When Paul Murray first started writing what became his epic novel Skippy Dies, he thought it was going to be a short story, one about a history teacher and a student, nothing more.
“I wrote the first chapter proper with Howard in the history class, and it was going to be this narrative between Howard and this kid,” the author recalls. “Howard thinks there’s something wrong with this kid and he has to figure out what it is.”
The problem was it was just a bit too much fun to write. Howard the history teacher steps out of his classroom and surveys the scene of “rampaging maleness” in the hallway before him. “And then it ran from being a short story to being not a short story. Howard goes out into the corridor and it just expands and expands and expands.”
“At the time, I didn’t have any grand reasons for that,” Murray admits. “I enjoyed writing the story so much that it just got longer and longer and longer, it was well over 1,000 pages at some point, but I really liked writing about the school. You could have as many characters and as many stories and as many angles on this crazy, shifting society as you wanted. And everybody, because they’re teenagers, goes about everything in this really extreme way. It was very liberating.”
As he explains in the following interview, Murray did eventually cut the story back from over 1,000 pages to a solid 660. But the shift from a story about a teacher and a student to a novel about a school and a “crazy, shifting society” stuck. As in the scene when Howard looks out at the hall and the narrative takes in a panoramic sweep of everything before him, Skippy Dies became more than a story about Daniel “Skippy” Juster, the boy Howard speaks to after class. It became about Skippy, and his friends, and his teachers, and his teachers’ wives and girlfriends, and his parents, and the boys who bully Skippy, and the bullies’ parents, and Skippy’s pseudo-girlfriend, and her parents, and the girl behind the counter at the donut shop —
It offered the novelist too tantalizing an opportunity to talk about the changes he saw happening around him. The “crazy, shifting society” Murray refers to is that of his native Ireland during the economic boom when the country gained the “Celtic Tiger” moniker.
The novel is set in 2003, in the midst of the country’s speculative bubble. “If you were a writer and you weren’t part of this jamboree that was going on — the place just went crazy,” he says. “Everybody was buying SUVs, everybody was getting a kitchen extension, everybody was looking for some way to spend their money.”
“Everybody was so relentlessly greedy and selfish and mendacious. The entire country turned into this huge pyramid scheme, and is now destitute.”
The period in which Murray wrote the novel — seven years, from around 2002 to 2009 (the book was published in late 2010) — coincided with the second half of the boom. That the bubble has burst, to national economic devastation, is the context that informs much of this interview.
The school is Seabrook College for Boys, a fictional Catholic independent school not unlike Blackrock College, the prestigious Dublin institution the author attended from the age of seven through to when he graduated at 18. Skippy is a second-year (grade eight) boarder at Seabrook. His roommate and friend, Ruprecht Van Doren, is a math genius obsessed with M-theory, a subset of String Theory. The rest of their set is composed of the affable goof Geoff, who shows a latent talent for poetry, Dennis the cynic, and Mario, who unwittingly makes a mockery of himself with his boasts of sexual prowess.
(A disclaimer: Murray stays true to the language of a boys’ school and its rampant homophobia. At Seabrook absolutely anything one could ever do is gay. Inanimate objects are gay. M-theory is for the gays. There is no way to stave off the creeping gayness, except to point out all the gays around you. The author maintains enough distance from his characters to show their insecurities for what they are, often to humorous effect.)
Skippy falls for Lori, a prospective model who attends St Brigid’s, the girls’ school next door. Skippy does indeed die, and in the first five pages. The rest of the story is at times bleak, sometimes heartbreaking, but also uplifting and at other times hilarious. “You can’t fight City Hall,” Murray says; but also, “life isn’t in a tragic mode.”
Paul Murray spoke to The Varsity when he was visiting Toronto in May.
