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Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38
Gerard Donovan was born in Wexford, Ireland. His first novel, Schopenhauer's Telesceope, was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2003 and won the Kerry Group Fiction Award 2004.
Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for Julius Winsome?
Gerard Donovan: I live on a farm surrounded by woods where hunters are active, most of them illegally. (In a 1970s essay, Jim Harrison refers to such people as ‘violators’ who get their sense of adventure from shooting up the woods and everything in them.) One day the neighbour’s dog, a hound/rotweiler mix, about 140 lbs but gentle and playful, was shot at point-blank range by an unknown person using a 12-guage shotgun. The dog made it five hundred yards back to us before collapsing in a bed of flowers. She was brought at some speed to the vet and survived. She still has parts of the shot inside her. I don’t know to this day how she is still alive, but it speaks volumes about the will to survive. This actual shooting was the catalyst, first for a deep anger on my part, since I love dogs, and then the plot of Julius Winsome, since I transferred my reaction to the shooting to that of a fictional character called Julius Winsome, who incidentally lives in a cabin in the woods eerily similar to my cabin in the woods, and with a dog shot at the hands of an unknown hunter. He also possesses a temperament not unlike mine. The idea for the character and situation came to me as I was crossing a street in Manhattan a week or two later. By the time I made it to the other side of the street, the character’s name, his situation—and most importantly his voice, because that’s the key to the novel—were in my head. I used my own dog, Hobart, as the model: he’s a pit-bull terrier. (Here’s the rant: This breed, and the bull terrier breed in general, gets very bad press in the UK, but they are a model of friendship and playfulness, especially if they have enough space and aren’t sold by puppy-mill operators to unscrupulous buyers who use them as fighting dogs or cooped-up guard dogs. They are fantastically mistreated. I wish someone would set up a sanctuary for them where they could live out a decent life.)
MT: How long did it take you to write it?
GD: I wrote the novel in seven or eight weeks. I added the middle part a few months later to give some background to Julius’s character, and that part grew to about sixty pages. I then cut it back drastically because the proportion was wrong and it took the momentum out of the narrative. Between all the back and forward, the middle part took about four weeks.
MT: Julius Winsome is your third novel -- does writing them get easier?
GD: In Julius Winsome I applied everything I learnt from writing the first two. My philosophy now is to tell the story. First tell the story. Second, check that you’ve told the story. The writing takes care of itself. The voice, I find, assembles naturally around the characters and the situation. I spend more time researching now, and I try to incorporate the research seamlessly into the narrative. I don’t want to be throwing it into the story, which I did in the first novel, Schopenhauer’s Telescope, though I think in that case the obvious and ham-fisted use of research the Baker employs, a creature who could have been made by Frankenstein, was suited to such a strategy.
MT: Your character Julius lives in cabin in the Maine woods with only his dogs for company: is that an existence that part of you envys?
GD: That goes to my response to the first question. I do lead an existence similar to the lead character’s, on a farm in the woods with a dog and books, though not nearly as many. What interests me thematically in the novel is what kind of moral compass we have as humans, or more directly, what kind of moral compass I have. What would people really do if a beloved dog or indeed companion of any kind were shot and they could exact revenge without legal consequences? This is a question that haunts me. The answer is that I don’t have a moral compass aside from the basic agreements regarding normal behavior I hold with other humans, but, as I’ve said elsewhere, I don’t quite trust fiction that showcases characters who in the end demonstrate what good people they are. Where is the border between grief and revenge? And who stops at that border, and who continues beyond? Julius Winsome continues, using increasingly archaic English as the violence continues. I envy him that, I envy his ability to pursue, I envy his complete preparation to bring violence ruthlessly to those who have practiced it themselves.
MT: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?
GD: I write both on the computer and longhand. One complements the other, and it’s a continual back-and- forth. I don’t like editing on the computer: the sense of the page is artificial. There has to be the contact between pen and page for me in the editing. Then I return to the computer with the results.
MT: What were the principle challenges of writing Julius Winsome?
GD: The voice was a challenge, and I was lucky, very lucky, that it came to me so quickly. I wanted the novel to whisper to the reader, and that meant employing diction that met a particular phonetic quality, a kind of quiet speech that whispered to the reader. I had to pace the novel and yet give the reader some sense of who this strange man is. And finally, I wanted him to be overwhelmingly sympathetic. He is a serial killer by definition, but I wanted him to be the hero of the novel. In other words, I wanted the psychological problem to reside in the reader’s mind, not in Julius’s. I hoped the reader would ask: Why do I like this man so much? Julius Winsome is not insane, far from it. He is relentlessly sane, and readers may find that they want to swap that sanity for the category of insanity in order to create a moral compass, which I don’t believe exists. To respect the reader enough to create problems for the reader and yet keep the whole thing moving along at a clip and be compelling. These were the principal challenges in the novel for me.
MT: You are Irish, but you now live in New York -- how do you find the American life?
GD: I am shortly leaving New York for a destination unknown to me at present. American life has transformed itself utterly in the past seven years. The America I went to in 1989 contained all of the elements that made the country so captivating (and with luck and the right circumstances, may make it so again one day): a sense of being able to make things up as it went along—that fabled quality of improvisation in daily and in national life—and a willingness to let people have their say. The coldness that is natural to American life was a byproduct of the mental expanses upon which America drew its energy, and I accepted a certain cultural isolation as such. And of course the optimism. A man could declare at eighty that he was going to be a concert pianist and people would applaud. You can’t help but be attracted to such people. That America is dying and may be already dead. Together with their core support group of about one in four of the population, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney have together created a benign police state where people watch each other and the rest of the world. They have engineered a state where people react to key words by using other approved key words: Terrorism, security, terrorism, security. The final word is fear, a peculiar late-1600s variety of Puritanism. The loudest people don’t listen to opposing views anymore: they react to them. It’s particularly tragic in my view because Americans are a very literal people: imagination operates on conditions of clarity. The worst instincts and the worst people have risen in stature. But I also remind myself of the hope that this philosophy will have its day and another philosophy will emerge. There are many other voices at work in America: thoughtful, realistic people.
MT: What do you do when you are not writing?
GD: I am always writing, and most of the good stuff comes to me when I am not sitting at the desk. ‘Being at your station’ for me means keeping the radio switched on to receive, night and day. But when not physically writing, I like to train in the gym and go for drives to nowhere.
MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?
GD: My ideal reader is a non-specialist, intelligent and open-minded ‘ordinary’ person who wants to read a story and be prodded while doing so by an invisible elbow.
MT: What are you working on now?
GD: I am working on a novel set in early twentieth-century Europe, but my next release in the UK will most likely be a collection of short stories already finished and set in Ireland, the first time I have used Ireland as a setting in my fiction. I like these stories, so it will be interesting to see the reaction to them, particularly the situations I’ve created. I wanted to avoid traditionally ‘Irish’ subject matter completely, and I hope I’ve succeeded. We’ll see.
MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?
GD: I don’t read as much as I ought to. Lately I’ve been reading John Ruskin and Christina Rossetti.
MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?
GD: Tips for the aspiring writer. Well, first write. Ask yourself: What is my story? Who has something to lose? Who has something to gain? Understand the craft: dialogue, description, proportion, setting, movement. And once you have absorbed the rules, try not to let them rule you, because a story must surely in the end be a story of the heart, at least to some degree. Over-workshopped, clinical stories are visible a mile off. Listen to constructive criticism from people who know what they’re talking about, but don’t follow every piece of advice. Take on influences and let your voice develop from inside them: the influences will fall away naturally. You cannot write in a vacuum, so read: don’t be like me.
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