A Conversation with Roger Boylan By Eamonn Wall

Eamonn Wall: From what I have gathered your were born in the US, but were raised in Ireland. Could you provide some background on this?

Roger Boylan: I was indeed born in the US but grew up in Europe, not only in Ireland (Dublin and the North) but also, because of the peripatetic aspect of my father’s profession (he was a kind of a journeyman electronics technician and specialized in the installation of electronic carillon bells in churches) in places like Geneva, Paris and Rome. I went to a secular boarding school-type institution and received my higher education at the University of Ulster in Coleraine, Co. Derry, and Edinburgh University in Scotland.

EW: What did you study in college—literature, languages, electronics, banking?

RB: Pub interiors, mostly, with a little time out for Irish history at Coleraine and Romance Languages and Comparative Religion at Edinburgh.

EW: Other Irish writers have spent part of their childhoods in the US and it has had a significant influence on what and how they have written: John Montague, Eavan Boland, Padraic Fiacc, for example. Has it been important in your life/work?

RB: Not really. My American childhood ended at age 5, when my father, then flush, sent my mother and me across the ocean aboard the liner “Queen Elizabeth”.

EW: But you are back in the US again now! I wonder if you consider yourself an Irish writer, an Irish-American writer, or if you try to avoid such designations?

RB: My cultural heritage is European, Irish, and American, in no particular order. I suppose this makes me at least as much an American writer as, say, Nabokov. I’ve always thought the ideal world-citizen would be a cosmopolitan American, Judeo-Christian and Western in heritage, proud of his or her own cultural tradition but open to the best in other traditions without automatically giving any of them the benefit of the doubt.

EW: As an Irish writer, you belong with such innovators as Aidan Higgins and John Banville. As an Irish-American writer, your work has a lot in common with the work of James McCourt, Thomas McGonigle, and Michael Stephens. Do you feel you belong with either group?

RB: That isn’t for me to say, as I’m unacquainted with the work of either group, although your question certainly arouses my interest in getting to know one or two of these writers. In fact, I read little contemporary fiction.

EW: Do you feel there’s little in contemporary fiction to get excited about, or are you just too busy?

RB: Both. I have a family and a workaday job, so I’m kept busy. Anyway, too much contemporary fiction seems to be either part of somebody’s Ph.D. disseration or TV in print form. Still, I’m sure there are diamonds in the dross. It’s the enduring one percent or so of all art that you have to look for, in any age.

EW: Your novel was originally subtitled “An Annotated Tale of Modern Ireland.” It also seems to be an annotated tale of Irish fiction. It playfully parodies such things as the “Big House” novel and John Banville’s “Book of Evidence” with your allusion to the MacArthur Attorney General affair. Can you comment on this?

RB: There is a bit of the “Big House” novel there because I’ve always liked the literature of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy and its descendants (Somerville & Ross, Yeats, Elizabeth Bowen, William Trevor, etc.), but I’ve never read Mr. Banville’s work, although he sounds interesting. The Attorney General affair I was thinking of happened during the first Haughey administration, back in the early 80s, and involved far more sordid things—sex and murder among them, if memory serves—than the one alluded to in “Killoyle”.

EW: What exactly attracts you to these Anglo-Irish writers—religion, heritage, view of Ireland, style, aesthetic, or something else?

RB: They represent the consummation of the shotgun marriage between Ireland and England. They were the descendants of aristocrats, for the most part, fallen on hard times, and uncertain where they belonged. I find this very appealing, for personal and ancestral reasons. Their search for identity was the result of divided loyalties, of course. Even many of those who stayed in Ireland after 1922 weren’t quite sure of their allegiance, although some did become great patriots, as if to compensate: Yeats, Erskine Childers, Douglas Hyde. The Anglo-Irish writers combined the classical tradition of English literature with the Irish love of poetic narrative.

EW: Contemporary Ireland, as you represent it, is in a state of near collapse?

