Part of Nothing: An Interview with John Toomey

Context 24

Niall Keegan

John Toomey is the author of two novels, Huddleston Road and Sleepwalker, both published by Dalkey Archive. He is currently working on a new novel with the working title Slipping.

15647100022110L1   Sleepwalker

Q: Your first two novels are both anchored by a sense of disillusionment and confusion; these states are familiar to us all in our formative years. To what extent have personal experiences influenced your writing?
JT: If you mean have I, myself, any experience of chronic depression, then no. I’ve been down, sure, and I’ve experienced bouts of disillusion, but I’ve found that those have lessened in both frequency and intensity as I’ve grown older. I’m no more optimistic about society in general, or about us as a species, but I’m as happy as I’ve ever been. I’ve found a way, made my peace with the world. I’m content to persevere irrespective of how the world at large behaves. As a younger man, I had expectations of the world, I think. But now I have none. I live my own life, and I’m happy with that paltry excuse for self-determinism. So, any disillusion in the work may derive from my attempt to come to terms with the human condition, but it’s not personal experience, as such. The story, the narrative structure, the characters are all fictional. But the driving sentiment and tonal undercurrent has, at least to a degree, to be autobiographical. How else do we understand anything other than through our own experience?

Q: How conscious was your decision to move the action in Huddleston Road away from Dublin to London. Did you want to get away from the specific aspects of Celtic Tiger Ireland dealt with in Sleepwalker?
JT: It was one hundred percent a conscious decision. I simply wanted to move away from what I knew. Or I had written all I knew about Dublin already, perhaps. The next chapter of Sleepwalker is something I haven’t worked out yet. I tried, initially, to do a post-boom novel and had about 30,000 words done but it just wasn’t working for me. The initial impulse of the novel is still present but the panorama hasn’t yet revealed itself. So it must wait. I needed to do something completely different and as blunt a strategy as it seems, I began by simply relocating my story to a place that wasn’t home. I don’t think it’s that significant a factor, in that I don’t think the location of this book is relevant to the narrative. With Sleepwalker, Dublin—the city itself and the zeitgeist of those years—were active players in the narrative, whereas this book is a story of two people. And while I felt that Vic’s displacement from his home was important, it could have been to anywhere. It needn’t have been London. I wanted to write a different kind of book, and tried too hard to do that at times, but after much cutting and soul-searching I got there.

Q: To what extent did your time spent in London influence the novel?
JT: My experience living in London was moderately significant. It was a mixed time for me, something that, even with the benefit of over a decade’s worth of hindsight, I have conflicting feelings about. That conflict, perhaps, is something I was trying to resolve in the book. But it is not autobiographical in any factual way. I experienced the freedom and the excitement of being a young man from Dublin arriving in London with nothing yet decided, and all dreams still possible. But, as Vic does, I also felt very alone at times, particularly in my post-graduate and first working years of my life there. Vic has no real family, other than his cousin, Orla. And his isolation is part of why he is dragged into Lali’s mess. Sometimes it can be hard to see how instrumental to your well-being all those family and friends support structures are until you have left them and returned to them again. I dragged some of that experience into Vic’s character. I felt the eyes through which the story was revealed needed to be an outsider’s, that the man at the heart of it needed to be displaced, vulnerable to seduction, and desperately in search of a home in a place that wasn’t his home. I wanted to explore how a place can slowly envelop you, so that, before you realize it, it has become your home and yet you’re not really happy.

Q: How much of the story of Huddleston Road did you map out before you began writing and how much did you have to adjust once the characters developed during the writing process?
JT: I always think I have the story, the trajectory of it, when I begin. And in the sense that I know where it starts and where it will end, I do. But what happens in the middle tends to shift; you see opportunities to develop characters, or kill them off, and halfway through a sentence you can type something that you hadn’t intended at the beginning of that sentence. This happens quite frequently, but most of these diversions are dead-ends. Having a good instinct for which ones to pursue can save you a whole lot of heartache. Unfortunately, with Huddleston Road, I followed too many of those turns and hit too many dead-ends. That’s why such a short book took such a long time to write—nearly five years. I had three or four novels in one and it required radical surgery and an objective eye to redirect me. It’s more concise as a result and closer to what I’d intended at the outset.

Q: There is a far more philosophical and theological bent to Huddleston Road than Sleepwalker; are these subjects that have touched you in your own life?
JT: I delved into some Durkheim and read a little around the area of suicide in advance of writing Lali. A lot of that thought and reading was philosophical or sociological. In the original manuscript there were also long tracts that dealt with the philosophy of suicide that were ultimately cut, for the coherence of the narrative they had to be . . .
There was also, in terms of theology—and in relation to myself I use that term with great caution—a dream where Vic conversed with God. Within it there was a discussion of what God is and how his personified existence could be justified and reasoned. But that was a little self-indulgent really. If Vic had been religiously devout and the events had challenged his beliefs, I might have got away with it. But as the novel stands, Vic shows no interest in religion or spirituality, so there was no justifiable reason for this dream and this discussion. I liked the piece, mind you. But it didn’t help the story. In the wake of Lali’s death he shows a passing interest in the question of what becomes of us after life, but it’s not an ongoing question in the novel. That wasn’t the point of the book. It was to explore a troubled relationship, how people end up in them, why they stay, and how they might survive them.

Q. In terms of influences, who have been the most important writers for you?
JT: I don’t know. If I get past page thirty of any book, I tend to enjoy it. But for argument’s sake, let’s say Dickens. Then in order of preference, but I retain the right to change this at any moment: Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Philip Roth, Salman Rushdie, Scott-Fitzgerald, DeLillo, Doctorow, Zadie Smith, Kureishi, and there’s something I cannot explain that I love in Beckett. And Shakespeare, obviously, and Bill Bryson. A.A. Gill’s journalism. And Tom Humphries—the best sports journalist I’ve ever read.

Q: Do you feel part of any new school of contemporary Irish writing, if one exists at all?
JT: The two books I have written are nothing like the kind of books I enjoy reading. I write in the only way I can and when the work is finished it’s almost unrecognizable to me. It’s minced experience, fragments of everything that’s ever happened me or that I’ve read or listened to or watched, that’s congealed so that it looks like something else. It’s all me and yet none of it is. If there’s a new school of contemporary Irish writing, I’m unaware of it. I loved Colum McCann’s Dancer, it was something utterly different and I was intrigued that it could come out of an Irish man, a man who had attended the same school as I had, though we don’t know each other, and the same school where I now teach. I like Kevin Barry too. I like the way he writes. But that’s as far as I could go regarding contemporary Irish writing. Fundamentally, I feel a part of nothing.

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