Writer's Block with Alan McMonagle - The Gloss Magazine

Writer’s Block with Alan McMonagle

SOPHIE GRENHAM talks to author ALAN McMONAGLE about comedy, INSPIRATIONAL WRITERS and the collapse of the CELTIC TIGER … 

Photograph by Joe O’Shaughnessy

Sligo-born writer Alan McMonagle is decidedly one of Irish literature’s brightest rising stars. It’s fair to say that his infectious humour, gentle poetic flow and piercing perception of the everyday have pinned him firmly to the map. His praise page alone reads like a roll-call of some of Ireland’s most recognised authors; Edna O’Brien, Patrick McCabe, Joseph O’Connor, Belinda McKeon, Donal Ryan, Kevin Barry and Sara Baume, to name but a few.

Alan has published two collections of short stories, Liar, Liar (2009, Wordsonthestreet) and Psychotic Episodes (2013, Arlen House), both of which were nominated for the Frank O’Connor Award. He has written for radio and contributed to many prominent literary journals in Ireland and North America. In 2014, his radio play, Oscar Night, was broadcast as part of Irish radio’s Drama on One season.

Alan’s mesmerising debut novel Ithaca (2017) has a winning protagonist in precocious Jason Lowry, whose home life is dysfunctional at best. In its portrayal of Jason’s touching but troubled inner world, combined with a bonkers cast of misfits in a decaying town, the narrative could symbolise a post-crash purgatory of sorts. The story flawlessly balances darkness and light in a period not far from recent memory. Patrick McCabe has called the book “compelling from start to finish”, while Sara Baume has coined it “sweet yet dark, odd yet true.” Ithaca was shortlisted for a Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Award and longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize in 2017.

Alan McMonagle lives in County Galway. He is currently writing his second novel.

Ithaca (€9.45) is published by Picador and available from all good bookshops.

On home

I live on the edge of town, just off the Clybaun Road and quite near to Rahoon. A few writers I know live out this way – it’s affordable, I suppose. These days, I get up earlier than I used to and try to get something done straight away. Then I go for a walk and/or cycle. I walked to Rahoon cemetery recently as I wanted to see Walter Macken’s grave. I spent a good hour noodling about for it, only to later discover he is buried in the cemetery on the other side of town. Very often, I cycle the back roads of the various townlands. Old Clybaun. Keeraun. Boleybeg. Tonabrocky. These back roads are narrow and quiet and the landscape has a desolate beauty to it. There is also the small matter of the west wind – a wind I have had manys an argument with. It’s a clever wind, almost every time it knows how to best me, and with plenty to spare.

On roots

I grew up in Longford town, a hop and a skip away from the schools I went to (St. Michaels boys national school, St. Mel’s college). I was very much a “townie” and passed much of my teenage years on the streets with my friends. We were out late all the time – and by late I mean until there was little point in going to bed. My best friend’s parents owned a bar right in the middle of Main Street. From an early age I remember sitting in the bar’s dark-lit corners, listening to old codgers on high stools lament their lives away (“I was in love once.” “Freedom is at the bottom of the tenth glass.” “Are you any good at taking bullets?”). I wasn’t too sure I wanted to be like them, but they did hold a certain fascination for me.

On creating

I am restless and like to pace and read aloud as I write, and so I use the largest room in the house I live in, which is the kitchen. Beside me is a substantial bookshelf. There is a photograph of Kafka, a poem by Raymond Carver, and assorted sayings by writers I admire. “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” (Hemingway) “Finally, from so little sleeping and so much reading, his brain dried up and he went completely out of his mind.” (Cervantes) “I was more of a genius in dreams than in life.” (Pessoa). For a change of scene, I make my way as far as the Claddagh. These days in the evening is a good time – the sun is dipping, shadows drift across the harbour and sometimes the water appears as a sheet of glass reflecting the colours of the Long Walk.

On bookshops

Charlie Byrne’s in Middle Street in Galway has been a good friend to many writers over the years. The staff are so knowledgeable. There is an engaged book club. Vinnie Browne, the shop manager, is as infectious as they come. It’s a labyrinthine, stroll-in-for-one-stagger-out-with-many, adventure of a bookshop, and I have gone happily missing for days within its warren-like interior.

On his TBR pile

This should be the “to be read again” pile for the number of titles I want to re-visit.

Gargantua and Pantagruel by Rabelais is a must read again for me because it is doing five hundred years ago what the so-called present-day experimenters are being lauded for. It’s also laugh-out-loud funny. Flights by the Polish writer, Olga Tokarczuk is part travelogue, part reflection, part exploration of the human body. Her Body & Other Parties is a brilliantly original collection of short stories by Carmen Maria Machado. The Doll’s Alphabet by Camilla Grudova is great (think Angela Carter cut with a dash of Franz Kafka). I also want to re-read The Great Gatsby if only for the elegance of the prose.  And a writing friend, Claire-Louise Bennett, recommended Bartleby & Co. by the Spaniard Enrique Vila-Matas. The first two sentences read, “I never had much luck with women. I have a pitiful hump, which I am resigned to.” That’s me hooked.

