Paul Spalding-Mulcock, Features Writer

Writing Into The Dark: Interview With Caoilinn Hughes

Caoilinn Hughes
Caoilinn Hughes
Some of you may have read my recent review of The Wild Laughter by Caoilinn Hughes. Believe me when I say that the novel is infinitely better than the review and certainly more likely to garner an absorbing, provocative and scintillating reader response. As luck would have it, in addition to being an acclaimed literary voice widely celebrated as both a poet and an author, Hughes does not hold the likes of me at arms length and kindly consented to be the subject of an extended interview for our readership.

Albert Camus said - ‘Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth’. Charles Baudelaire said - ‘Always be a poet, even in prose’. Having interviewed Hughes, it stuck me that both luminaries could have been taking about her work and her style. I even found myself remembering a line from Jean-Paul Sartre - ‘Poetry creates the myth, the prose writer draws its portrait’.

Hughes first gained literary acclaim as a poet, when Gathering Evidence won the Shine/Strong Award. Coming from a close-knit Irish culture in which poetry was a seminal part of daily life, reading novels took a back seat to enjoying and writing poems. However, turning her talents to literary fiction saw her debut novel Orchid & the Wasp (2018), win the Collyer Bristowe Prize, become shortlisted for both the Hearst Big Book Awards and the Butler Literary Award. Her short story fiction has also gained plaudits, winning The Moth International Short Story Prize in 2018 and an O. Henry Prize in 2019. She has an MA in Theatrical Studies and a PhD from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Characteristically, none of the above information was volunteered to me by the author; she is as humble as she is talented.

Authors, like all of us, are complex, multifaceted amalgams of almost indefinable causative factors and responses.We cannot know them any better than we can know ourselves.Reading her poetry and novels is the best way of getting to know Hughes, however an interview may provide valuable insights. Hughes’s fiction is the product of an acutely sensitive authorial intention, simultaneously infused by an irrepressibly light-hearted spirit. Exploring her writing process both illuminates and elucidates this artist and her art. With that in mind, I began by probing in to what galvanises her writing process.

‘I never start a book with knowledge of what its themes or issues will be. In fact, I go out of my way to avoid any awareness or shaping of themes so that they can emerge as organically and unconsciously as possible. I tend to start with character or a very particular image of character in a situation, and I go from there. I write into the dark, without a plan or outline’.

This seems to echo Ray Bradury when he wrote in Zen in the Art of Writing that ‘Plot is no more than the footprints in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations’. Indeed, Samuel Beckett, a strong influence upon Hughes’s writing said, ‘Dance first. Think later. It’s the natural order.’ Hughes is not of the authorial school wedded to extensive planning whereby narrative trajectory sublimates all else. She does not follow a narrative or thematically orchestrated plan, preferring to follow a character as she or he leads the creative dance. She is literally discovering what happens as she responds to acute character observation.

Referring to The Wild Laughter, she says -

‘I knew this had to be a rural setting, because the protagonist arrived in my imagination as someone who lived in a flat, rural, landlocked place. When I figured out he was living on his parents’ farm, I knew it couldn’t be a livestock or dairy farm, as this character clearly wasn’t interacting with animals every day—it’s hard to explain why I knew this upfront, but it has to do with observing the character. The thing is, characters can’t exist outside of context, so as long as I’m writing realism—fiction that hopes to portray contemporary life—their social, political, economic and cultural circumstance will come through, whether I like it or not!’

‘So much about a person’s life is informed or even dictated by their social context; not to mention how a person perceives their options and prospects, their agency as a citizen, their expectations as a neighbour, their onus as a breadwinner….. Booms and recessions, wild changes in social mobility and austerity have been part of Ireland’s recent history, and many other nations’ too, as neoliberal policies (including deregulating banking, property and capital markets; lowering trade barriers; the privatisation / part-privatisation of State assets and public services; the reduction of State influence in the economy; increased corporate influence on government coupled with corporate tax breaks) have deeply altered the social contract over the past thirty years. Those policies have changed what citizenship means in many countries’.