——— INTERVIEW CONTENTS ———
When you shut down what doesn’t fit the story, it hurts people
I likened it to a psychopath cutting up his family
The existential carrots that are dangled in front of you
A country trying to crawl out of its own skin
You’re not in the Holocaust if you’re reading a book about it
You feel like a dude in some hole, digging
When you shut down what doesn’t fit the story, it hurts people
In the book a student is sexually abused, but it isn’t by the character we might think. I assume that was intentional, as the person who we suspect has those urges. Why one character and not the other?
I think what the book is about is how people see the world in a very black-and-white way. Barthes writes about the mythologies that dominate the way we perceive the world that when one mythology is toppled, whatever it is that toppled it, it calcifies into a new mythology that will become just as rigid and exclusive and distorting as whatever went before.
Ireland was a very religious country, a very conservative country, and the sex abuse scandals destroyed the Church. They destroyed it.
Simultaneous with the disintegration of the Church and its mental hold on the populace, there’s this huge economic boom. This rural, religious backwater of a country went to this post-industrial, incredibly wealthy, incredibly globalized society. There was so much money. Between ’97 and 2006 the place was as transformed as you could ever imagine a place. To be in it was just astonishing.
And in the same way, the way people thought changed very dramatically. In Ireland you had the Celtic Tiger story: “The Celtic Tiger has come. We used to be like that, now we are like this, and here are all the good things that will happen.” Everything the Church stood for was completely discarded and was replaced by this new materialism, and there was a really black-and-white sensibility to that. Like, the Church was bad, and the new materialistic society, which was very driven by status, was good.
There were huge problems with this new society. If you were poor, if you were marginalized in any way, you were still fucked. It didn’t matter who was on the top if you were on the bottom. It was “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” There was a lot of cruelty in that society.
The Church did a lot of good things. The Church was the only source of altruism in that society. The Church always did a lot of bad things—not just the sex abuse, but also just the conservative agenda: it made things very difficult if you were gay, you still can’t have an abortion in Ireland—but it also pushed concepts like selflessness, or taking care of marginalized people. All those things got scrapped.
The place was as transformed as you could ever imagine a place. To be in it was astonishing. The way people thought changed dramatically.
I guess what I was trying to get across was just things aren’t black and white. There’s loads of fucking crazy shit going on under the wire in Ireland but, you know, that wasn’t challenged at all. It was just this one idea: the Church equals abuse, abuse equals the Church, and once the Church was gone everything was great.
I wanted to challenge these received opinions. Ireland has now gone completely broke: it’s $100 billion U.S. in debt. It’s kind of doomed financially for the next 10 or 20 years because of the property bubble that came out of the insane way everybody was thinking. But people were acting and thinking that way because they were being told to. They were being told to by the columnists, they were told to by the government; the national media, which everybody thought had integrity, was just purveying these lies. So I think the thrust of the book was a question of values, and don’t believe the simple explanations.
People get themselves trapped in a very fixed way of seeing things. On a macro level, that was happening in society. In the book, each of the characters is pursuing some sort of romantic illusion. Skippy’s in love with this girl Lori, and Ruprecht’s in love with his M-theory, and Howard’s in love with the First World War. Each of them has some sort of romantic delusion that they’re pursuing. The effect of that romantic delusion is to shut out what’s going on around them, which is destructive: they can’t see when their friends are in trouble. By the same token, the school is purveying this myth of itself: because it’s old and traditional, it therefore has a moral authority.
‘My point is, we’ve got to start playing to our strength, and there’s one strength we have that’s stronger than every other school. Know what it is?’
‘Exactly, Howard. History. This is the oldest Catholic boys’ school in the country. That gives the name of Seabrook College a certain resonance. Seabrook means something. It stands for a particular set of values, values like heart and discipline. A marketing man might say that what we have here is a product with a strong brand identity.’
But in fact, the myth the school purveys is just giving a very narrow depiction of what’s actually going on. Shutting down everything that doesn’t fit this story, it hurts people. So I guess that was the point: when you deliberately hide the truth, you hurt people.
I likened it to a psychopath cutting up his family
How did the story come about? What was the germ?
The germ was … it was going to be a short story.
