David Peace

I’d a really engaging half-hour chat with Yorkshire’s finest this morning. He talked plenty about Walter Benjamin, Johnny Giles and old Big Head but for legal reasons left most of it off the record. But here’s a few of the things we did talk about for a feature on CultureNorthernIreland ahead of his appearance at this year’s Belfast Festival at Queen’s.

davidpeaceWill this be your first time in Belfast?

Yes. Obviously when you grow up in the UK in the 1970s Belfast has a kind of presence in your life as a place that is always there but that you have never been to… or ever dared go. But I will be back here again. The book after next is about (Harold) Wilson and (Margaret) Thatcher in the 1970s, so there is a strong Irish dimension. I’ll need to go to Belfast and Dublin to do more research for that.

When did you start writing?

I started when I was about eight years old. I think it was because my dad was a teacher but he wanted to be a writer. Every night after tea he would go upstairs and write.

Was your father ever published?

No, but from the age of eight I was writing pretty much continuously. When I was 11 or 12 I did more comic book stuff and then when I was a teenager in bands I was writing lyrics. But I’ve always had notebooks on the go, dating back to about 1974.

Your books all deal with historical events. Why?
I’ve always used writing as a way to understand living. If not I don’t really see the point of it. The Red Riding Trilogy and GB84 was a way to understand the place I grew up. The Tokyo books were a way to understand the place I was living in. It really is quite straightforward.

Do you think there has been a turn to historical fiction in recent years?
Story-telling has always been historical. To me the weird thing has been these novels about nothing that we have been inundated with for the past 10-15 years. If you go back to Beowulf or the Icelandic sagas or even Finnegan’s Wake, they are all ways of telling the story of a people. I think history and stories are almost the same thing. Story-telling can be escapist but I think that is really quite a recent development.

Do you find it difficult to write about the past?

The problem is always perspective. I remember after the twin towers were attacked Martin Amis, Zadie Smith and all these people were writing about it and I was just thinking ‘What can you possibly write about this? What do you know about this?’ and the answer is ‘nothing’, it was all ego.

People often say to me ‘why don’t you write about now?’ But what is ‘now’? How can you write about now? People writing about Blair and the Iraq War, that is just journalism. I’m deeply suspicious of fiction about the recent past. You need distance and time to be able to contemplate an event fully.

As a writer, is it difficult to deal with criticism?
I suppose it comes down to some innate arrogance or contrariness, but I don’t mind criticism. I have a very low of opinion of The Guardian and what I call ‘literary London’. With the last book, Occupied City, some people were saying ‘he murdered a good story’. But I set out to make an anti-crime novel – a novel against what the crime novel has become in our society – so while these reviewers were trying to be negative they were actually proving that I succeeded in what I set out to do in the book.

The Damned United was also heavily criticised, but by people within the football world. How did you react to that?
The important thing to remember is that The Damned United is a novel. I did research it as much as I could, there is even a bibliography at the back, but the characters are all my own. That people would read the book as truth means that they are stupid enough to mistake my name for Brian Clough. The irony is that while I dramatised scenes and characters I didn’t stray that far from the public record.

In a way a controversy was started out of the nothing. When I was writing the book it never crossed my mind that it would upset anybody. I didn’t think there was anything in it that didn’t reflect the public record. It was well known that Brian Clough liked a drink and used profane language in the company of others.

If I was to write a novel about the last days of Edgar Allan Poe nobody would bat an eyelid – in fact, I’d probably win a prize for it. But to write a book about a football manager, that is something you shouldn’t do.

You are currently writing about Japan after the Second World War. Why does this interest you?
Everything that modern Japan (where I lived for 15 years) is was kind of formed in the American occupation. Every aspect of legal and political life in Japan in 2009 dates back to the seven years of the American occupation. With Occupied City and the new book I’m writing now I have tried to broaden it out because I think there is a relevance to the West now. In a way we all live in occupied cities. I hope the Tokyo trilogy works both on a historical level and in the western world in 2009.

What are your future plans?
I’m currently working on Resurrected, the last of the Tokyo trilogy. Then it’s a history of the UK from 1967 to 1984, which will be a very long book.

You’re written eight novels in ten years. How are you so prolific?
I often have books going on simultaneously. Also I only want to write 12 novels in total, and I’ve always known what these will be. That definitely helps.

Rachel Cusk – Domestic Disturbance

Interview with the prize-winning novelist from Sunday Business Post 20/09. Cusk’s new book, Bradshaw Variations is out now and well worth a read.

