Writer’s Block With David Butler

SOPHIE GRENHAM talks to author DAVID BUTLER about living by the sea, mastering SIX LANGUAGES and how he moved from MECHANICAL ENGINEERING to LITERATURE

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David Butler is a novelist, playwright, poet and writer of short fiction. With a BA in Mechanical Engineering, the literary path could initially seem a peculiar ambition for an ostensibly numerical mind. The Renaissance man later became a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) and speaks no less than five languages other than his mother tongue; French, Spanish, Portuguese, Irish and Russian. David may be the Jack of many trades, but is far from a ‘master of none’.

Over the years Butler has collected a cluster of gongs for his work including the Ted McNulty Prize (2001) and Brendan Kennelly Award (2002) for poetry, the Fish Short Story Award (2014), the Cork Arts Theatre (2015) accolade and has twice received the Maria Edgeworth Short Story Award.

David is perhaps best known for his novels The Judas Kiss (New Island, 2012) and City of Dis (New Island, 2014). Patrick McCabe wrote of the latter, ‘David Butler’s compelling mythic, metaphysical X-ray is beautifully written and ought to cement his growing reputation.’

David’s new collection of poetry, All the Barbaric Glass, looks set to dazzle his audience further still. Breda Wall Ryan deems the compilation to be “Controlled and affecting, these poems reassure us, ‘this is how it is to live’”. 

David Butler lives in Bray, County Wicklow, with his wife and fellow author Tanya Farrelly. 

All the Barbaric Glass (€12) is published by Doire Press and available nationwide.

On home

I live on the seafront in Bray. Right on the seafront. The DART is about five minutes away, and five minutes in the opposite direction is Bray Head and a wonderful cliff walk to Greystones. I bought the place back in 2005, and absolutely love it. Bray is lively. There’s a great music scene, with a choice of three or four live music venues along the seafront itself, Thursday-Sunday. The art scene has life in it, too. I’m very active in the drama groups Square One and Dalkey Players and, more recently, a collection of filmmakers calling ourselves NoWifi (North Wicklow Films). I’ve even had a couple of oil paintings in the Signal Art Gallery down the years.

My favourite pub, hands down, has to be the Harbour Bar. Not just for the music, either. It’s idiosyncratic, more a collection of quirky rooms and interiors than anything else. Seats are mismatched and various, pictures, posters and trophies run the gamut from the quaint to the sinister, there’s even a confession-box! It’s worth a trip to the loo just to see the murals of Hendrix, Dylan and Co painted above the urinals.

On roots

[I lived in] Kilminchy, just outside Portlaoise until the age of six, then Carpenterstown when it was still, as they say, ‘nothing but fields’. So even though school was pretty much an urban experience, after school and during the holidays we were always surrounded by countryside. At the time I lived in Carpenterstown, the nearest bus stop was more than a mile and a half’s walk along a country road. So I grew up with the sights, smells and sounds of the country.

An early memory has me and my two elder siblings straying onto a slurry-pit and falling through the crust – we had to be hosed down afterwards, but it could have ended very badly indeed! All through my teens there were herds of cows all around us, horses we occasionally climbed onto bare-back; there was an old ruin of a farmhouse nearby that myself and a character named Steven Madden slowly vandalised down the years. Fair seed time, indeed…

On creating

I used to lecture English and Spanish literature, but quit in 2010 to take a chance on writing full time. So a lot of time is spent at home. The two-bed flat has one large front room whose window looks out at the sea. Could you ask for a better space to fire the imagination? Fortunately it’s a room large enough to allow myself and my other half, author Tanya Farrelly, to wander off simultaneously into our respective creative woodlands to the patter of keyboards…

Do I ‘work’ at home? That’s a tough one. I’m not one of those writers with a fixed regime. ‘Making a certain time available each day at the computer’ doesn’t tend to be fruitful. On the other hand, creativity rarely gets turned off. Entire dialogues and paragraphs and drafts of poems have been composed mentally when in the throes of insomnia, or while walking up and down the promenade, an activity I do so often daily I should wear a straw hat and charge for donkey-rides. I’m fortunate to have a memory that tends to retain…

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On treasured bookshops

Books Upstairs. If you’d asked me fifteen or twenty years ago, I’d have said The Winding Stair, when there were three glorious floors of second-hand books and coffee tables with chess sets and great sash windows overlooking the Ha’penny Bridge. I guess rents don’t allow for that sort of leisure anymore.

