As he says himself in this Irish Times piece, Frankie Gaffney has an unusual background for a writer of literary fiction, growing up on a council estate before moving to live in the inner city in his teens. His seven-chapter debut novel, Dublin Seven – inspired and influenced by Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man and Joyce’s ‘Linati schema’ for Ulysses, and stream-of-consciousness techniques– is the story of a college drop-out who spends his grant money on cocaine rather than education. He answered ten questions in a phone interview below.
1. What inspired you to start writing? Have you always had a creative urge?
I suppose reading. Me Ma instilled a love of literature in me and read to me when I was really small. I think as a lover of literature that compelled me to write. I knew I’d write a book. When I gave up drawing – I used to draw when I was a kid – and when I gave up drawing I knew I’d write a book. I’ve just had the creative urge all the time.
Art impresses in a different way. You see people drawing stuff and because it’s so immediate, you go “This is amazing!” You can’t just look at a book and think the same. It’s a different medium. So sometimes I wonder if art’s a more genuine talent than writing.
2.You say Dublin Seven isn’t based ON Dublin 7 (the area of Dublin) but is it based there at all, ie its setting?
No, not necessarily and for me I didn’t have anywhere in Dublin 7 in mind. I don’t think Dublin 7 really fits. It could be Cabra, a housing estate in Cabra, where Shane is from, or it’s more likely to be Coolock or Ballymun. Or somewhere on the southside like Ballyfermot.
I am from Dublin 7. I lived around the Stoneybatter area growing up – and it was rough when I was growing up. I felt Stoneybatter and Cabra were too unique and I see the characters as coming from one of the more suburban housing estates.
3.Do you name-check places in Dublin [in the novel], or are there places in the novel based on locations you used to frequent?
Some places I did, and some places I didn’t, depending. So the George [a bar on Dublin’s George’s Street] is in it for example. There’s a sign across the road from the George that [Senator] David Norris has a protection order for, a Why go bald? luminous sign from a hair restoration clinic. It’s there years and years.
—Why go bald? the sign flashed at him interrogatively is a line in the book.
But if anything was pejorative or dodgy, I would have to reinvent a bit. There was another gay bar called the Pink Pound based on a real pub; it wasn’t called that in real life. I made up that name because I didn’t want a libel writ arriving on my desk.
4.You mentioned in an interview elsewhere that the Gardai [the Irish police] were reluctant to cooperate when you requested use of a summons (for the purposes of fiction). Could you not have mocked one up?
I suppose I wanted to see the format and I didn’t have any to hand, and my friends thankfully didn’t have any at the time! There’s a piece of literary collage like that at the end of each chapter. But I found other things to use for each chapter.
5.What is the rationale for such documentation throughout the novel?
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Everything in it I try to keep precisely accurate. That’s why I asked the Guards. These pieces contribute something to the novel. I was in a discussion with another publisher who wanted me to remove them, as he felt they took away from the illusion of reality but to me they add to the reality. Things like this are part of our lives and to only refer to them obliquely when working in a textual medium seems strange. So there’s a love letter, there’s a newspaper article, there’s a court judgement, things like this. To me I made sure that everything was precisely accurate which is why I asked the Guards [to use a summons]. For the reader it breaks things up much nicely, it puts a feel on the end of each chapter. To me, it works really well. The feedback from everyone else has been that this is one of the strengths of the book and it’s an opportunity to show that you can write in different registers, like legalese or journalistic writing. It’s a perfect way to show your range.
6.You’ve done some research on Roddy Doyle’s work, is that right? How do you rate him as a writer?
I did an undergraduate thesis on his representations of Dublin English. Roddy Doyle is a massive influence and inspiration for me, and I would stand over what I said in the thesis. I was very heavily critical of his approach to English. Not that he was inaccurate in the dialect that he portrayed but I took issue with his actual method of representation. So, for example, if he drops a g at the end of the word fucking, he puts an apostrophe in – it’s an apologetic way of representing Dublin English.
|An eejit stands beside his bookshelf, holding books that may or may not have inspired novelist Frankie Gaffney. All of the books shown are not first choices, but the eejit’s friends believe that he operates a library out of his own home. (Library Photos.)
