April 2014

Jesse Kohn


An Interview with John Kelly

John Kelly knows his onions. That much is certain from the first sentence of From Out of the City. The novel opens about fifty years or so in the future, in a Dublin hot as the tropics, and reeking of waste and crime. An American president has just been murdered, and Monk, an eighty-four-year old who has been secretly surveilling his deadbeat neighbors, is intent on unveiling the true story behind the presidential assassination.

Through Monk's playful, gloomy, and outright unpredictable reportage the reader is transported through an underworld of negligent espionage, deceitful porn stars, and all manner of self-medicating, naval-gazing manic-depressives. Despite Monk's determination to not write a thriller, the book's as thrilling as they came, disturbingly relevant and unexpectedly moving. Underneath the baroque prose, the serpentine plot and the experience-violated (to borrow a Monkian term) anti-heroes, courses a powerful moral stance orchestrating the whole symphony like an undercover conspiracy. John Kelly doesn't just know his onions, he knows what to do with them.

In a way, our present situation is perfectly suited to our subject, my being in the US and your being in Ireland, our having this exchange over email. How likely do you think it is that our emails -- which, considering your book, will almost certainly touch upon the assassination of the president of the United States, espionage, religious extremism, suicide bombs, great white sharks off the coast of Kerry, the Devil himself, and a vast conspiracy aimed at undermining the anhedonic state of the leaders and constituents of our flailing nations -- how likely do you think it is that these emails will be intercepted and flagged as dangerous by either your government or mine?

Well, actually, I hadn't thought of that at all. It seems like a bizarre question but then, of course, we live in a very bizarre world. But surely there are thousands of novels, film scripts, newspapers, and magazines -- not to mention political, historical or academic tomes -- that contain some reference to any or all of the above? They can't all be setting off false alarms, can they? Anyway, this is a novel. It's a fiction that is extremely speculative about a future that might not be too far ahead. But you've got me thinking now. Of course, I can't speak for America but when I consider some of the Irish political leaders I've known over the years, about the only thing they'd be capable of intercepting would be a passing waiter with a tray of canapés.

But I should perhaps emphasize that my book is not actually about the assassination of a U.S. president. Yes, this is a terrible incident that happens in the book or, rather, has already happened when the action begins, but it's not about that. What it's actually about is dysfunction. Firstly, there is personal dysfunction -- which may be physical, sexual, emotional, or whatever, and then there is a civic, national, global, and possibly even cosmic dysfunction. That's what was preoccupying me as this book came into being -- dysfunction. I guess I was a real hoot to be around! In fact the working title was Everything is Broken.

I knew I didn't want to write was a book that was just about bad relationships, unhealthy sexual attitudes, and the trains not running on time (although that's all in there too), and so, in order to heighten things, I went into the territory of what might be seen as the ultimate dysfunctional act -- the killing of another human being. And then, by making that human being a global figure, everything takes on an even more shocking significance. Now, you have read the book, and you know that there's yet another element at work that I don't wish to reveal here. No spoilers, please. But I wandered off into the future, not into the realms of sci-fi but just far enough for things to be radically different and yet, in many ways, exactly the same.

Furthermore, the idea of an American president being assassinated in Dublin has an added potency. It would represent a most extraordinary breakdown, not just for American society but for Irish society too. I mean, we have a thing about U.S. presidents in Ireland. So many of them came from here -- immigrant's sons -- and great pride is taken in that. I should tell you that my mother's name is Kennedy and that I grew up with a picture of JFK and Jackie on the wall. So what I'm saying is that the relationship between Ireland and the U.S. is very deep and very real. And in my novel, the effect of such a traumatic event happening in Ireland -- an act not just against the order of things but also against history and even kinship -- is that it throws the narrative into a very dysfunctional world where, some years from now, things have altered in very significant ways and unthinkable things are happening. And having set things up in this way, the narrator then introduces himself and the characters who are living their various lives in the middle of it all.

You know, for all the dysfunction, the novel sincerely is a hoot to read. A large part of that hoot for me was the liveliness of your prose. Take a few sentences from the first paragraph of the prologue:

Crimson soaked purple into black and dignitaries screamed at the sight of presidential brains lashed across the broad white britches of George III. There were summer blossoms on the tables, potatoes in their jackets and shattered crystal in the Wicklow lamb.