Doing my PhD in Trinity at the turn of the millennium, I loved dropping into Books Upstairs when it was on College Green. You’d find such a mixture of small press publications, poets in translation, academic treatises at knock-down prices… Now it’s moved over to D’Olier St, it is if anything consolidating its fine reputation as a hub for poets and poetry, the short story, the literary journal, small presses, spoken word and so forth. A gem of a venue.

On his nightstand

For nightstand read ‘floor beside my bed’. An eclectic forest has sprung up there.

I’m currently reading Sara Baume’s A Line Made By Walking. The last novel I read was The End of Days, by the remarkable Jenny Erpenbeck. What an intelligent, controlled mind she has! There’s a couple of anthologies of American Short Fiction, though where the short story is concerned I freely admit that beyond dipping into such tomes, I’ve become entirely addicted to Deborah Treisman’s podcasts on the New Yorker website. There’s a poetry collection by John Burnside, a volume of The Paris Review interviews, Heart Songs by Annie Proulx, a TY Further Russian primer…I think you get the picture!

On relaxation

The cliff walk from Bray to Greystones takes just over an hour. Often, I’ll be listening to an audio-play or a language cassette, but often, too, it’s wonderful just to listen to the sea breeze and the colonies of gannets and cormorants over the insistent syllable of the sea. Many people hike there and back, I tend to wait for the DART.

On languages

When I was in school I took Irish, French and Latin to Leaving Cert. They weren’t my strongest suits, nor my favourite subjects, which were Maths and Physics – in university I took a degree in Mechanical Engineering. My first job was lecturing engineering in (of all places) the Seychelles. I decided I’d love to do something similar in Latin America so, after a stint in Australia, I moved to Spain.

This was an eye-opener. After three months living in the small Andalusian town of Ubeda my Spanish was at about the same level as my French had been after eight years in school. All around, two year olds who’d never studied spoke wonderful Spanish. Later again, when I took a degree in Latin American studies, I found you learn best by osmosis rather than formal study – by listening to cassettes, by reading widely, by ‘intercambios’ with native speakers… we’ll put my Russian to the test when myself and Tanya visit St Petersburg this coming September!

On his medium of choice

I think I’d have to say drama. I find it by far the most difficult form. The plethora (some would say plague) of monologue plays, often but not exclusively one-man/woman-shows, that has taken over the Irish stage in the wake of Friel’s Faith Healer has reconfirmed my view. These can be entertaining, and are often worth attending live. They do not, however, dramatise their story. They narrate it. They give direct access to thoughts of the ‘so I go over to her, and my heart is beating like a mad thing, and I’m thinking this could go either way…’ variety. The true dramatist’s challenge is to present that interiority ‘in real time’, and without narrative commentary.

Secondly, drama is collaborative in a way that fiction and poetry can never be. It relies on performance, on actors’ interpretations, on a director’s vision, on a stage-set, on the particular audience on a given night. As an actor and occasional director I appreciate how essential a part of the final work they are. The closest analogy I can think of is the music score; the very different experiences of hearing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, as interpreted by such different artistes.

On what’s next

So many projects, so little time! In the immediate future I’ll be putting the finishing touches to a short poetry sequence. I was fortunate enough to receive a Per Cent Literary Arts Commission from Blackrock. I will be presenting the finished work, a series of about a dozen site-specific poems running loosely from the Forty Foot to Booterstown Saltmarsh, illustrated by my brother who is a print-maker and graphics lecturer in Cambridge, this coming May 23.

There are two novels at varying stages of completion on my laptop. And then, the commissioning by RTÉ of my radio-play Vigil for their Drama on One slot (broadcast Sunday March 26)  means that it’s back to the drawing-board in regard to what to send into this year’s P.J. O’Connor Award. I had planned on submitting Vigil! There are even a few film-shorts with NoWiFi – watch this space!

SOPHIE GRENHAM @SophieGrenham

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