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Irish book awards

Frank McGuinness's journey from 'timid Donegal boy' to successful writer

We visited the writer in his office at UCD. / YouTube

WHEN AUTHOR AND playwright Frank McGuinness looks around his office in UCD, things feel familiar and comforting.

In 1971, he came to UCD “as a timid boy from Donegal”, and had his first tutorial in the room that is now his office. A Buncrana native, McGuinness has made Dublin his home since he moved to UCD – but also shares a house in Donegal with his brother so that his niece can experience some of the life they had.

He’s going to be moving out of this office in June, when he retires. ”But I did a great circle to come back here,” he says to, nodding towards the copious books and notebooks surrounding him.

We’re here to meet McGuinness because of his nomination in this year’s Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Awards, which takes place on Tuesday 28 November. He’s nominated in Best Irish Published Book of the Year category for his latest book, The Woodcutter And His Family. The book explores the story of James Joyce and his family in Zurich, as Joyce faces his last days, with the title referring to a short story Joyce has written (which makes up the final part of the book).

‘It took me a year to be able to breathe’

McGuinness is considered one of Ireland’s great living writers, but like all successful people had to go through his years of growth and insecurity. When he first arrived in Dublin for college he describes himself as feeling “fearful, frightened”.

“It took me about a year to be able to breathe in Dublin and weirdly enough this was a very secure place, this room actually, and this college was a very secure place,” he says.

While everything was in flux around him as the college had moved to a new campus from Earlsfort Terrace, McGuinness says he “found this place kind of comforting in a weird way: that I knew my place here, I knew what I wanted to do, I knew I wanted to study English and this was a great opportunity to concentrate on the subject that I loved”.

“So in that way it was very strange contradiction on knowing exactly why you’re here and not knowing what the hell’s going to happen next and where you are,” he reflects.

Dawson St – rather than the traditional Grafton St – became the centre of his Dublin city. “I could find my way anywhere from Dawson St and back to Dawson St.” He loved the bookshops and cinemas that the big city had to offer.

“The cinemas were on during the day, I mean this is a big shock for Buncrana boy that you can go to the picture at 2 o’clock and that you can go to a bookshop and they’ve got masses of books that are about literature and masses of poetry and that sort,” he remembers.

But at the same time, when he arrived Dublin it was at the beginning of a long depression for the country.  “It took about over 20 years to get itself together architecturally and to really get a pride in itself. It now has that I think and I think money suits it, I really do,” he says of the capital.

For him Dublin has “done well out of promoting itself as a vibrant and interesting city, a city that respects literature and in some respect, not every respect it does but I feel that there’s a new articulacy and a new confidence about it which I like”.

Theatre and change

McGuinness started out as a poet (he has a number of collections), and has long been involved in Ireland’s theatre world, since the success of his first play Factory Girls (its follow-up, Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, cemented his place as a bright new voice in Irish theatre).

Lately, the theatre world in Ireland has been the focus of a lot of talk around change, equality and moving forward.

What does he think of these changes?

“Well, there have been massive changes since 1982, 1980 when I first got involved professionally in a Dublin theatre scene, and I mean it’s inevitable there’s going to be historical changes and that’s to be expected and to be welcomed actually,” he says.

But while he is open to change and considers it important for a “living theatre” he says: “I think that in some respects you have to be careful in theatre not to lose the run of yourself and you’ve to be careful to recognise that there’s a necessity for continuity as well as for revolution.

“I’m afraid that I am worried about throwing out good stuff as well as very bad stuff, but I think that we all have to keep our head and be sensible.”

He continues:

“I mean you’ve got to take your audience with you and sometimes you can leave them behind as I know, I’ve done it. Sometimes they’ve come with me against their will, sometimes they come gleefully with me but it’s all part of your career in the theatre – you’re never going to able to know what’s going to work, ever, ever, ever know what’s going to work and that’s part of the joy of it. Its also part of the pain of it as well but you know you’ve got to get used to it.”