In addition to being beautiful, and often hilarious, your sentences, I find, are very welcoming -- much more Flann O'Brien, I think, than either Joyce or Beckett. Even more than your prose exhibits your obvious intelligence and impressive savoir-faire, it feels imbued with warmth, care, and maybe most of all a sense of joy. Can you tell me a little about your craftsmanship? What was it like for you to write this book?

Well, thank you. Perhaps I should quit while I'm ahead? Flann O'Brien sets the bar very high indeed. As do the other two lads. But to be honest I'm not, personally, all that conscious of the spirit of Flann in the book, apart from a slight nod in that direction when the two pantomime policemen turn up. But no doubt you're right. When I was teenager, I read and loved everything Flann O'Brien wrote. He came from Tyrone, a neighboring county to my own, and that kind of language and humor came very naturally to quite a few of us. Surreal conversations were commonplace but they tended to get more Beckettian as the night went on. It was perhaps inevitable that when I wrote my first fiction it really was sub-Flann stuff, but I'd say this book is much less so. In fact, I think the book that may have sparked it in some indefinable way might have been Pattern Recognition by William Gibson. I think it might have nudged me into a certain mood. I can't be sure. And of course the people you have mentioned are always going to be there -- a hundred floors above me, as Leonard would say.

You're very kind about my language, and perhaps I should say that my narrator, Monk, is the way he is because I really wanted to get deep into language. I wanted (needed) to have fun, and so I created a character who would use a word like pandiculation. And maybe that's a Flann O'Brien thing? He'd find a word like that very comical -- and so do I. I don't think there are many actual jokes in the book -- if any -- but I guess what I'm hoping is that everything -- the humor, the unease, even the distaste in places -- comes from the language itself. That's why the book is packed with detail, place-names, street-names and the Latin names for garden birds. Because my narrator is the sort of person who would know such things. He's a fact collector, after all, and he inhabits the city of James Joyce. What can possibly go wrong?

There seems to be a great deal of fact collecting in From Out of the City, not just the main characters, but a plethora of spies, newscasters, and obsessive collectors of porn star trivia. But it seemed like you were often in some way, opposing mere fact collecting with truth-telling. Like when Monk (who repeatedly emphasizes the fact that he is not weaving together a story, but simple telling the truth) parenthetically mentions that he has corrected the spelling in a series of emails he has intercepted between two of his drunken neighbors -- a hilarious moment, but also a telling one, as though to tell the truth one has to correct, or distort the facts in order to make them legible. As someone who has done quite a bit of fact collecting, in radio, journalism, and TV, I'm wondering what draws you to writing fiction.

Well, I guess many people, nowadays, take (and should take) an active interest in how information is delivered. And, of course, consumed. I'm not talking about propaganda or other methods of, to use Monk's words -- "pronouncement, obfuscation and spin" -- I mean basic knowledge. "Facts" are now readily available on any topic you can think of, but, of course, this availability should never be mistaken for reliability. I could hit you, right now, with all sorts of facts on a given subject, and it might imply some expertise on my part but, of course, it could well be a bluff. I mean, I'm connected to the net and I could just grab a few words here and there, a few scientific terms and I could then translate them into Mandarin. And yet it would be a posture and nothing more.

More worrying to me is that it's quite conceivable that, at some point, we might no longer need to know anything much in terms of information. Why bother? What would be the point when all you have to do is look something up on your phone, or on your glasses, or on the chip in your tooth? I studied law and, even then, I realized that there was an issue there. I was obliged to commit vast amounts of material to memory in order to pass exams, but, in the real world, I would be consulting the actual books themselves, the statutes, and in fact it would be irresponsible not to. So why learn things off when there's no actual need to? Why not keep that brain-space for something else? Now, maybe I'm being a little facetious, but actually I've been writing something about a world where the systems fail and very few people are left who actually know anything about anything. They become so crucial -- and potentially dangerous -- that they are rounded up. The last repositories of actual knowledge or expertise. If I can relate the question to my own job as a music broadcaster who programs his own music, yes, I agree that every piece of music that I keep on a shelf at home is also in some computer database somewhere but the reality is that you still need a human being to know that a certain piece of music actually exists in the first place. I guess I'm old school in this regard, but I place huge value in expertise, experience and study -- in knowing your onions.

