loved Juno & Juliet. It had all my favorite things--literature, Jane Austen, academia, comedy, with a little film and music thrown in--and was a lot of fun to read. What inspired you to write it?
Heartache. I was absolutely astonished it turned out funny.
You've described Juliet as a deconstruction of yourself, "someone with [your] essential character or personality [who] grew up as a girl." As you had, she attends University College Galway to study literature and philosophy. How autobiographical is the book? Why did you decide to write yourself from a female point of view?
I was trying to understand women at the time. I'd fallen in love with a beautiful, fascinating, intelligent woman. When she left the country, I was left with this beautiful-woman-shaped hole in my life. I suppose I explored that, mapped it, filled it in by writing Juno & Juliet. And I set the story in a world I knew just to make it easier to write. I could concentrate on Juliet's character, and the background wrote itself.
You intended Juno & Juliet as an "end-of-the-twentieth-century Jane Austen novel." And you really succeeded: the plot echoes of Emma and Pride and Prejudice, the themes of feminism and maturation, the ambiguous metafictional ending, and even the humor that Nabokov described as a "special dimple...achieved by furtively introducing into the sentence a bit of delicate irony between the components of a plain informative statement." Why did you settle on Austen as a model? Not that I'm complaining.
Well, I just love Jane Austen. And at the time I started writing Juno & Juliet, every new writer was ripping off Irvine Welsh. Trainspotting had just been huge, and all the young novelists were pretending they'd never read a book, never been to university. It was all football hooligans and inarticulacy. So I decided to write a late twentieth-century Jane Austen novel, in a spirit of sheer perversity. Set it in a university. Have everybody discuss books. Talk instead of fight. Heroines, not heroin.
Do you have a favorite Austen novel? What did you think of the Austen vogue of the late nineties?
I love Emma. And I thought Clueless was an inspired reworking of it. But I love Persuasion too...and Pride and Prejudice. Actually, Northanger Abbey is surprisingly funny, a sharp little satire on the slushy gothic women's novels of the day. I remember reading it in the dole queue in Galway, and laughing out loud. The nineties Austen vogue was great. The books need a wave of vulgar Hollywood attention every generation, or they'll be lost to the mass market and become an elitist thing, which would be a terrible shame. After all, they were the sneered-at, disregarded chick-lit of their day. Austen's books just happened to be better-written than not only the genre around them, but also the worthy stuff that the cultural elite took seriously at the time, and which is now forgotten. My favourite review of Juno & Juliet so far is one by an academic in the Irish Times in which he says, very fiercely and out of nowhere, "This is not a literary novel." Wonderful. A review Jane Austen would have been proud of.
Scholars often cite Austen as an early example of feminism in her critique of courtship and marriage and in her creation of strong heroines. Juno & Juliet resonates with these protofeminist ideas; in fact, it begins with an epigraph from Northanger Abbey: "man has the advantage of choice, women only the power of refusal." You turn this on its head by giving both girls options while making men passive, particularly in the Emma-like reversal of Juliet as the "knight" who sets out to "rescue" David. Does the fact that you consider her a female version of yourself make the gender equality easier to write?
Oh, I know a lot of strong women. "Gender equality"...I mean, it never even crossed my mind. I just told the story. I wouldn't make too much of Juliet as a female version of myself. I mean, David's in some ways a male version of myself, but he's still not remotely me, and neither is Juliet. There's a lot of woman, and a lot of women, in Juliet. But in some ways, yes, you're right, Juno & Juliet is not just a postmodern Jane Austen, but a postmodern fairy tale. There's the dark tower and the light tower, the good knight and the bad knight, the dying king, etc. And the princess rescues the knight at the end, in complete defiance of the rules of the genre. For my own amusement, and for the good of the book, I buried lots of stuff beneath a light surface. There's the fairytale subtext, reversals, mirrorings, multiple twinnings. There's even a chapter that unobtrusively ends in a couplet of iambic pentameter, with internal rhymes. You can't kick an old songwriting habit overnight! But it shouldn't be obvious. It's all just working away under the surface. Hopefully it enriches the book without the casual reader ever being too aware why. My favourite writers are both deeply serious and very funny. I think you can tell the truth about life and still be funny.