Carl Jung never defined an archetype of the domestic goddess, but then again the Swiss psychoanalyst never spent an afternoon in the company of Rachel Cusk. Still stunningly attractive at 42, the bronzed Canadian-born mother of two marries a catwalk model’s figure and poise with the sharp intellect and caustic wit of a prize-winning novelist. Nigella Lawson she most certainly is not.

rachelcusk1It is late afternoon when we meet in her small, stuffy hotel in Edinburgh’s Georgian New Town, not far from Charlotte Square, where, the following morning, Cusk will read at the city’s prestigious book festival. She has come north to publicise her latest novel, The Bradshaw Variations, a slight but engaging account of a year in the life of three brothers and their respective families.

If the train journey from Brighton has tired her out it doesn’t show. She is alert and loquacious, talking about everything from the rather hideous brown leather sofa she perches on – ‘It’s like someone’s sitting room, isn’t it?’ – to why, after seven novels, she is still writing about the minutiae of ostensibly humdrum everyday life.

‘It is seen as a political choice to write about domesticity but really it isn’t. I just refuse to make things up. I don’t write about drug addicts or people that are underprivileged because that is a kind of life I know nothing about. My material is what is around me at a given time, and that is what I have to use.’

Cusk’s prickly defensiveness is understandable. This is one domestic goddess unafraid to speak her mind about affairs of the heart, or the home. Until A Life’s Work – a dark, unsettling account of impending motherhood written around the time of the birth of her first child – was published she was a moderately successful, well-respected literary writer. After, she became the scourge of Middle England, particularly its female half.

‘I was completely harangued by these women journalists who were all trying to shut me up, suggesting that I was some sort of evil, child-hating mother,’ she says, nervously running spindly fingers through her long, dark, shiny hair.

Cusk is not alone in writing less than enthusiastically about motherhood and child-rearing – recently Ayelet Waldman, novelist and wife of Michael Chabon, stoked controversy in the US by expressing similar opinions – but why do these views provoke such opprobrium?

‘The very same people who got so angry at me for saying these apparently dreadful things about having babies and looking after babies, my guess is that they were really much angrier than me about it. That they hated it more than me. That this taboo emanated from their own worst fears about themselves: that they would not be able to conceal their profound ambivalence about the whole thing.

‘I think the fear is that if anybody started giving these women encouragement who knows what they might do? Chop off their children’s heads, murder their husbands, run away from it all,’ she smiles winsomely.

She is adamant that the reaction to A Life’s Work ‘didn’t change my writing’, but it is hard not to see 2006’s Orange-prize shortlisted Arlington Park as something of a rejoinder to her detractors. In a vision of suburbia that owes more to John Updike than JG Ballard, the novel follows the lives of five young women in a leafy ‘burb over the course of one rainy day: all are married, all are well off, and all are crushingly frustrated.

For Cusk, art alone offers a viable route out of this insidious, middle-class ennui. ‘I think of art as the home of certain things that are indispensible to life and if you never find them, if you never meet them, then that is a sad life to have lived,’ she says. The Bradshaw Variations is peppered with characters searching, but rarely finding, creativity in their lives. As such, the novel is less a story in the traditional sense and more a protracted, thought provoking, character-driven interrogation of what it means to live well.

The question of what constitutes a good life (or a bad one) has clearly vexed the writer throughout her adult life, so much so that at times our conversation feels a little like Greek Philosophy 101. She is most comfortable speaking in a veiled language of Platonic abstractions; nouns like ‘form’ and structure’ recur endlessly, especially when she talks about middle-age, a time of life she shares with her new novel’s central characters, Thomas Bradshaw and his wife Tonie.

‘The real difficulty and beauty of middle-age is that you are trapped in a form, and that form is your family. The parameters of that form are very fixed, and you can’t go outside them because it you do you have violated family life and you have ruined it. So you have to express yourself within this confined structure if you want your life to be beautiful.’

For a writer renowned for compassionate, often painstaking renderings of domestic life, when it comes to discussing her private affairs Cusk is remarkably reticent. I know from my research that she is married to photographer Adrian Clarke (her second husband), with whom she has two daughters, but my questions reveal almost nothing concrete about her family – except, that is, for her parents.

She grew up in LA, she tells me, where her father was an accountant – ‘Have you seen the Godfather? I reckon that is quite close to what it was like to be an accountant in LA in 1972.’ At the age of 8 her English parents, ‘Catholic, stuffily brought up people who went to California to let their hair down but found it frightening’, decided to move Cusk and her three siblings to rural Sussex. ‘They had this idea of England as an idyllic place,’ she says, staring off into the middle distance as if to emphasise an unbridgeable detachment from her past.

‘My childhood was so peripatetic. We were uprooted an awful lot and in mind I always had this idea that living in the same house for your whole life would be a wonderful thing to be able to offer your children,’ she says. Surprising sentiments given that in her adult life Cusk has lived in London, Brighton, Oxford, Bristol, and, last year, decided to move her entire family to Italy.

