SL: Skippy Dies covers an astounding range of topics: video games, string theory, school life for both students and teachers, drug abuse, crushes – just to name a few – but you bring them together in a way that seems very natural. How did you accomplish that?
PM: That’s part of why it took so long to write. Writing is a strange game: the links between things sometimes aren’t apparent for a long time. You’re looking at your own book, and those secret correspondences and resonances in it take a long time to appear.
The fact that it had the single setting of the school was really helpful. Because that architecture was there and was something people were familiar with, I felt I could do more left-field, disparate things with the knowledge that this setting, this scenario, was going to be strong enough that readers would still be able to understand how the book worked. In school you’re thrown into this pool with 200 people who are completely different: there are stupid people and really smart people, there are chronic over-achievers and chronic overeaters and gifted tennis players and so on. The beauty of setting a book in a school is that you can really have as many stories as you want. They’re all right there and you can pick them up and you can put them down and it’s all focused for you by this single setting. My first book was a first-person narrative so everything was tied together by a single voice. But it was also limiting because this one character couldn’t really express all the things you might want him to see and feel. ... When I came to the second book I really wanted to write in the third person; I wanted to go to different places. Also, all the [characters] are studying different subjects in school, which was really useful because I could bring in history or poetry or science and it wouldn’t seem contrived, It was something they could legitimately come across as part of their every day.
SL: What writers made you want to write? How have they influenced you?
PM: Well, if you grow up in Dublin you’ve got some pretty heavy hitters. In college I read Joyce and Yeats. They’re inspiring in so many ways because they both had an astonishing range and astonishing courage. For me humor is really important and Joyce and Beckett were unafraid to tackle the biggest themes and the darkest themes, but they also weren’t afraid to do it with humor… They were not afraid to say that humanity and existence are in some ways pretty silly. Pynchon was also really important to me. He writes books that are absolutely as ambitious and complex as it’s possible for literature to be, but are also, again, extremely funny. I think that there’s a certain compassion that comes with humor.
SL: What is it like to be a writer in Ireland right now, particularly in light of the economic crisis?
PM: I think that Ireland was actually a very difficult place for writers during the Celtic Tiger. The country was just so nakedly obsessed with money, and I know that sounds like a very judgmental thing to say, but it was honestly very cynical. If you were poor or part of a marginalized community, you were left behind in that society. Ireland became, very quickly, quite an uncaring place. And one corollary, another effect of the boom, was that culture became sort of unimportant. The outdoor hot tub became the defining purchase. If you’ve ever been to Ireland then you know you do not need an outdoor hot tub in this country! But many people just weren’t interested in introspection or looking into their souls or what it is to be alive because it seemed like we had the solutions to those questions and they were the hot tub and the panini and the new kitchen. Artists were out of the frame in a really strange way.
So what’s happened since the crash? Well, the cost of living is a bit cheaper, which is nice…And people are turning back to art again. The artists kept plugging away at a time when no one was really interested. They weren’t looking for medals or anything, they just kept doing what they were doing and stuck to their guns.
Now the tide has sort of turned. At times like this the outdoor hot tub no longer ticks the boxes and you find yourself needing to read a book or a poem or go for a walk in the park – you need those things more than you did in times of plenty. It is a really scary time, but the argument could be made – and I’m wary to make it since there are so many people suffering right now – that maybe there will be some good. Maybe people will become a little bit more alive to what’s going on around them. Hopefully there might be a recovered sense of community and place that was lost in the feeding frenzy of the Celtic Tiger.