RB: On the contrary, it may be doing too well for its own good. What worries me on a cultural level isn’t poverty and recession, Ireland’s an old hand at those, but the homogenization of life, in which the suffering is more along the lines of not being able to run the Boston Marathon or not being able to afford a satellite TV dish: somewhat less extreme, in other words, than the bone-deep variety of suffering that prompts the question “What’s It All About?,” which is, of course, the genesis of Art. The amenities of modern life, some of them wonderful, some of them not—things like affordable cars, a computer in every home, rock music everywhere and the Internet binding us all—exact a spiritual and cultural price. Incidentally, the English language suffers, too. It’s being infected by international bureaucratese, MBAspeak, the way rock lyrics swept the world in the seventies and eighties: financial whiz kids in Dublin talk about “facilitating” and “being proactive” and “rightsizing” and so on, just like thr counterparts in London, Tokyo, New York and Austin, Texas. This is sad, because Irish English used to be just about the richest, most subtle and funniest anywhere. Maybe it still is. Maybe I’m just being sentimental.

EW: Joyce, in “Portrait of the Artist”, explores this same idea in his debate with the dean over the tundish/funnel. Would you advocate policies similar to those put forward in France which would preserve Irish culture: limit the amount of rock music allowed on the radio, keep Americaspeak out of the dictionaries, etc?

RB: Given the essentially democratic nature of the English language and the English-speaking nations, I don’t think this would work. I find it quite easy to avoid listening to rock music, and as for “Americaspeak,” although I deplore the kinds of deadening infelicities I described—memospeak, actually, an international dialect—for better or for worse the English language is reaching its global zenith as “American” English: America is where the language comes from, today. The French are just reacting in their own way to lost prestige, and as much as I love their language, which I’ve known since childhood, theirs is a losing battle. “Le weekend”, “le marketing”, and “le look” represent the worst nightmare of the Acad?mie Fran?aise, but they’re the words the average French citizen uses. Fair’s fair: English took from French, now French is taking from English.

EW: Do you suspect that the world is becoming illiterate, Ireland included, and that writing is suffering and/or dying?

RB: Well (despite the foregoing), not really. Standards are undeniably sagging, but we have the education bureaucrats to thank for that, not writers who, after all, are the ones who do the actual writing. Some of the world’s greatest literature has come from almost totally illiterate times and places. What was the percentage of literate Russians when Dostoevsky was writing “The Brothers Karamazov”, or of Germans when Goethe wrote “Faust”? Not to mention the India of the Upanishads, or the Rome of Pliny. As a matter of fact, there might be a real chance of the Internet reviving the Belles-Lettres tradition: I can imagine a modern Flaubert and Turgenev sending lengthy missives back and forth through cyberspace in a fraction of the time it took the originals to assemble pen, ink, paper, postage, etc. But that could be wishful thinking.

EW: When did you ask yourself “What’s It All About?” Is this what prompted you to be a writer?

RB: My love of language and art, and my fascination with the everyday struggle of life, prompted me to be a writer. “What’s It All About?” is the eternal question, reiterated every day. God’s apparent absence (or, worse, presence) during catastrophic suffering is a colossal impediment to Faith; on the other hand, the idea of a mechanistic, meaningless universe is intolerable. “In the absence of God, everything is permissible,” as Ivan says to the Inquisitor in “Karamazov”. That is impermissible; so, back to the question, ad infinitum (or until Faith casts aside Reason and removes all doubt)!

EW: European Union and travel, represented by Emmet Power’s move to Italy in your novel, has done little to improve things?

RB: A lot, with the caveat expressed above, although I think Emmet moved because he was fed up with the goings-on at Spudorgan Hall and because he wanted to add something special to his marriage; also, he’d always wanted to go to Italy.

EW: Are there living writers out there with whom you feel a particular kinship? Who are they and why are they important?