And then it turned out to be 600-plus pages!
Yes, it’s crazy. I wrote the first chapter proper with Howard in the history class, and it was going to be this narrative between Howard and this kid. Howard thinks there’s something wrong with this kid and he has to find out what it is.
I enjoyed writing the story so much that it just got longer and longer and longer, it was well over 1,000 pages at some point, but I really liked writing about the school. You could have as many characters and as many stories and as many angles on this crazy, shifting society as you wanted. And everybody, because they’re teenagers, goes about everything in this really extreme way. It was very liberating.
For a long time I was hung up on the idea that I didn’t want to shorten it just for commercial reasons. I was very adamant that if it was 990 pages, and it was supposed to be 990 pages, I didn’t care if no one bought it; I just wanted it to be as long as it needed to be. Then over time, quite late on, I read it from start to finish, which I hadn’t done before because I was just working on individual chapters. I cut about 250 pages out of it in the last six months or so. It was really difficult, but the realization that came to me was that it wasn’t working at 900 pages. It wasn’t a commercial question, it was just that the story was getting lost, and all the charming digressions were killing it. I mean, I really like Infinite Jest, but it’s not Infinite Jest. I didn’t think it was working as a super-digressive, hypertext type book. I didn’t want to do that.
So how did you then justify what you decided to keep?
I went through it and I likened it to being a psychopath cutting up his family. I had to cauterize something within myself, because I had spent so long. If you’re a novelist, then you’ve got this luxury that you can be precious, but at this stage it didn’t work. I thought the book didn’t work at all and it was going to be a disaster. So I went through it, all these chapters in this book that had taken seven years, saying, “What can I cut on this page? What could I possibly cut?” I cut, cut, cut, cut, cut. I cut more than a quarter of the book. By the end I thought everything in there was solid. Everything there needed to be there. It was the right decision.
I had to cauterize something within myself, because I had spent so long.
It was a learning process for me. Obviously you always learn, but what I learned from that is shorter is usually better. Even if you’re writing a really long book, you know yourself when something is not supposed to be there. You can always find excuses — “Well, this doesn’t really pertain to the plot, but there’s kind of this resonance with this character and this overarching metaphor about fire,” or something like that — but that’s bullshit. You hone your bullshit alarm.
Why do I need that metaphor in the first place?
Or how many instances of the metaphor do you require for it to work?
You have to be careful. Writing is, books are, a battle. People have less and less time to read and it’s hard to get people to pick up a 660-page book. In some ways that’s a good thing, because authors are less able to indulge themselves.
One way you could have cut it down would have been to write from only two or three perspectives, but that would have been a very different book. There’s something like 20 points of view here. Why did you choose to write from so many different characters?
I wanted it to be about the school. It’s about the school more than anything else; these kids are all part of this bigger fabric. At the time I didn’t have any grand reasons for that. I was writing just the story, as we were saying, with Howard and Skippy and the classroom, Chapter 1. And then it ran from being a short story to being not a short story. Howard goes out into the corridor and it just expands and expands and expands.
In Our Lady’s Hall, hormonal surges have made giants and midgets of the crowd. The tang of adolescence, impervious to deodorant or opened windows, hangs heavy, and the air tintinnabulates with bleeps, chimes and trebly shards of music as two hundred mobile phones, banned during the school day, are switched back on with the urgency of divers reconnecting to their oxygen supply. From her alcove a safe elevation above it, the plaster Madonna with the starred halo and the peaches-and-cream complexion pouts coquettishly at the rampaging maleness below.
‘Hey Flubber!’ Dennis Hoey scampers across Howard’s path to waylay William ‘Flubber’ Cooke. ‘Hey, I just wanted to ask you a question?’
‘What?’ Flubber immediately suspicious.
‘Uh, I was just wondering – are you a bummer tied to a tree?’
Brows creasing, Flubber – fourteen stone and on his third trip through second year – turns this over.
