John Toomey’s first novel Sleepwalker was an expertly cynical debut; something of a sprawling segue into Dublin as it’s then to be known to the reader and its excesses are as hilarious and compelling as they are cutting and insightful. That book is essentially what I think of as a hedonistic pipe dream put down on paper with nothing held back, with all the literary savvy of any of the contemporary masters describing chaos in the city, while retaining an originality that’s marked Toomey as an important presence in contemporary Irish literature.
His second book, Huddleston Road, is first and foremost a departure from that cynicism and mania inherent to the first. I’d argue that fans of the first book will immediately know the author’s work when they begin reading his second but the shift away stylistically is undeniable; and quite impressive. Consider, for a moment, the first books of Jay McInerney, or Bret Easton Ellis, each American authors who began with dark comedic forays into metropolitan chaos. One could argue that McInerney has grown away from this over the years but he’s always retained some of that sensibility, and the same certainly goes for Ellis, ten-fold. Although I’m a tad hesitant to draw comparisons to the first books of either of those writers (of considerably different movements than Toomey) the general point I’m hoping to make is that the writer challenged himself in starting out with such a distinctly-crafted epic as Sleepwalker, and—all the 2nd novel mythos aside—Toomey has managed to show here a different set of literary chops, while retaining the maniacal attention to detail so prevalent in the first book.
It follows a young Irishman named Vic. Vic leaves Dublin for London early on in the novel and through no real preference of his own winds up teaching history and such to teenagers. Again, through each moment, each paragraph, each sentence, the importance of this book seems to be that wild attention to detail Toomey seems to have great control over. A young man standing at a party is never simply that, but an opportunity to explore the ramifications of standing at said party and the physical details of those present and the questions running through young Vic’s mind. At times it reads as a sort of summary of this character’s thoughts and yet the vivid moments of dialogue and scene give striking reality to each moment when you find yourself so ingrained in this character’s reactions to moments that you forget the moments themselves.
Because this will also be an interview, and because I’m hardly interested in giving a moment-by-moment account of the novel’s content, I won’t delve that much deeper into the goings on in Huddleston Road except to address perhaps the most important part: Lali. Lali is a girl Vic finds himself desperately attracted to with every moment that passes. She doesn’t seem interested and even acts like a bit of an asshole at first and yet this draws Vic slightly more to her so that when he’s finally given a chance to sit and speak with her his mind is torn asunder with thoughts and worries and chaos and yet he cannot help himself. This is, I’d argue, a love story. There are moments that make it considerably different than most love stories you’ve read and will read, but all the same there are tropes at play here that make this book a fresh spin on the old magic of two people falling in love in spite of terribly difficult circumstances, and the ramifications in both of their lives as a result of this.
GM: There’s a feeling in Huddleston Road where each paragraph is sort of a small narrative all its own, where each sentence goes barreling into the next and the details feel very close to Vic’s perspective. It made me think of early on in the book when Vic forsakes poetry “to record, with meticulousness, the important and, it should be said, the mostly extraneous details of his life,” and I was wondering if you might comment on the style in which this book was written.
JT: I think the style to which you are referring finds its origin in the fact that until the very latest stages of editing the book was written in the first person. It was a decision, late on, to change it to a third person narrative. It was John O’Brien’s suggestion, in fact. I had wanted to write a book that would be inside the head of somebody who really suffered, and was suffering. To show the progression of such suffering, the things people do to themselves, knowingly and willingly, but also, ultimately, to show how people drag themselves out of such experiences. The problem with that was I was also trying to tell Lali’s story, and the first person narrator wasn’t letting me do that in any plausible way. I wanted to write a story about two people, and that’s what the story is, and any experimentation or challenging the conventions only got in the way of the story. So, to be able to see the story from a multitude of angles, I needed an omniscient narrator. But there are, as John O’Brien pointed out to me, more than one kind of omniscient narrator. There’s the omniscient narrator who sees all and knows all and maintains a respectful distance from the characters, and then there’s the one that sees events through the eyes and experiences of a particular character; this one can, crucially, move beyond the narrow parameters of a single character’s vantage point though.
