Mr Wall, I permitted myself to wander on your page and checked your “about you” section, I read about what you accomplished as a writer and even where you travelled as a resident writer but what surprised me the most was how you managed to summarize your life in twenty five words. That must be the shortest biography I read. Do you care to explain why you are so brief about your personal life?
When people ask me for a biographical statement I usually list the books I’ve published and say that I live in Cork. I don’t believe that the details of my life have any relevance to a reading of my work. Besides, in many ways I lead a pretty boring life – I get up early and work as much as I can, I make coffee etc. What I want to say about my life, my thinking and my beliefs is in my books and other published materials. If I wanted to be a ‘celebrity’ (whatever the hell that is), whose every living moment is of vital interest to ‘the public’, I wouldn’t be a writer. Writing is an essentially private business. I’d even go so far as to say that it’s an intimate one. The writer sits in her room and taps words onto a keyboard and this morse is transmitted after many mutations to someone else in another room and that second person makes off with the words and transforms them into pieces of his own life. Another interesting aspect of writing is that the writer has no control over his words once they leave. Once the book is published the reader becomes the creator. Roland Barthes wrote that the author is always conceived as the past of the book – that’s how I think of myself.
I have read in your latest comment on the Upstart blog that you have never been able to choose the subjects you write about – rather they choose you – so in your career so far, what have been the subjects that caught your attention? Any repeated theme/subject?
After my second book came out I discovered that family is a major theme of mine. I discovered this from a review. I immediately remembered Sean O Riordáin saying, a long time ago in UCC, that he never knew what his work was about until he read about it in the papers. To some extent this is true, and I’m not sure that it’s helpful to a writer to have his obsessions pointed out to him. But broadly speaking, I’ve always been interested in social issues, so my books have tended to centre on public matters but represented in the private realm. My first novel, for example, was about power and abuse of power. I imagined it in the Foucauldian sense of a relationship between knowledge, sexuality and power. So some of the characters in the book relate to others only as the victims of power or as the wielders of power. Child abuse is a radically abusive power relation but still essentially a power relation, and I wanted to indicate the destructive track of power so I chose to centre the book on child abuse. I don’t think I made the general point very well – that all power is repressive and destructive. So, politics, in the broadest sense is another theme, and one that I’ve been aware of for a long time. I look forward to finding out what the theme of my next book is going to be. It’s a collection of poems (Ghost Estate, Salmon Press) that has been seven years in the making. That’s been a long voyage of discovery for me.
What I’ve just said may seem to undermine the point about ‘not being able to choose subjects’, but I want to say that these thoughts about the book didn’t come to me at the beginning. They emerged gradually as the book enlarged itself. In many ways, you begin with a phrase or a character or an event and that beginning sets a kind of clockwork in motion. The structure of the whole book is contained in the first successful beginning. From then on certain things are bound to happen and certain other things can’t happen. Initially, you have, of course, a wide range of choices of things that will work but already some of them are better or more congenial to your psychology than others. And then problems develop and sometimes you surprise yourself by how you solve them. The whole thing is much more haphazard than authors like to admit. The old cliché about ‘writing to discover what happens next’ always rings true for me. So while, at this stage, I’m aware of general themes that interest me, I never know what the next book will be about or how the present one will shape up. It seems to come out of the unconscious ringing alarm bells and bullying me into accepting it.
In one of your articles, you said, and I am quoting “ we should listen carefully to the language our masters use, because language has a way of turning things into reality” then it must be of some relief to know that as a writer, you can also shape a better reality? Do you think Upstart has managed to do something along these lines?