‘It’s not a trick or anything,’ promises Dennis. ‘I just wanted to know, if you’re a bummer tied to a tree.’
‘No,’ Flubber resolves, at which Dennis takes flight, declaring exuberantly, ‘Bummer on the loose! Bummer on the loose!’ Flubber lets out a roar and prepares to give chase, then stops abruptly and ducks off in the other direction as the crowd parts and a tall, cadaverous figure comes striding through.
I was really enjoying describing all these things. The conclusion they come to, that they’re part of this fabric, that’s what I wanted to write about. I didn’t want there to be a hero. I didn’t want there to be one person who’s privileged.
The existential carrots that are dangled in front of you
If there is a hero, he dies in the first five pages.
And he’s not really even the hero. He’s a strange, withdrawn sort of character.
It’s writing that ether between people, I suppose.
One of the things that they’re relentlessly banging on about in the digital propaganda industry is that we’re all connected now.
In a way we weren’t before?
Yeah. But the connections that technology provides are pretty superficial. In the book they don’t really help anybody, they just tend to make us more narcissistic.
How do you become like a person?
Ireland is a very small country, which, even though there was always a lot of emigration, has prized relationships like family relationships, geographical relationships. Those things were being assaulted by this truckload of money that had been dropped on the place.
Everything is becoming increasingly Americanized during the Celtic Tiger. What does that mean? America is a very atomized society. People in America are very nomadic: 80 percent of Americans move every five years.
The idea is you become yourself as a person by finding things that make you different, when the truth is we’re all more or less the same.
You were encouraged to think of yourself as an individual. Part of the way that you think of yourself as an individual is to say, “What do I like about myself that makes me special?” That’s a way of disconnecting yourself from the people who are around you. The idea is you become yourself as a person by finding things that make you different, when the truth is we’re all more or less the same. In fact, to be a person in the world is actually to engage with the people that are around you.
That’s what being a grown-up means: accepting that you are mortal and limited and whatever life you’ve been given, that’s the only life you’re going to get and you have to do with it what you will instead of trying to transform yourself. In the book, these individual dreams that each of the kids is pursuing are empowering but also prolong adolescence.
It seems that Lori learns that lesson by the end of the book. She chooses to be part of the world again where she had the option of removing herself from it.
Lori comes to a conclusion about the sort of things that make you feel like you’re an individual, the existential carrots that are dangled in front of you.
The thing about being a beautiful teenaged girl is she’s constantly being rewarded for not doing anything at all. She’s an object. That’s how you’re encouraged to think of yourself these days, as an image, right? Some people seem to live their lives to generate content for their Facebook page. Turn your life into photos, put it on Facebook so people can see it, what a great life you’ve got, no matter what you feel.
When she has the beauty stripped away from her, there’s nothing left. She doesn’t want there to be anything left. She’s got the hardest road in the book because she does the worst thing. Everybody betrays each other — it’s kind of an odd book — but her betrayal is probably the most overt and the cruelest. She does fantasize that she doesn’t want to exist anymore. For her to actually commit to existing, for her to actually say “I want to stay alive” not really out of any personal desire to feel pleasure from life but because she wants to help Ruprecht stay alive — that’s the big ethical leap. That’s what ethics is: to start living for other people instead of getting little hits of pleasure from everywhere else.
The boys seem very accepting of parallel universes and fairies and so on. Very cynical boys otherwise, but willing to suspend their disbelief in some cases. You have a lot of mythology running through the book — Irish mythology, but also what I think of as personal mythologies. Skippy, for instance, has the Hopeland videogame, which I think he incorporates into his personal narrative.
How long have you been walking in this mist?!! It’s got so thick that everything else has been blotted out, all you can see is this endless pearly-grey sea. Crap, maybe when you come to that fork in the path you should’ve gone the other direction. Now there is no path. You turn round, head back the way you came but it does not seem to make any difference. East, south-east, south. Nothing but mist. You start to wonder if maybe the game has crashed, leaving you stuck in some corner at the edge of the map, and you’re just leaning forward to press the reset button on the console when you catch sight of something, a way off in the distance.