On escapes

One thing I do in Galway is cycle in to town as far as the library where I leave my bike, make a quick visit, and then walk one of the city’s waterways. The mile-long Eglinton Canal. The raised walkway stretching from the Salmon Weir Bridge to the harbour. The harbour area itself, taking in Nimmo’s Pier and the Long Walk. There are one or two lesser known spaces: Steamer’s Quay (locally known as Waterside) is a minute’s walk from the Town Hall Theatre. And starting out from the back of the university campus, you can follow the course of the river Corrib as far as Menlo Castle. These early summer evenings are a good time – the city seems temporarily suspended between the hustle and bustle of daytime and its panoply of after-dark allure.

On the classics 

The house I grew up in contained floor to ceiling bookshelves. Everything from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind to Frederick Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. I remember an anthology of Greek Myths And Legends I devoured from start to finish I don’t know how many times. The Wooden Horse of Troy. The Labours of Hercules. The Quest for the Golden Fleece. These stories have definitely stayed with me. I also remember Huckleberry Finn, White Fang and The Coral Island. Around the World in Eighty Days. Far flung adventures all of them, and they lit something inside me, provided me with an entry way into the realm of the imagination – a place I have come to cherish, and guard zealously. I often think of the scene from Alice in Wonderland when Alice encounters the unicorn. “I didn’t think unicorns existed,” Alice says to the fabled horse. And the unicorn replies, “I’ll believe in you if you believe in me.” I’ve always thought there is something magical about this exchange, it contains a world of possibility, manna for the imagination.

On the small town 

These “small stories” – with their particular energy and motley crew and singular ways of communicating – have it within them to contain all of humanity, and so they become universal stories.

On the crash

These days, attention spans – and by extension the memory of both good and bad experience – are becoming shorter and shorter. So I would say it is inevitable that if good times come around, then bad times come around too. However, I think this is primarily down something intrinsic – that is to say, the human condition – rather than, say, any carefully thought-out scheming or some complex penchant for self-sabotage that must be re-visited every so often. The setting of Ithaca (the collapse of this so-called Celtic Tiger) is important because I feel it gives my motley cast permission to lash out in the only way they know how. That is to say, angry, disappointed, frustrated, protesting, farcical, confused, uncertain, and always human.

On comedy

We laugh and cry at the same things. Tragedy and comedy, I think, run together, co-exist. In ancient Greece, tragedians were a dime a dozen. It was the comedians – the guys that could have them rolling in the aisles – that were put up on pedestals. And they literally were – it is where the phrase derives from. For me though, humour is best deployed when it serves to throw light on moments that are anything but funny. All the writers I admire do this wonderfully. Beckett is probably the grandmaster of this. Such humour and yet such lament. An earlier version of Ithaca actually contains a lot more gags – we (my editor and myself) ultimately felt it wise to reign it all back in a tad. In this manner the narrative became a balancing act, you know, finding the ideal blend of humour and darkness (or at least the closest possible approximation of such an ideal). The last word here goes to another early hero, Mark Twain: the secret source of humour itself, he said, is not joy but sorrow. And I think there’s something in that.

On writing

The best high was waking up one September morning in 2014 and for the first time realising I would finish Ithaca. I was still the better part of a hundred pages from the end, and scene for scene I still had no idea what was going to happen, but it was as though a spirit guide had turned up and announced, “It’s ok, Alan, you’ve put in the sweat and tears and toil. I’m with you now. We’re going to see this thing through to the end.” For me, the low point was putting off for too long doing the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do. Another lovely thing – the kind of thing that makes it all worthwhile – was receiving a letter from a fifteen-year-old in Grenoble, France telling me she really liked my novel and wondering had I been influenced by The Outsider by Albert Camus (I had, I told her in my reply).

On praise

I wrote an entire piece about imposter syndrome. I know writers who feel they were three books in before they dared call themselves a writer. Before Ithaca, I had published two collections of short stories with small publishers. And so, technically, the novel was my third book. But, you know, it also feels like it is my first book. There are other books I intend to write and I have a feeling when these get done each of them is going to feel like a first book too. It is a feeling I am perfectly ok with. As far as the writing goes, it is a long way, and every day is the first day. For what it’s worth I am proud of what I have produced to date, and occasionally and just when it seems I am about to forget, a reader gets in touch to remind me exactly what it is I have managed to do. Obviously, it is very satisfying when one’s peers provide words of support, especially when it is clear that they understand what the book is trying to do. But readers engaging to the extent that they are prompted to get in touch – now that is very humbling.

On what’s next

I have a decent draft of a second novel. The narrator’s name is Laura Cassidy. Thirty-ish. Another troubled soul. I also have a play I would love to lick into shape. It involves a man who has sold his soul to the goddess of getting on. A wife who has been let down one time too many. A daughter who dreams of a better life. And a young man who promises more than he can deliver. Oh, and there’s a banquet of poisoned food. I also have a great many stories – too many, really – in various stages of neediness. Every night I hear them calling to me. There is pleading in these calls, don’t abandon us, don’t abandon us…But there is this idea for another novel starting to kick around inside me…


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