Long Time, No See, Dermot Healy

It's been 11 years since his last book – are you up to the challenge?

Talking to novelist, playwright and poet Dermot Healy on a Skype connection, whilst looking out at the rows of grey concrete slabs that go on for miles in South East London, I’m imagining the rugged landscape of Ballyconnell, County Sligo, where the author is currently sat.

Perhaps Healy – who hails from West Meath – could be looking out at rows of concrete too. (I doubt it). But if the terrain is anything like what he describes in his latest book, Long Time, No See, I’m certainly envious. What is it about setting that informs his writing so much?

'Funnily enough,' Healy begins, 'while I’m here looking out at it, it may not do much to me, but when I’m on a train, or when I’m writing, the landscape haunts me. I suppose it’s the visual I’m haunted by, the things I see, or by what other people tell me about what they see.'

For Healy’s fans, it’s been a long 11 year wait for his latest book. In the meantime, Healy has written two plays and a collection of poetry, of course. But Long Time, No See was certainly worth the wait.

It is a novel that explores the young mind of chief protagonist, Philip, aka Mister Psyche, who lives among few others in the isolated coastal town of Ballintra in the west of Ireland.

With his customary direct and lucid prose, Healy shines a light on an Ireland that has shifted from an old rural way of life, into the throes of modernity. Don’t expect him to celebrate the good old days with a glass of porter, however. This novel isn’t nostalgic in any way.

'It’s like laying out a map of what’s happening,' Healy confirms. 'It’s not really old fashioned, it’s just that a new time will come and the ordinary will be extraordinary again. It’s not a lament.'

Reading Long Time, No See, the reader is forced to search for the extraordinary undercurrents that Healy speaks of, to read between the lines, as the old cliché goes. Keeping the writing on the surface level, rather than indulging in the interior world of his protagonist, was a decision Healy made early on.

'I didn’t want an inner life to take over,' he admits, 'and I wanted to retain that throughout. What I wanted to do was to keep it simple and plain, not get sidetracked, so that’s probably what kept me so long writing this book. Once I set up that style I had to stay with it. Staying with that was hard, because sometimes I wanted to lapse into the interior world, but I couldn’t, I had to keep it all real.'

The one exception to this rule are the dream sequences that occur in the novel. Mister Psyche is constantly falling into a state of reverie. The inner self is where we do all our thinking, says Healy, despite what our exterior emotions may display.

'Mister Psyche has an inside life and an outside life, a psychological self, besides the physical one. Because he doesn’t do much thinking, you never get him making value judgments. The only inside life he has is when he goes into his dreams. At various times I read Freud and Jung and all that, about 30 years ago now. The dream sequences would possibly come from that reading. I definitely believe there is a certain other life within.'

Throughout the book, Mister Psyche hangs out with men 50 years his senior, and as such Healy’s novel explores the cycle of life. In the book he coins the phrase, ‘once a man, twice a child’. As we reach the end of life, Healy argues, the child within us reappears.

'As the cycle of life comes to a close I believe you return to childhood, and a lot of older people will say that. Older people begin looking for attention, nearly like the child used to, and to a certain extent language begins to go, memory begins to go. The child is on the verge of getting memory and the old person is on the verge of letting it go. They are nearly coming to the same phase, but there are different journeys ahead.'

In Long Time, No See, Healy’s fascinating with the evolution of language is apparent. Interestingly, he uses old phrases like ‘pray tell’ that sound almost Shakespearean, alongside words that would fit into modern day text speak, such as ‘chat ya’ and ‘good enoughski’.

Where words come from, and how their meaning changes over the course of history, is something that fascinates him, and is an integral part of the process of his writing.

'The etymology of words is a thing that influences me, and that’s where a lot of the titles of my books come from,' Healy explains. 'The fact is that the writer is only putting down on a page words that were made up by other people, years and years ago. They’re not making up words. Words have a little history to them, and that haunts me in my writing.'

The Book of Psalms is a text that subtly reappears in Long Time, No See; Mister Psyche reads from the tome to Uncle Joe-Joe. These references aren’t an attempt to convert any of Healy's readers who may have relinquished religious beliefs, however.

'[Uncle Joejoe] was given The Bible as a gift,' Healy explains, 'and the young fella is opening the gift for him. It might have weighed on his conscience for years, and now all of a sudden he’s hearing what’s in it, and to him it’s a story. To someone else it might be a big religious thing, but to him, it’s just a story. He’s seeing it from a total different view point.'

And what is Healy’s view on The Bible? Does he read it? 'I don’t have a view when I read The Bible. I suppose I might read it as a story. Again, it’s to do with those who put the words down on paper. The old story was that when The Bible was written, meaning was fixed, because The Bible took over meaning.

'But the novel came out of breaking the meaning. Women began to write variations, and they were banned by the church, because the novel was seen as a breakdown of meaning... So the two functions were going on at the same time.'

In the closing stages of Long Time, No See, there is a passage wherein Mister Psyche describes burying an old friend: ‘With each clash of earth on the coffin, it felt like we were burying two men, one a stranger, and one a friend.'

'Well, you take it for granted when someone is with you,' says Healy, 'then all of a sudden when they are dead and gone, they’re a stranger that you’ve yet to meet.'

As with all of Healy’s writing, the reader must invest enough of themselves to break the enigmatic code. Healy is not a writer who gives his characters, nor his readers, an easy time of it. But the reward is well worth the effort. Let's hope it's not another 11 year wait for the next challenge.

Long Time, No See is out now, published by Faber and Faber. Dermot Healy will be reading from the book at Aspects Festival in Septembter