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Patrick McCabe: 'There's a danger there's a tolerance of worthiness and political correctness in fiction that I find unattractive'

We spoke to the critically-acclaimed Irish author of books like The Butcher Boy and Breakfast on Pluto about his latest novel, Heartland.

Pat McCabe
Pat McCabe

THINK OF PATRICK McCabe and you think of darkness – the dark side of small town Ireland; violent youths; the gloomier, messier side of life.

The 63-year-old Clones, Monaghan-born author and playwright isn’t into the frothy sides of living, more concerned with training his eye on the outsiders. In his latest book Heartland, he shows us yet again how he’s unafraid to turn away from what’s popular in order to stay true to his own vision.

Two of his books – Booker Prize-nominated The Butcher Boy and Breakfast on Pluto – have been turned into feature films, and there’s a cinematic quality to Heartland that could lend itself to the screen. It tells the story of seven men killing time in Mervyn’s Mountain Bar, awaiting the arrival of a man named Tony Begley. Above them, in the rafters, the narrator Ray ‘Ringo’ Wade is hiding, and nearby is his friend Jody, who’s been beaten up by the pub’s inhabitants.

McCabe calls it a “backwoods sinfonia” (‘sinfonia’ is the Italian word for symphony), and its pages see the wild west and Irish smalltown life combine.

But it has its roots in 1970s Ireland, when McCabe says “the economy took a spike up” and people in the midlands in particular started building large roadhouses that had short-lived lives.

Source: WarnerMoviesAU/YouTube

“People started to come back from America and they started building roadhouses,” he explains. “And they built these things that are based maybe on a Miami style, Art Nouveau, huge big palatial places, totally out of sync with the landscape, with a monument to aspiration, what’s possible.”

This period of “immense possibility” lasted just a few years before another recession came, but the roadhouses (where you’d have dances five or six nights a week) inspired the setting of Heartland.

Exploring masculinity

McCabe has two daughters who are “strident feminists”, and he jokes that he is “just fed up of getting kicked around the house basically, as the white privileged male that has to take on the crap”.

Heartland has only two female characters, and he does explore elements of masculinity in the book. But he’s not interested in using his fiction as a way to interrogate contemporary gender politics.

“It’s probably current at this stage with all this sexual politics and stuff [that] is very much in the air, people are confused and angry and puzzled as to what’s going on,” says McCabe. “Men, in my experience, not particularly of that stripe, they are very mute when it comes to emotion – and I’m sure that’s no surprise to anybody but just because they’re mute doesn’t mean they’re not feeling.”

He says he’s “just too old to feel that strongly” as his daughters do about repealing the Eighth Amendment in the upcoming referendum on 25 May, “but I can understand that it’s a big thing for their generation”. (Speaking to The Guardian, he warned of a ‘Brexit-style revolved against the elite’ in the abortion vote).

He thinks “there’s a danger in the current trend where fiction is now doing the work of the social historians and all the rest of it”.

“Fiction comes out of damage, it comes out of strange places, it comes out of the unpredictable, and it doesn’t come out of the conservative,” he asserts.

And a lot of these things publishers are pushing it – and everyone thinks publishers are doing this because they care, they don’t, and this current trend will pass like all other trends, and there are good things in it.

“There’s a great danger that there’s a tolerance of worthiness now and political correctness in fiction that I find unattractive, actually,” he adds. “Because great writers will always be moral anyway.”

Will they?

“If they’re any good, yeah I think so. They may make mistakes, I remember people who should know better saying women weren’t funny – people were saying that in the 70s and 80s like. People who should have known better.”

I feel so lonely I could cry

The book is not just about men gathered in a roadhouse, but is at its core about loneliness, says McCabe, loneliness of the kind you’d find in songs by country stalwarts like Hank Williams.

Heartland is infused by the sound of such country songs, sad paeans to lives turned sour.

“People will always get lonely, people will always yearn, people will always die, so… ‘I’m so lonesome I could die’ was an existential centre of it, but the milieu of [the book] was a sort of psychic terrain between America and Ireland,” says McCabe.

