Deeply Rooted in a Local World

Irish Times

Monday September 20, 1999

Dermot Healy near his home at Ballyconnell West, Co Sligo. When his writing stalls, he works in the garden, which is bound by sea on three sides. Photograph: Alan Betson

Dermot Healy's new novel is just one of a number of projects he has coming to fruition this autumn. Rosita Boland went to his Sligo heartland to talk to him

Dermot Healy is elbowing the heavy rain out of the way as he hurries into Sligo Railway station to collect this reporter from the train. "I hope it's OK," he explains straight away, "if we detour to a funeral in Rosses Point." Driving there, he relates how an old neighbour, the former Rosses Point postman, has died suddenly: an ex-Merchant Navy man who got the job of postman because his marine experience meant that he could make the daily delivery by boat to nearby Coney Island.

In the small, whitewashed church at Rosses Point, men sing haunting sea-shanties in farewell, and shoulder the coffin up the hill through the morning rain. When Healy gets back into the car, he's soaked, but clearly content now that he has paid his respects. This is his local world in which he is deeply rooted: a world that has always featured so strongly in his work, as it does again in his new novel, Sudden Times.

Healy is a very busy man at the moment. The kitchen notice board in his eyrie cottage at Ballyconnell, which is where the road ends and the sea begins, is layered with invitations to literary festivals, details of forthcoming book tours, launches, and Aosdána meetings. The publication of Sudden Times this month coincides with the fruition of a number of other projects.

His new play, Mr Staines, performed by Pan Pan Theatre, opens at the Samuel Beckett Centre on October 21st; he has directed a production of Beckett's Footfalls, which will run during the Dublin Fringe Festival; he has completed the first draft of a screenplay of his first novel, A Goat's Song; he plays the lead role in Nichola Bruce's upcoming movie of the much-acclaimed Timothy O'Grady/ Stephen Pyke book, I Could Read the Sky; and there is a marvellous collaborative book due out with New York photographer Bruce Gildea, called After The Off.

The "Off" of the title refers to the races: the photographs depict an illuminating range of facial expressions of spectators captured at races around Ireland; expressions which reflect tension, concentration, boredom, desperation, and joy. Healy's contribution is an "extended short story, called Before The Off".

The play, Mr Staines, is a reworking of an old play called Curtains. "Curtains never went anywhere. There was one reading of it, years ago, and then I left it lie for years before I went at it again." This is exactly what happened to the genesis of Sudden Times, referred to in the acknowledgements; "Parts of what became this novel first appeared in Cyphers 31, Summer 1989."

The extract which appeared in Cyphers 10 years ago now has another life as one of the novel's seminal set-pieces, where Sligo-born Ollie Ewing, the protagonist, discovers something nasty in the back of a lorry near the London building site he works in.

"I had lost my own copy of that original Cyphers, so I rang Leland (Bardwell) and they dug out a copy for me, and I looked at it again. What I did was to write a story up to that point, and then beyond it. When I extended it on both sides, it turned out to be a novel. It took about two-and-a-half years; I started into it after I'd finished The Bend for Home."Dermot Healy at Raughly Pier

So Mr Staines and Sudden Times both metamorphosed out of every writer's purgatorial holding-place, the drawer that contains unperformed plays, unpublished poems, and drafts of bits of novels. Is there anything else doing time in Dermot Healy's own creative purgatory? "Everything's gone now," he says. "There's nothing left in there; I'll have to start over again next time."

A lot of Sudden Times is set in the world of London's building sites, where Healy himself worked for many years some decades ago. As part of his research for the novel, he went back to England for two weeks, spending time with people working on the sites today. Had that world changed much? "They all wear helmets now," he says wryly. "Some of the older Irish men told me they had tried coming back to Ireland with all the new building going on now, but they found that Ireland was a foreign country to them and they went back to England again."

The novel is told exclusively through the voice of Ollie Ewing, who has come back from the building sites and now works pushing trolleys in a Sligo supermarket.

His experiences in England have been such that Ollie can barely function; he looks at the world from a perspective that lets in only enough light of reality for him to cope with. Even that small amount of light is sometimes blinding. The book's cover depicts a headless man pushing a trolley, empty except for his bewildered-looking head.

"The hardest thing about writing the novel was sustaining the same tone throughout," Healy explains. "I'd chosen to write in a voice that wouldn't let me stray from it. Descriptive passages, for example, were out. So it's written in a very different style to say, Goat's Song."

The phone rings constantly as he talks. A former publisher calls about the new novel; Healy discusses details of his Canadian reading tour with a publicist; he tries to arrange 10 tickets to a film screening in Toronto for his brother with another publicist. There's a matchbox on a bookcase from London's famous literary and media watering hole, the Groucho Club; a tiny pewter Viking boat picked up from a trip to Norway; and figures from Ecaduaor.

His wife, Helen, works in the bank, so his working day at home is a solitary one. "I get up later than I intend, feed the animals, play Solitaire on the computer and suddenly start working." He only started really using a computer three years ago. "I won an Apple when The Bend for Home was runner up in some non-fiction literary prize, the Esquire one. Before that I had two Amstrads, but the salt in the sea-air here does terrible things to computers, and I used to lose things. We're the last house on the line for electricity, so supply is erratic anyway. I'm always a bit nervous of losing stuff."

Healy is not the only writer in the locality: Leland Bardwell lives nearby, as does Molly McCluskey. Pat McCabe, Eoin MacNamee, and Brian Leyden live on the other side of Sligo. The artist Sean McSweeney, who has illustrated three of Healy's covers, also lives nearby: Healy bought the cottage from McSweeney's brother, and there are several of McSweeney's paintings on the walls.

"Some of us meet up for a pint about half six every day locally. You need some talk after spending all day working by yourself. When you're working by yourself, you get very institutionalised. And the worst thing about writing a novel, for me, is that I don't let myself read any novels while I'm doing it. That's a necessary dissatisfaction for me."

When the writing stalls, he works in the garden, which is bound by sea on three sides. There are two pieces of land in front of the cottage, hard-won from the expanse of seeping bogland: a picture-book perfect lawn, and the verdant mosaic of a vegetable plot, over which the smell of coriander mixes with the sea-air.

"Look," he says, and laughs, pointing to the wooden pallet-like pieces of wood which fence in the two plots. "That wood used to be the stage for the Factory Theatre in Sligo. They got a new stage, and they paid me in kind with the old one for a job I'd done for them. So I fenced in the garden with their old stage!"

What will he be working on next? "I've no idea," he confesses. "I'd be codding you if I said otherwise."

Sudden Times by Dermot Healy is published on Thursday by the Harvill Press. He will be reading at Foyles Hotel, Clifden, Co. Galway, at 8 p.m. tomorrow, the Triskel Arts Centre, Cork, at 8 p.m. on Monday, and Waterstone's, Dawson Street, Dublin, at 6 p.m. on Wednesday.