Skippy Dies, then goes for lunch

Paul Murray (pic from beatrice.com)

Paul Murray is reading this Friday at the Irish Writers’ Centre’s ‘Lunctime Readings’ series. He’s the author of two novels: An Evening of Long Goodbyes (Penguin), which was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award and nominated for the Kerry Irish Fiction Award. His second novel Skippy Dies (Hamish Hamilton) was shortlisted for the 2010 Costa Book Awards and longlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize. Skippy Dies has been described as funny, rude, dark, sad, ambitious, imaginative, surreal, briliant. The Guardian said it was ‘one of the most enjoyable, funny and moving reads…a rare tragicomedy that’s both genuinely tragic and genuinely comic’, while the Irish Independent dubbed Murray’s characters ‘so three-dimensionally drawn and brought to such vivid life that they may haunt your dreams.’ Here, the author discusses loneliness, capitalism, posh schools, suburbs, butter churns and how becoming a writer is no different to becoming a plumber, pilot or podiatrist:

A novel set in a posh Dublin school is a far cry from the worlds of Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown or Dermot Bolger’s Finglas. Did you deliberately choose a radically different social setting with “Skippy Dies?” Or was this a purely instinctive, natural narrative backcloth? Well, I didn’t choose it just to be different. It was a world that I knew very well, which had the added attraction of having been somewhat under-represented in Irish books. In fact I had the suspicion, rightly or wrongly, that that world, the ‘posh school’ as you call it, and the boring, anonymous suburbs where so many people live now, weren’t seen as being worth writing about. They were seen as being less ‘Irish’, less authentic and therefore less fit subject for literature than more ‘real’ settings like the west of Ireland, for instance. That idea, that some places and some people are more real than others, and that we should all be writing novels about old peasant women scrubbing their butter churns, really bothers me. Maybe the suburbs are less real and less authentic. But the people living there are still people, and their experiences of this unreal world are absolutely real. So I wanted to write about that world I knew so well, and I wanted to write about it via teenagers – they’re the ones who experience suburbia most directly, because they’re stuck there. And again, teenagers seemed to be seen as kind of infra dig in Irish novels, so I wanted to give them their turn. 

The Guardian flatteringly described the book as a ‘hilarious satire on modern Ireland‘? Did you set out with that intention? Was this a work principally of satire? I’m not really that comfortable with tags like comedy or satire or whatever, like your book can only be one thing. I wanted to tell the story of these characters as faithfully and honestly as I could. There’s a lot of humour, because most of the characters are teenagers and they act in quite an unguarded and extreme way, but it’s mostly realistic and I’m not setting them up to be laughed at. The word ‘satire’ to me conjures up images of the author mocking the foibles of humanity from some great height – everyone’s a grotesque, and their entire world is revealed to be fundamentally deluded and ridiculous. I didn’t have any interest in writing a book like that. That said, setting the book in this school was a useful way of looking at bigger changes that were happening in the country – because these were the most privileged children of the people who were reaping the benefits of the economic boom. They were handed this new world that generation had created, so they were at the coal-face of that new morality and that new attitude to money and materialism. 

Although a comic novel there’s a darkness beneath it especially with menacing figures like Carl, how much of this came from your own experience of school days and the adolescent ‘jungle’? I went to secondary school in the 1990s, which though it wasn’t that long ago chronologically feels, from this vantage, almost prehistoric. So many interesting things have happened since then – the internet, the war on terror, mobile phones, X-Factor – and I wanted to write about those things. For all their supposed privilege, I think in some ways the kids in Skippy have a harder time than my generation did. Their world is so much more mediated, the forces of capitalism have a much tighter stranglehold on them so they have even more impossible expectations to try and fail to live up to. Compared to now, my time in school was quite benign. Certainly, it was a jungle, and there were large, terrifying creatures with BO lurking around every corner. But if you were fast, you could outrun them. How can you outrun Facebook?

