December 2012

Christina Gombar


An Interview with Seamus Scanlon

Seamus Scanlon has only been writing for six years, but his literary noir stories have racked up an impressive roster of publications, prizes and awards. His play Dancing at Lunacy, set in 1970s Belfast, was staged at New York's Cell Theatre this past March, and now he's published his first collection, As Close As You'll Ever Be.

These stories will connect you to your shadow side. The Irish native, New York transplanted writer's cast of darkly witty criminals inhabit a nether-world of skin-head patrolled Galway housing projects, Belfast IRA safe-houses, and the gangster Irish enclaves of South Boston and Woodlawn in the North Bronx. The guns are loaded, the beer is flowing, and Northern Ireland's own punk band, The Undertones, is playing. Scenes are set in ghostly, poetic language. Stories like "Teenage Sniper" read like poems, and bring to mind 1960s British serial killer Myra Hindley's assertion that "Sometimes evil can be a religious experience."          

In "My Beautiful, Brash, Beastly Belfast," which won first place in Gemini magazine's 2011 story competition, a child soldier avenges his twelve-year old sister's murder by British troops. That bloodshed is depicted as almost beautiful is not surprising in a land steeped in both Pagan and Catholic traditions.

In America, we think of the Irish as a settled, successful minority, forgetting that Ireland has for centuries been an outlaw nation, constantly bucking and subverting British rule. Often the slashings and shootings in these stories have a motive -- retaliation for British brutality; revenge on a pedophile priest or evil stepfather; an informer executed by his best friends, Sopranos-style. Several stories set in the Galway housing projects of Scanlon's youth explore and exploit the primitive animal urges of childhood; the killer instinct we're all born with, if not tamed, can lead to, and in the case of so many of these stories culminate in, violence. From "All in the Mind":

Pirates our forefathers were. Snipers once we were. Soldiers true once we were. Heroes once we were for the Kings and Queens of England, for Dublin Castle. Now heroin found us, bound us, gagged us, laid us down on the hard Dublin concrete.

A boy dreams of flying and makes a practice of it -- first off the dresser, then down the stairs, then orchestrating the falling death of his abusive stepfather. Later in the collection, an informer goes sailing down to his death from a stolen helicopter. Sometimes there's regret. Mad med student Rob, meaning to merely threaten a classmate who called him a "homo," winds up braining his classmate's father with an axe, and is so shocked by his crime that his little brother can't pry the weapon from his hands.

These criminals are not without honor -- women, even informants, are always let go, and in the final story, a hardened criminal takes his Alzheimer's stricken mother out for a day in the country.

Unlike many books set in the underworld, this one feels like it's written by someone who draws his characters from life, rather than other crime books or the Internet. From "Sure":

I loved Belfast the first day I arrived there. The Belfast Hills overlooked the City, giving a sense of protection and permanence, which was an illusion. Down in the City were the killing machines. I love rain and the wet, slick roads. Hedgerows dripping with rain. Mist evaporating from roadways after sudden summer showers. I liked the Belfast accents, the sense of black humor. Of course the City was full of violence, chaos, pain and suffering as well. I also liked these qualities and felt at ease there.

As in the best crime stories -- the novels of Donald Westlake, GoodFellas, The Sopranos -- Scanlon has you rooting for the bad guy. Not that there are actually any good guys. I felt guilty sometimes for enjoying them so much.

So it was a relief to attend a reading at the West Twenty-third Street Cell Theatre where Scanlon is Writer in Residence. Over a dozen women -- some actresses associated with the theater, some fellow writers and alumni of City College, where the author studied writing -- performed the tales, every one of which is told from the point of view of a violent or potentially violent male character. Read by these women, the stories were more mischief and mayhem than menace -- all that remained was laughter.

I'm sending off my questions to you in New York, which is Armageddon. How does New York compare, weather and otherwise, to your native Galway, and Belfast in Northern Ireland where you lived for years?

During Sandy the winds and rain reminded me of Galway -- Atlantic winds driving rain in past Salthill and the Cladagh to the gray streets of the City of the Tribes. Waves breaking on the Prom -- broken fronds of seaweed flung onto the roads. The clean smell of iodine.

The Atlantic near New York is more subdued. The Hudson river makes up for it. We have the Corrib in Galway, usually in spate. The Hudson is deeper, wider, slower, but very attractive. Belfast has no spectacular ocean setting, but has the Lagan, which divides the Lower Ormeau Road into Catholic and Protestant areas, and so is a major landmark.

Belfast built the Titanic, and now people wear T-shirts proclaiming, "It was fine when it left here," with a photo of the ship. Belfast is surrounded by high hills that give it an atmosphere of safety and serenity. But for centuries these hills looked down on the killing streets. Now things have changed for the better. The lethal streets are more benign.

