Claire Kilroy is worried. The 38-year-old hasn’t written since January, when she delivered her fourth novel to the publishers. There’s another reason for her anxiety. In February, Claire became pregnant, and, in May, she and Alan, her baby’s father, married. She’s longing for her son’s birth in November. But “I do worry,” she says. “I was in Montreal last week, and I had a chat with Anne Enright. She said that in pregnancy she’d gone from being prolific to lying on a couch. She produced just one short story, and one aborted one. But, after the child was born, she felt this surge of ability and power. Having children has done her no harm at all. She said you drop the children at school, go home, and just write. You ignore everything else.”
She brightens, then lapses. “School, for my baby, is years away,” she says. “Alan is an aircraft engineer. He travels a lot. I don’t have structures in place for childcare. I don’t even have a writing room anymore, though I do have my desk. It’s going to be chaos.”
Kilroy is one of Ireland’s best young novelists. Her debut, All Summer, won the 2004 Rooney Prize, and her next, Tenderwire, was shortlisted for the Irish novel of the year and the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award. Those novels were, loosely, thrillers, but her third, set in a writer’s group in Trinity College, was a change of pace. It was a wonderfully thoughtful study of an aspirant writer.
Her new novel, The Devil I Know, described by John Banville as “smart, funny and stylish,” is set during the Celtic Tiger’s implosion. Ambitious, satirical and Gothic, it’s narrated by Tristram, the 13th Earl of Howth.
A recovering alcoholic, he does what the mysterious M Dauville, his AA sponsor, and an international financier, tells him, yet the two have never met. Sandwiched between Dauville, and Hickey, a grotesque builder who bullied him at school, Tristram flails along with the country’s finances.
Set in 2016, as Tristram is giving lawyers his mystifying testimony, it’s a brilliant take on the madness of our recent past. “In May 2008, I remember listening to Drivetime, and hearing we had entered a recession. That was a revelation to me. It confirmed that an elaborate hoax had been played upon the nation. Before the boom was declared over, I never thought it was real,” she says. “And it was so alienating to me, that I couldn’t have described it in fiction.”
That’s why Kilroy located Tenderwire in New York, and why All Names Have Been Changed was set in Dublin’s ’80s. “That was the last time I understood the city,” she says. “After that, I felt that Dublin had been stolen from me. My country had been usurped. In 2001, the rent on my flat was doubled and I had to leave. I didn’t go into bars because they weren’t meant for me anymore, and my money was no good anymore. There wasn’t enough of it, and I was not part of the whole handbag, orange-face thing. I’d lost my peer group from college, who had jammy jobs and were buying houses, and until my novel was published, I hadn’t any writer friends.”
Claire added the ghost element to the book after the big snow of 2010. “I remember the whole country being shut down. The IMF were coming in, and we didn’t know what that meant. Our government was saying the IMF wasn’t coming, and the foreign press was saying they were boarding a plane, and were on their way.
“There was a lot of dread and panic, because of the misinformation. We were told the supermarket shelves would not be stocked anymore, and the hospitals would close. I felt that a foreign army was coming in. I had a reading in New York, with Kevin Barry and Paul Murray, and we wondered whether we’d be allowed back in. Nobody knew. I found it frightening to the extent it was exhilarating.
“It made me realise I could no longer encompass the events by writing ‘they had lost everything’. I had to show what a horrible trick had been played. There had to be an end where there was no comeback. I set the book in 2016, because the centenary of 1916 is coming up. We thought we’d achieved so much, and then we gambled it.”
Making Tristram a recovering alcoholic allows him to be governed by a puppeteer. “When I was 20, I spent a summer waitressing in New York. I got in with a crowd of recovering alcoholics, and I went to meetings with them. Everything, for them, was based around staying sober. It was about repeating stock phrases and clinging to the idea of a higher power,” she says.
Brought up in Howth, Claire hated her school in Sutton, but adored reading English at Trinity. After college, she worked as an editor on Ballykissangel, then she returned to Trinity to take the masters in creative writing. During that time, she was helped hugely by Michael Longley, Medbh McGuckian, and Brendan Kennelly.
These days, though, she won’t show her writing to anyone, because if they make a negative comment, it can set her back months. Writing is tortuous enough.
“Over half of the process is mired in doubt, and doubt can curdle into despair. A novel takes me three years, and its only when I’m starting to get towards the end that I feel safe,” she says.
Claire is happy back living in Howth.
“I hope I will always live there,” she says. “It’s part of my imaginative landscape — the freedom of it. I love it. I adore this country, now that the orange people and the handbag people have gone. I’m fascinated by the banter, and the way people talk to each other.”
She loves her writing friends, and the life that writing gives her.
“It brings so many lovely things your way. The sun comes out of the clouds so often in ways that wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t got your book out there, so it’s worth it; the love that comes from the effort.
“I was talking to Paul Murray a few weeks back, and I said how much I miss writing, and the excitement of making something. He said, ‘are you kidding? I hate it.’ When he talked about finishing his first draft, I thought, ‘oh yes. I hate it too. I’ve escaped.’ But I do miss writing. If you are a writer, it is the most important thing you can do. So when you are not doing it, you can’t wait to do it again. It’s a vocation.”