So John O’Brien suggested it, I gave it a go (after much muttering under my breath) and found he was right. More specifically, the story at times provides important information about Lali that Vic simply couldn’t know, or couldn’t plausibly reflect upon. Because if he had known and reflected upon it he would most likely not have been in the mess he was in. It boiled down to the integrity of the characterization really. You ask yourself, ‘Would Vic really say this? Or do that?’
Passages of this book—most of them, in fact—are written in a sort of manic detail, I’m thinking especially of the early descriptions of Lali as observed through Vic. Someone’s hair, though, hardly seems just their hair but an opportunity for exploration both within the minds of the other characters, and for the general reader. Was there distinct intent in giving this lucidity to certain passages balanced against the other, more simply descriptive passages of Vic’s daily life?
There is a sense that Vic’s life, a fairly pedestrian paced affair at best, is suddenly exploded upon by Lali. That’s the sense of the relationship that I had imagined and what I was attempting to create. So I suppose, although I’m not sure how aware I was of that specific contrast, it was what was happening. Simply put, Vic meets Lali and he’s intoxicated. Something about her, that elusive quality that draws one person to another. And initially this is a superficial, or an aesthetic quality – her skin, her hair, her nails, her lips, her chin. The descriptions are part of that style of narrative you already referred to; here’s this omniscient narrator who wants to tell Vic’s story, to show you the story through Vic’s eyes. He has other information he can show you too, but when he’s telling you about Lali, he wants you to see her as Vic saw her. And, for Vic, her psychological deterioration was mirrored by a slow deterioration of her beauty. Or perhaps, as her very person becomes increasingly submerged by darkness, she just appears less beautiful. The light went out of her eyes, she didn’t stand straight anymore, didn’t draw your attention, and so then you begin to notice that she hasn’t dressed, that she looks tired. The vivacious and flirtatious Lali could be wiped out, dead on her feet, but her strident personality made you overlook it. The descriptions of her were supposed to demonstrate how exotic she was to Vic. She was this force, something other, that appeared before him and he was captivated. So that he might be on his way to work, say, when suddenly – BOOM! – there’s Lali! Everything becomes technicolour, vivid, compulsive, excessive. The writing, manically detailed, is a reflection of Vic’s hunger for Lali, his desire to recognize and record every aspect of her. To consume her, even. He’s trying to preserve the moment, constantly, as if he intuitively realizes the ephemerality of it all. As if he’s afraid she’ll vanish if he looks away.
In Huddleston Road the notion of place takes on a role of particular importance considering it’s what propels the book from the beginning, as well as providing a context of expatriation and loneliness for Vic as things become heavier in London. Do you—like many an author from a notable place before you—feel place holds a great bearing over the movement of your stories? Does it provide anything for characters or situations that might otherwise not exist?
Place is significant, absolutely, but not necessarily the fact that it was London. For example, if you’ll allow me some latitude here, in Sleepwalker, Dublin was paramount. Dublin, the governing attitudes, the geography, the topography, the zeitgeist of that now absurd era, was a character in itself. The culture of that boom-time acted on all the characters. And it had to be Dublin, it couldn’t have been anywhere else. However, in Huddleston Road, all that mattered was Vic was not living at home. It didn’t have to be London. It could have been anywhere. What was important was that he was removed from his home, isolated. It is important that when he finds himself miserable on a Tuesday evening that he has nowhere really to turn. Because Vic living at home in Dublin, with the support structures of a place you have grown up in around him, would probably not have accepted the slow belittling effect that Lali had on him. But when you’re by yourself, being out on your own in a new city can cloud your judgment. It can sap your confidence. You become desperate for something to validate your time in another place – imagine leaving a city after years without a single person you might call a friend. Imagine disappearing from a city and not a single person even noticing, after being there years. The place you grow up defines you, in many ways, and it also dictates to a large degree your expectations of life. And for Vic to recreate for himself what he experienced all his life before London – a stable home, a happy place of compromises and goodwill – was never likely to happen with Lali. But his insistence on trying to get that round peg into that square hole frustrates him. It’s a red-herring, a decoy, and he follows it and loses his way. By the time he realizes it wasn’t the thing to do, he’s so enmeshed in Lali’s life that he simply has to learn to live with it. Had he met a girl as capricious as Lali in different circumstances, he might not have been so easily cowed, so easily seduced. He might have been more like James.