Ruprecht concludes that our universe is built out of loneliness. Amid all the comic episodes and teeny angst there is this philosophical undercurrent via string theory, etc. Is this a central theme in your work, the loneliness, not only of teenagers, but man in general? Ruprecht comes to this conclusion shortly after Skippy’s death, when he’s hit rock bottom. The book doesn’t leave him there though. To say the universe is empty, that man is alone-in some ways those are quite self-aggrandising, egoistic notions. They ignore the infinite ways that we’re tied to each other, and they ignore the duties that we have to take care of each other. That seemed like a much more interesting idea to explore than this romantic-melancholic of loneliness, which perpetuates this fantasy of uniqueness, that no one has suffered quite like you have, and that your aloneness is somehow qualitatively superior to everyone else’s. Not to be glib but people in a famine don’t spend much time talking about man’s fundamental loneliness. 

Any advice for aspiring writers!? Becoming a writer is no different to becoming a plumber or pilot or podiatrist. There’s no magical secret. You just have to work really hard. For me, regularity is really important – a set routine. Writing a novel is like running a marathon. It takes a long time, and although you’ll have your moments of grace and exaltation, inevitably some of that time it will feel like a pure slog. It will feel tedious and dull, and you’ll feel disillusioned, and the temptation will arise to give up or set it aside and work on something else. At times like those, the routine may be what carries you through – you keep going simply because that’s what you’re used to. And pretty soon you’ll find yourself re-engaging and getting excited again. But to finish a novel, you need the bloody-mindedness to persevere with it, even when you’ve forgotten why.

About junecaldwell

June's short story collection Room Little Darker is published by New Island Books in May 2017. She's a prizewinner of The Moth International Short Story Prize and has been shortlisted and highly commended for many others including: Calvino Prize in Fabulist Fiction, Colm Toíbín International Short Story Award, Sunday Business Post/Penguin short story prize, Lorian Hemingway (USA), RTÉ Guide/Penguin Ireland and Over The Edge New Writer of the Year. In 2010 she received an Arts Council of Northern Ireland (ACNI) bursary for fiction. Her work has been showcased at the Italo-Irish Literature Exchange in Nogarole Rocca / Verona (May 2012), Read For The World (June 2012) and Bloomnibus (June 2013) at the Irish Writers' Centre, Galway Pro Choice (Aug 2013), Over the Edge Galway (Dec 2013), Stinging Fly Spring Launch (March 2014), At The Edge, Cavan (May 2014), The Winding Stair Prizewinner's Reading (Sep 2014), One City One Book: DLR Lexicon Barrytown Trilogy reading (April 2015), Hodges Figgis Book Festival (Oct 2015), Bogman's Canon Fiction Disco (Nov 2015, April 2016), Doolin Writers' Weekend (March 2016), Five Lamps Arts Festival (Mar 2016), National Concert Hall: Kevin Barry Recital Room series (April 2016) and the Eastrogen Rising: A Rebel Cabaret. Her creative writing has been published in Woven Tale Press, The Moth, The Stinging Fly, Literary Orphans and Popshot, as well as a non-fiction biography of a Trouble's moll with Gill and MacMillan in 2006. Her short story 'SOMAT' is published in The Long Gaze Back: The Anthology of Irish Women Writers, edited by Sinéad Gleeson/New Island. Journalism: The Gloss, The Guardian, The Observer, Sunday Times, Sunday Life, Sunday Tribune, Sunday Business Post, Sunday Independent, Ireland on Sunday, Irish Independent, as well as a number of women's magazines and trade journals.

Posted on February 6, 2012, in Books, Popular Culture, Youth and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Skippy Dies is a book on my MUST READ list – great blog post – Well worth a visit to IWC if free lunchtime friday:)

    • Hi Louise, yes the lunchtime talks are indeed free (as most lit-stuff is at the Irish Writers’ Centre), every Friday @1.05pm from 10th Feb through March, organised in association with Poetry Ireland. The readings alternate between prose and poetry, offering audiences the chance to experience a wide-range of literary talent. I’m hoping to nab more of the writers for similar Q&As which I’ll publish on here as well as the IWC blog. The full line-up is:

      February 10 – Paul Murray
      February 17 – Paul Grattan
      February 24 – Shane Connaughton
      March 2 – Geraldine Mitchell
      March 9 – Anne Sharpe
      March 16 – Paul Perry
      March 23 – Mary Costello
      March 30 – Denise Blake

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