‘I was desperate to get away. I felt the walls were closing in on me and I wanted, needed, a good wander,’ she remarks of the three months in Tuscany that became The Last Supper, before adding, ‘but then I wanted to get back. Now I see the benefits of being a bit more stable.’

Domesticity, it seems, has not come as naturally to Rachel Cusk as initial impressions might suggest. She talks of ‘a very strong compulsion to know about ordinary life,’ but in the next breath reflects regretfully that she has not kept her life ‘as free’ as the artists she most admires; Virginia Wolff, WG Sebald, DH Lawrence.

Nevertheless, she maintains that great writing can, and does, emerge from the quotidian. ‘There are felicitous combinations of talent and available experiential material, like DH Lawrence, and that is amazing. But much more often the writer is a Henry James figure: a person that is socially ambitious living among and writing about other socially ambitious people,’ she says.

Socially ambitious she may be but after her Italian experience Rachel Cusk has no intentions of abandoning her style or subject matter anytime soon. ‘The idea of going and living in a place where I can’t understand the social structures from the very core of my being. I don’t think I could do that.

‘I think, if you are me, you are best off where you come from. That is my meat and drink, even if it is painful, even if it annoys other people, even if it annoys me. I don’t know what I would do otherwise. I might have to go and write brief, stylish novels about French people.’

Biography

Born: 1967

Background: Cusk studied at St Mary’s Convent in Cambridge before going on to read English at Oxford. She began writing Saving Agnes at 23, with her debut winning the Whitbread first novel award. She continued publishing throughout her 20s, winning the Somerset Maugham Award in 1997. ‘Back then I didn’t know where novels came from,’ she says. ‘The transformation was realising I had to bind together my own emotional experience with what I was going to write and that those two things had to be one and the same thing.’ Her personal exploration of motherhood, A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother, proved extremely controversial when published in 2001, and she has developed her interest in family dynamics and domestic life in her subsequent novels. Now living in Brighton she teaches creative writing at Kingston University, London.

Novels: Saving Agnes (1993), The Temporary (1995), The Country Life (1997), The Lucky Ones (2003), In the Fold (2005), Arlington Park (2006), The Bradshaw Variations (2009)

Non-fiction: A Life’s Work: On Becoming A Mother (2001), The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy (2009)

Friel’s trilogy a triumph

Review of the Brian Friel trilogy from Sunday Business Post 07/09: Brian Friel turned 80 this year and, as part of its tribute to the playwright, the Gate Theatre has reprised three works from his back catalogue: Faith Healer, Afterplay and The Yalta Game. After opening at the Sydney Festival, the trilogy transferred to Edinburgh’s King’s Theatre for the International Festival, which ends today.

Afterplay

Directed by Garry Hynes

Selected dates from September 12-19

Rating: ****

Anton Chekhov has provided inspiration and source material for many of Friel’s greatest theatrical triumphs. In Afterplay, he performs an impressive feat of theatrical alchemy, recovering characters from his two most famous adaptations to create a work that is as novel and inventive as it is poignant and touching.

afterplay120A dilapidated Moscow cafe is the scene of a chance encounter between a strong willed, prickly middle-aged woman – lovesick Sonya Serebriakova from Uncle Vanya – and a bumbling fantasist, Andrey Prozorov, spendthrift brother of the infamous Three Sisters.

With subtlety and verve, Niall Buggy and Frances Barber bring to life two souls haunted by pasts they can neither reconcile with, nor move on from. The financial legacy of her uncle’s hubris weighs heavily on Sonya’s shoulders, while Andrey pines visibly for a wife who has long since abandoned him.

Over the course of an hour and several large vodkas, each character’s sad collection of ‘fables’, ‘fictions’, ‘untruths’ and ‘lies’ unravel slowly and painfully. Andrey, it turns out, is not starring in La Boheme – he busks on the street so he can visit his jailbird son. And Sonya is hopelessly in love with her uncle’s drunken, married doctor.

Friel shows us individuals lost in their own imaginary worlds, waiting expectantly for the realisation of a hope that will almost certainly go unfulfilled. This fact Sonya accepts readily, if melancholically: ‘‘It is not the most satisfactory way to get through a life, but it is away.”

Garry Hynes’s unfussy direction complements Friel’s exquisite writing by drawing out its emotional depth without suppressing its lighter moments. Such intricate intermingling of light and shade, fantasy and reality, marks Afterplay out as so much more than a clever theatrical conceit well executed.

The Russian master would surely have approved.