I loved the discussion that David sparks at his first Modern English tutorial about the problematic state of the postmodern literary novel. It's evidently something you agree with, since Juliet rejects modernist conventions in writing her narrative.
Yeah. Although you can't escape postmodernism entirely. I mean, I wouldn't want to! It's a great box of tricks, I just didn't need them for this book. That said, Juno & Juliet is a realistic novel that metafictively discusses in detail why it isn't a metafictive novel, and then deconstructs its own ending. But without breaking the realist frame, because it's narrated by an English student who's aware of the issues. I think the technical term for that is "having your cake and eating it".
A lot of contemporary Irish literature seems to have a nationalistic bent to it, so clearly situating itself in its own settings and culture that readers never forget that they have a book about Ireland in their hands. While your novel takes place in Galway and Tipperary, it has a more universal feel to it. It's less about Ireland and more about two young women, making it easier to relate to both Juno and Juliet.
I think nationalism is a kind of mental illness. If enough people somewhere share a delusional self-image, we call it nationalism. The result is so frequently bigotry, war, and slaughter. And I get bored with Irish novels that won't let you forget they're Irish. People are interesting. Nationalities are not. All our best writers have been instinctively international, non-national, post-national, and have stood above these petty conflicts. And the local, described well, is always universal. We are one.
As a teenager, you set an explicit career plan for yourself: a rock star in your twenties, a writer in your thirties, a filmmaker in your forties. You stuck to it pretty faithfully: four albums with the Irish cult band Toasted Heretic in your twenties, a musical and Juno & Juliet by age 34, with a short film and a documentary in the works. Most people have just one career; you've already packed in three. How did you come up with this plan? Do you prefer one over the others?
Oh, it's all writing. I just thought, as a kid, that those were the right art forms for each age. Pop songs are the perfect length for bursts of adolescent angst. You need to have experienced much more of life to create the world of a novel. And filmmaking, directing your own text well, I think requires a humility and an understanding of other people that can only come with age.
What's your writing process like? By the way, I heard a story that the computer you wrote Juno & Juliet on was also used by several other authors.
Well, I write longhand. The whole book. Type it up on computer, print it out, rewrite it on the printout in longhand. Might throw away whole chapters, sections. Write new chunks. Shuffle it around. It's messy. All the original writing's done with a pen. These days, a Uni-Ball Eye, micro or fine, black ink. Wonderful pens. Made by the Mitsubishi Pencil Co., Ltd. But I'm not neurotically obsessive here. I can write a chapter with a blunt betting-shop pencil if I have to. As to my computer... well, I didn't have one writing Juno & Juliet. I typed that up in the back office of Noel McGee's video library in Galway, after office hours. The machine got thrown in a skip eventually, and I just had the book on a disintegrating floppy-disc for a while, which was scary. But I bought an ancient second-hand black-and-white Apple laptop for £50 when I was rewriting Juno & Juliet, through a friend. A marvellous machine, built like a tank, totally reliable. It turned out that Magnus Mills had borrowed it to type up The Restraint of Beasts, back when he was still a bus-driver. The Restraint of Beasts was later nominated for the Booker prize. Two books of poetry have also been written on it, two Rough Guides, and Toby Litt wrote a story on it. It's really gotten around. It's the Truman Capote of laptops. Or the Gore Vidal. It's known everyone, intimately.
Are you working on anything now?
Yes. I don't like talking about it, because everybody in Galway talks away their novels in pubs. But I can tell you that, with typical perversity, it's completely different from Juno & Juliet. Not realistic, lots of characters. Far more Dickens than Austen. Or maybe Mark Twain, at his more fantastical. I'm laughing manically to myself at three in the morning, writing it. I have no idea if that's a good sign.
As a novel about literary academia, Juno & Juliet mentions dozens of authors. Who are some of your literary inspirations? Musical influences?
Hmmm... I'm a huge admirer of Flann O'Brien, especially At-Swim-Two-Birds and the Third Policeman. But that doesn't come out in Juno & Juliet at all. Beckett, there's a hint of him in J&J. Dickens, David Lodge, especially Small World. David Nobbs is great. Heller, Vonnegut, Roth, Mailer. When I was a kid, all the New York, secular Jewish guys really resonated with me. Portnoy's Complaint, Catch-22, Why Are We In Vietnam?, those were the books that transfixed me. Their stuff was so much better than anything coming out of Ireland. I was Portnoy! I was Yossarian! I felt like the only New York Jew in Tipperary... Musical influences, I wouldn't know where to begin.
