An interview with Carlo Gébler
You’ve published novels, short stories, non-fiction, plays, children’s books and an autobiography; how do you account for such diversity? Do you aim to sit down & write a specific genre, or does the idea lead and you follow?
I have published all sorts of different things. This is true. I have even written and published a poem (for the Ulster Museum’s 26 Treasures project) though tragically they didn’t pay me for that. (Moral of that story: there is no money in poetry.) The reason I write in so many different genres is because I have a living to earn, children to feed et cetera and, because of the way things are organized in the kingdom of letters I can’t survive by doing just one thing (writing novels for example): I can only survive by doing as many things as I do. The good news about this programme is that I am never bored: I’m never bored because I’ve been obliged to learn different things in order to write in different ways: the bad news is its confusing: readers aren’t sure what I do or what I am, whether a novelist or a critic or a curmudgeon. I sympathize. Sometimes I’m not sure myself.
2. Tell us about a particularly favourite piece that you’ve written.
I regard my books as like my children and, just as it would be invidious to profess publicly that I loved one child more than the others because that child had some virtue that made me love it (and favour it) above all the others, so it would be invidious to profess publicly that I loved one piece I’d written more than the others because that piece had some virtue that made me love it (and favour it) above all the others.
Also, we know what happens to father’s who prefer one child over another: they end up like Lear losing their wits and running around in the rain.
You are known for a rather comically cynical attitude towards writing as a profession (e.g. Grub Street) – is this a persona or is it as a result of the changes in what you refer to as Kingdom of Literature, the one part of the world you really care about?
I don’t regard myself as a cynic (one who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing): I regard myself, on the contrary, as an idealist: I know a lot about the value of literature (I believe) and I know (or I believe) that our obsession with the price means our judgments about literature are skewed. There are many people in the world who have done literature incredible damage because of their narrow focus on price and in the vanguard of those enemies of literature are those publishers (yes, I said publishers) who lobbied and agitated for the abolition of the Net Book Agreement in 1997 (which opened the way to book discounts, 3 for the price of 2, et cetera) and, at a stroke, by getting the NBA abolished, ensured the death of half the independent bookshops in these islands (since 1997) and also terminated the careers of many authors. There is some good news though: there is a new circle in hell currently being prepared for these publishers who got rid of the NBA: and their punishment?: they are going to have spend eternity proof reading telephone directories by a 25 watt light bulb.
Tell us a little about your role as a prison educator; how it came about and where it has led you both as a person and a writer.
When I first arrived I lived in a house on Lough Erne. A Belfast writer called Sam McAughtry came to interview me for a radio series he was doing for Radio Four. He asked me afterwards privately if I had a project I was particularly attached to but which as yet I hadn’t managed to make happen.
As a matter of fact, I had, I said. I wanted to make a series of films about ‘ordinary’ rural life in Northern Ireland. I thought a series of films that were not Troubles-centric were long over due.
I’ll put an appeal out on the radio, Mr. McAughtry replied, at the end of the interview. It thought this was a barmy idea but he did it and, guess what? A day or two later a woman rang called Maurna Crozier. She had heard the programme, she had heard Mr. McAughtry’s appeal and what was more she a little government money intended for the seeding of projects like mine that would amplify perceptions of the complexity of life in Northern Ireland. To cut a long story short, she gave a little money. I went to the BBC. They were impressed that someone in bigoted Northern Ireland had seen fit to give the project some money. It must be a good idea, they decided. I made the series. It was called ‘Plain Tales from Northern Ireland.’ (The Kipling association was intentional in case you’re wondering.)
I stayed in touch with Maurna. She got involved in a project to bring art into prison. One evening we had a drink. She asked if I was interested in going into HMP Maze (Long Kesh to Republicans) and working with prisoners on their writing. It would have to be even handed. I’d have to see Loyalists and Republicans.
Yes, please, I said.
