Continuing my series of interviews with artists, writers, dancers, creatives… I first met Irish poet and novelist Philip Casey at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Annaghmakerrig, County Monaghan, Ireland, more years ago than I care to remember. But what I do remember is his fantastic storytelling, and the verve and power of his poetry and novels, which I have been reading ever since. It’s a great delight to have him respond to my questionnaire.
20 Questions…. Philip Casey.
Philip Casey has published four collections of poetry, including Dialogue in Fading Light (New Island Books, 2005), and three novels, The Fabulists (Lilliput 1994), The Water Star (Picador, 1999) and The Fisher Child (Picador, 2001). He’s a member of Aosdána and lives in Dublin.
What first drew you to writing?
I told stories from a young age – mostly to my brothers on the higher branches of macrocarpa trees in Wexford. When I was in hospital in my teens, my father gave me a guitar, so I started writing songs to the three chord trick.
Growing up in rural Ireland in the sixties, I hadn’t come across any poetry other than ballads, but one night I heard a poetry programme on radio and said to myself: I can do that. Then a few years later an arts centre – probably the first in Ireland – opened in my local town Gorey, thanks to the artist Paul Funge. We had a magazine called The Gorey Detail, edited with fun as the prime criterion by James Liddy.
When I came back from Spain in 1977, I was a round peg in a square hole, so about two years later I decided to do what I’d always wanted to do, which was to write poems. I’ve never abandoned verse, but after trying plays, I turned to novels when a couple of characters came to me and I stopped to listen. That was The Fabulists.
What was your big breakthrough?
I can hear the sceptical laughter! No big breakthroughs, I think. Let’s see. Finishing my second, long novel The Water Star felt like a breakthrough, and when it was accepted by Picador that felt like a breakthrough. I’d always loved Picador books, and it had been a vague daydream which I’d never taken seriously. Then for some reason I said out loud what my daydream was, and thanks to my agent Lisa Eveleigh, it happened.
What is the most challenging aspect of your work/process?
In prose, it’s summoning up the mental and physical energy to keep myself at the heart of the story.
In poetry the challenge is to forget myself, everything, for that fleeting moment when the poem happens – Keat’s Negative Capability, I suppose. I usually fail that one miserably. The last batch of poems came when I was ill a few years back.
Is there a piece of art, or a book, or a play, which changed you?
When I was in the aforementioned hospital, aged sixteen, I voraciously read Agatha Christie. Then the boy in the bed next to me contemptuously handed me Sean O’Casey’s Dublin trilogy (Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock, and The Plough and the Stars). Here were real characters and I was changed, utterly. I haven’t been able to read horror, detective or science fiction since – not that I look down on such, and I like the latter two genres on film, but that really did change me. Then about a year after I’d read O’Casey I read Ulysses… Boom!
What’s more important: form or content?
I don’t like to think about these things. I think form happens as the story or poem reveals itself, and is polished later.
How do you know when a project is finished?
Do you ever? Wasn’t it Leonardo da Vinci who said that art is never finished, only abandoned? Of course he was a genius. I think there is a sense of closure. It falls quiet.
Do you read your reviews?
Yes. If it’s a reviewer’s ego trip, and there’s a lot of it about, I just shrug – it says more about the reviewer than the work. But I can always learn from good criticism and I always hope for it. The best I ever got was from the poet and novelist Brian Lynch http://www.brianlynch.org when he reviewed my first book of verse. It’s a long time ago now but from memory: ‘Casey places too much emphasis on Kavanagh’s dictum of a true note on a slack string.’
What advice would you give a young writer?
I feel a bewildered tenderness towards young writers. To get a book published is an enormous achievement, but then out of the thousands of books published every year, only a few come to the surface. Apart from read, read, read, which I presume is obvious, I would say learn the difference between the good critic and the windbag, and listen to the good critic. Be wary of your darling sentences. On the other hand, if you have a formula and a business plan then congratulations, it’s probably a breeze, nine to five.
What work of art would you most like to own?
I can’t get enough of art, as it happens. If pressed, Goya is a particular favourite, somehow. Anything by him, but I’ve no desire to possess art other than the few works by friends which I already possess and love.
What’s the biggest myth about writing/the creative process?
I haven’t a clue what the biggest myth about it is. I’ve noticed that some people, including scientists, believe it’s an Aha! moment. An idea. As in ‘where do you get your idea for a new novel?’ That’s probably one of the myths.
What are you working on now?
I’ve been working for some years on a history of Ireland. Seeing as I’m not a trained historian, that’s pretty mad and possibly quixotic but I love it. Or rather I love it when immersed in the characters, or I’m telling the stories to friends, who in a most gratifying way, love the stories too. I don’t love it when I spend the day hunting a reference I forgot to list.
What is the piece of art/novel/collection/ you wish you’d created?
Beckett’s Come and Go, Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude, Rilke’s Duino Elegies. Very different, I know. Or maybe not. I could go on. When I read or see or listen to something transcendent, of course I wish I’d created it. Then I’d be immortal!
What do you wish you’d known when you were starting out?
That time really does go by in the blink of an eye. These days my email signature includes a consoling quote from Thomas Mann: ‘A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.’ Of course I still love it, despite everything, and wouldn’t consider doing anything else.
What’s your greatest ambition?
To survive long enough to finish the current work and take a long rest, preferably in the sun. Though it’s doubtful if writers ever rest. I have the gleam of a new novel in my eye.
How do you tackle lack of confidence, doubt, or insecurity?
There have been some black days and nights, that’s for sure – many, in fact. I don’t fight it anymore. I let it do its thing as it’s probably part of the creative process for people like me. And then of course there’s love. Love of the work, love of family and friends, love of women. It all comes down to love in the end. It gives me the necessary patience.
What is the worst thing anyone said/wrote about your work?
That my novel, The Fisher Child, was racist. It was in a major newspaper, to boot. The Fisher Child has race as a major theme,
and some of the characters are racist, but I’m certain the novel isn’t. Of course I’ve forgiven the reviewer – I couldn’t move on otherwise – but I was stunned by the injustice of it at the time.
And the best thing?
‘How does a white Irishman know my black family’s history?’ That was the opening line from an appreciative email about The Fisher Child, around the same time as the ‘racist’ review. Also: a wonderful note about The Fabulists from Martha Gelhorn, about three years before she died.
If you were to create a conceit or metaphor about the creative process, what would it be?
What is your philosophy or life motto?
Rothar Mór an tSaoil. The Great Wheel of Life. I interpret that as what you give, you get back manyfold if you give without counting the cost.
That goes for life as well as the work. Alternatively, ‘The Trick is to Live Long Enough.’ I coined that one when gifted friends died far too early.
What is the single most important thing you’ve learned about the creative life?
To be open and vulnerable. I know it sounds earnest, and it can be a pain in the fundament at times, but I don’t know any other way.
What is the answer to the question I should have – but didn’t – ask?
The Water Star and The Fisher Child are now in the kindle and iBook stores.