Neil Jordan: the writing game

Marianne Brace meets the novelist and film-maker with a poetic vision
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The Independent Culture
Doodling on a box of matches, Neil Jordan gauges his position in the Irish literary canon. "I'm old hat over there as a fiction writer", he says disarmingly. "No, no, no, no, I am. I haven't written a book in 10 years. A whole bunch have come up - Colm Toibin, Roddy Doyle, Pat McCabe. I feel like just part of a different generation in a way, you know?"

Jordan's success as a film director has eclipsed his talent as an author. Yet almost 20 years ago, Night in Tunisia, Jordan's debut short story collection, won him the Guard-ian Fiction Prize and Somerset Maugham Award. Sean O'Faolain was among those predicting Jordan's future as "an outstanding writer." But by the time his second novel was published things had changed, "When The Dream of a Beast came out, I'd only made two movies but they reviewed it as if I was a film-maker who had decided to turn hishand to fiction."

Jordan may confuse reviewers again with his beautifully written new novel, Sunrise with Sea Monster (Chatto, £9.99). "It's a different book from my others. It's more straightforward, has a kind of stripped down style which has come from making films, from telling stories where the narrative is prominent."

Ask Jordan why he chooses some subjects for novels and others for film and there's much shuffling of cigarettes. "Films gave me an opportunity to write stories which are nothing to do with myself, that deal with melodrama and dramatic tension, all those things that Joyce and Beckett threw out of the novel. "With a book you're dealing with your own internal life much more. When I write fiction there's a certain fidelity to language that I have to adopt, or else I feel I'm cheating or telling a lie. There's a tremendous satisfaction in doing that."

Jordan's books, with their melancholy and poetic vision, are more meditative than his films. "Nobody would make a film of Sunrise with Sea Monster that starts in the Spanish Civil War and ends up in war-torn Ireland. The obsessional point of view, the solipsistic nature of the whole thing makes it a novel to me."

Although Jordan found the book "delightful to write", he adds "it was incredibly hard to get back into the frame of mind for fiction. I write scripts very quickly, sometimes in about two weeks. With Sunrise with Sea Monster I'd get up in the morning and do three sentences, then go out, play the guitar, make a cup of tea. I'd do maybe 10 minutes work a day."

The book is a story of betrayal both on a personal and on a political level. Donal Gore cannot engage with his politician father, and a complicated love triangle ensues when Donal falls in love with his music teacher and she agrees to marry his father.

"I always seem to write about sons and fathers and absent mothers," Jordan muses. "My father died in 1984 and the shocking thing to me about the experience of death was the conversation that was ended, that wasn't concluded, but just stopped. I suppose Sunrise with Sea Monster is all about variations of silence, attempts to speak over silences. It's a series of one-sided conversations."

Jordan's own father was a professor of education, "a very eloquent and educated man. But he grew up in a very confined society dominated by the Catholic church, you know? He allowed his imagination to go so far and no further. When I began to write fiction, it alarmed him. There were areas to which he wasn't willing to come. So there was a certain tension between us because of that."

The house in Dublin was filled with books. "We had no television and weren't allowed to go to the movies much. My father was doing a thesis on children's reading and this involved him going through a huge number of comics. I wasn't allowed to read them."

Jordan went to University College, Dublin because he wanted to write. But "I found the academic study of English very depressing, and strange that something so personal could be analysed so coherently." He turned his attention instead to medieval Irish history. "There are very few existing records, it's a bit like the study of anthropology. You're studying a society where history is invention, a form of fiction really."

After university Jordan drifted to London in search of a job and "did what most Irish people do, worked in casual labour." But he also began to write, beginning with the short story "Last Rites" in which a young labourer slits his wrists in a shower in Kensal Rise.

Back in Dublin, together with Desmond Hogan and Dermot Healy, Jordan set up the Irish Writers' Co-operative to publish first novels. When Jordan wrote Night in Tunisia, tales of young boys coming of age in shabby seaside resorts, "people were surprised. The stories were of a certain tradition but speaking of things that were nothing to do with that tradition."

Jordan's first novel, The Past, is set in the early years of the Free State. The narrator tries to discover the truth about his parents by piecing together the memories of others, like snapshots in a family album.

"I was always pretty obsessed with the cinema, you know. The Past is a book that's almost crippled by the ideas of cinema. It starts with a photograph and is about a photographer. The entire book is composed with visual descriptions, it really is. I feltI was trying to push this form somewhere it didn't want to go. So I began to make films after that."

The Dream of a Beast followed: "it's pure fantasy and very personal." The main character reaches a state of grace through metamorphosis - a sort of backwards version of Beauty and the Beast. "I like things that refuse to be satisfied with rational explanations. I'm drawn to stories where the motivations of the characters are deeper than they themselves understand and people become other things.

"I was very religious as a child. They used to come round the school recruiting for the seminaries. I wanted to be a priest but my mother quite wisely refused to let me." Although Jordan has now "grown to dislike religion", its more mysterious and magical elements have stayed with him, encouraging him "to look for other explanations.

"I believe that fiction should be transformative. I do want the things I write and make to have some, not quite moral purpose, but kind of transforming element in them."

There's an almost spiritual quality to the water which Jordan describes in Sunrise with Sea Monster. The author grew up "by a little stretch of beach in the north side of Dublin. I don't know why Irish writers haven't written more about the sea but they don't seem to, do they? When I started writing stories I could only ever come to a conclusion if I somehow managed to get the characters into the water, an element that was bigger than themselves. I thought it was a beautiful thing. The line of the horizon is one of the few lines in nature which seems to be perfectly straight. And the sea is a kind of place which unites memory with the present."

It's only at the water's edge that Donal can relate to his father, where their silences are eloquent. They share a love of fishing: "the sand was sculpted in huge soft curves and the fish our hooks had gleaned were not the comforting plaice and sole we were used to, but odd misshapen creatures, pallid, translucent because of the depths they inhabited, huge whiskers and eyes, mouths shaped like tulips." It's to the sea that Donal imagines his dead mother returning, and where his father (now crippled by astroke) vanishes to be reunited with his lost wife.

The novel is also about the "irrationality of Irish politics", its Republican characters portrayed as cloak and dagger buffoons. Jordan wanted Donal to be somebody for whom the "only moral action he could take, in all sorts of different situations, wouldbe betrayal." He enlists simply to wound his father.

Now that Neil Jordan has written Sunrise with Sea Monster he has plans for further novels. "The struggle is to imagine your experience is interesting enough for what they call literature with a capital L. There's a reaction against that now in a lot of contemporary Irish writing, what they call literary fiction." He pauses and sighs. "I didn't know that there was any other kind."