An incredibly complicated vetting process followed. Two RUC inspectors twice interviewed me at home. I also had to supply an incredible amount of back ground information on many family going back to my great-grandparents. Obviously, what was being sought, were signs of Fenianism. If the family were bad eggs in times past that then the likelihood was I too would be troublesome. Violence runs in the blood here. I had a small blemish, I had one great uncle who was an IRA Captain in the early nineteen twenties but happily at the same time another great uncle was a constable in the Royal Irish Constabulary. So I was cool really.
The whole process culminated with a telephone vetting. A man from the NIO rang me and I had to answer his questions. As it happened, he rang while my wife was in labour. She was having our fourth child and she had opted for a home birth. I didn’t feel I could say to the guy from the Northern Ireland Office who was cross questioning me, “Excuse me, could you call back when my wife’s had her baby.” I just didn’t think he’d believe me. How credible an excuse is that – “My wife’s dilated ten centimetres, sorry I can’t talk.”
I politely answered his fantastically complicated genealogical questions, while my wife did her thing. The conversation continued and the good news, after forty-five minutes, was that I was in, in jail. And the good news went on. A little later, after I’d put down the phone, out came the baby and it was a baby, Georgia Madeleine.
Now that I was in, I had to be got ready. There was a charismatic man in charge of Probation at the Maze. (Probation incidentally is known as Welfare.) This man was called Brian Rodgers. He had a lot to do with the business of getting artists into the jail and involving prisoners in creative work under their guidance. Brian took me out to lunch a couple of times. He was a lovely conversational-ist. He told me about the prisoners, what he expected of me, and so forth. I had to write a couple of things outlining what I was going to do. It was all very low key. It was only later that I grasped that what Brian was really about was finding out what I was really like. He didn’t want any muck ups. If I blew it his project would be set back horribly. I know it’s hard to remember pre-cease-fire but in those days, before the paramilitaries so kindly agreed to stop killing us, the Maze was a high security jail. The authorities didn’t really want anyone wondering around in there.
Anyhow, Brian decided I was kosher. I turned up for my first day. My first port of call was a loyalist block. The inmates had rioted the weekend before and set the block on fire. For some reason I had to go in through a turnstile at the side rather than through the front grille. Had it melted? I can’t remember.
Once inside I found myself in a blackened wing with charred cell doors. There were no officers (although this is not to say officers did not go onto the wings at the Maze. They did, there just weren’t any at that moment.) My greeter, a Loyalist lifer, sniffed the air as he led me down towards the kitchen come dining room. (I would be holding my class in the band room – where Loyalist paraphernalia was stored – behind the kitchen.)
“Had a bit of a barbecue the other night,” he said, lightly. “But of course so and so,” – and here he mentioned a famous prisoner, “he would throw too much petrol on and it got a bit out of hand.”
I went through the kitchen and into the band room. It was filled with drums and banners emblazoned with paintings of King Billy. Four writers joined me. I read them ‘Pale Anna’ by Heinrich Boll and then got them to read me their work in turn.
That was in the spring of 1992. Twenty years later (twenty years later, oh how the years have flown) I am still teaching in jail though now it’s not HMP Maze (Long Kesh) as it’s now closed, but its Category A sister, HMP Maghaberry – and they’ve even given me a title, I am known as the writer-in-residence. My job is to help anybody with anything that involves writing. You asked at the start what it has done for me: in a word given me access to what I value most – narrative.
In an interview discussing A Good Day For a Dog, you said in relation to Melanophy: “He certainly becomes a better person, he suffers. But he’s still a monster. That’s the way people are. That’s what makes people interesting.” How does this approach help construct your characters?