‘In both of my novels, the families have experienced whiplash changes in their economic standing and security—to a dramatic degree in The Wild Laughter. Looked at another way, this means I’m writing about love: the urgency and fear that kicks in when our loved ones’ safety falters.’

It seems to me that in adopting a character-first approach, Hughes abandons the crass compulsion suffered by many writers to over explain, to drive a point or theme into a reader’s psyche. Micromanagement of the reader is an anathema to Hughes. She leaves the reader with the space to interpret, to respond authentically. Outlining a novel can leave an author prone to deciding what she wants the reader to take from the work. Conversely, Hughes raises themes but she does not attempt to provide unequivocal, dogmatic answers. Her process is one of discovery, both for author and for reader. Her fiction does of course require meticulously calibrated plotting, a skill she has worked hard to acquire. However, its life blood is the authentic rendering of character, her creative muse.

Perhaps Hughes may better be understood by recalling William Faulkner on the theme: ‘It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says’. Hemingway also helps us to understand his Irish cousin when he says, ‘When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people, not characters. A character is a caricature’. Each and every personage in Hughes’s fiction is real, authentic and acutely realised. This may well go some way towards understanding both her success and her artistic process. Another of Hughes’s cited influences is Anton Chekhov. She was obviously listening when he said, ‘Be sure not to discuss your hero’s state of mind. Make it clear from his actions’.

I wanted to understand what impact a poetic soul had upon Hughes’s prose style:

‘I don’t even know if I have a soul, never mind a poetic one! But the fact that I am a very slow reader connects my poetry to my prose. I grew up reading poetry and plays, partly because I was (and am) a slow reader. I was intimidated by novels, and felt that they weren’t for me. Poetry books were slim, lithe, safe and succinct. There was space on the page for the reader. Poems spoke directly to me: a small, trusted audience. They didn’t ask me to remember any details, nor did they play tricks or engineer twists. Everything included was essential and concentrated. Once I’d become accustomed to density and concision, the novel seemed a baggy, watery, laborious, unapproachable thing. I would slow them down. As the years went by, I found my way to the novel form, first as a reader, and later as a writer. I began to see that the distance between the two forms doesn’t need to be vast, and sometimes it isn’t – it was a matter of finding the right novels.’

‘I’m still a very slow reader, and so I write for slow readers … for whom each sentence counts. So perhaps this effects the prose style in that there’s a certain density in the writing, because I assume the reader won’t want or need to be told something twice or at length, that they don’t need the book to state the obvious, and that each sentence moves the story or thought or scene or image along. The intention is to reward the reader rather than to challenge her. It’s true that I ask a lot of the reader, but I hope that she experiences the reward of having had a role to play in the realization of the story, in the formulation of its deepest questions and themes’.

Beyond the alchemical nature of words to transmute intent into substance, Hughes has a poet’s gift for language and uses metaphors with a plasticity that both delights and challenges. Like poetry, her prose navigates the page with a dancer’s precision, advancing her story, but never failing to fully exploit either her imagination or that of her reader. Perhaps this dedication to each syllable is a defining characteristic of her work and one rooted in her love of, and practice in, the poetic form.

We are all the product of both nature and nurture. I was keen to establish the literary influences acting upon Hughes:

‘There’s a difference between the influences we would like to have / believe that we have and the influences that come through in a book. I would say that the influences that manifest in The Wild Laughter are very different to the those in Orchid & the Wasp. Because The Wild Laughter is a tragicomedy, or a tragedy heavily laced with humour (I hope!), I could list some writers I find to be funny in this way. As to whether or not they influenced the book, that’s more complicated, and I can’t really be the one to say. Some such writers who I’d like to have been influenced by include Oscar Wilde, George Orwell, Flann O’Brien, Doris Lessing, Lorrie Moore, Zadie Smith, Mikhail Bulgakov, Chekhov, Kafka, Beckett, Dorothy Parker, Albert Camus, Toni Morrison (though the humour has a different resonance), Iris Murdoch…’

