Dystopian vi­sion

Danny Den­ton on cre­at­ing a fallen/fall­ing Ire­land

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - NEWS - DANNY DEN­TON

EL Doc­torow said that writ­ing was like driv­ing at night in the fog and I agree. In fact it’s a dark, un­fa­mil­iar road in thick fog: the head­lights give you some­thing of the next few yards – snatches of trees, a gate­way – and some­times you get a glimpse of some­thing sig­nif­i­cant down the line, house lights on a dis­tant hill maybe, but in the pass­ing of mo­ments you are al­ways un­sure, al­ways ready for any­thing to hap­pen. In that way, parts of The Ear­lie King & the Kid

In Yel­low came to me as rev­e­la­tions out of the murk; parts of it were vaguely sign­posted.

I knew for a while, for ex­am­ple, that I wanted my next pro­ject to take place amid rain and dere­lic­tion, in a fallen or a fall­ing world. Ac­tor Rut­ger Hauer once said that the sat­u­rated world of Blade Run­ner was so star­tling be­cause it de­picted the fu­ture as “al­ready old”. Hear­ing that, it struck me that this would be true of any real fu­ture. Any present even.

In any city I’ve lived in there has been dere­lic­tion – in and of it­self a vi­sion in minia­ture of the world ru­ined – and any fu­ture would be pop­u­lated by such ruin. Thus, in dis­cov­er­ing my fallen/fall­ing Ire­land, I knew dere­lic­tion would be a key the­matic idea. Then, a ways into the writ­ing of this thing, I came across a par­tic­u­lar book and it was as if, on my dark, foggy drive, I’d sud­denly en­tered a street­light-swamped town.

Down Down Deeper and Down by Ea­mon Sweeney is a fas­ci­nat­ing ac­count of the 1970s and 1980s in Ire­land, which opened my eyes as to what a weird, sad, fallen place Ire­land was in that time. Tens of thou­sands amassed to see mov­ing stat­ues; the guards had a rep­u­ta­tion for bru­tal­ity; Ann Lovett died alone in a grotto; crime was a surg­ing tide; there were end­less strikes; heroin be­gan to de­stroy the cap­i­tal; bombs went off; flats crum­bled; hostages were taken; rub­bish piled up in the streets; jour­nal­ists were bugged and cor­rup­tion was rife; the Kerry Ba­bies tri­bunal was, in ef­fect, a witch trial ...

Read­ing Sweeney’s vol­ume, I both mar­velled and was hor­ri­fied that such an Ire­land could ex­ist. I need not look for­ward for “dystopia” I re­alised, but back­ward, and so Ire­land’s past be­gan to in­fil­trate the at­mos­phere, back­drop, po­lit­i­cal tur­moil and spir­i­tual con­flict of my own col­laps­ing ver­sion of the coun­try.


But, of course, this world I was build­ing needed a story, and that story was one of the things that came sud­denly out of the mist, like a barn owl or a cross­roads. One day, in a doc­tor’s wait­ing room (or per­haps a den­tist’s), I was star­ing va­cantly about when my eyes came to fo­cus on a

Take a Break mag­a­zine cover. The im­age was of a young, pale, shaven-headed boy, and the head­line said some­thing like “A Dad At Twelve”. Well, for some rea­son, I couldn’t get that im­age and no­tion out of my head for weeks, of be­ing a fa­ther when you your­self were still a child. Then I be­gan try­ing to write it out of my­self; it has now been with me for years.

I wrote about this boy as if from a wilder­ness in me, run­ning down sev­eral roads at once; the man­u­script (a hard­back A4 note­book, the first of sev­eral) was soon drenched in im­age and song and myth and dere­lic­tion; some­how, a rainy tale was born on the page, built over fic­tional decades. In try­ing to make sense of this boy’s story, it be­came a book about how we build sto­ries and how we tell them, and how they shift and morph over time and be­come mythic.

I felt that sig­nif­i­cant in­ci­dents in most cul­tures later resur­face in var­i­ous forms: his­tor­i­cal, po­etic, fic­tional, oral, so when I was in­ter­ro­gat­ing the story of this kid (now in yel­low), I came to re­alise that the “nar­ra­tive” (for want of a less pre­scrip­tive word) might be sim­i­larly frag­mented. The sim­ple fact of a 13-year-old boy (see what’s al­ready hap­pened) be­com­ing a fa­ther and then steal­ing the child might be­come mythol­o­gised through decades of re-telling, in var­i­ous ver­sions and styles.

