From the Irish-Canadian author of award-winning Malarky, Martin John (And Other Stories, £10) is a disturbing, yet witty portrayal of a sexual predator and his protector, his mam. Defiantly literary and unrelentingly challenging, it raises questions about the responsibility of society towards the mentally ill.
Was the book traumatic or emotional to write?
Martin John was very difficult to write. It was rather a head melt of a book. It demanded so much and I swore or swear I’ll never write a book this difficult again, but my North American publisher tells me I said exactly the same thing after my first novel Malarky. The problem was finding the language and form to respond to what the novel needed to become – to try to create a work that could and would speak absolutely to and into the cycles that preoccupy and occupy Martin John: the cycle of reoffending, the cycle of mental illness and the requirement to interrogate the cycle of complicity. The novel is a dialogue between a mother and son and tuning the two of them together was also a challenge. I’ve always been interested in the Irish in England and there’s not so much, surprisingly, in fiction that speaks to them. So that was another entry point to create two worlds geographically that are occupied at the same time.
What research was involved in understanding the mindset of a sex offender?
I researched sex offenders by talking to a forensic psychiatrist by email a couple of times. He generously sent me a chapter of his work that described treatment and I went from there. Novelists employ their imagination to create situations and works. Fiction is not social science so research has its limits. Fiction works with literary tools. Those tools are the tools of language, form, syntax, rhythm. Novels don’t “tell us” things didactically or absolutely; they should prompt us to consider situations often far from us. They interrogate by positing questions in the unique way that fiction and literature can.
“We need to recognise that these problems are not some distant aberration – these people are at your kitchen table.”
We’ve become very confined in the way we think about fiction, which is depressing. The expectation is increasingly that the reader “identify” and “believe” the character but this is very self-centred and limiting. Novels should be difficult and put us elsewhere. This is the long history of literature – without it literature would be exceptionally dull.
Given the mental health issues addressed and in light of recent sex abuse scandals revealing how widespread a problem this is, should we be doing more to counsel potential offenders and rehabilitate registerd ones?
I am loath to speak to very complex problems in a trite or pop-up self-appointed expert way. Art responds to the depravity in humanity and Martin John can only be considered as a literary work and upon those terms. It doesn’t seek to instruct on how to deal with sex offenders since that is not my expertise. As a human being, I think we should certainly be doing as much as we can to reduce the stigma, encourage people to seek treatment and that they get the message unequivocally that, as the forensic psychiatrist I spoke with explained, you don’t have to commit a crime to get treatment. The efficacy of treatment from what I’ve read can be quite good. I did hear about an excellent support programme in the community here where sex offenders have sponsors and each week they meet with volunteers as the means to be accountable and reduce the risk of reoffending.
At the same time we should be doing a great deal more to support the victims of sexual violence.
We need to recognise that these problems are not some distant aberration and whether we like it or not these people are at your kitchen table, they are family members, they are strangers on buses, they are everywhere and every type of person, not exclusive to one social class or background. As I write in Martin John, they won’t stop till they are stopped. Who is going to stop them? This also comes down to them: they can stop and we can stop them. They can be stopped through vigilance and response and listening to victims. They can also stop because they choose to recognise the damage of what they are inflicting and seek treatment.
Do you want readers to sympathise with Martin John?
I don’t want to impose any particular response or reaction on the reader. I mostly want readers to engage with the novel as a literary work. To engage with the language and appreciate how I have deployed language in the work to create the character and the situation. I suppose I want to give a whole man and a whole mother and the contradictions that are humanity. I didn’t want to turn away from the inherent darkness in humanity because such behaviours are not going away and we have to start thinking about the deep psycho-sexual problems that are prevalent, destroy lives and are so deeply troubling. They are troubling to think about and a novel must therefore trouble if it is to engage with them.
I have great faith in readers. Readers are much smarter than they are given credit for and the long history of rich literature proves this. The past 20 years we have become more attuned to middlebrow fiction that masquerades as having literary merit, when if you carefully read the prose it’s not so strong. I hope we’ll return to a more robust reading time when Balzac and Zola and so many others documented social realism in the most beautiful of sentences. Ease is strangling literature. Our reading is being shaped by market forces that would deny work such as mine a place on the bookshelves. However what’s been invigorating has been the extraordinary response to this novel now on two continents. It was nominated for the Giller Prize in Canada (Canada’s Booker Prize) and reviewed very positively in the New York Times and New Yorker. This is very hopeful and has left me with the feeling that courage is rewarded or at least sometimes rewarded.
I happen to think some of the most interesting people are those whose lives are complicated by struggle, by mental health challenges, by poverty, by the injuries of class, by the injuries of family or by the cumulative disappointments that live can sometimes deliver. I am not afraid as an artist to make space on the page for these lives and I wish to write about them in the finest prose I can muster. My ambition is to write better and to read better and to pay attention and respond through literary forms.
Tell me about the form and structure of the novel, your use of unconventional devices, such as arrows, and what you are trying to achieve with them?
The entire novel is predicated on the loop. It is circular to mimic the cycles of mental illness, reoffending etc. The form of the novel is its content. I take this right into the syntax of the sentences, which are also looping in shape and deploy repetition. Martin John has five refrains throughout the novel which help the reader to enter his mind and walk his circles. He is fixated on Euston Station where he walks circuits and in circles. It was important to find the language and form to put the reader absolutely inside the mind of this man.
Photo: Arabella Campbell