At first it hardly looks like anything – just a speck, almost too small to see. But the speck quickly grows into a dot, and the dot into a tiny patch of dark-grey against the background of silvery fog. As you hurry towards it you realize that whatever-it-is is also making its way towards you. Thud, thud, goes your heart. Your hands on the controller are slippery with sweat. .You know it’s the Demon, even from this distance, you can tell from the way the hairs on your arm stand up, the room thumps with your heartbeats, the night-colours drain and pulse in rhythm. And now it steps at last out of the mist.
Reality lurches left then right.
Because you know its face.
The book itself is not a piece of magical realism, but I think there’s a magical realism element to it. Was that simply a reflection the teenage mind between these two poles of childhood and adulthood, or was there something else to that?
There’s that quote at the end of the book, that Paul Éluard quote: “There is another world, but it is in this one.” Everyone is chasing these other worlds, they’re chasing literal other worlds. It’s maybe a more crystallized instance of the same kind of process that the narrative is going through.
Part of the reason teenagers are cynical is cynicism’s a front. They’re actually cynical because they’re afraid of just becoming some boring dude.
Teenagers were really interesting; it was really interesting to look through those eyes. Teenagers are very cynical, but they’re also really really romantic, because as a teenager you’re just starting to hit that wall of de-dreamification where you start to realize, you know what? You will never be … whatever.
You might never be Lady Gaga.
You spent your childhood watching TV, assuming that at some point in the future everything you see there will one day happen to you: that you too will win a Formula One race, hop a train, foil a group of terrorists, tell someone ‘Give me the gun’, etc. Then you start secondary school, and suddenly everyone’s asking about your career plans and your long term goals, and by goals they don’t mean the kind you are planning to score in the FA Cup. Gradually the awful truth dawns on you: that Santa Claus was just the tip of the iceberg – that your future will not be the rollercoaster ride you’d imagined, that the world occupied by your parents, the world of washing the dishes, going to the dentist, weekend trips to the DIY superstore to buy floor-tiles, is actually largely what people mean when they speak of ‘life’. Now, with every day that passes, another door seems to close, the one marked PROFESSIONAL STUNTMAN, or FIGHT EVIL ROBOT, until as the weeks go by and the doors – GET BITTEN BY SNAKE, SAVE WORLD FROM ASTEROID, DISMANTLE BOMB WITH SECONDS TO SPARE – keep closing, you begin to hear the sound as a good thing, and start closing some yourself, even ones that didn’t necessarily need to be closed…
But until that happens, or maybe because it’s on the cusp of happening, you believe so fervently. Because you’re so unhappy when you’re a teenager — you’re so lost and so hungry and craving to be a person — and because you find it so impossible to conceive of actually fitting into this world, you imagine yourself so fervently into these other worlds.
I think part of the reason teenagers are cynical is cynicism’s kind of a front. They’re actually cynical because they’re afraid. They’re afraid of just becoming some boring dude. And you can’t fight it: that’s what they’re starting to realize. That’s why they’re so scabrously scathing about adult life, because on some level they’re weighing the realization that this is going to happen to them. They project themselves into these alternative worlds that they try to make real though pure force of will. But the ultimate point is that these worlds aren’t real and the ass drops out of them eventually.
I really empathized with them. I really liked them as characters, I even liked characters like Carl, who’s very strange.
I think what you go through as an adolescent, you don’t really fully escape, you just start accepting that certain things are the case. You’re always going to feel some sort of disconnect between you and the world, but as an adult you stop sanctifying that kind of dissonance. So I don’t think they’re hugely more deluded than a lot of adults. I think that’s why adults can read and enjoy the book. It’s just that teenagers’ delusions are more overt, because adults a lot of the time are dissembling.
