Writers often say that writing their first book was difficult, but writing their second was even harder – was this your experience? Did your second book, The Sisters Brothers, throw up any unexpected challenges? How did writing the two books differ?
The Sisters Brothers was more difficult, definitely. Ablutions was semi-autobiographical, and many of the scenarios were recollected or partly-recollected, rather than invented. Also, Ablutions wasn’t a plot-based book, whereas with TSB there was a constant pressure to bring each scene back to the larger story.
Why, in your opinion, do you think The Sisters Brothers received so much critical acclaim – what was the magical ingredient?
I don’t know why, and I probably shouldn’t consider it or else I might try to force a re-creation. The main thing people seem to be reacting to is Eli’s voice, which was the draw for me, also. He has a sort of baffled charisma. I found him a comforting presence.
How has your recent whirlwind of success changed you as a writer?
It’s changed things in a practical way – career, etc. – but artistically I don’t believe it’s changed me at all. The process is still the same, and when I’m working I don’t think of anything other than the task at hand. But maybe I’ve been corrupted without knowing it. I guess we’ll see with the next book.
How do you decide when a book is finished? Do you still self-edit when reading a published copy or do you steer clear of your books once they’re in the public domain?
I know I’ve finished a draft when I’m at a loss in terms of what to do, at which point I share with my trusted readers. After weighing their opinions I go back to work or else submit the ms. Normally I go back to work. I do see little things in both novels I’d change now if I could, but this isn’t something I lose sleep over. I don’t have a problem moving on to the next. Looking back is a nasty habit.
Canada is similar to Ireland in that it respects the short story. You’ve had several short stories published, and have also written screenplays – how does your approach differ when switching from novel-writing to these genres?
They each have their unique pitfalls. Screenplays are mostly dialogue, so if that stalls out you’re up the creek. With shorts it’s harder to establish characters and locations. Novels, due to vastness, are great for getting hopelessly lost. But I don’t have any tricks for coping with these pitfalls. Best to just push ahead and address the problems as they arise.
(Please note: I originally conducted/published this interview for the Listowel Writers Week 40th anniversary blog)