RB: The writers whom I regard as inspiring combine love of language with humor and a willingness to take on the big questions (Life, Death and Love) without polemicizing. In Britain, Kingsley Amis and Anthony Burgess, both recently deceased, qualified eminently. Among contemporary Irish writers, Edna O’Brien, John McGahern, Brians Moore and Friel, Mary Lavin, Bernard MacLaverty, Anthony Cronin and William Trevor would all qualify too, to greater or lesser degrees. Their atmosphere, character and style distinguish them from the run-of-the-creative-writing-mill. I also have to mention J. P. Donleavy and Benedict Kiely, both of whom I have long admired. Among continental Europeans, I think the Swiss novelist Jacques Chessex is one of the little-known great writers of our time, and I like Gregor von Rezzori, the Wandering Austrian; also Michel Tournier when he’s not being too bleak, and Patrick Susskind, likewise. Not too many living Americans come to mind. Russell Banks? Updike, occasionally (good stylist), b he writes too much. I’d like to include Edward Abbey, although he died in ’89: irreverent, opinionated, funny. But as I said, I read little contemporary fiction. When I have the time to read, I go back.

EW: “Killoyle” reminds me of the work of Flann O’Brien in its playfulness, humor, and intricate organization. Can I safely cite him as an influence? Milo’s name invites this comparison!

RB: You score a bull’s-eye here. The discovery of Flann O’Brien’s work was my writer’s road to Damascus. His near-insane precision of language, unremitting absurdity, mixing of the mundane and the supernatural: didn’t Joyce himself call him “a writer with the real comic spirit”? Burgess, too, was a devotee. I return to O’Brien (or O’Nolan, or Myles) whenever I can, especially “At Swim-Two-Birds” and “The Third Policeman”, but also (in deference to my publisher) “The Dalkey Archive”, and even his minor Keats and Chapman pieces cheer me up when I’m low.

EW: I find the influence of Beckett present also—the Beckett of Murphy and Molloy. When you were growing up were these the sort of writers which captivated you?

RB: Yes. Actually, Beckett’s been misrepresented. Like Dostoevsky, he’s much funnier and more accessible than the LitCrit crowd would have us believe (they want to keep great writers to themselves, the way the Catholic Church traditionally kept the Bible away from the average churchgoing punter). There’s great compassion in Beckett’s work, and hilarity, and the same kind of questioning of God and the universe you find in the Russians, who were, as a matter of fact, my favorite reading when I was young, especially Dostoevsky, Gogol, and Goncharov (Tolstoy’s great, but lacks humor). I believe there’s a strong emotional and spiritual kinship between Celts and Slavs, and it comes out in their subversive, slightly crazy view of the world (Jaroslav Hasek’s a good non-Russian example), as well as in their devotion to language. Nabokov was a fine example of this, and he’s long been one of my favorites; in fact, he reminds me of Flann O’Brien. “The Gift” and “The Third Policeman” are not so far removed, thematically. Ato other influences: French was my second language when I was growing up, so I got to know Rousseau and Voltaire (living in Geneva helped) pretty well; I preferred, and prefer, Voltaire. I read widely among the naturalists—Flaubert, Maupassant, Zola—and, of the moderns, Celine’s “Journey to the End of the Night” and Tournier’s “Le Roi des Aulnes” (The Alder King) bowled me over. I took to the Italians Svevo (Joyce’s protege), Buzzati, and Moravia, and to the Austrians Schnitzler and Musil. Swiss literature tends to be underrated, for some reason. Ramuz, de Pourtales, Frisch, Durrenmatt and Jacques Chessex all deserve top marks, in my opinon. I’ve also been deeply impressed by Kawabata, and Borges, and Octavio Paz, and the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa.

EW: Unlike many writers nowadays, you are not part of a university. Do you think that the LitCrit crowd, as you call them, have taken the fun out of reading? What can be done about it?

RB: Yes, I think they have taken the fun out of reading, just as their ideological forebears in the Politburo tried to take the fun out of life. Like all ideologues, they—the deconstructionists, the Lacanites, the Post-Modernists—fear the individual spirit, i.e., Art, and they condescend to those who invoke Beauty. They prefer to speak of politics, and semiotics, and symbolism. It’s all a mish-mash of psychoanalysis, sociology and politics, and none of it has anything to do with literature. What can be done about it? Ignore them, if possible; oppose them, if not.