He describes theatre as “a rough house”. “It’s a rough place and you need to be able to stand up for yourself and you need to be able to rough it as well,” he cautions. “And nobody’s going to protect you, ultimately they’re not because if they do they’re going to protect your existence and your career and there’s nobody willing to do that, you’re on your own in theatre.”

He describes himself as “very lucky from the word go” that he had people around him who supported his work and progress. “I had Patrick [Mason] as my director, I had Maureen Toal as my lead actor in The Factory Girls and I had Sean McCarthy as literary editor and none of them were a pushover, nor indeed do they expect you to be a pushover.”

Screen Shot 2017-11-26 at 19.29.09 Frank McGuinness in his office in UCD.

He says it was always clear to him that in theatre you have to “fight your corner and you better not try to overplay your hand or not try to indulge yourself, they wouldn’t let you away with it”

Now looking back on it that was very scary and very hard but i’m very grateful to it.

“The theatre is no place for weaklings, I’m afraid.”

That said he also calls the theatre “a caring place, you’re looked after, particularly when you’re younger you are looked after and as you get older you are minded as well”.

“But it is expected that you will be able to carry on tradition and that you will mind people and you will not make excessive demands on who you’re working with because they are liable to go so far and no further with you and that’s a very useful lesson in any profession.”

A Joycean obsession

Moving from theatre to books – The Woodcutter and his Family is his second work of fiction – why decide to write about Joyce? It stems from an “undeniable” obsession with the Ulysses author since his teens, when he heard Joni Mitchell on RTÉ radio reading the opening pages of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

The young McGuinness had never heard the like of it, he says. “I didn’t know much of what was going on but I certainly still loved what he was doing and ever since then I’ve wanted to come to terms with this obsession in a creative way.”

I thought that the story of his death and involving the four key players in that scenario, himself, the wife, the daughter and the son would be a very exciting challenge and a very threatening and creative challenge.

He wanted it to be short – as it’s so intense – and got to explore his love of the folk tale with the final part of the book.

And so back to his college days again, and the very room we’re sitting in. Does he do most of his writing there? He says he’s based there most days, with a heavy teaching load. “But I use the room for my research, I use it to prepare my teaching, I use it for my writing, I use it for just general taking stock of what is what in terms of the whole career.”

“The one great thing about teaching is it’s solid, you know what you have to do, you know when you have to do it. Absolutely the opposite with playwriting, you never know what is coming around the corner, you really never do and you never know who’s going to be in the train coming around the corner.”

He works between his office and his house, handwriting everything in copybooks before typing them out (he types with one finger so often drafts in someone to type things up for him).

“I find that I can write in most places like hotel rooms, I’ve written stuff in hotel rooms and I’ve written stuff in friends’ houses and I can write in Donegal but I’ve been very lucky in that respect and I can write at any time of the day or night. When I smoked many years ago I used to work up until two or three in the morning. I can’t do that now without the fags actually,” he laughs.

Those who want to pursue writing themselves will find some solace in McGuinness’s description of his writing process.

“I just generally try to keep going. I find it tough to get started and I find it tough to fill the first twenty pages and I’m glad in a way it’s such an effort to do that because once I do get to page 20 I’m not going to stop, I’m going to keep going to the end.”

He loves that when it comes to writing, he can never truly know what is going to happen.

“I love when I know what I’m doing and I know where I’m going and all of that, but the great joy of writing for me is that I convince myself when I start anything that I know what’s going to happen, I know how it’s going to end,” he says.

And I can say now after more than 30 years of writing: it never ever ends the way you think it is, there’s always a shock in store for yourself when you’re actually structuring your story be it a play a novel or a poem. There’s always some shock that you really didn’t think was going to hit you and I think you need that shock for the joy writing to come through.

But he sometimes feels a sense of terror – that his ability to write might just stop. “Maybe it’s not going to happen again, and you live with that and it gets no easier, that terror,” he admits.

“But you have to recognise that it’s part of the challenge of writing itself – that you have to endure that.”

The Irish Book Awards take place on Tuesday 28 November. Video and editing by Andrew Roberts.

Read: Irish Book Award nominee Deirdre Sullivan talks fairy tales and fighting procrastination>

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