Writer’s Block with Conor Bowman

Sophie Grenham meets author CONOR BOWMAN to discuss familial inspiration, studying at Cambridge and close encounters with Samuel Beckett …

Photograph by Lesley Wingfield

Conor Bowman is the author of six novels, which include Wasting By Degrees (1998), The Redemption of George Baxter Henry (2011) and Horace Winter Says Goodbye (2017), along with two collections of short fiction and the occasional set of song lyrics. When he isn’t writing up a storm, Bowman is a barrister. Originally from Galway, he has lived in Co Meath for over two decades. He went to boarding school in Newbridge, Co Kildare, before studying Law and English at University College Galway. He later went to Cambridge University where he did an MA in Law at Wolfson College.

Bowman’s new novel, Hughie Mittman’s Fear of Lawnmowers, is his first work to be set mainly in his native county. Here we meet Hughie, an unfortunate young schoolboy, whose right foot suffers a terrible fate when he decides to assist with the family gardening. However, all is not lost. Thanks to the expertise of his surgeon father, his foot is saved and a stay in the children’s hospital ward introduces Hughie to Nyxi, a burn victim who quickly becomes his best friend. You will find yourself drawn into some truly heart-wrenching scenes as the author writes about issues of identity, adoption, grief, mental illness and the pain of loneliness itself. Readers will instantly take Hughie into their imaginations as he questions and learns about the complexities of life after the tragic death of his mother. Bowman’s emotive prose has an eloquent charm which always manages to shine a positive light into some of the darkest tunnels.

Conor Bowman lives in Dunboyne, Co Meath with his wife Sylvia and their four children. He is currently writing his next book.

Hughie Mittman’s Fear of Lawnmowers (€16.99) is published by Hachette Ireland and available from bookshops nationwide.

On home

I live in Dunboyne with my wife Sylvia and our four children and a cat called Pushkin Bill. It’s a fabulous little village (well maybe not so little anymore) and has a village green and a quaint centre with four pubs, five or six restaurants and a couple of pizza places, a florists and wonderful people. We’ve lived here since the early 90s and although we’re blow-ins our children grew up here and all wear Meath jerseys when the summer rolls around. One of the reasons we chose to live here was that we immediately fell for the idyllic little Church of Ireland church and the fact that the village is built around a green (whereas most Irish villages are not). My favourite pubs are actually miles away from where we live, Fagan’s in Moynalvey and Fox’s in Skryne. They’re well worth the drive and are full of character.

On roots

As a child I lived in Galway. We lived on the edge of the city on a hill, and you could see the whole city from our front garden. Out to the right on a clear day (and before all the houses were built) it was possible to see the Aran Islands. The things I really recall about our house, growing up, is the smell of freshly cut grass in the summer and the sound of my dad resetting the cuckoo clock in the corridor outside my bedroom. I also remember the smell of my mother’s brown bread on the wire cooling rack after it had come out of the oven and also the hollow “thunk” as she tapped the underside of the bread with her knuckles to see if it was done. Another image from my childhood is of all of the local farmers, men and women, coming together to save hay in the meadow beside our house and the milk bottles full of hot tea and the doorstep ham sandwiches they ate for lunch.

On early reading

My mother read to us when we were children. I remember that she read Enid Blyton books and The Famous Five to us on holidays, and I particularly recall a book called Children of Willow Farm which had a character called Benjy in it and of how in one story there was a fire in the hay shed. When we went on camping holidays we all stayed in a trailer tent. I was a good bit older then, a teenager, but I nevertheless enjoyed listening to my mother’s voice through the canvas wall as she read stories to my sisters, who were younger than me.

On familial inspiration

I think that inevitably we are the products of our experiences and as a result pretty much everything we know or believe is coloured in some way by the upbringings we had. I think that when people set out to write there is almost an inexorable element in the outcome of their own family background. Sometimes as a writer you consciously try to avoid referring to things that have occurred in your own life, but you also cannot escape the person you are and to a degree at least, that has to have been moulded by the totality of your background experiences, including those which are familial. In real terms of course books of fiction deal with people and with the relationships those people have. As a consequence I suppose there are elements of human interaction which more easily fall from your pen than others might because of your own experience.

On creating

I write mainly in a place called the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Annaghmakerrig, Co Monaghan. It is a magical place, left to the people of Ireland by Sir Tyrone Guthrie, a theatre director and playwright who died in the early 1970s. He and his wife decided to leave the house in a trust for artists and writers to come and stay and to be creative and to interact with other artists. When I write my novels the first draft is always handwritten on fairly standard refill lined pages with at least 33 lines per page. I buy a new pen for each book and always buy it at The Pen Shop in Dame Street where John and his staff are unstintingly helpful and endlessly patient as I try out different makes. I go to the Tyrone Guthrie Centre about three or four times per year and each visit is for a week. While I’m there I write for between seven and ten hours a day for the seven days and then I don’t write again until I’m there the next time. In between I get the chapters typed and send them to my agent who works her magic on them. There are different rooms in the house there and each one has a desk and a window with a decent view. My favourite room is the Butler room which overlooks the lake. So that’s the formula for me; a new pen, refill-pad paper, a desk and a window and lots of peace and quiet. It’s worked okay for me so far!

