10 months ago

Writer’s Block with Owen Dwyer

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Owen Dwyer is a prize-winning writer of short fiction and author of three novels, including The Agitator (2004) and The Cherrypicker (2012). Born and raised in Dublin, his accolades include the Hennessy Emerging Fiction Prize, the Silver Quill, and the South Tipperary County Council Short Story competition, and he has published stories in Whispers and Shouts magazine. In addition to writing, he has a degree in European Humanities. In 1992, Dwyer founded Irish Pensions and Finance, a pension provider which operates exclusively in the public sector.

Dwyer’s new novel, Number Games, is a subversive exploration of an alternate reality where America is torn apart by war, China and Africa are super-powers, and the world is ruthlessly ruled by women. Set in Seattle in 2116, the world is split into a utilitarian network of giant corporations (known as Corpos) which are managed by a triumvirate of elderly Chinese, and inhabitants must extol the virtues of utilitarianism in a life dominated by “the numbers.” The narrative follows the path of a promiscuous young man called Li, who discovers that his entire existence was part of an experiment. When he meets a mysterious woman called Tattoo, are his troubles behind him, or have they only just begun?

As with some of the best science-fiction, Number Games gives a taste of what our world could possibly resemble a hundred years from now. With echoes of Bladerunner, this work is an interesting response to developments on our rapidly-changing planet.

Béibhinn Breathnach has said of the work “Dwyer’s writing is direct and unflinching in depicting violence, sex and bodily fluids. It is not a story for the faint of heart and yet it is the novel’s more reflective elements which are the scene-stealers. Li’s interior narrative provides the reader with insights into substance abuse, the loss of love, and questions of identity and purpose. A novel of captivating style.”

Owen Dwyer lives in Dublin with his family. He is currently writing his next book.

Number Games (€14.99) is published by Liberties Press and available from all good bookshops.

On home

I live in Saggart, Co Dublin, with my wife Rita and daughter Sofia. Two older children, Laura and Riccardo are away at school and college respectively. I have two other sons from previous relationships, Adam and Owen. One is in the UK, the other in Dublin. We live on what used to be a golf course, before the recession. The area, which became overgrown was overrun with wild animals ranging from foxes, squirrels and swans to deer and horses. There are rabbits everywhere. The neighbours have been slowly bringing the area under control. We have a lake behind us into which we’ve thrown several goldfish and a small quantity of hash confiscated from Rico when he was sixteen, along with a miniature bong. We moved here in 2008, riding the crest of the boom – paying top-dollar. Even today, the house is worth half what we paid for it, because of problems with the management company. We don’t care. This is where we live and where we raised our kids.

There’s a lot of history in Saggart – the church was built in the 1840s, as a result, I imagine, of the Roman Catholic Relief Act, driven by Daniel O’Connell and passed by the Duke of Wellington and Robert Peel. Jonathan Swift lived here and many of the place names still bear his name. There’s an ancient graveyard, where a woman called Anne Dwyer reposes. I wonder if we’re related; my father’s family are from Baltinglass, which is not too far away. The property tycoon Jim Mansfield, who passed away a few years ago, has left a huge mark, including the Citywest Hotel with its giant conference centre. He was a controversial figure, but you won’t find anyone in the area with a bad word to say about him.

On roots

As a child I lived a few miles away in Walkinstown and was reared mostly by my father, Dinny. My prevailing memory of childhood is of dirt and cold. When my mother and then my sister left the house, it quickly deteriorated, with cardboard replacing broken glass and grime emerging from the corners. Dinny, who was a heavy drinker, was ill equipped to run a household or to manage four high-spirited boys. We were ashamed as kids, of our family circumstances and of the state of our house, which was in the middle of an otherwise respectable suburban street of dormer bungalows. We had good neighbours who did what they could and tolerated a lot but anyone who tried to interfere, including Social Services, felt the brunt of Dinny’s enormous, uncompromising personality. In his way, he was a good father. He always listened and counselled without judgement, usually wisely. From him I inherited a healthy disrespect for bureaucracy, which has stood to me, mostly. He also imbued me with the spirit to go and get what I wanted in life, rather than expect it to be given to me.  

On family

I was mentored by my brother David, who was two years older. He influenced me in everything, from which football team to support (Leeds are not too bad but whatever you do, keep away from Arsenal), to the music I listened to (the Beatles are okay, but you’ll have to forget about Slade), and books I read. We made caricatures out of the people around us and acted out bizarre, irreverent scenarios; our way of dealing with our environment, I suppose. Another brother, Tony, had special needs. It was Tony who, six foot four and louder than life, was sent out to deal with unwelcome visitors, like people looking for money or to cut off the electricity. A more courteous Tony is now living independently in supported accommodation, being watched over by the wonderful people in Saint Michael’s House. Our youngest brother, Donnacha, was eventually sent to live with my sister, Christine. Here, encouraged by my brother in law, he became an uilleann pipe player. Nowadays, he is an accomplished pipe maker and musician. 

