I was doing and enhanced it. What I’m doing now, I don’t think there’s any research I can do, but the research for the first two books enhanced them immensely.
Did you have to control that though?
Oh yes, it’s pencil sharpening after a certain point. You’ve got to stop. You’ve got to put away all your books, put away everything, and write your story. I find I’ll do anything not to write. I find it very daunting and I’ll play all kind of games to avoid it. Right now it’s the internet—or interviews!
No, I was very good today, I beat out a thousand words and came in.
So what can you say about the new book you’re working on?
I’ve 100,000 words of notes and I feel I can make a few statements about it. Things change when you get into chapter one, chapter two—you realise you’re going down a lot of wrong roads. It’s set in Eighties Dublin, during the heroin plague, and it’s about a writer and his students. It wouldn’t have any thriller-ish aspects so it’s being written in a different manner. It’s being written episodically, and it’s about the imagination and about, well, death.
What has attracted you to write about Eighties Dublin given that you’ve described it as such a grim place?
It’s because it’s gone. There’s a great line in Heaney’s new book about a house that’s burnt down: For now that it was gone, it all seemed / Far stranger: more fantastical than Pharaoh. It’s an archival impulse.
Dublin was exhilarating in the Eighties for all its bleakness. It’s about the bleakness, and the desire to transcend that through writing. If you’re living in an absolutely colourless landscape, you either perish—as some of the characters do—or you pursue your imagination, and some of the characters do that.
Is it going to be another first person narrator?
It is first person, but it’s about a group. Anytime you finish one book, you do want to change, and the changes in this are that it’s about a group, and it’s a man this time, trying to narrate a group. The voice isn’t as intimate as either of the earlier books—it’s a more removed, distant voice.
We’ve spoken about plot and pace but your novels also have some beautiful descriptions and phrases that arrest the reader’s attention. How important is that aspect of the writing to you?
It means far more than pace. See to me, thriller is an inferior form. I’ve never read a thriller—so I shouldn’t say it’s an inferior form (laughs)—but I’m not interested. The one quasi-thriller I did read was Miss Smilla’s Sense of Snow, and it started off great, but then it became just a thriller, so what’s the point?
Language is the all, and trying to express specific experiences, emotional experiences, through imagery and metaphor, that is what it’s about. The hunt for the perfect word is something I find stimulating, and when I find a word that approximates to the perfect word—you rarely find the perfect word—I get a kick. Most of the time you spend grasping, and then sometimes you hit on something that fulfils your desire—and more, it does more work than you’d hoped it might. That’s the condition of poetry, finding those words, but if you’re writing a novel it can’t all be on that level.
You seem to be very conscious of the need for a plot, and you also seem to have a talent for creating that.
It might be a woman thing: that you’re almost apologetic for taking someone’s time, so you work that bit harder to reward the time they’ve given you. That’s probably why what I’m writing now isn’t going to entertain anyone (laughs). With Tenderwire, there certainly was a burden to make the pill go down easy. I won’t go: Here’s my work, it’s art, you do the work. I do the work. In Tenderwire I’ve done a lot of work making it easy to read, and I hope that doesn’t detract from it.
With All Summer some people just went, I didn’t get that, and I found myself apologising—so I spent a lot of time making Tenderwire lucid and not turgid.
Do you think that with the two novels you’ve written you’ve been in some way serving an apprenticeship?
I don’t think I’ll hit my stride until I’m fifty—that’s when you start putting out the really good stuff. Which is no reason to let myself off the hook now, and say that it’s an apprenticeship. I still have to do the best I can do at this point in time—but I do see writing as a long-term activity.
Are there things you’ve learned from writing the first two books that are a help to you in writing the third one?
It still feels very difficult because I’m not rewriting Tenderwire, I’m doing something different. The one thing I have learned is that if I feel it’s going nowhere, it doesn’t mean it is going nowhere—it just means that that is how I feel. I think the main thing I’ve learned from writing is to proceed, to keep going.
I find it easier to put together a paragraph now because I’ve been practising so long, so there are local improvements. I still don’t feel like I’ve a master plan per novel, I don’t feel on top of it at all—I wish I did a bit more. I don’t feel like I’ve cracked anything.
Tell me about how the rewriting process and the editing process work for you?
It was very different per novel in that there were two different editors. Rewriting is the bit I love. When I’ve the first draft done, the cat’s in the bag, I’m safe, and I can really work at it, closely, and check everything so that it coheres, and there aren’t any stray words that shouldn’t be there. Every word has, say, ten meanings, and you’ve got to make them bounce off each other to get the most effect from them. You get a few dud notes. I love the editing process—it’s when I do feel like a writer, because I know what I’m doing.