Ah yes. The thing about Mr Melanophy is his shame: he is mired by it: the shame comes from his childhood: he is ashamed by what happened to him then: so his response (psychologically) to that shame (his coping strategy if you like) when he becomes an adult is to do things (violent, vile and awful) which he can then use to explain to himself the stain of his shame: in other words he offends in order to have a crime (or in his case crimes) commensurate to the shame he feels. In my time in jail I have met many men like my character Mr Melanophy: they offend because of childhood trauma: they do awful things as adults that they can they can then cleave to as an explanation (and justification) for the way they feel. These views (of mine) won’t be to everyone’s taste: society (it is my instinct) likes to cheer itself up by believing that criminals are just evil monsters and that’s the end of it. Well, some criminals are evil monsters but even the monsters have their reasons, their story, and as a writer that’s what interests me, or interested me about Mr Melanophy: I was interested in his reason (for being the way he was), and the story that made him what he was: I also thought it would be useful for readers who had never been in prison to be introduced to a man like Mr Melanophy and shown why he does what he does.
How do you decide when a book is finished? Do you still self-edit when reading a published copy or do you steer clear of your books once they’re in the public domain?
A book is finished when I feel too exhausted to go any further with it. When I am reading (from something I’ve written) I will skip bits: its always more interesting never to repeat yourself exactly – it keeps you on your toes.
During a talk at the Irish Writers’ Centre, you said that ‘if you want to write, you must learn to manage failure’. Can you expand on this?
This derives from Graham Greene who said (somewhere) that all writers fail: one reason for failure is that nothing you write will ever be perfect: it will always be provisional. So you must learn to accept that everything you write will be imperfect. Graham Greene also said (somewhere) that the writer’s life is the longest long distance race in the world. He said it lasted at least sixty years (which makes it a very long race indeed). And what happens (sorry to labour this) as you race? Well, that’s where the other kind of failure comes in. As you run, you slow and then younger smarter fitter sleeker sexier writers overtake you and they streak ahead and leave you lagging behind. But you plough on, like Sisyphus (what other way is their to manage failure but to plough on?) because now you’ve joined this infernal race you can’t stop until you die. Also, and this does keep you going as well, you cling to the hope that those who have overtaken you will break a leg or something, which will allow you to catch up and then over take them.
There’s a lot of romantic thought around the idea of being a writer – but in reality, it’s hard work & you can’t make a living by just writing. How do you convey this to those people who think that writing is about sitting and waiting for inspiration?
Many writers of my acquaintance who are younger than I am have told me emphatically that I am not allowed to spoil the golden dreams of literary novitiates with my tedious prattle about the awfulness of Grub Street. And generally speaking, though it’s a struggle (I am a natural Cassandra), I try to follow the counsel of my colleagues and I try not to say too much. Now I know I’ve occasionally been negative but trust me, I could be much worse. However, on the issue of the hard work that writing involves, we are all agreed, myself and my colleagues, that the truth must be told: writing is labour intensive. I usually communicate that fact to novitiates by itemizing the number of drafts I have to produce in order to get something right.
Have you ever received any invaluable writing/publishing advice?
Vera Britton in ‘On Becoming a Writer’: she said (I paraphrase) if you get a bad review, do not write an angry letter to the critic who wrote that review or the editor of the publication that printed that review: instead, what you do is you sit down and write the first paragraph of your next book. Vera Britton’s book incidentally, along with Stephen King’s On Writing are the best books on writing and being a writer that I have read.
What do events such as Writers’ Week mean to you?
I spend a lot of time alone: in Listowel I am not alone: and better still, in Listowel I am with people who are interested in the same thing I am interested in – literature (or, story telling, a term I much prefer). So what’s not to like about that?
Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview, Carlo. Before we go, is there anything you’d like to add?
You can never read enough.
Carlo is directing a 3 day Advanced Creative Writing workshop at Writers Week (Thursday May 31st to Saturday June 2nd). During this three day workshop, participants will be looking at story, character and atmosphere. It will involve a couple of exercises and practical writing challenges.
Carlo will also be in conversation with Carol Birch on Saturday, June 2nd in the St John’s Theatre and Arts Centre at 5.30pm.