Maybe I'm going off track a little here, so to get back to what you asked about the truth and fiction. Well, I do believe, for all my own regard for and pleasure in facts, that fiction can do a job that any amount of factual work cannot. Is there a better portrait of Dublin than Ulysses? I don't think so. Read Ulysses and you'll get more than you'll ever get from any amount of history books. And that reminds me of something James Ellroy has said many times about verisimilitude. I love his books. Fiction, yes, and very heightened, but it gives us so many truths. I interviewed him once and he talked about the need for a "reckless verisimilitude." I like that idea.

In any case, I distrust reality. When I was at school the priest used to hand out a religious magazine called Reality -- and it was an outrageous misnomer. It had as much to do with reality as Walt Disney. It was an example of language used incorrectly and yet being accepted without remark. But look, language will always be under that sort of threat. I hear gobshites on the radio every morning -- PR people, spokespeople, politicians -- people trained in the dark arts of lying. And lying to your face, even when they know that you know they are lying. It's shameless stuff. A perversion of language. But of course, almost everything is propaganda because, by now, we all know how to use it. And maybe everything I'm saying in this interview is propaganda on behalf of the book I have just written. I hope not.

And so, moving along swiftly -- and this is something touched upon by Monk when he insists that his version of events is the truth -- the thing about historical detail, or what becomes historical detail, is that it never tells us the really important stuff. I'm a believer in that theory about old songs -- traditional Irish songs, say. Yes, they may not tell us exactly what happened in a particular period of our history, but what they will tell is how people felt.

You seem to have a tremendous respect for other people's music, or, more broadly other people's voices. As a world-renowned broadcaster and interviewer, you're obviously a master at inviting other people to speak and inviting other people's songs to play. I see this in your novel as well -- without spoiling anything, I think I can say, that Monk regards this thing he's writing as a prelude or a question, something to be referred to and used in a piece of fiction another character will one day publish. What are some of the most useful -- for lack of a better word -- tactics you've developed in programming music and interviewing people? Did these tactics come into play in the process of writing this novel?

Well, there you go! The propaganda must be working. You and I have never met, and I'm sure you never heard of me before you read my book, and yet you describe me as "a world-renowned interviewer." Well, of course I'm not a world-renowned anything and yet, somehow, as a result of what various websites, including my own, no doubt, report, that particular notion seems to have been transmitted. It just goes to show how facts (actual facts) can be presented, only to add up to something else entirely. The reality is that it's the people I have interviewed who are, in some cases, world renowned -- and not me. In fact, I doubt that the guys in my local pub have much of an idea of what it is I do.

But in terms of what you ask, in terms of interviewing people, I always start from the position that the person I'm interviewing is more interesting than I am. It seems like a daft thing to say -- of course David Bowie is more interesting than you are -- but some interviewers just can't manage to properly adopt that position. And if you are the sort of person who thinks yourself cleverer than Seamus Heaney, say, or Paul Auster and you'd like to attempt to prove your theory on TV or radio, then you're in the wrong job.

Now, I appreciate that I'm in quite a unique position. I'm not working in print these days and I was never a critic so I do enjoy a rather different role. A print journalist might get ten pages out of someone like Lou Reed not cooperating, but my job is to make sure the person talks -- and so I'm lucky. In many ways, I'm a facilitator as much as an investigator and I'm certainly not there to showboat and be a wise-ass. Again, simply because my role doesn't call for aggro. I'm not, after all, grilling politicians or world leaders. I'm talking to artists and I genuinely want to hear what they have to say about the work, about the creative process. So I just talk, try to extract the wisdom and, with any luck, we all might learn something.

And again, to go back to your question, because of my job, yes I do come into contact with people for whom I have a huge regard. I did a public event a few years ago with Peter O'Toole and one critic said that I sounded a little in awe of him. Well, yes, I was in awe of him. I make no apology for that. I was also in awe of the performance this man was putting in right in front of me -- and I was very happy to let him at it, to tee up his punch lines and generally be the straight man. And it all made for very good radio too... Come to think of it, everyone in the room was in awe of O'Toole that day. Except, of course, the critic.

