The Irish author uses a real journey he didn’t take as his starting point for his latest novel Travelling in a Strange Land (Bloomsbury, £12.99), a meditation on family, love and grief.
Travelling in a Strange Land is your tenth novel. How did the idea come to you?
I have written nine novels and two books of short stories so before I start a new book I have a prolonged debate with myself as to whether the world actually needs another one. The answer is always no but then I realise I’m writing for myself, my own wellbeing, and because it fulfils an important creative need. If anyone else in the world benefits from it, that’s a bonus.
Travelling in a Strange Land was inspired from something that happened about eight years ago. My son was studying in Sunderland and at the start and end of the academic year I would take the ferry from Belfast to Scotland, drive to Sunderland and return the same day. Just before Christmas in his second year he got ill, was in an old Edwardian student house on his own and really heavy snow closed the airports. We were anxious to get him home and I thought of doing that same drive to get him. But our car didn’t do snow and it couldn’t even make it out of the country road we live on. The novel imagines a father making this journey through the snow-changed world to bring home his son. But there is another strange land into which he must enter – a realm of love and loss and one that he must explore without a map or anyone to guide.
Grief is a main theme in the book. Was this a difficult subject to write about?
The novel deals with grief and yes this a difficult thing to write about. It can’t be approached purely though the imagination. It has to be experienced empathetically. And that’s a draining and difficult experience.
The story touches on homelessness. Do you feel this issue is a growing problem in Belfast?
As with all cities Belfast has problems with homelessness. I think that compared with other locations the number of rough sleepers is relatively small and we do have really hard-working voluntary organisations and some very good hostels. Having said that, there have been tragic fatalities in recent years and it is clear that help for individuals at risk needs to encompass more than a bed for the night. The problem of family homelessness as a result of various forms of relationship breakdown or poverty is increasing and sadly seems destined to continue to do so.
You were an English teacher in your past career. Do you miss it and what is the most important thing you can teach a child?
I was a teacher for a long time. Sometimes I miss being part of a social, vibrant organisation but I don’t miss the serious stress of workload or the changed philosophy that started to use the language of business where all things had to be constantly measured and audited.
Your novel The Truth Commissioner was adapted into a TV drama. What’s it like to see your creation re-created?
This was an interesting experience although I had no involvement with the script. You have to accept and understand a screen version might see your book in a different way to you. They have different pressures and different parameters that are governed by finance for example. I appreciated the respect given to my work and the performance of the actors.
Has your style of writing evolved and how does it differ between writing short stories and novels?
I don’t think my writing style has changed much over the years regardless of whether I’m working on novels or short stories. I want what I write to be true – true on all levels. I’m also seeking to find moments that transcend the mundane realities of our lives, trying to find a way to transfigure and illuminate human experience.
Is it meaningful to talk about an Irish literary movement or are you all just writers from the same island?
Ireland has always respected and enjoyed storytelling. It seems able to produce a constant flow of new talents. It would however be disappointing if they all shared similar characteristics or something that was readily identifiable as Irish. And I don’t think this is the case. I also like to believe that there is a good relationship between older and younger writers based on mutual respect and a willingness on behalf of the older generation to offer support and encouragement to those starting out on their careers.