You mention in your Acknowledgements section of Huddleston Road the fact that this book has been with you for a very long time. Was this also the case with Sleepwalker? Is there any sort of protocol you follow before actually letting yourself write the book?
In the end, both books took about four years. Huddleston Road slightly longer, perhaps. Five, maybe. There are many reasons for that, from the simple logistical issue of having to do it while working a full time job. There’s a limit to how fast you can work while only having evenings and parts of a weekend to do it. And then there are the less easily identifiable ones. For some reason the process for both has been in and around four years. At least, that’s the point when I could see daylight with each book. I’m not convinced, even if I were in a position to write full-time, that it would happen any quicker. The work needs a gestation period. You need sometimes to leave it lying around the house and seep into the subconscious, into the realms of lateral thinking. Sometimes the solution to some impasse descends upon you while you’re unblocking the toilet, or driving to work. I tend to resolve difficulties with phrasing, with specific sentences or clauses, while doing something entirely different. I think writing needs that time to just sit there, maturing. That’s what I mean by saying I’m not sure even if I had the time that it would be done any quicker. It’s just that if I had more time I’d be less tired when I’m doing it.
As regards a process, after two novels I’ve not identified a pattern. I tend to know where a book will end and not much more than that. Characters tend to assert themselves early in the process and that can dictate where the book goes. But I really enjoy the nitty-gritty, the line editing and the shifting paragraphs about, and whole sections, and seeing what happens. It can be a real slog towards the very end, but I really enjoy all that. It’s a kind of sadomasochism. I tend to get the draft, the rough structure and the story down as quickly as possible and edit and stylize after that. One of the problem with Huddleston Road was I tried the reverse of that – I wrote and read back and re-read and edited as I went. I would always do that but with Huddleston Road I had in mind that I would have each part so well written that editing afterwards would be a much quicker process. It wasn’t, and, in fact, it made it more time-consuming. Because one of the advantages you have of writing a draft where nothing is pinned down and then coming back to it is that you can see the whole. And when you step back you begin to see the problems, the dead-ends, more clearly, as well as the opportunities to take the story a different way. You can’t do that when you’re in the thick of it. So as a result of my running with this erroneous theory, I spent a lot of time was chasing dead ends, spending days on paragraphs that never made it into the book.
Writing without any concrete plan means you’re probably better off getting the story down and shaping and aligning it after. It’s the illusion of coherent thought that we’re after. I haven’t actually developed a method is what I’m saying. It’s a bit haphazard. The best I seem to be able to do is clearly establish where it is going from the outset. I know the ending. I can see the final scene very vividly. You write towards that end, but with no precise idea of how to get there. You circle it, and probe blindly, catch glimpses of it from time to time; like trying to catch an apple bobbing in water with your teeth. Then the moment arrives, eventually, when I see the end is within grasp and duck my head for the apple and bite in. It’s like skeet shooting, maybe; you wait for it to cross your sightline and then you pull the trigger.
Being an author who’s penned what will certainly be called first and foremost a “love story,” though very much a contemporary slant on that theme, I wondered if you had any comments on the merits of this mode of boy-meets-girl, etc., and the possibilities for making it new—as you have, quite well I might add—in years to come?
It’s a love story, alright. I’ve no problem with it being described as such and I’ve no grand ideas regarding what I have or have not done as far as the conventions of the genre goes. I’m not much into genre or defined forms. Form is fitted to a given narrative, I think, rather than the reverse. You subvert the conventions when the narrative you have in mind cannot be served via the conventional. You don’t challenge the conventions unless you need to. Huddleston Road is a love story, I think. And there’s nothing particularly unusual about, I don’t think. The questions is whether the readers will buy into the story, will they invest in the characters? That remains to be seen.