What was fronting Toasted Heretic like? Do you guys plan to cut any more albums?
Fronting Heretic was an unalloyed joy. Headlining to eight thousand people at a festival in the south of France, and watching the dancing spread right to the back of the crowd, what could be better? Playing music with your friends, singing your words to strangers who love you in that moment? It's hard to stop. I sympathise with the Rolling Stones. Neil, our drummer, is in Tasmania right now, travelling very slowly around the world, and Aengus, our rhythm guitarist, has had four kids while our back was turned. So rehearsing would be tricky... We haven't recorded an album for years, but we may again. We only play each others' weddings now. I want to record an album after I finish the next book, as a change of pace. Juno & Juliet was written in the gap between albums...it's a nice rhythm, book/album/book. The dictatorship of the novel is a pleasant change from the democracy of the album. And three-minute pop songs are a great relief, after writing three hundred pages of fiction.
The liner notes to one of Heretic's albums say something like "all rights reserved by Toasted Heretic, but we don't mind if you copy it for your poorer friends." Which makes me curious: what do you think of Napster? I probably shouldn't admit this, but I got a couple of your songs off of there.
Oh, I love Napster. I hate the music industry, I'd love to see it destroyed. Please feel free to download Toasted Heretic songs from Napster, Gnutella, AudioGalaxy, MP3. I think the best quality Heretic tracks are on MP3.com right now. Neil uploaded some clean versions, remastered from the master tapes. Our early albums were cassettes, so it's hard to find good quality versions. We were always a guerilla operation. We sold our albums for five pounds when the industry was charging ten or twelve. The industry is a grotesque parasite on the talent of artists. A parasite that debilitates and kills its hosts. CD prices are a disgrace. They cost almost nothing to produce. And if the industry halved the retail price, we'd buy three times as many albums. CDs are too long, contain too few good songs. And everything is grossly overproduced right now... Don't get me started. I'm just buying US lo-fi stuff on independent labels these days. Neutral Milk Hotel's album, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, is superb. And old ska and reggae on Trojan and Island records. And Radiohead, the exception to every rule.
Can you talk a little about the film you're working on?
Ah, our documentary, Tunnel Vision. It's finished, at last! It was broadcast June 20th on national television in Ireland. Got a very good reception, full-page features in the national press, critic's choice, all that. My friend Mike Casey made it; it was our production company's first commission (Big Yes Productions), so we're very pleased. I was executive producer in the end. I got promoted, from associate producer. Tunnel Vision is a half-hour documentary on the first big eco-warrior protest in Ireland. The government wanted to build a motorway through Ireland's oldest Nature Reserve. Protestors built tree-houses, dug tunnels, took the government to court, and held up the building and tree-cutting for three years. Mike lived in the woods for six months, filming the protest from the inside. We were shooting this for two years using our own money before we got it commissioned. We're shooting one or two other things like that as well. Otherwise, a lot of the opposition to the current cultural orthodoxy doesn't get recorded. We're also working on a comedy about unemployed terrorists.
You once satirically criticized Ireland's film industry for cranking out pictures that could be collectively described as "bleak, harrowing drama that will leave you shaken and harrowed. You will not see a more harrowing film this year. Harrowing." Would you consider adapting Juno & Juliet for the screen? You could even score it with Toasted Heretic songs, like "LSD isn't what it used to be" or "Lightning." It'd be kind of a compacting of your three careers into one.
God, I'd love Toasted Heretic to write the soundtrack. But I think I'm too close to Juno & Juliet to reimagine it as a film. I'd quite like to see a French director take it on. A very romantic, visual, erotic treatment. Not wordy at all. I'd hate to see a plodding, literal translation of the book to the screen. Juno & Juliet's a novel, film is an utterly different beast. You have to hang on to the essence, but totally reimagine everything else. That's why Clueless is my favourite Jane Austen movie. It's a fearless reimagining. They weren't intimidated by the book.
-- interview by Kelley Kawano
|Photo credit: Jerry Bauer|