The editing process with Tenderwire was great because I had a brilliant editor, Angus Cargill, who is genuinely interested in editing. A lot of editors now are interested in buying and publishing, but not editing. Angus is interested in the old school form of editing a book and making it better. I don’t know how many times he read Tenderwire, but I didn’t find him lacking in commitment at all. We went through four drafts together. He had very clear ideas, which I decided were all wrong, but then I realised they were mainly right. I let him guide me, which made it stronger.
We spoke another time about you going down to the Heinrich Boll Cottage on Achill Island for a residency, and you only stayed one night, and yet that ended up being where a good part of All Summer is set.
Well, it was already set on an island, and I was going down to research.
It’s a peculiar condition being a woman on your own. You’ll never know! You stay in a cottage for a night on your own in the blackness—my nerves aren’t up to it. But in that twenty-four hours I got the paranoia (laughs). No, I was possibly on the second draft by then, but it obviously did contribute to the sense of fear, being alone and not knowing if that door was open a minute ago. I think that’s a big part of being a woman: if you’re on your own, you’re a target, you don’t have the same freedom.
You’re writing full time, and it’s a difficult thing to do, to make your living as a writer.
Generally, writers aren’t materialistic, which is a bloody good thing. If you broke it down into money, you’d stop. I mean, I’ve gotten this far, and it has occurred to me, yes, I’m going to always be poor. But would that stop me? No. I’m ok this year because I’ve got the cheques for Tenderwire. I’ve got nothing for next year, and I don’t have a book to sell next year. It’s a constant pressure.
You got the Rooney Prize for All Summer, which must have helped, but what other supports are there?
That was eight grand, and I’ve had two Arts Council bursaries. I think that’s it actually—after that, it’s what I get from the books.
And Dublin is an expensive city to live in, so how does that work?
I’m mortified to say that I moved home as an adult and I’m still there at thirty-two. I moved home when I was twenty-eight—otherwise I just couldn’t have done it. I hate that, I hate feeling that. I don’t think I’m lazy, or crap at what I do. I think I should be on the average industrial wage but it doesn’t work that way, so… The best writers are the poorest (laughs).
Do you feel Dublin’s a good place to live in now?
I’ve very little to do with it. That’s probably why I’ve turned back to the Eighties, to a place and a time I recognise. It’s a bit: Dude, Where’s My City? I don’t know it. It’s not a criticism, it just doesn’t feel familiar. To a large extent, I’ve retreated to Howth, where I grew up, and that is familiar.
Do you feel it’s a rewarding place to live culturally?
No, not at all. It’s home. I’m sort of jeopardised, because I don’t make much money and this is one of the most expensive places on earth to live. But I don’t think I could write without my friends and family close by. It’s so isolating anyway that I think if I went off on a residency abroad, I think I’d probably get depressed and isolated, and I’d stop. I’m here because it’s home, and I’ve got good friends here.
What are books you’ve read recently and which other writers do you admire?
Andrew O’Hagan’s new novel, Be Near Me, is magnificent. I love anything by John Banville, and I read it twice. I think he’s the man. I’m working my way through Nabokov’s Russian stuff, and I’ve just read the three Richard Ford Frank Bascombe novels in a row—they’re great.
The difference is there are some writers I’ll read twice, or three, four times. I possibly will read The Sportswriter a second time, but I will automatically read again anything that John Banville writes—I have to go back to it. I will read Andrew O’Hagan’s book again, but there are very few writers I’ll read a second time. Virginia Woolf, Nabokov, I’ll read a second time—Michael Frayn, I like a lot. There is lots of other stuff that’s really good, but it’s not quite for me—because I would have specific requirements (laughs).
Would you say that you are ambitious?
I’m not ambitious for success, because I look at successful writers and think that it’s shit to have that kind of pressure. But then it depends on what you call ambition. I think to write books at all is ambitious, because it’s quite hard to get a book together. I want to continue writing. I don’t want to be a bestselling author, but at the same time I would like to make a living. Is that ambitious?
I’m not unambitious. In my fifties, I would like to be on the Booker shortlists (laughs). I don’t want to retire ever. I’m no longer at the stage where it occurs to me to stop. When I was writing All Summer, I thought this isn’t working, go back to your old job. With Tenderwire, I never thought that.
I think this is it, I’m in it for life now, and if I can just keep producing books that in some way reflect the experience of being alive in these times, leave behind a testimony of some kind to account for a life. Does that make sense?
(In interview with Declan Meade in Dublin, September 2006.)