I think Upstart is an admirable action. Its aim, as I see it, is to get people to reframe the way they think about politics and society. So they encounter a simple phrase or image and it jolts their imagination. They get on their bus thinking. It may or may not affect them. One of the highest functions of art is to make people reconsider the reality of their lives. I hope Upstart continues to grow and to intervene. Language has, indeed, the power to make and remake worlds. I’d argue that we can only understand the world through language, so the people who control how we understand language, or what terms we use to describe something, can partially control the way we think. The attempt to make Irish people think of themselves as a society that became greedy and that the economic collapse is a consequence of that greed is a good example. In this narrative, Irish people were buying houses they couldn’t afford because of greed. Well, as it happens, I know a few people who bought houses they couldn’t afford. They bought them because they needed a place to live and bring up their children and this was the best they could do. They had to pay the price they paid because other people were screwing them. There was no question of raising children in rented accommodation because by and large rented accommodation in Ireland is shit. So I don’t buy the ‘greedy Irish’ narrative, and I’m glad to say most Irish people didn’t buy it either. But it keeps coming up because our masters want us to blame ourselves for their corruption, stupidity and avarice.
You seem very passionate about everything you do. For those who don’t embrace politics with open arms, what would you say to them to get them interested in experiencing it on a more intimate level?
Gramsci once wrote that everyone is an intellectual but not everyone functions as an intellectual in society. I don’t think we should leave the role of ‘public intellectual’ to the media and the universities. But to be an intellectual means to rise above the level of complaint to the level of criticism. Complaint is what happens on talk radio and it only serves to diffuse anger and resistance. Criticism is something deeper. It requires people to evaluate themselves and their way of life, and to set it against what government and the powerful want them to think. Most people treat each other very gently, with tolerance and kindness. Yet when it comes to business or politics they’re prepared to accept the opposite values because, according to the accepted narrative, this is reality. But it’s not the reality of 90% of our human interactions. It’s a reality that only pertains in the profit-business or the power-business. If you treated your neighbours the way the corporations treat us, they’d burn you out.
People already experience Politics at the most intimate level of their lives – even if they don’t recognise it. In my generation, for example, we had to argue for contraceptives to be available. Nowadays, if someone uses contraceptives they tend not to think of it as a political act, or not an act that has political resonance. But there is a strand of Irish politics that would like to deny them that right. It just so happens that another generation fought that battle – it was Feminism that won it. When someone takes their elderly parent to A&E and they’re told that only a trolley is available they’re experiencing Politics at a very intimate level. Make no mistake, this is a power relation. The elderly patient is powerless. The child who brings her there is relatively powerless. Even the doctors and nurses are not the power-brokers. The big question in Politics is for whom do we exercise power? Do we exercise power for the few or the many? Do we exercise power on behalf of the rich or the poor, the strong or the weak? I think the principle ‘to each according to his need, from each according to his means’ is one that will make a better society.
If your favourite author came to visit you, who would it be and what would you say to him?
My favourite author, for the past few years, has been José Saramago. If he came to me I would remain utterly silent. Firstly because I’d be astonished to discover that there is life after death – having been an atheist most of my life. I’d be rapidly calculating what my chances of ending up in some god’s hell would be. Secondly, I’d be silent because I’d want to listen. If I could come up with a question, through all this shock and awe, it would be: What is it like to be a dead communist? I mean, what has the afterlife got in store? Do all communists go to hell, as so many religions have it, and if so, is hell really the place to be? Who else is down there? Have you met Lenin and Guevara and Marx? What about the anarchists? Are they in hell too? Do they have a separate and differently organised hell? Is hell a more equal society than Ireland or Portugal?
What are you current projects?
I’m finalising the proofs of Ghost Estate at the moment. It’s due out in April and the Cork Launch will be in the Farmgate Restaurant at 6.00 pm on Holy Thursday (April21st) and everyone is welcome. This is the really nice phase of working on a book – the proofs and the prospect of a launch party. I’m always working on a novel and I’m in the very early stages of one at present. Who knows whether it’ll get finished or not – I never do.
William Wall’s third collection of poetry Ghost Estate will be published in April by Salmon Poetry (http://www.salmonpoetry.com/bookshop2.php?c2=1). More information on his other books can be found on his website (www.williamwall.eu) where interested readers will also find his Ice Moon Blog (http://homepage.eircom.net/~williamwall/williamwall/Ice_Moon_Blog/Ice_Moon_Blog.html).