‘The list could go on and on and on, and for The Wild Laughter of course there are additional playwrights of influence. But I do believe it’s impossible for a writer to know or name their influences. We lie and flatter ourselves! If I’m being honest, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland probably had an enormous influence, as it was one of the few novels I read as a child. And all the poets I read back then deeply influenced me too, but they would seem like arbitrary names to mention when discussing a novel. Against my wishes, the Bible influenced me very deeply, as it was the work of prose I heard, recited and read snippets of (convent schooling) most frequently, before I was really reading prose fiction—before I’d fallen in love with the form’.

Hughes broadened her response to enlighten me on the title choice of her latest novel:

‘Regarding influences, we distort the truth for convenience too, or to make sense of senseless, causal experiences. For example, it’s partly true to say that Shakespeare influenced this book, as I stole the title from his Love’s Labours Lost (“To move wild laughter in the throat of death? It cannot be. It is impossible. Mirth cannot move a soul in agony”) but, then again, I remember reading the words “the wild laugh” in Patrick Kavanagh’s long poem “The Great Hunger” which has a far more obvious connection to The Wild Laughter’s themes... but with the Kavanagh poem, I would have read that many years before writing The Wild Laughter, so I pinned the title influence on Shakespeare! I’d love a second lifetime to study neuroscience … and to read a second lifetime’s worth of books!’

Athough her work is unflinchingly honest in terms of thematic substance and emotional consequence, Lewis Carroll, as Hughes herself intimates, may well be the source of her passion to ‘write into the dark’. Within this absurd and utterly marvellous work sits a line I suspect resonates at the very core of Hughes’s creative being…’If you don’t know where you are going any road can take you there’.

One aspect of Hughes’s writing that strikes a distinctive note with me is the non-judgmental treatment of her characters - something far more humanistic than mere objectivity. She seems to reflect Hemingway’s view that, ‘As a writer, you should not judge, you should understand’. I put this observation to Hughes:

‘The best weaponry I have against demonising or exalting my characters is to portray them without judgement, and to follow their movements rather than charting a course for them. This means I rarely know who I’m writing about at the outset. For me, writing is an act of listening and following. Occasionally, stalking. Occasionally following with your hands over your ears, for fear of what you’ll hear! Both as a reader and writer, I’ve learned it’s a good sign if a story or novel reveals me to have been a poor judge of character (very useful as a writer; very embarrassing and sometimes dangerous as a person!). I like to feel contradicted and conflicted by characters.’

‘I work very hard not to judge characters, or to assume that I know them better than they know themselves. I have sympathy and affection for all my characters, even as I discover their fallibility, fragility, failings and fungal conditions. If or when a character falls from grace, then the story must have defined grace. I’m more interested in interrogating that definition than I am in punishing the character via the narrative, or questioning the character’s worthiness for attention in the novel in the first place’.

Set in County Roscomon, and reflective of The Celtic Tiger’s legacy of pernicious austerity, The Wild Laughter is distinctively Irish in tone and idiom, though it does seem to transcend the narrow prism of such a specific contextual framework. In response to this point the writer notes:

‘Chekhov’s advice to writers is that “minute particulars are essential. God save us from vague generalizations!” I think the need to write honestly and specifically is intuitive: a writer knows her scene isn’t working if it’s vague. Particulars of place, society, detail, gesture, voice, dialogue, image are all essential to have any hope of ringing true to another person’s imagination. We have to furnish the reader’s imagination before the reader can get close to the scene or the characters’.

The Wild Laughter is an Irish novel in its state-of-the-nation portrait, but it’s also—equally—a love story, a family saga, a tragedy, a story of collaborating with one’s rival, a story about fear and survival, fear of losing a father figure and all that that implies; it’s about cowardice and sacrifice, faith rewarded and abandoned, the stories we tell ourselves and those we resist; it’s about one man’s desperate need for his story to be worth of telling (we witness his urgent need to control the narrative, and to resist succumbing to stereotype) … all of these themes are age-old and universal’.