On early reading

I can’t remember ever not having a passion for books. As a child I was often bedridden with asthma; with no other distraction, I read. My mother, before she left, brought me at least a book a week. I started with Enid Blyton and graduated to Edith Nesbit, Lewis Carroll, Hugh Lofting, Willard Price and Robert Louis Stevenson. I read everything I could get my hands on. Myself and my pals borrowed and swapped books with each other. Books were so cheap in the Bamba, second-hand bookshop in Rathmines, they weren’t worth stealing. And you could bring your old books and trade them in. I cumulated a small library, which I took from flat to flat as a young man. I still have most of these books, including a Rudyard Kipling omnibus, given to me by Christine in 1978, an atlas and a book on trout fishing, a present from the broadcaster Ronnie Walsh, who was a friend of Dinny’s. But as far as my interest in books go, it was my mother who lit the spark. We made contact with her again, after a few years, when she had cured herself of alcoholism. She died recently but was an integral and much-loved part of our family for the last years of her life.

On creating

My writing space, these days, is on top of the house in an attic room. This is for defensive reasons. When my writing space was in the room downstairs, I was regularly interrupted by Rita (where are we going to send the kids to school?/What do you want for your dinner?/ Have you seen the size of that plumber’s arse?). The kids were worse: (Rico said Hannah Montana was a slag/The Plumber’s stuck under the sink again daddy). At the top of the house, I have peace. The room is small and the desk an IKEA knock-off. The only window is a skylight and the only thing I can see is the sky. A spider has a flimsy web, beneath the rail in one of the corners, she comes out occasionally to dine, but mostly we leave each other alone. The only other distraction might be a crow tapping across the roof to look in the window. There are books everywhere and I have no idea where to find anything. The walls are plastered with Sofia’s drawings and the desk cluttered with her hand-made pen holders and for some reason, a rocket. There are dirty cups my wife knows nothing about. The space is indisputably mine. An untidy monument to my father, in an otherwise middle-class existence. Because I work for a living, I don’t get to write every day. I do take Wednesday mornings off and I write on Saturdays and Sundays. From time to time, I’ll slot in an hour in the evening. My usual routine is to start writing from 7am in hour slots with ten-minute breaks in-between. I’ll do this for four hours before burning out for the day. Over the years I’ve developed good discipline and levels of concentration, but a time-plan is essential. For me, writing is never a chore, in fact, it is a great escape from the pressures of business. I’m at my happiest when I’m writing and agitated and cranky if I don’t stick to my routine. It was only after I got married, at the age of thirty-three I started to write, and I regret the time I wasted beforehand, doing I can’t remember what.

On bookshops

I like all bookshops but these days, my favourite is Dubray on Grafton Street. I go there with Sofia, while Rita shops or gets her hair done. We buy a book and read together over a muffin. I’m reading Portnoy’s Complaint, by Philip Roth, at the moment and finding it unnecessarily explicit. Maybe I’m getting old. I think I’ll have to re-read Pride and Prejudice or anything by Henry James to regain equilibrium. I read Transatlantic by Colm McCann, the book before last and was impressed by its range; he’s a talented writer. I’m looking forward to reading another of his, Everything in this Country Must, next. 

On Number Games

Although I’ve written a sci-fi novel, I’m not a sci-fi guy. I wanted to write a funny, entertaining book which would engage the reader. It is easier to do this by basing your story in the future, where you can make stuff up. Number Games is essentially an adventure, wrapped around a love story. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. But it does have its themes, the main one being prejudice, which I see as an integral and negative part of our nature. In Number Games, our prejudice, our compulsion to make decisions based on assumptions is exploited by monolithic corporations, who are watching our every move. To explore further, I shuffled the deck and re-dealt the cards. Men assume the roles of women, Africa and China are super-powers, while America is a third-world country. The world is run by elderly Chinese women, instead of middle-aged white guys. But problems of poverty and disenfranchisement persist, which leads to the war at the heart of the book’s story.

I’ve been asked if I think what happens in Number Games could happen in real life. I can only answer that I don’t know. Nobody knows what is going to happen in this ever-accelerating society of ours, but something has to. If you draw a line from the past through the present, it leads in the general direction of chaos. Our resources are not infinite and we’re making a mess of our environment. Separately, it just does not seem possible that so much can remain in the hands of so few, while so many are deprived and suffering. All of it has to do, in my view, with human nature and how selfishness and greed filters into politics and economics. To many, the dystopian future has already arrived; the Middle East jumps to mind. We’re being managed in the first world too, through social media and online data capture and analysis. Ideologically speaking, we’re in a peculiar transition, the human race, between the mediaevalism of religion and the coldness of information technology. Where we’ll end up is anybody’s guess.

On what’s next

I’ve just finished writing another book, called Who Killed Garfield, about the assassination of President James Garfield. This time I’m going into the past, travelling by way of the nervous breakdown of the main protagonist, who interacts with the characters he is researching.

Main featured image photographed by Ruth Carden

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