Another manner of representing deviancies away from Standard English would be compound words. Roddy Doyle doesn’t use compound words. The words Your Man for example means something different to yerman [a Dublin expression], and sounds totally different to yerman. Yerman can’t be broken apart. It’s a very different lexical item; it’s derived from ‘your man’ but it follows different grammatical rules. It can’t be rendered as two separate words, it’s just misleading and showing undue deference towards the standard. These are very finicky and academic points, but Roddy Doyle has to be taken to task if only because he’s so lauded. He’s the standard-bearer and if you’re going to talk to about if you’re going to talk about Dublin English, you have to talk about Roddy Doyle.
I think the Barrytown Trilogy is genius, and Doyle’s genius is underestimated because it’s based in comedy. I think to make someone laugh is harder than to make them cry. It’s regarded as something flippant or unworthy as much attention, but in actual fact the artistic achievement is much higher there. Like, there’s little touches like they call the family dog Larrygogan!
And when the dog is under the table, refusing to come out, barking at Jimmy, and it sounds to Jimmy like the dog’s saying “Get fucked!” from under there.
Things like that – when I read bits like that, I wish I had written them. When a writer makes you jealous like that, you know that he has something special.
7.Who would win in a fight between Dublin Seven’s Shane Laochra and War-of-Independence-era Henry Smart (from Roddy Doyle’s A Star Called Henry, so before he lost his leg)?
I think Henry Smart would win that fight no bother. Because Shane is not really up to the task that he thinks he is. He’s trying to be something he’s not to an extent. But there’s a character called Paddy Lawless. I call him Paddy Lawless because has no moral code, he doesn’t obey the law and he doesn’t obey the law of the street. So Paddy Lawless would have no trouble despatching Henry in a straightener, as we call it.
8.Speaking of straighteners (!) does Shane’s hairdresser girlfriend Elizabeth go through a lot with him? Do men – broadly speaking – put women through hell? Is Elizabeth a victim in the novel at all?
I think people – speaking about life rather than literature – people put each other through hell in relationships – both men and women – inadvertently. I think Shane and Elizabeth are young and reckless and stupid.
I don’t think people are necessarily at fault for how much they hurt others. And I think Elizabeth is better able to look after herself than Shane is. And I think Elizabeth is better able to look after Shane than he can too, actually, once you see how it works out between them!
I think women do better in the novel than men, and I think that’s true in life, even though there’s rampant discrimination in employment and pay.
Sexual politics has changed so much over the last forty years, and institutions like the Church are almost gone, and I think these are really positive things. Communities are collapsing and as Michel Houllebecq has it, society has become “Atomised” – and women have coped a lot better with the decline of the old social order and rise of the individual over groups than men have. Men are much more at risk of depression, suicide, drug addiction, and imprisonment than women are.
9.Is there anything in the narrative to suggest the template approach you took to writing it? Are there oblique references to the Old Bard or to the Prick with the Stick?
Yeah, there’s lots and lots of little things. Elizabeth is Elizabeth Byrne, after Betty Byrne in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. As a writer of fiction, you’re presented with choice after choice after choice, naming your characters, where are they from, where do they live, all that kind of stuff. So every choice is an opportunity. What Joyce did, he tried to imbue meaning in every choice, and I think that’s possible. You’d wonder if anybody would notice these little things. But people have come back to me and said that they’ve spotted things. There’s little snatches of Shakespeare, even, integrated into the dialogue sometimes, for example, and it fits – it doesn’t jar. I don’t know if people will pick up on it, and maybe it’s a bit self-indulgent.
I dunno. I’d argue that you read a book first – for example – for the plot, then you might return to it for style, or whatever else.
Joyce said that his perfect reader would read his books, and read them again and again and again. There are a few readers who’ve read my novel more than once since its launch in October. There’s a major, major plot detail in Dublin Seven, about who did something, and it seems like it’s not there.
It’s very very subtle, but it’s definitive in terms of the answering the question.
10.What is the next book about?
The feedback has been so overwhelmingly positive, and the response from book buyers – two months after publication the publisher had to order a reprint – that there’s a lot of demand for another authentic Dublin story. Shakespeare was a businessman with a stake in the Globe Theatre – his work is very much a product of supply and demand, and if it’s good enough for the man from Stratford it’s good enough for the man from Stoneybatter!