EW: Are you a self-taught writer who picked it up? Does this type of “training” have advantages? Certainly the reading you have done is much more varied than anything a university syllabus might offer? You came to America but didn’t go the Creative Writing Program route.

RB: Yes, I am self-taught, through reading other writers good, bad, and indifferent. I would hesitate to recommend this to anyone else; it’s just the way it happened to me. It certainly isn’t a short cut to fame and fortune. On the other hand, the various syllabi of our multitudinous Creative Writing Programs remind me of a comment of Robert Mitchum’s when he was asked about the merits of the Method school of acting: “It’s like trying to learn to be tall.” One can be coached, certainly, but taught? I wonder.

EW: What do you set out to achieve in your writing? What’s your purpose?

RB: That’s a hard one. I’m not sure I’m consciously aware of having a purpose. I suppose I want to amuse, entertain, and move the reader, and to satisfy myself that I’ve presented an honest view of life. I want the respect of my peers and, maybe most of all, I want to write what I like to read.

EW: The sense of place is very important in Irish writing. In Killoyle, however, you subvert this. Is this deliberate?

RB: Yes, in homage to “Molloy” and “At Swim-Two-Birds”, in which place, time and identity are all subverted.

EW: The book is located somewhere in the South East of Ireland but the exact location is impossible to identify given the contradictory clues. At times, we are in Rosslare Harbour in the hotel overlooking the ferry, but at other times we are in Waterford (perhaps). Waxford is how Donegal people pronounce Wexford! “Killoyle” is a composite, constructed of bits from different places, wouldn’t you say?

RB: Yes, indeed. The Irish seaside resort I know best is Portrush, Co. Antrim (now Coleraine District), where I spent a lot of time when young. “Killoyle” might be seen as a transplanted Portrush: Ulster in the South East, with touches of Bray, Co. Wicklow, Ballsbridge, Dublin and maybe the hint of Bundoran (the promenade) or Knock (the shrine). You’d find a Donegal accent or two in a place like that, and Emmet’s pure Co. Armagh (the pub his father owned, “The Shandon Bells,” is a real place in Keady).

EW: The characters perhaps, despite their names, are also drawn from bits and pieces of the real world of the South East? It’s all deep in lore? How did you go about writing the novel and bringing it all together?

RB: Actually, there’s probably more of the lore of the North, and Dublin, in it than genuine South East. As for how I went about it, I wrote most of it while I was employed as a technical writer at Chase Manhattan Bank in New York. I had the good fortune to be assigned a desk in a room otherwise inhabited solely by computers whose screens it was my duty to supervise. This meant being left alone for sometimes hours at a stretch. As far as I know, the boss never caught on, although he did look in once and shout, “What the hell are you doing in there, anyway, writing a novel?” It would never have occurred to him that that was exactly what I was doing, between edits of technical data and memos. I kept in touch with the real world of Irish letters via lunchbreak and subway reading of (among others) Beckett, Flann O’Brien, Benedict Kiely and Sean O’Faolain. “The Irish Times” and “The Blue Guide” to Ireland helped, too, but mostly it was Mnemosyne.

EW: Chase Manhattan unwittingly sponsored your writing and all of this culminated in your novel being written and published and Chase being acquired by Chemical!! Are these events related? It’s certainly a Flann O’Brien-like scenario!

RB: The more so as the new Super Chemical Bank is actually called Chase Manhattan Bank, the name of the bank taken over. The goat swallows the python! No, there’s no cosmic connection among these events that I’m aware of. By the way, a further bit of irony is that I’m now working for a publisher and have no time to write, whereas when I was working for a bank I managed to write one-and-a-half novels.

EW: You were writing this book during the greedy 1980s. As vast sums were being made by Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken, “Killoyle” was taking shape? Comment.