I'm not sure what any of this has to do with the book, except for the fact that, over the years, I have received a great education simply by having the privilege of sitting down and having uninterrupted conversations with some great people -- and some great intellects -- where sometimes I'm pedaling very hard to keep up. I suppose what it might mean is that I have been exposed to a lot of thought -- to a lot of ideas, processes, tales of the creative life. And that amounts to exposure to quite a lot of intense experience and I guess some of that experience must come out in my own writing somewhere -- but I can't actually specify where and when. But, in truth, I really do see the two activities as very separate. Broadcasting is the day job and my writing is something else. It goes on regardless and often in spite of everything. The writing is what happens when you're on your own, not trying to make sense of someone else's life and experience but, rather, trying to make sense of your own. And that's the real pancake, right there.

Monk has medication that keeps him writing and figuring out his experience: Presbutex, a miracle pill for preventing Alzheimer's -- "also a rumored cure for any creative mind allegedly blocked or otherwise incapable of telling the truth." What is your Presbutex? I don't mean meds necessarily, but some source of inspiration to keep you from being blocked, to keep you glued to the pursuit of telling the truth, despite present day dysfunctions. 

I'm not so sure that truth-telling is my motivation. I have written a fiction after all and I'm someone who takes great pleasure in making stuff up. Not that I find it easy. As Pete Hamill said, writing is the hardest work you can do that doesn't involve heavy lifting, and I'm with him on that. I find it very tough actually. But then, if I'm not writing I'm deeply unhappy. That why I make the time actually do it, to fit it in around work -- very early starts, the odd all-nighter and perhaps two or three weekends of total immersion through the course of the year. That's the only way I can manage with the day job. But of course it's like that for any writer.

What keeps me going, what enthuses me, is talking to other writers, reading as much as I can, and accepting the odd boost if it comes along. Believe me, there have been times, over the years, when it might have seemed a much wiser policy not to exhaust myself trying to push on as a writer. But, as I say, all writers seem to go through very similar experiences but the important thing, if you really are a writer, is not to give up. And just get up at five a.m., if that's what it takes. Just get on with it. You can sleep when you're dead. And the people who rejected you or dropped you or whatever, don't even ignore them. Do your best work. That's the only thing that counts.

As for my inspirations, I was greatly inspired by Kjersti Skomsvold. I was also seriously encouraged by the success of Kevin Barry. Kevin is a genius, a great guy too, and to see successful books which were not quite in the mainstream of what the Irish novel had become, well that gave me a real boost. There were also writers much younger who gave me a real lift too -- just seeing what they were capable of -- Colin Barrett, Donal Ryan, and many more. Reading these people, talking to them, sharing experiences, it all helps to create the right mood and provoke the right energy. It was also very important for me to see writers of a slightly earlier vintage, people like Keith Ridgway and Mike McCormack very much back on the block. All of these things were pushing me and I'm very grateful. Of course, beyond that, beyond the buzz of all that, you're totally on your own again. But you're stronger. More able.

How about music? The book makes reference to many musicians: Thelonious Monk, Pere Ubu, Stravinsky, to name a few. If you were to compose a soundtrack to accompany the reading of your book, what are some songs you would include?

It's odd. I'm not sure music played any actual part in either the inspiration or the writing. In fact, I need silence to write. If there's going to be any music in the background it has to be Steve Reich, J.S Bach, or Brian Eno -- and that's not to disrespect their music in any way. That said, when I'm not writing, it could be anything -- from Dock Boggs to Sonny Rollins to Daft Punk. Yes, there are references in the book that might well suggest a soundtrack, but I was not at all conscious of that. I think, in fact, that the music mentioned might have suggested itself. Certain characters, certain sounds. I probably did have in mind the question of what music will people be listening to in the near future. And, of course, what will be long gone, like snow off a ditch. But if anybody was to make a movie of From out of the City -- and good luck to them! -- I'd like them to lay on plenty Elvis Costello & The Roots. Wise Up Ghost was my CD of last year. That would work. As the Shangri-Las put it -- Past, Present, and Future.

Now that I think about it, the medium with the more ambiguous presence in the novel is not really music, but the novel itself. In the future most people don't seem to read many novels. And yet on the other hand, there's a sense of immense, almost religious significance placed on the societal function of novels -- Monk and Schroeder both mention, for instance, that publishers insist on novels including a sense of redemption. How did you come to speculate that future publishers will insist on this, and how do you think this speculation reflects on the current condition of the novel?

