For his debut novel, Meath author Oisín Fagan stepped back in time to imagine the aftermath of the Black Death in Ireland. It could be the next Game of Thrones, writes Ed Power.
Life is full of surprises, as author Oisín Fagan discovered upon submitting his first novel for publication. “I honestly never thought they’d let the book be called Nobber,” he says with a low-key chuckle. “The name came first. It’s such a fantastic name.”
The book is named after the north Meath town. Nobber has one pub, a population of around 600 and lies 19km from Navan. The good news is Fagan’s writing couldn’t be further from the dank rural milieu so beloved of Irish literature.
Nobber is set in the aftermath of the Black Death, which in the 14th century hacked a trail of devastation through Ireland. It’s an uproarious mash-up that may variously remind you of Game of Thrones, Ridley Scott’s Alien, Quentin Tarantino, John B Keane, and Horrible Histories.
“For many of us Irish history starts with the famine,” says Fagan. “Parnell, tenants, things like that. I went on holidays to Kerry with my family. I was on a beautiful walk for three or four hours. I thought, ‘I’d say this landscape hasn’t changed for two or three millennia’.”
The 28-year-old has been a name to watch in Irish writing since winning the Penny Dreadful Novella Prize for ‘The Hierophants’ in 2016. His writing is bleak and hilarious, often at the same time.
He followed the success of ‘The Hierophants’ with a story collection, Hostages. Instantly acclaimed, the book at times read like a lost season of Father Ted scripted by science fiction writer Philip K Dick. One story is about a bomb scare in a secondary school, narrated by the bomb. In another, dead bodies fall from the sky onto a Meath farm.
Hostages caused something of a sensation and made the bestseller lists. Fagan, who in conversation can sound like an inter-county GAA manager talking down a big win, comes across as wary of the praise.
“You want the book to connect with readers,” he says, “and you want respect from your peers. With Hostages, there were definitely some people I connected with. And I got respect from my peers. So I am happy.”
He lives in the Dublin suburb of Stoneybatter. The neighbourhood is often portrayed as the Irish equivalent of hipster enclaves such as Hoxton in London and Williamsburg in New York. This is mostly just wishful thinking: Trendy coffee shops and passive-aggressive cyclists with more facial hair than road sense do not a cultural hotbed make.
And anyway, Fagan’s heart is really back in his native Meath and the tiny village of Moynalvey, where he grew up and where much of his writing has been set.
“I absolutely love where I come from,” he says. “I feel very closely connected with the landscape. My experience [of Meath] is almost completely positive.”
He never imagined his first novel would be a medieval dark comedy. He discovered that rolling back the centuries allowed enormous creative latitude. We know surprisingly little about day-to-day life in Middle Ages Ireland. Even very basic information is obscured by the murk of time. This created a space within which he could imagine his own heightened version of the country as it was wracked by the bubonic plague.
“It’s set 700 years ago. So it frees up you a bit. A lot of the [geographical] features… we don’t know if they actually existed. Things change over time.”
What we do know — and this is something Fagan drills into with gusto — is that this was a period churning with conflict. “There were tensions in society. Religion versus state control, Norman v Gael, food shortages… things like that.”
Was a transgressive comedy set in medieval Meath a tough sell? “I didn’t make any compromises,” he says. “I don’t know if it was a hard sell. Several publishers said it wasn’t their thing. I get it: The book isn’t for everyone. It’s not a book that will catch everyone’s attention. Those it does catch will be fond of it.
As is often true of modern writers, Fagan’s influences go beyond literature. Nobber, for instance, draws on gonzo science fiction and body horror.
“Alien [Ridley Scott’s slow-burn spatterfest] was a big one for me. There’s an incidental nature to the whole thing, very unlike all these superhero things we have nowadays. With Alien what happens is almost an accident. Blade Runner is another one I was thinking of. You get a snapshot of this world. But it’s not telling you the world is this way or that way. It’s giving you a picture of it.”
Fagan also teaches English as a foreign language and has a history as an activist (he participated in the anti-water charges campaign). Since the age of “10 or 11”, all he wanted was to be a writer. His work is highly individualistic and does not really connect with what is happening in Irish literature more generally. Nonetheless he has found the scene here supportive.
“If you’re in London or New York, you’re on your own. You’re just out there. You might have a meeting with your publisher. You meet your editor on email. The Irish writing community is a very friendly and incredibly helpful place. They exchange manuscripts. And suggest improvements. That said, when you are writing, you are on your own. You keep your eye on the prize. I’m not looking at what other people are doing.”
- Nobber is published by John Murray Originals