Writer’s Block with Adrian Duncan

Sophie Grenham speaks to author ADRIAN DUNCAN about Berlin, building sites and Russian writing inspiration …

Photograph by Sean Breithaupt

Longford-born Adrian Duncan is a visual artist and the author of Love Notes From a German Building Site, one of this year’s most original debut novels. He studied and worked as a structural engineer from 1995 in the UK and Ireland, and received a chartership from the Irish Institute of Engineering in 2007. His career took a different direction when he studied fine art at the Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art and Design in 2008, and received a first class MA from the National College of Art and Design, Dublin in 2011.

His visual discipline is mostly installation based, using a range of media such as photography, film and sculpture. Floating Structures, his feature film on Irish engineer Peter Rice, co-directed with Feargal Ward, premiered earlier this year. The aesthetic of his art originates from his interest in language and the processes of construction, which easily translates into his written work.

Duncan’s words have appeared in Frieze, The Times Literary Supplement (UK), Art & the Public Sphere, The Dublin Review, gorse, The Moth, Architecture Ireland, The Stinging Fly, and The Irish Times. He is co-editor of Paper Visual Art Journal.

Love Notes from a Germany Building Site is the collated product of several experiences from Duncan’s time as a structural engineer. The story takes place mainly on a busy building site in Berlin’s very identifiable thoroughfare of Alexanderplatz. Inside are many illuminating observations of such workplaces and their team dynamics. One can immediately read between the carefully drawn lines of his earnest prose, as the protagonist Paul’s muddled sense of self reflects his turbulent work and home life. With plentiful flicks of dry humour, one can relate to his tenderness and vulnerability as he gently navigates his relationship with girlfriend Evelyn, all the while learning the language of a strange city. Paul’s “Love Notes” are charming tangential lists of German vocabulary, collected during his time on the job.

Love Notes from a German Building Site has received bountiful bundles of praise ever since the Irish literary scene got wind of it. His mentor Greg Baxter has called it “the best book I have read in years – it contains that magical balance of mastery and uncertainty and recklessness that creates something new in literature…a perfect depiction of love, and of desire and struggle.” Meanwhile, Wendy Erskine has said, “With elegance and precision, this beautiful book shoes the forces that act on the structures of buildings and those that impact on relationships. Duncan’s Berlin building site is, perhaps surprisingly, a brilliantly compelling place: the complications of construction converging with the complex experiences of those who work there.”

Adrian Duncan lives in Berlin, Germany with his partner, Niamh.

Love Notes From a German Building Site (€12) is published by The Lilliput Press and available from all good bookshops.

On home

Niamh and I live in the northern part of Berlin, where the district of Pankow meets Prenzlauerberg – a few hundred yards east of Bornholmer Brücke, an old steel bridge, which was one of the main (but lesser-known) crossing-points on the night of re-unification in 1989. Our apartment is an altbau from the turn of the last century. It’s a handsome brick and timber affair with a beautiful wooden communal stairway.

The streets alongside us are all similar in style, but to the rear it opens out into an array of allotments, where older couples go for the summers to lodge in their small houses and tend their gardens and flowers. There’s a century-old bakery nearby too called Sieberts where I often get bread or a piece of Nusskirschküche (nut-and-cherry-cake). I realise this sounds very pleasant, but in certain weather, when the planes take off east from Tegel Airport, all of this shatters under jet-engines surging skyward.

On roots

I’m from Ballymahon in county Longford. My family live in a Bungalow Bliss-era house a mile or so from the town. It was an upbringing thousands of other rural-Irish people of my age will recognise – semi-rural and semi-suburban. To the front of our house runs the busy main road to Longford town and to the rear stretches hectares of mostly peaceful farmland. I visit my parents more and more often these days. Though I haven’t lived in Ballymahon since I was seventeen, I still love the place and I love going home to see my parents and whoever of my siblings is visiting at that time.

On early reading

My mother read to us most often, but my dad read to us most theatrically. I certainly remember The Famous Five by Enid Blyton. I remember also reading Boy and Going Solo by Roald Dahl. I think they were my first non-fiction books. I was at first confused when I read them, because most of my reading up to then had been stories of some kind or another that I understood as being fiction. While reading Boy and Going Solo I intuitively began to grasp the difference between fiction and non-fiction. I hear much today about creative non-fiction and such things, but to me there’s still a strong distinction between non-fiction and fiction and mixing the two and proposing it as non-fiction of any kind makes me suspicious of the writer doing so. I think this experience from when I was young informs my rigidity.