The Yalta Game

Directed by Patrick Mason Selected dates from September 13-19

Rating: ****

Based on Chekhov’s short story Lady with Lapdog, The Yalta Game debuted in Dublin in 2001. The play takes its name from a novel game of seduction pursued by charismatic Muscovite Dmitri Dmitrich Gurov along the Crimean resort’s bustling promenades .With a love interest in tow, Dmitri gazes at wandering holiday makers and invents spurious, often titillating back stories for them.

During one such ‘‘daylong diversion’’, Dmitri befriends Anna Sergeyevna, an innocent young woman from near St Petersburg on a sabbatical from her older, domineering husband. In the unreal world of Yalta’s casinos and ferries, their flirtation quickly develops into a full-blown holiday romance.

But when Anna’s ailing spouse calls her home, the relationship with Dmitri is over. Or is it?
The-Yalta-Game-200
Faced with the mundane reality of their married lives, both characters slip into a world of imagination, a world where they are together forever in a perfect (and impossible) union. Lost in his fantasies, the once cocksure Dmitri is driven by love – or more accurately longing – to doubt everything in his life: ‘‘things that once seemed real now become imagined things.”

Over 50 finely-crafted minutes, Friel reveals the depressing emptiness that leads Anna and Dmitri into a long-distance affair that both know is doomed but neither can end. It all flows elegantly, aided by Patrick Mason’s simple production and Liz Ascroft’s spartan set – a handful of bare wooden chairs sit scattered across the stage.

Both players are excellent: Ristéard Cooper’s Dmitri is animated, loquacious and confident, Rebecca O’Mara’s Anna the perfect mix of vulnerable beauty and coldhearted duplicity.

The Yalta Game is a short play, and the razor-sharp exchanges between the couple are delivered almost without skipping a breath. This reviewer would have preferred more time to savour the dialogue’s cut and thrust. But then time is the one thing star-crossed lovers never have to spare.

Couchsurfing in NYC

I’ve written and spoken about Couchsurfing before in the Irish media and now I’m having my tuppence worth on the other side of the pond. To be honest, I love the idea of meeting random strangers and exchanging cultural what-nots but it can be seriously hit and miss…in this feature in NYC’s hip L Magazine I reflect on a fairly hairy experience couchsurfing in Brooklyn last year. Still was an experience I guess…

A Traveler’s Nightmare: Couchsurfing in NYC
Tourists, like neo-liberals, are all for doing more with less. It’s a natural human impulse to want to see the world, and to do it as cheaply as possible. Parsimonious traveler that I am, New York’s vertiginous hotel prices long kept me away — that is until I heard about a new travel craze that puts would-be visitors in touch with like-minded people and their spare beds (or, more precisely, couches).

‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ I wondered as I got online and found a couple in Brooklyn willing to house a struggling arts journalist and his girlfriend for a weekend. Random strangers, an air mattress in Williamsburg, no private space — in retrospect the danger signs should have been flashing bright amber, but I was too excited about CouchSurfing in New York to notice, or care.
L Magazine
Set up five years ago by Casey Fenton, a 27-year-old from Hawaii, CouchSurfing has a simple concept: instead of paying a packet for holiday lodgings, enjoy free hospitality from one of the 780,000 CouchSurfers registered in more than 180 countries.

Underpinning the system is a philosophy reaching well beyond free accommodation. ‘Surfers’ can bring their host gifts, cook dinner or offer to help around the house in return for a bed and expert local knowledge, but the most valuable reward most users seem to get from the site is the exchange of ideas and cultures, and the creation of international friendships.

Joining is straightforward. Sign up, create a profile, populate it with witty aphorisms and photographs of yourself looking friendly and you’re ready to begin contacting members in places you want to visit. (Although some hosts prefer that a friend who’s also a member vouches for you, so they know they’re not getting a psychopath.)

The basic house rules are easy, too. Be a respectful guest (a gift often goes down well but is not obligatory), clean up after yourself and, if other surfers are coming to your area, and it suits you, reciprocate.

It might all sound a bit too rough and ready, but if you don’t have a phobia about staying with strangers, then CouchSurfing can be a great way to travel – and to save money. In the past year I’ve slept on floors and couches and made friends in Germany, Spain and the UK.

I soon realize, however, that New York poses quite unique problems for would-be CouchSurfers. First off there are just so many couches to choose from. Iceland has less than 500 registered hosts, in New York there are well over 6,000 putatively willing to have a guest.

I say putatively as when I start searching for a suitable host for my girlfriend and I a different story emerges. As befits the city itself, New York hosts display plenty of quirks and peculiarities — not least typing ‘be clean’ in upper case and surrounded by exclamation marks. Others include strange requests about background and ethnic origin and levels of education in their profiles. I may be a graduate but I would never make a university education a sine qua non for sleeping on my couch — unlike some New York CouchSurfers.

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