Humour is prevalent in the majority of your work – what do you think of the quality of modern-day humorous writing? And why is it such an under-represented genre?
To be honest I don’t know very much about modern humorous writing. I’m a great admirer of silliness in literature – the likes of Lear, Wilde and Carroll would be of especial interest to me.
I’m also fascinated by the explosion of silliness in the 20th Century and enjoy musing, with friends, about the possible sociological reasons for the rise of daftness. The Marx Brothers, Spike Milligan’s Goons and Monty Python seem to me to be part of a graph of ever increasing wonkiness that has yet to peak. One thing I have noticed though, is that over the last thirty years, comedy has become ever more cold, harsh and dark. Edge is a quality that I find overrated in modern literary endeavour.
Having said that, one of the writers whose work I would cite as having a formative influence on my playwriting career (if I can call such a nebulous string of box office failures a career) is Joe Orton. His work seems to me to be exceptionally cold. But there are few scripts I’ve enjoyed more than Loot and Up Against It.
I’ve skated around comic novels and stories because, as I said at the beginning, I don’t know many. Bill Bryson’s Walk in the Woods and Notes from a Small Island both made me laugh.
Why is humour under-represented? I’m not sure I know.
Readers seem to enjoy a dash of comic relief. Perhaps some writers are worried that their work will not be taken seriously if it is tainted with silliness. This tendency manifests itself in the increasing numbers of writers who think that the fictional exploration of serious issues – child abuse, psychological breakdown, war crimes etc – instantly confers the status of serious writer upon them.
In fact the truly great and serious writers – Joyce, Lawrence, Austen et al – are so because they are capable of extraordinary insights into fairly ordinary events. For me, a serious writer is a person who can create a story that it interesting and enjoyable to read and who doesn’t give a damn about whether they’re considered serious or not.
I should add that the most thumbed books on my shelves were written by frosty-faced Russians of the 19th century and that I don’t consider myself to be primarily a comic writer.
In what ways do theatre improvisation and composition inform your writing – or are they escapes from the lonely grind of putting ink on paper?
I teach improvisation on a theatre course in Kinsale College and I wouldn’t say this work informs my writing much, if at all. I do it because my wife – who is course leader – tells me to. But much of my current literary output – mostly short stories and novels – owes a good deal to work I did in my twenties devising community plays in Manchester. I improvised plays with people in Factories, Special Needs schools, Borstals, Youth and Community Centres. Sometimes I’d have to come up with something in a day, sometimes six months. The work was often stressful, as it demanded results. There was no such thing as not having a play at the end of the process. By necessity I learned how to fashion a narrative out of just about any idea that ignited a group, and how to further and finish ideas with efficiency and directness. Audiences also help as feedback. I’m always fascinated to observe those bits of a play which hold an audience rapt, and those that have them shuffling restlessly. There’s a lot a writer can learn about narrative from coughs and rustling crisp packets.
As for musical composition, for a long time I couldn’t decide whether to devote my time to music or writing. I tried to splice the two together by writing musicals. The most successful of these “The Milk of Human Kindness” was workshopped at the Abbey, but never saw the light of day as a musical. It was performed as a straight play by students of Kinsale College a few years back. It’s pretty hard to get the financial backing for a musical and difficult also to find actors who can sing or singers who can act. So I relapsed into living two entirely separate creative lives. Each cheating on the other. I think the ability to compose music has held me back as a writer, and my ability to write has held me back as a composer. Being able to do both has meant that I can’t seem to focus on either. I’ve ended up a Jack of all trades and master of none. I think if life was a rehearsal, I’d ditch writing for musical composition as I enjoy it more. My tastes are gloomy and Russian and 19th Century in music too.
I have to say, putting ink on paper isn’t much of a grind to me. I very much enjoy filling empty white pages with a cursive scrawl. Nor is it particularly lonely as my sons keep bursting into the room to take away my fan heater or play piano.
What comes first when you’re writing a new piece – a character, a situation or the language? After reading The Woman Who Swallowed the Book of Kells, I can’t imagine where that’d begin!
My ideas mostly come from catching daydreams as they form in my mind. This probably accounts for the fanciful nature of much of my work. A title, character, situation might appear – or just some far fetched notion, and I ask questions to see where it naturally leads. I’m interested in my work emerging from the little wellspring of my own being, unmuddied. It’s for this reason that I don’t read much modern literature – I don’t want to be swayed by it.
Several poems in the collection Intercourse with Cacti – for instance The Bandon River’s Refrain – came from attempts to test a theory that language could reach the heart before the head.
The Woman Who Swallowed the Book of Kells had very prosaic beginnings. I was asked to write a play about drug abuse for a schools tour. I didn’t want to write something preachy – ‘hey kids don’t use drugs because they’re bad and they’ll screw up your life’ – though I actually think that’s true. I decided I’d go at it from a silly metaphoric angle and came up with an idea about a girl addicted to eating religious texts. I mused that as the addiction got worse, she would need to eat texts with higher doses of religious importance to get high and hallucinogenic. The story followed easily from this premise. I was never happy with the idea as a play. I turned it into a short story one night, but didn’t think the results were particularly successful either. I’m much fonder of it in retrospect. It was the first story I wrote in which I tried to give the characters ‘freewill’. For a few years now I’ve been turning over the idea of making it into an opera.
Ian Wild will be reading with Pat Boran & Alan Garvey on Thursday 17th February at 7.15pm