You've moved around a lot.

I grew up in Galway, then moved to Cambridge, then to Southampton, then to Belfast, then back to Galway, then to Washington Heights in 2006 to attend City College's graduate writing program. I originally moved to Belfast because I was interested in the history of Northern Ireland, and I liked the women's accents.

The violence in your stories often has an established motive within the IRA or gangster moral code. Sometimes spurred by a personal insult, as when a young boy takes revenge on his mother's cruel driving instructor. Are such incidents drawn from life?

Everything either happened or almost happened. Or could have happened.

Your characters are full of black-humorous observations, as when a reluctant robber is unable to resist when he sees an armored van full of cash open its door for McDonald's drive-thru takeout: "I couldn't believe it. Just when you thought you saw everything, something like this restored your belief in human stupidity."

Irish humor is fatalistic and essential for survival. It may date from centuries of colonization and gray clouds all day -- rain, hunger, famine, and emigration. The Catholic outlook of self sacrifice, pain, purgatory, and reward in the next life needed some antidote. The related Irish sport of "slagging" may have arisen from the peasantry who had to be verbally dexterous, to insult landlords in a way the English didn't realize were well-crafted put-downs.

One of your stories, "Infection," is about a twelve year old boy who joined the Aryan Youth. Why would an Irish kid want to emulate Hitler?

Since 1914, Ireland had been ambivalent about Germany because they were the enemy of their enemy, England. They were natural allies since Ireland had been trying to get its freedom from English rule for 800 years. The 1916 Resurrection occurred midway through World War I. Hundreds of thousands of Irish were fighting in Europe for the British, but a number of Irish volunteers decided to strike. They had weapons from Germany, Lugers.

In World War II, the IRA tried to get arms from Germany to fight the British, who were still in Northern Ireland, so the link was still there. Ireland was neutral, mostly to emphasize our split from Britain. This is the ostensible reason why the Irish President Eamon DeValera signed the book of condolences in the German Embassy in Dublin after Hitler did everyone a big favor by offing himself.

Hitler also had an Irish nephew, who went to Germany hoping uncle Adolf would give him a job, but Hitler hated him on sight. Intolerance rules the waves. For fifty years, there was a Swastika laundry in Dublin. It only closed in the 1970s!
In America, we think of the Irish as a long established immigrant group, and very powerful. Your characters are a mess! They feel more like the Irish immigrants who came over after the potato famine. You write of construction workers drinking until five and then getting up at seven to go to work, banging nail guns at each other to keep awake. Do you worry about reinforcing bad stereotypes?

No! The Irish can take a joke. They can see the basis of it but are not offended. It is sympathetic overall. They still miss Ireland. They love their mothers. They drink Barry's tea and eat Tayto. What more can you ask?

In one or two of your stories, Irish gangsters spar with the Dominicans who have largely replaced them in neighborhoods like Washington Heights. You felt no obligation to whitewash the truth of that conflict.

Political correctness has no place in fiction. It's as bad as the Nazis burning books.

The humor, ruthlessness, and alternate universe your characters inhabit struck me as a kind of an Irish The Sopranos. You say you've never even seen the show! You've also been compared to Quentin Tarantino. What are your influences? Do books like Dennis Lehane's on the Boston Irish match up to your reality?

Lehane is audacious, brave, a great writer, and has great integrity. His books are authentic and harsh. You can also read Michael Patrick MacDonald's All Souls memoir, which outlines the real suffering of a white Irish American enclave in south Boston, which the reader will never forget.

Other influences: Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange; Jack Abbott's In the Belly of the Beast; Aleksandre Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward and A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich; Mary Renault's biographical treatment of Alexander the Great, Fire from Heaven; the real life story of a Brazilian peasant who performed psychic surgery, Arigo Surgeon of the Rusty Knife; The Art of Memory, British historian Frances Yates history of mnemonic systems. Also, Maria Edgeworth's Castle Rackrent and Sex Pistol John Lydon's memoir, Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs.

How would you classify your work -- crime fiction, literary?

Literary and crime fiction are compatible. That's what I am aiming for at least!
You're writing a novel. Will you use the same cast of characters who appear in your collection, mad med student Rob, Jimmy, and Jacko?

Jimmy, aka Victor "Kraytwin" McGowan carries through from the story collection, and is the main character in the novel. He's sixteen and three quarters when he visits Boston. The title is A Week in the Life of Victor Kraytwin, Aged Sixteen and Three Quarters. Everyone dies basically. The Kray twins were famous East End London gangsters in the 1950s and 60s. I am trying to appeal to different strands of readers.