Reinventing The Wheel

Dublin novelist Claire Kilroy on writing, the influence of Banville and Nabokov and the how Irish writers learned to behave. Click Play Audio for a podcast

‘You can’t follow a ten-step program that will end up with a novel.’ Writers groups and creative writing courses may accelerate the process but for novelist Claire Kilroy, speaking on the eve of her appearance at the Belfast Book Festival, there is no shortcut to crafting engaging, original fiction. ‘Each time you must invent how to write a novel anew.’

If the fresh-faced, lugubrious Dubliner struggles with literary invention it certainly does not show in her work. Both 2003’s All Summers and its follow-up, Tenderwire, published three years later, wooed critics and public alike with their skilful weaving of page-turning stories around complicated narrative structures. Due out in May, her new novel, All the Names Have Been Changed, looks set to cement Kilroy’s reputation as one of Ireland’s finest young writers.

Set in Trinity College, Dublin in the 1980s, All the Names Have Been Changed is primarily a novel about writing and writers (its original title was How to Write A Novel (A Novel)). In the spirit of Malcolm Bradbury’s Howard Kirk (The History Man) and Philip Roth’s Coleman Silk (The Human Stain), the novel’s protagonist, Glyn, is a creative writing teacher who reviles authority, sleeps with his students and generally operates beyond the dean’s jurisdiction.

Kilroy knows Trinity and creative writing lecturers well – after initially graduating from the college with a degree in English she returned to the Dublin university for a creative writing masters in 1999 - but dismisses the suggestion that All the Names Have Been Changed is directly based on personal experience.

‘In the Trinity I went to in the 1990s he (Glyn) would have been dispatched. That’s why it is set at a time before Irish colleges became Americanised and before ideas of liability came in.’

While readers many speculate on his inspiration, the character is more emblematic of a generation of hard-living, and often hard-drinking, male writers than representative of any one person.

‘I’m not holding someone in mind, but there are elements of a few. Glyn’s like an old school Irish writer, a certain type of hugely talented author who was almost too talented to take care of himself. Now we have been out in the world and been successful. We know how to behave, but they did not.’

The ‘hard edges’ of writers past may be gone but the challenge of creating new work remains: ‘You don’t have to go on mad drinking binges but you do have to make something original.’

In their innovative engagements with form and structure Kilroy’s novels bear the influence of arch stylists like John Banville, an early and continued champion, and Valdimir Nabokov, whose Lolita she describes as ‘in my DNA’. Like the Russian master, she views writing as akin to chess. ‘You are looking down at the board and considering different moves.’

The young novelist admits this approach to writing is rooted in a rather abstract view of the craft - ‘I have a formal notion of what a novel is and a plot is connected to that formal notion’. Thankfully her theoretical leanings are never allowed to stand in the way of good story-telling, and she is justifiably proud of her books’ populist capacity for ‘wrong-footing’ the reader right up until the denouement.

With their clever structures and erudite, intellectual narrators, Kilroy’s novels, at first glance, seem far removed from the gritty realism of writers like Cormac McCarthy and Irvine Welsh. Yet her commitment to what the Scottish novelist Alan Warner terms the ‘East Coast savant tradition’ does not prevent her addressing difficult subjects in her work.

‘I wanted to write the predicament of this young heroin addict,’ she explains of an episode in All The Names Have Been Changed in which a well-heeled Trinity student watches in horror as a junkie overdoses. ‘But I would never feel it was right of me, as a nice middle class child, to pretend I had a terrible, deprived childhood in the inner city. I could not imagine writing about heroin addiction and deprivation using I.’

At present Kilroy is busy working on her fourth novel. As with the early stages of the other books, each day she writes 1,000 words even though she expects it will be ‘at least’ six months before the subject of the novel becomes clear.

It is difficult and often stressful way to work but for Claire Kilroy it is the only way keep reinventing herself, and her writing.

‘I have a vision of ten novels in my lifetime. Three down, seven to go. I will just keep showing up, looking to see what is in my imagination. It’s not easy and it’s not hard and I would not have it any other way.’

All The Names Have Been Changed is out in May, published by Faber and Faber.