That’s the way I see it, at least. And love stories are compelling stuff. We shouldn’t let the triteness of so much that is classed love story shut us down to the possibility of a good one – The Great Gatsby, Great Expectations, Anna Karenina, etc. It’s our most basic interest really – how two people meet, negotiate each other and how it all works out, or doesn’t. And I’m not for a minute suggesting any comparison between me and the authors of the aforementioned titles, but the trick is, I feel, to create compelling characters. That’s what I’m getting at here. Characters that the reader wants to know more about. And sure, once you’ve done that, these things, if properly conceived and executed, will naturally drift into a kind of social commentary, they will illustrate and make observations about the time they are written. But it’s the love story, not the social commentary, that keeps the reader reading. So then the story achieves both contemporary relevance and universal appeal.
But it’s all about characters, and the readers, and how those two get along. They don’t have to like them, these characters, but in my experience the reader lets you put them through all sorts of horrific stuff so long as the book’s characters have that innate integrity. As long as they are plausible as people. They don’t have to behave as you or I would, or be pleasant in any way, but they must be plausible.
The only thing I’ll say about the kind of love stories I write is that they’re all about love gone bust. And that’s because it’s infinitely more interesting than happiness. Sleepwalker was a love story too, of course. In many ways. It’s just that none of the love was reciprocated. It was a story yearning for love that could never happen. And that’s beginning to sound a lot like Huddleston Road, when I put it like that. The Edge, from U2, once said something along those lines about U2 – that every time they go into the studio they go in to make the same album. The thing that makes you write is a desire to tell this story that speaks of who you are. In your mind you have a perfect story. You’ll never write it, of course, but that’s what keeps you coming back. You’re trying to express something that speaks for you, that captures some essence of all you believe and feel. It’s unattainable but it is also a compulsive force. I think Faulkner described the dilemma of the writer being that, “The work never matches the dream of perfection the artist has to start with.” But it’s because you never quite achieve it that you keep returning.
You mentioned in our correspondence the comforts of writing with the “world-weary cynicism” present in your first book, Sleepwalker, the presence of which results in a cozy sort of matter-of-factness in that novel. There’s some level of this matter-of-factness at work in Huddleston Road, I’d argue—though certainly not as cynical—that left me far more engrossed in the moments and personally involved; whereas with Sleepwalker it was more entertaining to sit back and observe. Any intent or preference you’d like to discuss there?
Sleepwalker became comic, or satirical. It didn’t start out that way. It was early in the editing stage of Sleepwalker that I realized that Stuart was not a tragic figure, but a pathetic figure. He was spineless and cowardly and amoral, and when a character comes off the page like that the only way to handle him is with comic gloves. Whereas Huddleston Road is a book that is not avoiding the intimacy, though the characters are. It is aiming to strike directly at the heart, to move and evoke pity and anger and sorrow and heartbreak. The difficulty with this kind of book is that if it doesn’t work, and ultimately the readers will be the judge of that, it’s in very grave danger of coming off naff, or trite. You run the risk of being slammed, frankly, when you don’t hide behind cynicism and satire. It seems to me that one of the defining differences between British and American fiction is that British fiction is afraid to be seen to be taking itself too seriously, so it’s all satirical and cleverly ironic. As much as we like to see ourselves as different on this small island, we’re still demonstrably more British than we are American. We’re maybe a touch less emotionally retarded than the stiff upper lip, the gallows humour, the flippancy of British fiction, but not much. Writing this sort of thing, a straight love story, is in that sense a little out there. American fiction, by and large, seem to do a better job of taking the nuclear family apart and getting at the heart of the matter. But you can overdo all this earnestness too, and that’s where the British come in. Sometimes all you’ve got is laughter, and you just have to find it in among all the shite. That’s why I’m glad, for all it’s ‘seriousness’, that Huddleston Road is a short book. There’s only so many pages of this kind of stuff that a reader can endure. We shouldn’t take advantage of the reader’s patience and generosity. Not entirely, at least.
It’s a fairly ambiguous question to ask a writer, I’ll grant that, but considering the close proximity in which your first two novels have been published, and the already-existent massive slew of writings available on your site (I’ve begun reading through your essays and find myself just as engrossed and delighted as in the fiction) I wanted to ask what one might hope to expect from John Toomey down the road? Do you see the novel as an area still holding much interest? Collected essays, perhaps?