Five months ago, Howard had attended his Class of ’93 Ten Year Reunion in this same hall. A three-course meal, full bar, partners left at home until the Alumni and Spouses Golf Outing the following day; unflattering nicknames left unspoken, enmities of the past carefully let lie. Everyone was eager to appear socialized, to present his adult self, successfully emerged from its chrysalis….
And yet none of them had been quite convincing. Once you’ve seen someone firing peas out of his nostril, or trying and failing, for a full fifteen minutes, to climb over a gym horse, it’s difficult to take him seriously as a top legislator for the UN or a hedge-fund manager at a private bank, no matter how many years have passed.
You learn. The biggest thing you learn when you grow up is just how to conduct yourself as an adult. Like when Howard goes to the ball he meets all these people who are now stockbrokers and hedge-fund managers: you’re basically just putting a tie on some guy and telling him “Don’t say this and don’t say this and don’t say this. Don’t light your farts and don’t whatever.” So I don’t think there’s a giant gap.
A country trying to crawl out of its own skin
I want to go back to the idea of America because I found that was a thread running through the book: Haley is an American; you have Ed’s Doughnut House, which is an American diner chain; there’s Greg’s management, free-market speak; even at the Hop: in among this classic middle-school dance playlist is Bowie’s “Young Americans.” Was this something that just came up organically?
It was just the way the world was going. There was this famous speech by a government minister called Mary Harney. She was from this very pro-business party — very small party, but it got into government, and they were driving it because they were the ideologues. The main party, which was a bunch of cock shisters, they didn’t really care. Mary Harney was the intellectual — I use the word loosely — power behind the way the government worked, which was to deregulate business, privatize medicine, this kind of thing. All the few good things that Ireland had done, she was trying to disassemble.
Her famous line was that though Ireland was closer geographically to Berlin, we’d always be spiritually closer to Boston.
Now, Ireland is built out of European money. Ireland had joined the EEC in 1973, and they just gave billions and billions and billions to Ireland because the European project is about stopping world wars from happening by trying to co-operate with each other and work together. Obviously there’s all kinds of problems inherent in that, but Mary Harney is going, like, “Fuck you, Europe. We want to be like the Americans, and everybody just chasing the dollar and getting as rich as they can, and forget everybody else.”
The country has always had this love for America because of emigration. Even though most Irish people who emigrated went to England, obviously Ireland has a lot of problems with England. But America was always really romanticized. All the TV you’d watch when you were a kid was American TV, and that process really accelerated during the ’90s.
The Celtic Tiger initially was driven by Microsoft and Dell, all these American tech firms, Big Pharma firms as well, coming to Ireland and generating all this money. So you’ve got Starbucks coming, all the kids started wearing Abercrombie & Fitch. During the boom, everybody’s so fucking rich, you would go to New York for the weekend and go buy your Abercrombie and come home.
The agenda pushed by the government was “How can we get into the relationships that people have, whatever way those relationships are manifest? How can we make money out of it?”
The consequences of that mentality are to be seen in the economic devastation we’ve reaped now, because everybody was so relentlessly greedy and selfish and mendacious. The entire country turned into this huge pyramid scheme, and is now destitute. I obviously didn’t know that was going to happen, but if you were a writer and you weren’t part of this jamboree that was going on — the place just went crazy. Everybody was buying SUVs, everybody was getting a kitchen extension, everybody was looking for some way to spend their money, but in this really interesting cultural way. Like, the past, Ireland 1.0, was this sort of gap-toothed peasant with hair on her chin and a pig under her shoulder, and we didn’t want to be that, we wanted to put as much distance between ourselves and that Ireland of the past that we could.
If you want an Aesop’s Fable, just the economic ruin, I swear to God, the place is as comprehensively ruined as a country could be in peacetime.
How do we do this? How do you be a rich person? Look to America. So you’re importing this way of living from America to stop yourself being Irish. So the American thing — I mean, I love American culture. My favourite writers are American. I love American writing. I love American music. But the model of America that was being brought in, people didn’t know what that meant. People didn’t know what it meant to deregulate business, people didn’t know what it meant to disassemble health care.