On influences

My background is engineering and it wasn’t until I was thirty that I began studying literature of any kind. This was during creative writing classes at the Irish Writers’ Centre under the tutelage of Greg Baxter. We studied little by way of Irish writing. It was really the short stories I encountered by Russian writers that explained to me most what a story could be. So, I think, knowing little else, I began writing in a “Russian” style, but the stories I wrote, in terms of location, can certainly be placed in Ireland – in my mind I make Soviet the Irish countryside. At the moment, I like the space Berlin gives me. I can just get on with my work. The city is full of huge historical narratives so there’s little point trying too hard to apprehend it all at once; I just live here curiously and see what of the smaller parts of it I can take in and I try to make sense of that.

On creating

I write at my desk at the corner window of the sitting room of our apartment. Niamh works for a publisher on Karl-Marx-Allee, so she leaves each morning at 9:00. We sometimes have a coffee together in a nearby square. I often begin work an hour or more before this, then return and continue.

Above my desk is a photograph by an Irish artist (and friend) Karl Burke. It shows an old tree in Stoneybatter with a large naturally formed hole through its upper-half. I often look at this hole framing a piece of Irish sky beyond.

The last few years I’ve been quite busy. Alongside my writing, I’ve made films, produced a number of art publications with Paper Visual Art, and have exhibited sculptures and photos. I teach on Mondays too. Writing helps me bring forward ideas, then if the idea sits well I continue writing, but if I think it might grow interestingly in another form, I move in that direction and see what might be discovered.

On favourite bookshops

I really like Books Upstairs in Dublin, and I visit often St Georges in Prenzlauerberg. Both are lovely spaces, have loads of excellent books, and the odd chat is welcome there too.

On his “To Be Read” pile

I saw that Banshee are to publish a book of Lucy Sweeney Byrne’s work called Paris Syndrome. I’ve read four or five of Lucy’s stories and essays in journals like The Dublin Review, and I think she’s brilliant. I hope the book does well for her and the folk at Banshee. The Australian author Gerald Murnane’s book of poetry, Green Shadows came out earlier this year. He is my favourite writer (it’s hard for me to fully express my admiration for his work), so I’m looking forward to that too. I also hope to re-read Wendy Erskine’s Sweet Home. I read it last year and was stunned, so I want to read it again and perhaps try and work out why it stunned me so. And my friends at Lilliput have two books I’m looking forward to reading: Introducing John Moriarty and Mary Cregan’s memoir The Scar.

On escapes

I took two train journeys recently on the Munich-to-Bologna line. One was in winter and the other in late spring. It’s about six hours of winding through the Alps then the Dolomites and I found it peaceful, appealing. On one trip I got off in Innsbruck and took a cable car up to one of the snowy mountain peaks that ring the city where a scattering of dark birds swirled around in the mountain air a few metres above my head. It was so cold and bleak and beautiful up there. When I got back down to the foothills there was an old Austrian Stube where I had some hot food and a tall beer glass of Hefe. That was brief but very nice.

On Love Notes From a German Building Site

I’m fascinated by building sites. I worked in the construction industry for over a decade and I always thought there was something in this world worth talking about. It wasn’t until I read Primo Levi’s The Wrench that I realised it was possible to write compellingly about technical things. Then, as I learned German in Berlin it occurred to me that putting these worlds together would be interesting. I think perhaps writing the novel was a way for me to make sense of my training and career as a structural engineer. It also taught me much about my new craft as a writer. There was a stage when the book was being rejected that I comforted myself with the thought – “well at least, from all of this, I’ve improved as a writer.” But, of course, there was no real comfort in such a thought at all.

On the visual

I am deeply interested in the types of images that flicker in the mind when reading or writing descriptive prose. I consider these semi-private images as a sort of visual art.

I think there is much cross-over in the art forms of writing and visual art, but I would also say that the types of thoughts one has when writing are very different to those that appear when you are struggling with a sculpture or a drawing. Art works are often completely narrative-less too. However, down the line thoughts that appear while making something often reappear in activities alien to the place of their initial emergence. For example, I am writing a novel at the moment about a man obsessed with drawing, and I find the thoughts I had while drawing in the past appear now and inform the writing.

On what’s next

I’m working on a film with my friend Feargal Ward on the subject of peat-production in pre-war Russia.

@SophieGrenham

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