That insistence on redemption is not actually a reference to the future at all; I think that's the way things are right now. Mainstream literary publishing seems, for the most part, to work off a checklist of what are seen as the vital ingredients of a book that will sell in massive numbers -- the main one being the desire that a manuscript closely resembles something that already exists and is already a proven seller. But that's okay. The mainstream has its own business to attend to, whether it's books, music, the movies, or whatever. Let them at it. It's just that it doesn't particularly interest me. The best music, as far as I'm concerned, is on indie labels and, increasingly, all the best books. I think more and more writers, even established ones, have realized this in the last ten years or so.

But in truth, I don't feel much qualified to talk about the novel or its condition -- basically I don't have the language for it, and I'm not a critic. But as a reader, I have a fair bit of experience, and as a writer who has been published and rejected -- sometimes by the same publishing house -- I do have a view on it. Basically, as I've just said, I think that the success of certain novels has created a situation where, unless you write in a similar mode, you'll find things very difficult in terms of publishing. But let's leave that to one side. I now have the best publisher I could possibly have -- I only wish we'd met each other fifteen years ago.

And when I got to know the Dalkey list I realized that, yes, indeed there are all sorts of ways to write a novel, and I was thrilled and relieved to discover that all sorts of very interesting things were still being done. And what's more, that there was an interested readership out there, those who also wanted a bit more from their literary fiction.

Let me refine my last question a little bit: I guess what interests me about these publishers of the future isn't so much their insistence on novels fulfilling a checklist (though this is interesting too), so much as the fact that redemption is on that checklist. Maybe I'm thinking of a different idea of redemption than you had in mind, but mainstream publishers today don't strike me as being particularly interested in redemption -- I think they're, as you said, focused on turning a profit that means repeating old forms and ideas, not overturning or redeeming them. I find it extremely compelling that to a certain extent Monk succumbs to the publishers' insistence on redemption (as do you, for that matter) and that what he writes becomes, I think, both more complex and audacious as a result. This is the ambiguity I wanted to ask you about: that in your book, literature seems to have become both more marginalized and more important than ever. Is this a trend you see developing today?

The redemption that seems to interest publishers and moviemakers is one contained entirely within the story itself. Basically, what they want is a happy ending and, failing that, one that is deliciously sad, which is just another kind of happy ending. But again, as with music and indeed the visual arts, the mainstream and the comfortable don't appeal to me at all. You can get called a music snob for preferring Little Richard to Pat Boone, but there it is. But it's the once marginalized stuff that lasts, and it lasts because it has actual meaning. Anyway what I'm saying is that nice things don't much appeal to me. My whole education was about the mainstream -- appreciating nice music, nice landscapes, nice poems -- everything had to be nice to have any value. Well, I don't buy that at all. Give me Bartók over Mozart any day. And give me Lou Reed over any of them.

I agree that, in my book, literature is presented as both marginalized and more important than ever. There's a throwaway line about people still reading novels in Canada -- and Monk, who is obsessed with information and knowledge, has very little time for novels, as such. He keeps insisting, for example, that this is no thriller. But of course the story he's telling is actually an absolute blockbuster -- except that he's refusing to go there. I guess that's where this all began for me. A dramatic, traumatic event -- the very stuff of a bestseller or a blockbuster movie -- but with much of it perversely backgrounded when told by a very particular narrator, and written by someone who was, when he began the book, rather disillusioned with the way publishing seemed to be going. 

Anyway, so this is the book I wanted to write. I wasn't guided by anyone, I wasn't trying to second guess anyone. It was a solo run, completely solo, and with little hope. But then when I collapsed in a heap at the end of it, there was Dalkey Archive -- unexpected, unforeseen and ready to go after reading the first ten pages. I don't think the redemption word was mentioned at all.

But yes, Monk, for all his protestations, starts to play the game, experimenting with the possibility of the best, the appropriate, maybe even the nice denouement, even examining the word to see what it actually demands. And yes, there actually is redemption here and it comes from unlikely sources. But then maybe there's always some trace of redemption in any human story -- whether it's on the checklist or not? Even when a character in a book, or a writer of a book, is dead set against it.