One of the things I cut out from the book was there was this bunch of kids in this band and they were obsessed with going to Williamsburg, [laughs] because you can’t become famous if you’re an Irish band, it just doesn’t happen, so you have to go to Williamsburg — that’s how you become famous. That was the sense: this is a country trying to crawl out of its own skin, which is really creepy. Like, crawl into what instead?
It was just another instance of pursuing a grand narrative and not really paying attention to what the corollaries of that narrative might be. We think America equals Starbucks and Knight Rider and Lady Gaga and stuff, but it doesn’t. America is a huge country with 30 thousand gun deaths a year. And Ireland, genuinely, if you want an Aesop’s Fable, just the economic ruin, I swear to God, the place is as comprehensively ruined as a country could be in peacetime.
You’re not in the Holocaust if you’re reading a book about it
It’s a very funny book, but it’s a very dark book, too. Was the darkness something you envisioned from the very beginning when you were writing the short story, or did that come later?
No, it was right in there from the beginning, yeah. Certainly.
There’s an underlying sense of injustice running through the book and you conclude the novel in a way that we get a only a half-happy ending. The characters find a certain resolution, but at the same time we still have the Automator carrying on.
I had a different ending first of all. I wanted it to be this opera at the end, where Howard’s girlfriend comes back, but it just felt wrong. That’s just not what would happen. The school’s gonna win. Whatever blips or bumps they may hit, this school has been around since before the inception of Ireland as a country. It’s so bound up with power that it’ll prevail and it’ll always prevail, and it will adapt itself to whatever new way the country is describing itself. So now the Automator is this ostensibly new breed of principal because he’s a layman not a priest. But it doesn’t make a difference whether he’s a priest or not because the mentality is still the same, the mentality is still of protect the school at all costs, push the school’s agenda, and if anybody doesn’t fit the school’s very narrow conception of what it is to be a good person, then they get squashed.
It’s a dark ending for the book, but that’s the way the world is! You can’t fight City Hall. The gap between rich and poor is growing and growing. The Pentagon’s projection for how the world will look in 50 years is based upon continuing divergence between rich and poor. And nobody cares: that’s the bottom line. On a macro level, it’s no use to try to change things. How do you do that? How do you when 2 billion people who are under the poverty line? On the macro level, you can’t. But on the human, interpersonal level, you can still try and be a good person, you can still try to take care of each other.
Humour’s a very important way of cutting off any temptation for a writer to aggrandize him or herself by virtue of writing very dramatic material.
I wasn’t trying to have a message or anything like that, but I felt like at the end of the book for Ruprecht and Lori — who are so different: he’s this gay, fat nerd and she’s this very superficial, beautiful girl — to find some way of connecting with each other, it was just a huge step forward for them. All the kids in the book, all of Skippy’s gang, they do go on this — I’m going to have to use the word “journey” — but they do go on this journey. Each has been lost in his own little utopian daydream, they’ve all be scrabbling to get out of whatever world they’re in. They learn they have to take care of each other, and that’s the only valuable thing that they have is each other. While that sounds maybe sentimental or hackneyed or whatever, it’s true.
So while I thought it would be dishonest to have — obviously, they’re not going to shut down the school — but at the same time on a micro level, Lori realizes that we’re all connected and we don’t realize it. If they realize this, then that’s going to have a micro-reverberation.
Is comedy something that comes easily to you? A lot of writers have to work hard at that aspect.
I really like writing comedy, and with this it sort of generated itself because the kids, they’re young, so you can have them saying anything you want. There would be real plausibility issues having adults saying the kinds of things that kids say. So it’s very liberating, and it generated a lot of comedy automatically.
‘What do you know about it?’ Mario rounds on them. ‘Eh, you silly nerds, all you know about is this foolish business of the theory of many dimensions. Well, I tell you about something that is happening in this dimension, and that is this Friday I will be boning countless ladies. And that, which I call Mario-theory, is something that you can see with your own eyes, and not just some equations that only gays can understand! So don’t come crawling to me looking for one of my many bitches in the sex orgy I am having, after you have struck out with every girl at the Hop!’