The novel is the only thing. The only thing, to my mind. I know we’ve been announcing and re-announcing its inevitable decline now for quite some time, and that it is under immense pressure from TV, cinema, music, video games and all sorts of fast-food pleasures but it can still do things that none of those mediums can, in my opinion. No other form can penetrate the vagaries of the human heart and mind like the novel. Nothing illuminates the human experience with such completeness. Nothing else even comes close. This is why the film is never as good as the book – because words and the infinite variables in how they are arranged and interpreted present and evoke a plethora of images and ideas simultaneously. And each reader brings their own distinct vision. I mean, I can see Lali in my head. I know what she looks like, but I can assure you that that is not what you imagine, and a third person will bring a whole other vision of her into being. But if you put her in a film, well then the interpretation has been made by the director, by the casting people, and it’s very hard to get over that once it’s there in front of you. So the novel is everything. I’ve heard other writers talk about how their first love was film, or music or poetry, or whatever, and I always think, ‘Well, why don’t you do that then?’ Life’s short, it really is, do what you want to do.
The essays keep me match-fit, that’s their purpose really. And the odd Blog or half-arsed short story. I find the writing of a novel requires, in the first instance, long tracts of time stretching out in front of me – weeks, months during the summer. During term-time I find it difficult to maintain any momentum with the novels, so I try to keep myself going with these smaller pieces. But I’m not sure if they’re any good. I have them on the site with a view to showing people something, with a view to creating a body of work. But I’m at the beginning of the process. But that said, most of my day is spent teaching English, correcting English papers and trying to find ways to explain to people how you write, how to identify what is missing from a sentence and so on. And this is important to writing too, and my writing informs my teaching. It must. By virtue of having struggled through the writing of two novels I’ve learned things I would hope I can pass on.
I realize I’ve wandered off script again but let me make one more point and hope it creates that illusion of coherence that I mentioned earlier. I write knowing I have been published, at least twice, and that that must mean that at the very least I was capable of seeing a project through and that it was comprehensible to some audience, however small. In the absence of a publisher, which I accept is always a possibility, I will continue to write novels. Because it is how I filter my feelings, my thoughts, my beliefs, my values. It’s how I stay sane. It is my vocation. Not necessarily my job, obviously, but it is my vocation. It is the work that gives my life meaning. It is not for other people to decide that value, it’s a private matter, between me and my writing. Its value to me is mine to declare. And it’s not so much that I foresee my novels not being published, it’s that I comprehend the reality of the situation. I’ve written two novels and have been lucky to find, first in Somerville Press and now in Dalkey, two publishers who like what I have done. And although I count Andrew and Jane Russell at Somerville, and John O’Brien at Dalkey, among my friends, for that is what we have become, they run businesses. If the next thing I produce is rubbish they won’t publish it. So, while a work is still in production, while the writer still writes it, nothing is certain. When I finish the third, I’ll hand it over. And there’ll be an interminable and painful wait while they read over it, assess it, before coming back to me. They might say, ‘No.’ They might say, ‘Look, John, we like you but this one is off-the-wall.’ Or that it’s not as well written as what they had from me in the past. ‘Shop it around, by all means,’ they may say, ‘but it’s just not for us. Sorry.’ That has to be a distinct possibility. I live with that and have learned to write anyway. You write knowing that what you write may never make it further than a few kindly editor’s desks, who agreed to give it five or six pages on the strength of a mutual friend, but ultimately end up on their sizable recycling mountain. So, it’s novels all the way for me, whatever happens. There will, of course, be essays and short stories, too, along the way. But I think I might be finished with the Blog. I did that mainly to keep myself in the minds of potential readers and used my Facebook page to tell people a new one was posted. But somewhere in the middle of last summer I just became entirely disillusioned with that aspect of it. I was boring myself, and I really dislike Facebook, the whole inanity of it. And even though I was using as a promotional tool, I thought, ‘Who actually cares what I’ve put up?’ People aren’t going to my website because they saw it on Facebook. People who want to find me can google me and find my webpage very easily. Those who want to do that can do it. So I gave up on the Blog and I think, although I’ll never rule it out entirely, that it is retired.
Not being a Dubliner myself—though an avid fan of Joyce and Beckett—and considering your position as both a native, and a professor of English in Dublin, I was hoping you might expand beyond the two Irish namesakes of world literature and mention any scribes you feel haven’t gotten their proper due, globally.