A re­porter might try to re­port the facts in an ar­ti­cle, but find that only a novel would do. That novel might fal­ter, so maybe he’d try a play in­stead. Po­ems might be mis­re­mem­bered and al­tered by con­sec­u­tive per­form­ers. A po­lice­man might carry his re­mem­brance of events around with him his whole life, telling any­one who’ll lis­ten, and telling it dif­fer­ent each time. Thus, I found my­self reach­ing for var­i­ous forms, writ­ten, spo­ken, seen, heard, the story it­self grow­ing arms and legs and ten­drils, giv­ing it­self new names. This is how the fact of an im­age be­came a myth.

And if “story” (be it jour­nal­ism, mem­oir, po­etry, fic­tion, chat, ther­apy, weather talk or what­ever else) is our way of pro­cess­ing the things that hap­pen to us and the things we do, then clearly it is through sto­ry­telling we share knowl­edge, re­cover from trauma, sur­vive, thrive, re-build, tes­tify.

I’m end­lessly in­ter­ested in fig­ur­ing out what the source of that is, and how it de­vel­ops. And if this novel is to be read as a dystopia then maybe one idea is that as long as we have story there might be hope in a fallen world, and, by ex­ten­sion, love and mean­ing might per­sist.

But there is hav­ing a story – a tale told – and there is hav­ing a book.

The book is, for me, a col­lab­o­ra­tive thing, and I don’t think au­thors ad­mit this enough. It is our book, not my book, be­cause it takes the hearts, minds, pas­sions and be­liefs of many to make it a real thing. I lis­tened to count­less voices in the world, and saw myr­iad im­ages, and I tried to com­pile those no­tions and sen­sa­tions into a work that said some­thing about the world.

Two or three trusted read­ers (and friends) helped me to make sense and story of early drafts. Lucy Luck (my agent) helped me to im­prove the thing again, and to give it the best pos­si­ble start. At Granta, Max Porter’s be­lief and ex­per­tise in the craft of writ­ing gave the man­u­script its final no­tional shape (and so much more, from very early on). To­gether, we dreamed of what it could fi­nally be.

Then Christine Lo, Sarah Wasley, Stephen Guise, Kate Shear­man and oth­ers stress-tested the lines, no­tions and ty­po­graph­i­cal co­nun­drums that the book pre­sented. Type­set­ter Lind­say Nash splashed rain and font across the pages. Dan Stiles gave it a strik­ing, im­me­di­ately iconic face, one that il­lu­mi­nated the book’s spirit. Lamorna Elmer, Katie Hay­ward and Natalie Shaw cham­pi­oned this new­born; like mis­sion­ar­ies they spread the word re­lent­lessly. Then, Kevin Martin and his team at the CPI fac­tory pressed ink to pa­per, glued cover to spine, and birthed a book amid the roar and run of the presses and con­vey­ors.

The dream be­came a thing, and so I thank these peo­ple again, and all the book peo­ple not ac­knowl­edged enough. A vol­ume com­posed of the many-hearted world was borne again into the world, not un­like the myr­iad droplets of con­den­sa­tion lifted from oceans and rooftops to the clouds and born again as rain.

But the col­lab­o­ra­tive act of a book is not com­plete un­til it is read. Read­ers – no mat­ter our ap­ti­tudes or work­loads – com­plete the books we read. A book lives with you for a while. It might re­veal it­self to you in the im­me­di­acy of read­ing, or it might lie dor­mant on your shelf or in your mind a while. But, by en­gag­ing, you bring the ideas and sto­ries and feel­ings back to their right­ful home: the world at large, and our shared story within it.

Thanks and salu­ta­tions to all who col­lab­o­rated on this book – most of all to you, the reader, whose faith in story keeps the world turn­ing. ■ Danny Den­ton is the author of The Ear­lie King & theKid­inYel­low (Granta Books)

Rut­ger Hauer once said that the sat­u­rated world of Blade Run­ner was so star­tling be­cause it de­picted the fu­ture as ‘al­ready old’. Hear­ing that, it struck me that this would be true of any real fu­ture. Any present even

Danny Den­ton: Down Down Deeper and Down by Ea­mon Sweeney opened my eyes to what a weird, sad, fallen place Ire­land was at that time

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