On bookshops

The independent bookshop I have a soft spot for is Antonia’s Bookstore in Navan Gate Street, Trim, Co Meath. I have been frequenting it ever since I discovered it about ten years ago. I read a fair bit and I try to buy all my books from Antonia’s. There’s something utterly impersonal about buying books over the internet and it’s really hard to beat the wonderful experience of browsing in a bookshop on a rainy Saturday afternoon. The staff are beyond helpful and go to extraordinary lengths to find any obscure titles I decide I’d like to read. In the last couple of years I’ve taken to asking people I meet on holidays to recommend writers from their countries and then armed with the list I ask Antonia to try and find whatever she can of their work which has been translated into English. The other thing about Antonia’s which sets it apart is that whether you are looking for the complete works of William Faulkner or a bookmark or a bargain, everyone is treated exactly the same and it really is a case that the customer buys rather than the bookseller sells. It’s hard to find the personal touch if you’re just surfing Amazon!

On his “To Be Read” pile

My “To be Read” pile is as follows:

  1. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (Dee Brown)
  2. Some Desperate Glory (Max Egremont)
  3. No Turning Back (Sam Blake)
  4. The Message to the Planet (Iris Murdoch)
  5. Inside the Tiger (Hayley Lawrence)
  6. Twice Seven (Aldous Huxley)
  7. Two Gentlemen on the Beach (Michael Kohlmeier)
  8. Harris’s Requiem (Stanley Middleton)

To deserve their place in the pile all they had to do was to be written, published, recommended, gifted or stumbled upon. I won’t know until I read them if I like any or all of them, but absolutely every book deserves to be read.

On escapes

I suppose I escape when I go to Annaghmakerrig to write, but in order to just get away from everything it’s hard to beat the Blessington Basin before 9am or the front room in your own house after midnight. I would be very slow to recommend anything to anyone apart from afternoon naps and sugar-free chocolate!

On Cambridge

I fluked an offer of a place at Cambridge in 1989 and studied for a Masters in Law there at Wolfson College. That year changed my life because of the people I met there (including my future wife). It was an experience which also changed my view of England and the English, having been brought up in an Ireland where our present was dominated by our past (to paraphrase Paul Brady). I met fellas who had served in Northern Ireland and who still looked under their car every morning years later before they got in and turned the key in the ignition. I suppose in a way I was exposed to the other side of the story or at least to another side of the story. The starkest illustration I can give of what I mean is of meeting a student from Bangor, Co Down and becoming lifelong friends (well so far anyway!). The irony of our friendship is that as he came from a Protestant background in the North of Ireland, we would probably never have met if we hadn’t both gone to another country to study. I loved my college in Cambridge, and my first novel Wasting By Degrees is a fairly thinly-veiled account of my year there. 

On Hughie Mittman’s Fear of Lawnmowers

I have never set a book in Galway and so for this project, the first thing I did was to decide on the location. One reviewer described the novel as a “love-letter to Galway city” and I’d be hugely flattered if that turns out to be the case. In fact, only time and real Galwegians will probably be the judge of that. I am a little surprised that so few novels are set in Galway despite the fact that there is a rich history of writing there. The only one in English which springs to mind is Rain on the Wind by Walter Macken, although there are certainly Irish language writers who have written about the city. The elements I wanted to sew into the novel were twofold really; a protagonist who was a child and a story about how it feels to lose your mother and not just in the obvious sense. I really enjoyed revisiting the city both physically and also through my own memories of the place having grown up there. What I found difficult were the portions of the book which dealt with adoption, of which I have personal experience.

On Samuel Beckett

I wrote to him when I was staying with a friend in Paris in 1986. I managed to get his address from an Algerian poet who attached a couple of conditions to the disclosure of where the great man lived: A. I had to write to him and hand-deliver the letter. B. I was not to stalk Samuel Beckett if he didn’t reply. C. I undertook not to give the address to anyone else.

I never expected to get a reply and when it arrived my host (a fellow English student from University College Galway) queried me as to why the letter didn’t mention both of us when it suggested a time and date for a meeting. I eventually got plastered drunk and told him he’d not been mentioned in my original letter because the Algerian guy had said Beckett was less likely to want to meet more than one person at a time and also I never thought he’d reply. My friend was “more disappointed than angry” that I’d had to get drunk to tell him the truth. I felt if I went on my own to meet Beckett I’d lose my friendship with my friend but also felt it would be utterly disrespectful to the greatest living Irish writer to turn up with my friend in tow. So, I decided to tell my friend that I had to go home because I’d run out of money, and I asked him to meet Beckett instead. Which he did.

On what’s next

I’m in the middle of a non-fiction project at the moment, which is my first venture into that realm of writing. I can’t say too much about it at the moment as I’ve only just got started, but it’s completely different from everything else I’ve written before. The other creative thing I do is write songs and I’m in the process of trying to get a song publishing deal as a songwriter in New York for what I think are the best of the songs.

@SophieGrenham

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