Dave Duggan's Sun Rises Over the Foyle

The English-born author has made the Walled City his home. With a new book out, he ponders questions of existence

From that day in the Guildhall Square I recognised a sense of place in me. The notion developed in me that I was of this place and that I would take charge and do something about it. That this was my city as much as everybody else’s and that I was going to let my voice be heard, now and in the future. I was going to make a difference. It was up to me. The city—Derry—was up to me.

In conversation with author and playwright Dave Duggan, I remark that this passage from his latest novel, A Sudden Sun, could easily have been lifted from his diary. Born in London, and brought up in Waterford, Duggan settled by the banks of the Foyle in 1981. As the conversation deepens about what specifically constitutes an honorary citizen of Derry~Londonderry, Duggan's assumed Northern Irish accent seems to deepen.

'I’ve been in Derry over 30 years,' he says, 'and have a place and a presence in this city. I’m originally from Waterford, but I’ve been living in Derry most of my life. So if I meet someone, and they ask, "Where are you from?" I say I’m from Derry.'

That is why Duggan set A Sudden Sun in Derry~Londondonderry. He believes that his writing should be rooted in a world that he knows and understands.

A Sudden Sun is narrated in the first person by Duggan's protagonist, Donna Bradley. She is a young woman recovering from the collapse of her marriage and the loss of her baby daughter, Teresa. With the help of her sisters and mother, Donna slowly begins to rebuild her life. She returns to university, earns a degree in environmental science, and starts a job with Derry City Council.

While Donna’s future seems to be imbued with optimism, the past continues to haunt her. Before long she discovers that her deceased child’s organs were retained by the medical authorities. Subsequent events lead Donna to ponder various philosophical questions about reality and the nature of existence.

It's pretty hefty subject material, but Duggan maintains that his chief concern as a writer is to explore how human beings create a purpose through drama and myth-making. 'One of the ways we make sense of our lives is to create stories about them,' he says. 'That’s what Donna is doing in the novel. She asks herself, "Where does courage come from?" She answers that it comes from the stories you are told, and the stories you live and learn.'

If drama has the ability to distract us from the daily onslaught of reality, knowledge, says Duggan, prompts us to ask why certain events unfold in our lives. In Donna Bradley’s world, both intellectual reasoning, and a tradition of storytelling, play a large part in the formation of her character.

'What I’m attempting to do with this book is to present the scientific mind, and what I would call "the human factor" in parallel. Why can’t we have the myth-making that we have created – culturally over the millennia – in tandem with the rational culture from the Enlightenment? I’m trying to avoid a situation where one is privileged over the other.'

Duggan appreciates science and those who toil to discover and understand the building blocks of our existence. As a storyteller himself, however, his preference is for the world of folklore and mythology.

'Imagination is our greatest faculty,' he says. 'Without it we are lost. People talk about intellect and so on – and I know imagination, in a sense, is an element of intellect – but I think that, as animals, our greatest creative attribute is our imagination. The manner in which we can bring it to bear in the world is really important.'

Duggan interest in opposites isn't only expressed thematically, as in A Sudden Sun, but also techincally with regards to his prose style. He uses imagery to compare and contrast the interior, claustrophobic settings of Derry City, to the surrounding countryside and beaches of Inishowen.

'For me landscape is critical in how it reflects the feelings of the character. It is definitely the case that when Donna escapes to the sand dunes, which hold a vista over the sea and the landscape, it gives her an escape from the city. It also plugs her into a tradition of her mother’s people: a ground, a place, and a physicality that offers that reach of a view beyond her own selfhood. I also like the notion that interiority is dark, and grim, whereas exteriority is hopeful with possibilities.'

Although it has taken him nearly eight years to pen a follow up to his debut novel The Greening of Larry Mahon, Duggan has been prolific as a playwright. Still, The Blackbird Sings completed a national tour in 2010, while his radio-drama Everyone’s Got A Mountain To Climb, was broadcasted on RTÉ and the BBC World Service.

Duggan uses the analogy of painting when describing how he moves between different mediums of writing to delineate various moments of artistic expression.

'There is this peculiar process of trying to find the form,' he says. 'The dramatic form is better suited to the heightened moment of crises. The novel, however, is a large canvas. I find it good for a broad sweep treatment that can hold several moments of crises over an expanded space of time and locations. I always tend to write out of what I would call, persistent images: the ones that keep coming back, and ask to be written about.'

Whichever form he works in, though, it's safe to assume that Duggan's adopted home will always play a part.

A Sudden Sun is out now, published by Guildhall Press.