RB: Milken and Boesky were, of course, both admired and reviled, like naughty Greek gods (“Ah, that Hermes!”). Actually, they were probably more admired than reviled, because to criticize them for making a fast couple hundred million on the side would call into question the entire ethical structure of the Wall Street arbitrageur. On that subject, I remember Black Monday, October 1987, when the Dow Jones fell 700 or more points and all the high-rolling yuppies who would normally have been plotting mergers and leverage buyouts over margaritas at the South Street Seaport were huddled after hours on the sidewalk outside the Stock Exchange, swapping rumors, trying to fend off sudden intimations of mortality. Another memorable day: as I was in my computer room, toggling furtively from the legitimate bank screen (“Projected First-Quarter Costs, Fiscal Year 1993″) to my secret hideaway on the S.E. coast of Ireland (a.k.a. “Killoyle”), there was a bang and the whole Chase building shook in sympathy with the World Tre Center, which had just been bombed. All these things were happening as “Killoyle” was gestating, and presidents and corporate magnates were coming and going in the busy world just outside the door of my computer ward. One day I actually rode up in the elevator with David Rockefeller. Our conversation went like this:Self: Good morning.Dave: Good morning.This is the sum total of the Boylan-Rockefeller Dialogues.

EW: Was it difficult to write under these circumstances in this room of computers or did the notion of stealing time energize you? Were you like a child in a candy store with all the grown-ups departed?

RB: It was a bit nerve-wracking, and having to be on the alert for prying eyes meant that narrative continuity suffered somewhat. I used to arrive about 5:45 a.m. and get in a good hour’s editing of the previous day’s writing before the grown-ups arrived—unless, as sometimes happened, the night shift were still on the premises, wrestling with a programming problem. However, I always had a stack of dummy memos and reports at hand, and claimed to be up against all kinds of backlogs and deadlines if anyone inquired.

EW: Your descriptions of writing in the room and reading on the subway indicate that writing and reading are vey much labours of love. Would you agree?

RB: Absolutely. Under inimical circumstances, writing and reading become the mirror image of a secret vice: a virtue practised in secret. They are what keep me (relatively) sane.

EW: Have you intentionally sought to mix fact and fiction as Irish writers are wont to do? Murphy and Doreen remind me of Eddie Gallagher and Rose Dugdale, for example!

RB: You have a point, especially with Doreen and Rose Dugdale. Rose wasn’t an inspiration in my conscious mind, but in the good old subconscious, who knows?

EW: And Milo Rogers is part of what the poet Patrick Kavanagh called the “standing army of Irish poets, 100,000 strong”?

RB: Yes. I forgot to mention Kavanagh as an influence. I’m generally less drawn to poetry than to fiction, but I respond instantly to most of Kavanagh’s work, and not just to his verse. “The Green Fool” was pretty good, too: pathetic, yet hilarious. My favorite combination.

EW: Of course, “Killoyle” doesn’t appear to be autobiographical, but at the same time no reader will ever believe that an Irish writer’s novel is all fiction. How have you incorporated materials from your own experience into the novel?

RB: Alas, there’s more of me in Milo than either of us would care to admit. And Emmet, too. And of me, and of Portrush, in “Killoyle” generally.

EW: What prompted you to forsake New York for Texas? Perhaps you got caught writing novels on company time!! I’m sure that Flann O’Brien wrote most of his newspaper columns on company time too!!

RB: No, I was never caught, nor snitched on. My daughter, Maggie, had just been born, and New York, for all its greatness, isn’t the best place to raise a child. Fortuitously, Liz, my wife, who is a historian, had been offered a job as an assistant history professor at Southwest Texas State University here in San Marcos; we hesitated perhaps thirty seconds before deciding to make the move. We miss New York, but a small town in Texas has its advantages, like low crime and being able to afford a house with some land. By the way, not least of the advantages is being able to drive again, which you can’t do in Manhattan unless you’re rich. Driving is important, because cars have always been a hobby of mine.

EW: Any plans for another novel? What are you working on now?

RB: When time permits, I’m working on a novel provisionally titled “Gustave Adored,” set in Geneva, about an alcoholic Swiss schoolteacher who starts having visions: are they the DTs, or is he a genuine mystic? (I think the latter.) I’m also trying to peddle two other completed efforts, one a novella about Mozart, the other a comedy of manners set in a fictional city in England called St. Anselms, a kind of English “Killoyle”.

Comments are closed.