He describes a lot of the speech in the book as being “metaphor, rural speech”, unconcerned with the metropolitan, language that he “wanted to create poetry out of”.

But the book – which McCabe says had been hanging around his head like a bird or butterfly for 27 years – took a while to take shape, and did face some resistance.

“People I showed it to would say ‘I don’t know what you’re at here – what are you at’? And I’d say I’m trying to create a white trash oratorical. ‘Well good luck with that, because I couldn’t fuckin read it, they said’,” says McCabe drily.

It did make him wonder “am I on the wrong train here?”.

“You start to think that, and then usually what happens if you’re lucky is the idea doesn’t go away. That’s pretty much the litmus test. In this case it didn’t,” he says. “Now it wasn’t easy to get a handle on it, ‘cos there were too many people for a start. I had to find out whose story is igniting and who isn’t. It’s a very organic process, I couldn’t have told you when I started what it was about or anything.”

Gradually the four main characters came into focus. “Then I showed it to my wife [the artist Margot Quinn, who he married in 1981], she said ‘oh I love this’, I said ‘aw that’s great now’. I said ‘is that just because you know me?’. She said no: ‘I don’t give a shit about country and western music, I don’t give a shit about macho boys talking about their wives, no none of that interests me – but I get the rhythm of it’. So I said that’s alright then.”

Source: CG Entertainment/YouTube

‘Why did we ever think this person was good?’

McCabe doesn’t expect everyone to ‘get’ his work, but admits that “if everybody didn’t get it, you’d know there was something wrong”.

“I mean, you don’t write books to throw them in the river, there has to be a duologue. But at the same time I wouldn’t give it to someone who’s not prepared to make an imaginative leap into a world that’s clearly not familiar, one which they’ve never come in contact. There is a demand on my part too and if you don’t like that you could leave the book aside.”

What’s your unique selling point as they say [today]. What am I going to say? Oh a bunch of 50-year-old virgins living behind a mountain – that’s going to sell…

McCabe does not write commercial fiction, but he has his concerns about how books are marketed these days. He reminisces on how things were decades ago, for Irish writers, in a world when a tweet was the noise a happy bird made.

“People are so conservative about literature and marketing now – this used to be the way: I’d work on this idea and you’d go off with a bunch of people and you’d drink and you’d talk,” he says. “And that was all part of the game in those days, go off in Grogan’s [pub] raving about it, talking – I don’t mean raving it’s great, raving that you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He’s had his tough times (he once told the Irish Independent that his 1994 play Loco County Lonesome was a “disaster”, while he’s also had his share of negative book reviews).

“It definitely makes me stronger because it’s the old thing of what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, that kind of thing,” he says.

And there have been times when I’d rather have been otherwise, because when every paper you pick up says you’ve lost your talent or why did we ever think this person was any good, you’d want to be very strong not to let that affect you. And it’s upsetting for a while but at the end of the day you’ve either decided to make a living as a writer or you haven’t.

“You’re not a writer because you want to please somebody else. And if you are, that’s fine – I’m not knocking it, you can write popular fiction until it comes out your ears,” says McCabe. “But it isn’t what I was into it for – never what I was driven to do.”

McCabe says that nearly everything he writes “jumps off from the Irish experience that I’ve lived in some shape or form”. “It’s not a social treatise or anything else but the violence is there and that kind of undertone slow burning way.”

He’s been described as “Mid-Ulster’s custodian in chief of the borderlands”. What does he think of that? “I’m not a custodian of anything, particularly not the… it’s a nice thing to have said, it’s very respectful and it’s nice,” he says. “But I admire other authors who can move away from their place.”

He can’t seem to move away from the places he knows best, though he has attempted to. “I couldn’t get Cork for example, I couldn’t get it – I’ve tried,” he tells this Corkonian. “But the character will always have to be secondary. Because there are better people qualified to me.”

They might be indeed – but McCabe is clearly qualified to write his own singular view of the world. Critics be damned.

Heartland is published by New Island and out now.

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