Poet Theo Dorgan has finally written a novel. He tells Caroline O’Doherty what took him so long and why the country is going in the wrong direction
New Island Books, €14.99
THEO DORGAN has written a novel and lest there be any doubt about it, he states the fact on the cover. Making Way — A Novel, it says helpfully, in an ‘exactly what it says on the tin’ kind of manner.
Doubt as to what lies between the covers might otherwise spring from the fact that in his almost 60 years, Dorgan has written in just about every format except the novel.
Best known as a poet, he also wields his pen as prose writer, editor, translator, lyricist, essayist, radio diarist, reviewer, scriptwriter and columnist.
Throw in broadcaster, lecturer and panellist and it’s clear that Dorgan is a man of many parts, just none of them, up to now, carried the title of novelist.
So has he finally twigged that poetry doesn’t pay and decided to have a go at something more commercial? His bemused look indicates he and commercial realities are not well acquainted.
“The great thing about poetry is that it teaches you to be completely indifferent to ideas of sales. Nobody reads poetry, nobody cares about it, so you’re not waking up thinking ‘I wonder is it selling well’.
“You put books out in the world and they find their own way. If a few people say I liked them or I was intrigued by them or it’s not badly written, that’s a result.”
He pauses a while, as if worried that all sounds a bit too hangdog, before resuming with a grin: “You can’t win the All-Ireland all the time. I’d settle for the Munster final.”
He didn’t even set out to write a novel, Munster final standard or not. This one followed him around, he says, and no-one was more surprised than himself that he gave in and did its bidding.
Given what’s been on his mind of late, thoughts that he’s been giving vent to with graceful rage across the airwaves and in newsprint, it would seem a safe bet that the novel is a lament for our lost republic, crammed with cowardly politicians, short-sighted officials, menacing international forces and battered but battling spirits.
That bet would lose you money. Making Way is actually about two people, a boat and a journey that will take them emotionally in directions where no compass is of use to them.
Lone sailor, Tom, an ageing session musician and producer, and Clare, an apparently freewheeling young lawyer, lock eyes briefly on a quayside in Sicily and before long, Tom is no longer the lonesome boatman.
The pair seem clueless as to what’s brought them together or what exactly they want from each other or the journey although Clare sets out the house rules very quickly.
“I thought at first it was going to be some kind of love story,” says Dorgan, “but ten pages in she tells him, ‘you know I’m not going to sleep with you’. That was the first I heard of it.”
Nevertheless, the ‘will they, won’t they?’ guessing game commences as does the gradual revealing of their personal stories, told in bursts between the round-the-clock demands of sailing the open sea and the frequent sparring and slagging they use to tease each other out.
The story was inspired by a pair Dorgan, himself an incurable sailor, saw while half-asleep on the same Sicilian quayside.
“I had no idea what they had to do with each other. What happened was a look passed between them and I thought, what’s that all about, what’s their story? It kept coming back to me for about a week until I said I’ll write their story.”
That was his main reason for insisting on adding “a novel” to the cover. “It’s making it absolutely explicit I made all this up.”
Made up or not, the subject matter is far removed from Dorgan’s recent preoccupations but he rejects the idea that artists — even outspoken ones like himself — should feel obliged to be overtly political in their creative work.
“I absolutely, completely believe the only song I ever want Christy Moore to write is the song he wants to write and the only painting I ever want Donald Teskey to make is the one he wants to make. I have no right and nobody has any right to say ‘I want you to do this or that’.
“But there is another way of looking at it. In these times when we all are reduced to helpless economic actors, a love poem is an act of subversion, to say that to be human still matters, to say I am not a number, I am not ‘one of the unemployed’, I am a real individual person — that’s what challenges.”
Parts of the novel are inspired by real life, however. A death is recounted that mirrors the frustration felt with the health services when a relative of Dorgan’s partner, the poet Paula Meehan, died inexplicably in hospital care.
And Tom is a vital member of that much overlooked industry, the arts, who represents the thousands of musicians, dancers, singers, actors, writers, painters, sculptors and the technical people behind them who make not just a cultural but calculable economic contribution to society.
Dorgan is also of a generation whose contribution to political and social change he feels is under-appreciated. “We have discounted what people were trying to do — that so-called hippie generation who got into music, into art, politics or whatever with a genuine impulse to try and make it different, to try to make it better in some way.
“Kids nowadays get involved in ecological things — they are completely unaware that my generation stopped Carnsore [proposed nuclear plant] dead in its tracks. The kids out there don’t know their grandparents did that. I wanted to give Tom’s milieu an airing.”
What legacy we’ll leave in our wake after making way for the next generation is on his mind a lot at the moment and despite resolving for the umpteenth time in the interview to keep the focus on the novel, he’s off again.
“We have regressed one hundred years and we’re now at a point where what we have is not the sovereignty of an independent republic but the subsidiary status that home rule promised us except it’s home rule from Berlin and Brussels not London because we have a professional political class that would rather be told what to do and stay in office than actually take the trouble to think about what is the best thing to do.”
He pauses for breath. “But that’s not in the book.”
So if not as satire or commentary, how would he like his inaugural novel to be remembered?
He tells a story about Ewan McColl who heard a late-night radio presenter announce there was time for one more song before the news, and then play Dirty Old Town. “McColl walked the streets a foot off the ground so happy that he’d written a song so good, his name had been forgotten.
“I can’t tell you how contented I would be if someone said, ‘I’m reading a book I think you’d like, I can’t remember your man’s name but the book’s called ‘Making something’.’ I can’t tell you happy that would make me.”
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