Dermot Bolger talks to Tony Clayton-Lea about his new book Tanglewood and how he believes that the introduction of free secondary education in the late 1960s was at the root of the 1980s burst of Irish creativity.
New Island Books, €13.99
What a novel journey for novelist Bolger
DOESN’T time fly? You blink a few times and before you know it 30 years has zipped by like Billy Whizz on his rocket-powered skateboard. Older, wiser, smarter and more attuned to the fluctuations and vicissitudes of life is how it’s supposed to work out, and for writer Dermot Bolger that is — give or take a few life-and-death-changing events — what has happened.
A new novel, Tanglewood, has been deliberated upon over the past 10 years, and is now deemed fit for purpose as well as publication.
As is usual with Bolger — a remarkably decent man in his mid-50s whose spry sense of humour wrestles with his serious nature in a similar way that Leonard Cohen uses wry self-deprecation to offset inner turmoil — the work is well-wrought, considered, layered and evocative.
We meet in his Dublin home, a spruce and tidy place with guitars hanging on the walls and sturdy shelves full of his own books and those of too many other writers and poets to mention.
But to repeat — doesn’t time fly? Bolger made his debut as a novelist 30 years ago with Night Shift, then (and still) viewed as a slice of contemporary Dublin life that hadn’t previously been served up. As any good writer should, he recalls it well.
“I remember I earned about £120 for it, although I’ve read that Anthony Trollope’s first book sold 140 copies, so everything is comparative. But, yes, it’s hard to believe that it’s 30 years since Night Shift.”
The book received favourable reviews, despite, or because of its singularity, but Bolger remarks that the notion of making a living as a writer back in those days didn’t really enter into any career-oriented thinking. “It was something you aspired to but it was difficult.”
He says that his publishing house Raven Arts Press (which was founded in 1977, and recalibrated in 1992 as New Island Books) was never a business, but more a loose movement for change.
Writers and poets published in the ’80s included Paul Durcan, Anthony Cronin, Gerard Smyth, Francis Stuart, Michael Hartnett, Patrick McCabe, Fintan O’Toole and Colm Tóibín.
“Paul Durcan once described it as a group of writers with nothing in common beyond originality and dissidence. There was a sense that you were literally up against establishment figures, politicians … ”
As well as the era’s media — sections of which viewed Bolger (and, presumably, his dissident ilk) with prejudice if not scorn. Following the receipt of a small but relatively prestigious prize for Night Shift, he was interviewed for the Arts pages of The Irish Times. Bolger smiles in recollection.
“The journalist who interviewed me got roundly abused by a very senior figure — now retired — at the paper who ran down down the newsroom screaming that a full page had been given to the worst writer in Ireland.”
There was a sense, then, that the old guard needed to be confronted if not toppled? Bolger nods, but claims that Raven Arts Press played only a small part in such riotous endeavours. There was, he says, something in the air, that old devil called zeitgeist. “No one person or entity is responsible,” he accedes.
Around the same time, the likes of Paul Mercier, Roddy Doyle and Brendan Gleeson were involved with Dublin-based theatre company, Passion Machine. Red Kettle Theatre in Waterford was throwing interesting shapes.
Neil Jordon started making movies, and a little known rock band by the name of U2 were making noise. Bolger has a dead-cert theory about why (and how) this particular generation of Irish people were the first to surge ahead in such a range of creative areas.
“It was because we were the first generation to properly benefit from free second level education. That came into being in 1968, and a new generation of intelligence erupted.
"We had to create our own audience, and while you would think that something like Raven Arts Press might not have made any difference, people come up to you years later saying it had.”
He remembers when Irish writers, poets
and other creative types couldn’t get arrested (of course, they could and occasionally were, but let’s move swiftly on, shall we?), a situation that has markedly changed for the better.
“When I began, Irish writing just wasn’t very popular. I recall as a publisher myself, with Raven Arts Press, I went over to England trying to interest numerous publishers in Irish writers and they didn’t want to know.”
The implication he sensed, he says, was that if a UK-based publisher wished to read about urban blight then “they’d read a poet from Hull. If they wanted to read about streams and the countryside then they’d read an Irish poet.”
As we now know, of course (and as Bolger readily admits), Irish writing leapt out of the traps, but not every writer is still doing it for a living.
“I remember editing the Picador Book of Irish Fiction, and wanting to put as many Irish writers as possible into it. I contacted one publisher and asked them did they have any Irish writers, only to be told that they were publishing six debut novels from Irish writers that year.
“Some of those writers, who had been able to get two-book contracts, are probably largely forgotten now, but everyone wanted an Irish writer in the same way that record labels wanted another U2.”
These things go through cycles, claims Bolger, and that cycle has moved on. The ‘moving on’ aspects are referenced in Tanglewood, which is set during the Celtic Tiger — “a time when things had become impossible to value, when money had ceased to have meaning.”
Irish writing, he admits, lapsed for a while, but he recalls that in the ’80s, “Colm Tóibín could afford to take a year off to write a novel, and I could afford to give up my job at the age of 24, and risk it.
I could do that because I wasn’t saddled with a massive mortgage; my generation could take that chance. And it’s interesting that as we’re coming out of the recession there’s a whole new generation of Irish writers starting to emerge.”
What also emerges from even a cursory glance down through Dermot Bolger’s creative curriculum vitae is not just how much of a multi-disciplinarian he is (novelist, playwright, poet, editor) but how prolific he is — not only in these aforementioned areas but also through his columns, commentary and reviewing work with numerous newspapers and magazines.
He says in his typically understated fashion that he’s merely a storyteller, and that no matter what discipline he works in it’s all a blessing.
“I abandoned Tanglewood numerous times; you’re going on a journey, and you don’t know how it will be received and you don’t know if you’ll ever finish it. Or, indeed, if it will ever be published. So as a writer, because you’re trying to do things that will be different and distinctive, you’re going on journeys that you don’t know will end.
"At the same time, someone from a newspaper phones you and asks for 1,000 words in four hours time — that’s an enormous privilege, and you must take that as equally seriously as a novel.”
Storyteller, commentator, fiction writer — Bolger has been a skilful and valid exponent of each for over 30 years. But there is, he reasons, a stipulation to set down.
“If you set out to comment upon change then you cease to write fiction. You have to have your antennae open to what’s happening in society. If it’s social commentary then it relates to one place only. If it’s good fiction then it’s universal.”
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