Let’s start with the whole Professor thing. I couldn’t venture to talk of myself as a professor – I’m about two qualifications away from that. In terms of English all I’ve got is a BA degree and my experience of writing. I teach to teenagers, High School. So in terms of academia, I’m no bigshot, let’s put it that way. Depending on which group I’ve taught, if you asked them they might say I was a good teacher. That’s as confident as I’d be in those terms.
Secondly, as a reader I’m what the English comedian, Eddie Izzard, termed – thinly read. I came to all this literary stuff comparatively late in life. I always enjoyed English, or at least I did in my late teens. But I barely read at all until I was in University doing my English degree. So I was 21 before I started really reading, and I’m a slow reader at that. I’m in a state of perpetual catch-up. That said, not to down-play my credentials too much, I’m always reading something these days. If home alone, the TV would only go on to watch a soccer game, or something specific. I’m into Homeland right now. I watch that but otherwise I’d be more likely to fall asleep in my bed reading a book or sit down at the PC and do some writing of some sort. So I’ve been immersed in books for, say, 17 or 18 years, but I’m hamstrung by my late start.
So Beckett and Joyce. Beckett first. What I know of Beckett is what I studied in university, five plays or so. What I can say of Beckett is that although I’m no expert I find something profoundly human, and disturbing in his work. It’s the real deal. There’s something about the bleakness that is both heartbreaking and absurd. I’ve liked and found things in any Beckett play I came across.
Joyce? I’m even less of an expert. I’ve dipped in and out of Ulysses over the course of this last 17 or 18 years. While I enjoy certain parts and have a passing interest in theoretical discussions about his work, I’m not sure reading the whole thing is something I’m ever likely to achieve. As a very young man in university Dubliners was among my set reading. I didn’t enjoy it, but as I’ve alluded to already, I was in my infancy as a reader and it might just have been a case of me coming to it too early. Certainly there are other examples of books that I read and was simply unable for at the time and then upon reading them in more recent years I’ve realized that. So I reserve all judgments, or I temper them. I’m slow to criticize any other writer because I can’t help feeling that it might be just that I’m not sufficiently developed as a reader to appreciate the work. I’m particularly cautious in this way when commenting on the big guns of literature. On the few occasions when I have stuck my head above the parapet, I’ve regretted it. I’m not sure I’ve got the intellectual equipment to be casting aspersions on anybody else’s work.
As regards cotemporary Irish writers, I’m not among any literary set or group or community, if one such thing exists here, and only a few names come to mind. But I’m sure that’s more a reflection of my limited reading than anything else. Colm Toibín’s The Master, Colum McCann’s books – Dancer in particular – I’ve really enjoyed. Also Kevin Barry’s style of writing, his short stories, but I’ve not yet got round to a novel of his.
Beyond that, I don’t know what to tell you. My tastes are a mix of British and American fiction, although my association with Dalkey has brought me into contact with translations – Kjersti Skomsvold’s The Faster I Walk and Joao Almino’s The Book of Emotions the ones that stand out. Really, my reading is quite eclectic. I tend to follow the path one step at a time. A love of Martin Amis in university lead me to Julian Barnes and Bellow, which in turn lead me to Philip Roth and more recently Updike. And these authors led me to Flaubert and Kafka, whom I don’t enjoy as much as they do, evidently. But that’s very much how I read. I read a lot of interviews with authors I like. I’m really interested in talking about writing, how it happens, why we do it, and hearing what others say about it. I consider myself some to be the runt cousin of these guys, rather than their equals. I’m so distantly related that any genetic predisposition to writing has been cruelly diluted. I name-check them here just by way of acknowledging that these are the names that have influenced me, either through their own work or where their work has led me.
John Toomey was born in 1975 in Dublin, where he now teaches English at Clonkeen College. Sleepwalker is his first novel. Further information, including an extract from his forthcoming novel and some of his short stories, can be read on his website www.johntoomeybooks.com.
Grant Maierhofer is the author of The Persistence of Crows and the weekly column A Cabana of the Mind for Delphian Inc., his unrelated work can be found at GrantMaierhofer.Org. He lives in Wisconsin and is currently at work revising a second novel for publication next fall.