Disarmingly candid and charismatically thoughtful, Hughes continues - ‘Despite the best efforts of its potato farm setting, I don’t think I could write a novel that’s limited to Ireland / Irishness if I tried!’

Mindful of the risk of plot spoiling, her latest novel’s denouement is chokingly moving. Given the symbiotic relationship co-existent between author and reader, I suspected that writing such an ending had not come without taking a heavy toll on it’s author’s sensibilities. Given the authorial process Hughes followed, exploring this section of her book revealed insights into both her and the story she tells:

The Wild Laughter is the only first-person narrative I’ve ever written. Its narrator, Doharty (Hart) Black, exerted a peculiar control over his own exposure. I was simultaneously inside his head and outside of it, like a newscaster nervously pronouncing the state of affairs and hearing them through her earpiece a split second later’.

‘It was impossible to listen to a seemingly-oppressed rural Irish bachelor farmer dreaming of travel and not think of the many figures in Irish literature that had stood in his place, but he warned me against presuming to recognize or know him: "How easy us muck savages were to grasp. How basic our motives. It was an old sentimental story that went down like trifle: the struggle for selfhood, exorcising the individual from the mass; the inexpert misunderstood miserable myth-drunk countrymen, versed in obsolete statistics, stuck in de Valera’s era, privately yearning for intimacy, reflexology and office jobs with casual Fridays. Also yearning for the story – however tired – to deserve telling"'

‘It took eight years to hear his voice and his story clearly. I only discovered in the last three pages what Hart would do and who he would become, and therefore who all the people around him were. I wrote the last three pages in one go, standing up, devastated. It was a shock, because I write into the dark… but then again, it had been there all along. Those pages threw into relief the rest of the book, and when I walked backwards through its pages, I saw what I had needed to believe, earlier in the story. I saw my fears and fixations, as well as his. I can’t say more without spoiling the reader’s experience … but this happened for me with Orchid & the Wasp too. The ending was impossible to predict, even as I wrote it … yet it couldn’t have been any other way. It’s a truly amazing feeling; simultaneously dizzying and grounding—one that nearly makes up for the very difficult journey of writing and publishing a novel! I hope to have that feeling again a few times in my life’.

One aspect of Hughes which seems to define her writing is the role she ascribes to her readers:

‘To me, readers complete books. Certainly, my own books aren’t complete without readers. Those wide margins of poems and plays that helped me discover literature when I was younger, I write prose that I hope has something of that wide margin quality—space for the reader. This means the reader has a job to do in the book’s realization and completion … I’m not talking about putting clues together or anything like that. And I don’t want anything to be obscure … but it’s important to me not to belittle a reader. I don’t want to tell a reader how to read my novel. I want to respect the reader’s presence in the work’.

‘In my view, good novels are different to each and every reader. This responsibility will make some readers uncomfortable, as they may prefer for it to be irrefutable how they should read a character or interaction or theme or conflict; they may dislike feeling unsure or conflicted, or unable to articulate what they feel or to summarize the wisdom they have arrived at on the last page. But readers are too hard on themselves: no one would expect an audience member at the end of a music concert to be able to synthetize what the performance meant; no one would expect them to be able to analyse their own response to it. The writer is just very grateful if the reader shows up, because that is already an act of generosity’.

Hughes is a tad cagey about her next writing project. A little internet snooping on my part suggests that she may well be returning to the short story form, whilst allowing an as yet unborn novel to figuratively gestate within her restless mind. As a lover of the short story in all its manifestations, I cannot wait to see what this astonishing author gives us next. Regardless of the genre or literary form, I suspect her next outing will be every bit as diverting, thoughtful and delightful as that which has already established her as an effulgently compassionate author of significance.

The Wild Laughter is published by One World