Category Archives: Psychopaths

Writing the short novel

Eoin McNameeblogpic

Often criticised for stories that swerve uncomfortably close to truth, and yet hailed as a master of historical research, Eoin McNamee is one of those writers who never fails to cause a stir with his tales of dark, damp menace. The New York Times describes McNamee’s style as ‘refreshingly taut and spare, full of active verbs…He does not describe what his energetic characters are doing. He just lets them do it’. Eoin admits to having a strong interest in ‘people who have been corrupted,’ that this is what often drives his fiction. “My purpose as a writer is not to be controversial, it’s to explore themes and narratives…I draw things very close to me when I write and often emerge blinking into the sunlight”. For the next ten weeks he will be teaching a Writing The Novella course at the Irish Writers’ Centre on Monday evenings until 25th March. Here he answers a few strategic questions on the art of writing the short novel and why the term ‘novella’ is in need of overhaul:

the-blue-tangoSome of your novels, ranging from Resurrection Man to the The Blue Tango, are novelised versions of real life events, i.e. the Shankill Butchers and a pre-Troubles murder and fitting up of an innocent man. What are the pitfalls on basing fiction on factual events, and how close can you come to falling into what is known as ‘faction’? I’m still waiting for the ground to open under me, for someone to produce the definitive argument against the form, but it hasn’t happened yet. Defamation can be an issue. There is a moral dimension to entering other people’s lives and writing about them. I’ve always been wary about getting on an artistic high horse and claiming some kind of special pleading on the basis of art. I’d prefer to say that I’m drawn to these stories, that  I want to write about them and I’m a writer not a priest and am prepared for messy compromises and sins of intrusion into other people’s lives if it gets me a good book at the end of it. If there is a wrong involved, and there may well be, then that’s my business.

There are lots of novels that deal with the Northern Ireland Troubles such as your books (see above) and The Ultras. However, while many authors deal with individual incidents or ‘spots of time’ in the conflict, there are no contemporary authors that have done the ‘fictional grand sweep’ of 1969-1994. There’s no War and Peace, no Life and Fate, covering a range of characters and their stories over three decades of war. Is this overdue? Or is it even necessary? There’s no rule that says that events get the art they need or deserve. If someone wants to approach what happened in the North the manner of War and Peace, then you’d have to see how good the work is. Whether people would need it or not….I’m not sure that explaining things back to people is a function of fiction. I’m sure you could find the stories though – there was plenty of epic going on.

loveinhistoryWith the novella, can you define its difference from the short story and the full-blown novel? As far as I can make out the novella is simply a short novel. Or at least it should be. It doesn’t require the precision of the short story, the formal demands that put the story somewhere between a poem and a film script. In a short novel you can veer off course a little, digress, even slip up here and there. Let’s say it bears more resemblance to the novel than it does to anything else. Perhaps the problem of definition lies somewhere with the word novella itself. It sounds like something fragrant and a little racy that you’d find lying on the chaise longue in a Victorian lady’s parlour. Maybe we need a better name for the form.

Does the novella lend enough space and time for key characters to ‘fill out’ both psychologically and in terms of the narrative? Depends what you mean by filling out. You can define a character in a sentence or in a hundred pages. What more would you want to know about any character in The Dead for instance? (A short story) Or the old fisherman in the Old Man and the Sea? (A novella). What more story would be needed?

What is your opinion on experimentation with the prose form? Is it mere literary pretentiousness and showing off? Should writers stick with telling stories? The only criteria for judging technique is whether it works or not. As for defining what works, you pretty much know it when you see it. It would seem that there are limitations on what can be done in the prose form and that invention has run up against the buffers. But maybe asking questions about experimentation is missing the point. I admire people who can tell stories but what I’m drawn to are how wide open a writer’s eyes are, how they see the world and then tell it.

Your course Writing The Novella at the Irish Writers’ Centre kicks off on Monday 21st January, what will it entail, how will it be taught? It will involve I imagine a bit of discussion about what the novella is,  and then all the other things which go towards any piece of prose fiction. Story, prose technique, dialogue, character…It would be good if participants have a bit of work at the start to work on, and hopefully have added to it at the end of the course, but people shouldn’t feel under pressure. If participants come away feeling like better writers, and I have helped them towards that, then we’ll all have reason to be pleased.

