After being hit on the head by a golf ball, Michael falls into a coma and wakes up with amnesia, unable to recall details about his life, his family or job. But then something startling happens: Michael realises he can imagine things out of existence. It starts with a brick but soon spreads further as he starts to believe he can stop terrible things happening by simply thinking about them. Daniel O’Connor’s first novel, written in a playful style, is a dark and funny exploration of the fears and anxieties embedded in domestic suburban life that seems particularly pertinent as we emerge from these troubling times.
What inspired you to write this particular story as your debut novel?
I suppose it’s a fairly common experience that your “debut novel” is just the first one to get published. With Nothing, it was as simple as being at work one day and thinking it would be funny if you could imagine things out of existence (it was the day Donald Trump was being elected, mind). Part of my protagonist’s ability to prevent terrible things by imagining them comes, I think, from a writerly superstition: if I write this down in advance, it won’t happen to me. Everything in life is narrative, especially stuff that hasn’t happened to you. And if you’re inclined to tell stories, exaggerate or are in any way a liar, then you always have stories/exaggerations/lies on the go. Some stick, some don’t. This one managed to sustain itself long enough to become a novel because it’s a tantalisingly unsolvable problem: what does it mean for a thing to no longer exist? And also because I’m idiot. The thought of being able to suddenly and inexplicably vanish somebody’s shoes still makes me smile.
Michael’s relationship with his family, and particularly his thoughts and fears for his children, are prominent in this book. What experiences did you draw on for this aspect of the book and what did you want to explore about family here?
Much of the book is about the house they live in. Families are households (etymologically speaking), which I’m not sure is the healthiest way of thinking about social bonds. A house gives a boundary to a family, which can make us feel secure. But houses also incubate neuroses and anxieties, closing ourselves and our family from everything “out there” that could threaten or harm us – which in some cases can make a house the least safe place we inhabit. Even when they feel safe, that’s because we’ve made the outside world seem so fearful. Maybe that’s part of why we’re so deranged about houses in this country – who gets to live in them, who gets to own them. England is ingenious at finding ways of keeping people out. In turn, families are machines for worry. I wouldn’t say I’m terrified every time someone in my family steps outside, but until they come home there’s always that background roar of anxiety like a nearby road.
Michael’s shadow makes regular appearances in this book. What does it represent?
We spend so much time being seen that I think there’s something alluring about these things of ours that come from blocking out the light – a kind of negation of ourselves, one that produces another version of ourselves. The scene from Disney’s Peter Pan where he wrestles his unruly shadow was one of my favourites as a kid. My own shadow always seemed so boring. I’d stand there looking at it, thinking: “Are you gonna run around or what?”
How complex was it to organise the way language is physically presented in this book – the use of punctuation and the way the words sit on the page? Was this the structure you always intended when you first started writing the book?
I always had something in mind that was quite clear and sparse on the page – it became clearer and sparser as the process went on. We spent so much time editing and moving things around that when I received a finished copy of the book I thought: “Oh no, it’s trapped!” But the book as a physical object is so important as to how it’s read. All the team at W&N did an amazing job of ensuring that everything sat exactly where we wanted it to and they’ve produced such a lovely thing.
Do you recognise any similarities between Michael’s situation and the experiences that we have all lived through in the last year? Has the pandemic changed the way we all think about what’s important in our lives and what we might lose, for example?
I think the pause of Michael’s coma, that sense of having been shaken from your life (in his case because he can’t remember any of it), might be a familiar experience for a lot of people – especially during the first lockdown, when our habits changed so suddenly and spectacularly. As with him, I get the impression that a lot of people have been reappraising their lives. But the novel also deals with how quickly we want things to go back to “normal”, as though normal is some inevitable way of things and not something that we’ve constructed.
You’ve been a bookseller and now you lecture in English literature at the University of Liverpool. Who are your literary loves and influences?
Almost everything I read, I think, finds its way in somewhere. I’ve been through all sorts of phases, but I was in a European/Russian odd-goings-on phase when I started Nothing – Marcel Aymé, Sigizimund Krzhizhanovsky, Bruno Schultz, Kafka. Right now, I’m catching up on recent things – Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s The Discomfort of Evening and Raven Leilani’s Luster stand out. There are some perennials: George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Samuel Beckett, Katherine Mansfield, Flannery O’Connor. Above all, James Joyce is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake. The first thing I remember reading all by myself, Roald Dahl’s The Fantastic Mr Fox, has burrowed somewhere deep. A few years ago, I wrote a book about Ted Hughes. I still think some of his poems are up there with Shakespeare for the way they can shock you with lines that you already know by heart.
What are you working on now?
What’s known in my house as the Boro Book – it’s about masculinity and Englishness and is mostly set in Middlesbrough, where I’m from. It features Margaret Thatcher, Captain Cook, two (allegedly) corrupt mayors, a man who chopped his own penis off, someone who received an Asbo for drinking petrol straight from the pump, Gertrude Bell, a psychic taxi driver and a murdered local hardman whose dying moments were captured on a voicemail to his friend to the background accompaniment of a Mike Oldfield DVD. These are just the factual characters.