Alan Kelly interviews Denis Kehoe.
Alan Kelly: With your debut novel Nights Beneath the Nation you vividly conjure a place the reader has never been, similar to Patrick Hamilton’s Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky and Sarah Water’s The Night Watch. How difficult was it writing about 1950s Ireland from a gay male’s point of view?
Denis Kehoe: That’s funny you should mention The Night Watch, I’m reading it at the moment and really enjoying it. As for writing about the 1950s from a gay male point of view, I didn’t find it particularly difficult. I drew on details, both literary and personal, from both gay and straight people and I suppose I was always thinking of how Daniel in particular saw this world rather than how a gay archetype would see it.
AK: Daniel returns to Ireland an embittered man having spent years in exile. Many gay men and women left here, leaving behind persecution and violence, which was a constant in quite a lot of people’s lives until quite recently. I got the impression while reading Nights Beneath the Nation, what with being Irish and gay, that the possibility of love is something that is elsewhere and many gay people feel the need to escape. Was that something you felt, or am I barking up the wrong tree?
DK: I was certainly interested in the idea of escape, and for Daniel the real escape was from the countryside to the ‘big city’ of Dublin. I suppose he leaves Ireland because this love and the new Republic of Ireland cannot co-exist. So he flees the island because of something negative, rather than because he is searching for love. I think a huge amount of people, including gay men and women, were suffocated by this new Ireland. However, at the same time I was also interested in the idea of a gay man coming to Ireland at this time and living his life here. I met an English man who moved here to be with his partner after World War II, and this idea of moving from London to Dublin seemed extraordinary. This is where Fitzer came in in a way. Other men I spoke to also surprised me by being much less bitter and critical of the period than I expected. So I think there were really contradictory experiences of being gay and Irish at the time.
AK: The narrative flits between two time frames – the 50s and the 90s – Daniel leaves a small parochial Irish town where he meets the mysterious Maeve. You fashioned her on someone you’d met in Bewley’s Oriental Cafe. The character of Gerard, who the older Daniel encounters, struck me as frighteningly familiar too. Was he modeled on anybody you knew?
DK: If I’m honest Gerard is the character most similar to myself in certain ways, though there are, of course, big differences. There was a funny moment, a good while after I’d written a particular scene, when I suddenly remembered I’d had almost the same experience. With Gerard I was interested in looking at a young gay man in a newly ‘liberal’ island ; how young gay men are apparently liberated and carefree but are suffering from their own demons too.
AK: If you look at the canon of gay literature in Ireland, there are very few books I’ve read which has had quite as much an impact as yours, well maybe The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Tóibín. What do you think of Irish literature in general?
DK: I’m no expert but there are some writers who have had a big impact on me: Joyce, Sean O’ Casey, Elizabeth Bowen and I’m very interested in the work of Anne Enright, Patrick McCabe and Colm Tóibín. I’m teaching a group at an adult education centre so I’ve also had the chance to read some great Irish poets: Paula Meehan, John Montague, Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, Eavan Boland. And I think there are some really interesting new writers emerging, including Mia Gallagher and Barry McCrea.
AK: You work as books editor for GCN. Have any of the writers you’ve interviewed informed your work and if not, what does?
DK: I don’t work as books editor for GCN any more but did gain a lot from the experience and still interview writers for the magazine. I don’t know if any of them have directly influenced my own work but I did discover several writers I hadn’t previously read which was fantastic: Neil Bartlett, Stella Duffy, Sarah Waters, Elizabeth Wilson and so on. I interviewed Sarah Waters a week or so ago and I have been intrigued by something she said about using a ghost story to explore other ideas/subjects. My own work is informed by stories from real life but also of course other writers, with Nights Beneath the Nation Lorca became a huge influence and I read a number of accounts about growing up in Ireland at the time, as well as biographies of Brendan Behan, Anthony Cronin’s Dead as Doornails and so on. My parents were also a fantastic resource for recreating the Dublin of the time.
AK: There are quite a lot of ideas running through the book, mental illness, promiscuity and death are all touched on without the plot becoming ramshackle. Was it difficult tying it all together?
DK: Yes, it was difficult. I think I was balancing a lot and made the story quite complicated, but I probably tend to make things too complicated anyway. Maybe certain aspects suffered because I was trying to put too much in. But will I learn? Probably not!
AK: Anthony has a secret of his own which he keeps from Daniel, a secret that has more of a stigma than even homosexuality does. I think this is something that is largely overlooked within the gay community (perhaps that’s just a generalisation) and I sort of got the idea that perhaps Anthony’s parents where to blame, the environment he had to get away from?
DK: I think you are absolutely right. There is a huge stigma about mental health in Ireland in general, a prejudice that definitely exists in the gay community. I think a lot of older men in Ireland have probably suffered/are suffering because of their sexuality, but there are also a huge amount of young gay men attending counselling here as well. This fact of grappling with one’s own mental health is, of course, a positive step. In the novel though I think Anthony’s sexuality is the primary problem for his family, and he is essentially incarcerated for that and not any mental health issues he may have.
AK: During Daniel’s recollections about the 50s, Maeve’s parties and the solidarity that existed when gay people did gather beneath the nation. I felt envious that he was living in a world that was hidden but where people looked after one another. After all the gay Ireland he returns to in the 90s is cold, cruel and distant. I think you did the job exceptionally well, of creating two worlds which where vastly different. Where the reader, given the opportunity would have chosen the 50s over the 90s any day.
DK: Thanks very much. Again it comes back to some of the things people told me about the time; the camaraderie that existed, the unimportance of class in certain gay spaces etc. I wanted to show the possible dangers of being gay in Ireland back then, but also to celebrate the good times: the parties, the romances, the sweet discovery of this illicit world for a young man from the country. And it was also important to show how everything isn’t hunky dory nowadays just because of decriminalisation, to show up some of the arrogance and superficiality of this mainstream gay world that many gay people are excluded from.
AK: So will you write another slice of historical fiction? And if not, what are you working on now?
DK: I’m working on a novel that moves between present day and the 1960s/1970s. It takes place in Angola, Portugal and Ireland. Another tall order, but I’m enjoying the work and learning a lot.
AK: And finally what are your thoughts on life as a gay man now, in the present. Do you think we are still struggling?
DK: I think where there is life there is struggle, for everybody. As gay men and women though, we are of course still fighting for many of our basic rights and there is still rampant, random homophobia out there. I think on a personal level, Irish people have opened up much more to the idea of homosexuality, but I still believe we are hugely conservative and immature when it comes to sexuality in general.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Alan Kelly is the contributing editor to Dogmatika. He has worked for a number of specialist magazines, Film Ireland, Pretty Scary, Penny Blood, Bookslut et al. He lives in Wicklow and is partial to pulp, noir, hardboiled, brainy erotica and horror fiction.