Eoin’s ten-week workshop starts next week and is aimed at people who are working, or thinking about working towards completing a novella, those who have started a short story that looks as if it might outgrow the limits of the form, or a novel which may not fit the conventional length. It will be less concerned about the technicalities of what the form might be, and more concerned with getting words on paper, and hopefully having something to show at the end of the workshop. He is the author of fifteen novels including Resurrection Man (released as a film in 1998), Booker nominated The Blue Tango12:23 paris and Orchid Blue, and the novellas the Last of Deeds (shortlisted for the Irish Times Literature Prize) and Love in History. He was awarded the Macauley Fellowship for Irish Literature in 1990 and is Writer in Residence at Trinity College Dublin for the Hilary term, 2013. He lives in Co Sligo.

The still missing women

Summer 1995 and London was fast draining of charm. In my last year at Middlesex University, a young psycho was sauntering about North London slashing women’s throats. Anthony Peter Roach, age 24, from Hornsey, had stabbed a woman to death as she walked home from Turnpike Lane Tube station. Hours later he attempted to murder a woman a couple of miles away and over the weeks before he was caught, there’d been several attempted attacks on students. We were advised to go nowhere alone. I’d just moved from Stamford Hill back to Tottenham, the same week a woman was abducted in broad daylight from a bus-stop near Seven Sisters and gangraped for six hours, as they drove around taking turns. No-one at the bus stop rang for help, even though the woman was kicking and screaming as the 4-man gang dragged her by the hair and sped off. Newspaper reports later said the people at the bus-stop assumed the woman must’ve known the men…that it seemed like a bit of a ‘game’. After seven years in London, I packed up and left.

Back in Dublin there an was air of what I can only describe as immaculateness. At least that’s how it seemed to me during the first few months. Students linking each other through the archway at Trinity College eating apples, jugglers and quirky musicians on Grafton Street, market stall women bellowing their wares on Moore Street, a welly of new cafes splattered in colourful art with latte machines fizzling away. I took in the turrety architecture all over town in a way I’d clear forgotten to do before. I visited museums, took up a language class, went on a a guided tour of the State Apartments and Viking ruins of Dublin Castle for a snitch at £1.75 (Irish pounds). The place was thriving and I was home! Four months later that feeling of inviolability vanished when 21-year-old JoJo Dullard was plucked from the streets of Moone in Kildare, never to be seen alive again. She was abducted, abused, murdered, buried, silenced: both her family and Gardaí believe so.

JoJo Dullard, missing since November 1995

I obsessed about JoJo’s terribly sad tale from the off. Dublin was so expensive and she’d dropped out of her beautician’s course to take up a job in a pub back home in Callan, Co. Kilkenny. I remember reading that her sister Mary was ‘delighted’ with the decision as she’d always worried sick about her in the mean grip of the unpredictable capital. The awful crawly coincidence of ordering that last drink in Bruxelles (a pub I drank in with my mates) and missing the bus home. Hitching on roads that perhaps we all hitched along in the 1980s/90s at some stage (I know I did, and often late at night too, coming back from parties in Kildare or as far away as Galway). JoJo was used to hitching in this manner: most rural teenagers and young adults were. But it was late, she was in a hurry, probably terribly panicked about just getting home. She’d travelled to Dublin that day to pick up her last dole payment and sign off for good. According to her family, she wasn’t even going to bother. That small detail really got me.

I later wrote a short story about that dark cold November night, trying to imagine the moment when JoJo ’knew’ something was wrong. I described the landscape as ‘….dark countryside, potted with grubby fields and grimy ditches, mucky mountains that would hardly be classed as mountains compared to the Jura or the Pyrenees. Lonely out-of-the-way places good for trapping animals and smashing up stones.’ I thought of all the missing women who had been struck down in their prime ‘with lump hammers, with plastic bags over their heads, with hard shattering punches, choked by the grasping hands of mad men’. That the moments in which the missing women met their deaths were really and truly the stuff of every woman’s harshest nightmare. And I thought of JoJo, spotting something peculiar in his car, the awful foreboding when his tone may have changed, when she knew, undoubtedly, what he was going to attempt next. ‘Even in the closing seconds when your brain is fizzing, popping, fading, you know not to bother making sense of it,’ I wrote in my short story. But in reality it’s completely impossible to imagine and only the sick can ever really get there.