The thing about comedy is I don’t know if you can work at it. I genuinely don’t know if you can. I was watching this documentary about Flight of the Conchords and they were describing the writing process of the sitcom. This is how they write TV comedies: you’re sitting in a room, and there’s 10 writers around a table. I just don’t know how that works. I don’t understand how you can make yourself think of something funny.
Some of the way the book was constructed was, initially, in the very early stages, I’d think of a joke or some sort of humorous scene and try to steer the plot towards that. “How can I get Dennis and Mario to this point where they talk about —?” That would just be how my brain works. But having that cast of teenagers was very helpful.
The book was so dark; it was a strange place to be in for that amount of time. If you’re reading a 600-page book about sex abuse, eating disorders and this, it would be pretty depressing. That’s a hard road. So I think for the reader it helps to push the thing forward. And also, for me writing it, it helped me because it can get really bloody depressing going “Oh, this chapter. Jesus Christ, this situation is horrible.” When you came back over your jokes and your jokes still make you laugh, it would lift you.
I’m also really suspicious of books that are purely dark. It seems that it’s not true to the way people actually experience life. I don’t know if that’s true. Thank God [knocks on the table] I haven’t had anything truly harrowing happen to me, but my sense is that life isn’t in a tragic mode. There’s something almost self-aggrandizing about writing something dark, like it’s somehow morally superior reading a book about the Holocaust. You’re not in the Holocaust if you’re reading a book about it.
I think my favourite piece of art in the world is Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett, which I’ve seen many times. It’s really really bleak, but it’s also really really funny. Like, people’s pants fall down — that kind of thing. And it’s great! Even though life is bleak and horrific, that doesn’t make it noble or grand. Everybody’s still just scrabbling around the shit heap. I think humour’s a very important way of leavening or cutting off any sort of temptation for a writer to aggrandize him or herself by virtue of writing very dramatic material.
After the book was finished I saw this documentary about the First World War. They had this gazette in the trenches about themselves, and it was just full of jokes, like really dark humour. One of the gags that you would have as a soldier in the trenches, when you went down on patrol in no man’s land, there are all these bodies everywhere, and these limbs sticking out of the ground, and it could be the limb of your best friend. The guy goes, “When you come across a hand sticking out of the ground, you shake the hand.” That was the way that they dealt with it. That was the only way that they could get through this. They could realize that whatever they’d been told, that patriotism, defending honour, tradition, all of that, was nonsense and here’s why, but they had each other, and that was actually something real and worth trying to save. Humour was a way of lifting themselves out of the fucking inconceivable blackness and horror. So it’s something that I value very highly.
I’d like to write something without jokes sometime just to see if I could do it. My fear is it will be shit.
You feel like a dude in some hole, digging
If jokes come easy, is there an aspect of writing that you find especially difficult?
It’s all difficult. [laughs] I like dialogue. I’m sort of wary of saying anything is easy. I like the jokes that come into my brain. The difficulty with this book was this complicated plot. It took a long long long time to work out, to get that to resolve itself. That was really tough.
But I think the hardest part of writing is just you’re on your own all the time, and you genuinely don’t know if it’s any good. You knock off work and you think, “I don’t know if that was just garbage or if it was great or if it was somewhere in-between, or what,” and you have to keep on going, day after day after day. Over a long period of time you stop feeling like you’ve got something you have to finish, because you’ve dug yourself into this hole, you know? You feel like a dude in some hole, digging.
By and large I like writing. When I sit down to work, I’m not saying it’ll come easily, but I’ll write something. I’ll fill four pages or five pages over the course of four, five hours, whatever it is. It’s after that, it’s when you’re not writing, you’re like “Jesus Christ … ”
“What am I doing?”
That’s the really hard part. Yeah.
This interview has been edited for length.