Larry Murphy © Carlow Nationalist

Larry Murphy walked free from Arbour Hill Prison early today, whizzing off into the dawn in a dark grey taxi. Some reckon he’ll stay in Dublin, others say he might head over to the UK soon. His brother Thomas was on radio earlier saying he should never have been released. Either way he wasn’t letting Gardaí know of his plans and he also refused a flat on Dublin’s Northside, where police could’ve kept him under careful surveillance. I mention him here because he’s been previously considered a prime suspect in the case of JoJo’s disappearance and in Annie McCarrick’s and Deirdre Jacob. He’s never assisted police with their enquiries in this matter and neither has he ever been charged in relation to the three missing women. A Garda I once interviewed said it was utterly chilling how he’d simply smirk and stay quiet, when asked about them. He also refused therapy, resisted any remorse for the brutal rape and attempted murder of a Carlow business woman in 2000 (which landed him in jail). The only comment he ever made about her was: “She’s alive, isn’t she?” Much of his time was spent in prison carving wooden toys for the children of staff and various charities. He even made a podium for the Special Olympics, by all accounts: a model prisoner.

Despite the medieval braying from the tabloid press that he’ll strike again and soon, I personally don’t believe for a nanosecond that Larry Murphy is going to put a foot wrong for a very long time. He can wait. He can play with the authorities and the public. Memories will sustain him. This day is a very special one for him after all. Even just the God of small things: he hasn’t seen any of our modern capital’s hallmarks for a start: the Luas, the spire, etc. There’s a lot to take in. Especially the reams of happy young women pacing along the city streets, tired women too, stomping home from work. Women who will have no idea who he is or what he’s done. It’s been an age since he was able to glance sideways at strangers, with every ounce of his civil rights protected. The fact remains that there are dozens of Larry Murphys out there, a lot of whom we’ve handily forgotten. The likes of Paddy O Driscoll from Fermoy in Cork, released from prison in 2004 after serving a sentence for raping a young mother: six months later he bludgeoned another woman over the head with a brick, knocked her unconscious and raped her for over an hour. There are literally too many of these incurable psychopathic rapist and murderer types to recount here, in one blog.

For the time being the public is concentrating on Larry and the obscenely Draconian laws that allow for an affirmed ’critically dangerous’ person to roam our streets with freedom honoured and upheld and intact.By contrast the families of the missing women have felt very unsupported; not just with the formal investigsations but also with funding and resources. I wrote an aritcle in the middle of the boom about the Missing Persons’ Helpline being shut down due to ‘lack of funds’ (31st March 2005). On the same day it was reported in the media that ‘one million euro mortgages’ in the nation’s capital were the new-fangled norm. While the property pages boasted that the boom was bigger and better and louder than ever, families of Ireland’s disappeared slumped back in bankrupt silence.

JoJo's sister Mary Phelan, at the monument for the missing in Co. Kilkenny

I think too of JoJo’s family today, and the families of all the other missing women, trying very hard to avoid the horrible hype of Larry’s freedom. It’s a daily grind for these people just to forget. And of course without any bodies or DNA evidence, there is little or no hope of the missing women cases ever being solved. There’s scant hope too because Garda searches for these women in almost all cases were hideously delayed during the first few crucial days. Some of the families would later travel unaided to America to ask for help from the FBI because they felt so ignored by the Irish authorities. In Jo Jo’s case it was even suggested to her family that she may have got the boat clear out of Ireland altogether of her own accord due to ‘personal problems’. You can read the individual stories in a Sunday World book here:
There’s a photo of JoJo that always sticks out in my mind, back in the 1980s, sitting in her bedroom smiling away, a WHAM poster carefully sellotaped to the wall. An ordinary teenage girl on the brink of everything. Back in the day when the Irish countryside in which she lived was wild and uncultivated, when young men like Larry were out hunting for animals to tear up alive. Long before the ambush of boutique-style hotels took over or the reality sunk in of how utterly easy it is to murder, bury, and get away with it.

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This post originally appeared on the Anti Room blog from August 12th, 2010. To read comments click here