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Patrick Freyne: 'For personal writing, people need to feel they're in safe hands - if you're too raw it can unsettle the reader'

Debut author Patrick Freyne talks to us about his new collection of essays.

Image: Cyril Byrne

PATRICK FREYNE IS best known as a journalist, but scratch the surface of his life and you’ll find lots of unexpected stories lurking. 

Think camping on wasteland with his equally hapless mates in Bremen; working in an anarcho-syndicalist pirate radio station; jumping out of a plane while believing it will lead to his death; or touring with his band in a decommissioned hearse.

The Dublin-based, Kildare-raised writer is well-known for his humorous yet scalpel-sharp takedowns of Irish popular culture (or “taking the piss out of telly” as he puts it) in his TV reviews for the Irish Times, as well as his considered handling of difficult subjects in his socially-driven features.

But for his debut collection of essays – titled OK, Let’s Do Your Stupid Idea – Freyne turns the spotlight on himself. Those expecting to leaf through a book of his witty thoughts about Dermot Bannon’s cultural power or the filthiness of Mary Berry’s cakes, though, are going to have their presumptions about the breadth of his work dashed.

While Freyne thankfully retains his trademark humour (and there are quite a number of genuine laugh-out-loud moments in the book, which often tend to involve his friend ‘Corncrake’), he has also written sensitively and honestly about some of the tougher experiences that life throws at us.

There’s his time as a care worker, where he comes to realisations about how caring – and being cared for – can push people to their limits. There’s his writing about his family, where you sense his respect for his elders and his familial history. Then there are two of the standout essays in the collection, one of which (‘Brain Fever’) depicts his various mental health experiences including hypochondria and OCD, and ‘Something Else’, where he writes about how he and his wife, who is also a writer, do not have children.

Though the past decade has thankfully seen a shift in the dynamics around how men write about their own mental health, the topic of children is something that’s typically seen as a ‘woman’s subject’. But that’s not a binary that Freyne adheres to, thankfully.

Freyne doesn’t write to pretend that he’s the only man who’s had certain experiences. It’s clear that he’s writing solely from his own perspective, and that there are places he’s not willing to bring us. He’ll bare his soul only as far he wants to, which in an age of often over-sharing feels like a generous thing to do both for himself and his readers. 

Just like Emilie Pine’s book Notes to Self captured the emotions of readers in part thanks to her writing around not becoming a parent, readers are sure to find themselves touched by Freyne’s writing on his experiences in this area.

‘I started to get antsy’

Freyne moved into writing personal essays while trying to expand his writing repertoire. Or as he puts it, “I started to get antsy about doing types of writing that I wasn’t able to do in my day job”. He wanted to write fiction, so started “writing really bad short stories”, he tells TheJournal.ie as we chat over socially-distanced lunch. 

To give himself more time to write, he took three months of unpaid leave from the Irish Times. At the start of that period, he spent time at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig, a residential workplace for artists and writers. It helped kickstart this new phase of his writing.  

His story about mental health, ‘Brain Fever’, moved things forward again. Brendan Barrington of Penguin Ireland (now Sandycove), and the Dublin Review journal asked Freyne did he have any essays to submit. He liked an early draft of Brain Fever, and working on this piece helped Freyne to begin writing more about himself. 

Exploring his experiences with depression and anxiety made Freyne realise new things about personal essays. “For nonfiction and personal stuff, people need to feel like they’re in safe hands. And if you’re too raw when you approach things, I think it can unsettle the reader,” he says. “I realised that humour is an important part of my personality. So when I reapproached it I saw the funny side to it and I started writing it in a different tone.”

Freyne used to think that if he ever wrote a book it would be along the lines of the humour essayists David Sedaris, Clive James, or even Nora Ephron. “I thought I’d just go for funny, but then I thought – no, I’m just really interested in stuff that went somewhere a bit deeper,” he says.

“Part of the way we use humour is we – I – can use it to undercut my points, make a serious point and then ‘don’t feel uncomfortable, here’s the punchline’,” he says of yet another realisation.

I had to remove some of those bits in those essays. When you’re talking about something serious, the humour needs to illustrate, not undercut.

That must be something a little difficult to do, when you’re most well-known for your natural wit. “I’m not used to writing about my life,” says Freyne. “There was no point in just taking a uniform gaggy tone with that. Because some of it is funny but then other bits you’re kind of betraying yourself a bit if you turn things into too much of a joke. It’s no longer real and it’s no longer saying anything interesting.”

Writing the essays meant “getting used to just sitting with things, sitting with feelings,” he says. “It’s hard emotionally.”

‘I knew I had complex emotions about it’

Patrick Freyne High Res Jacket

The book was a chance to sit with emotions it might be easier sometimes to avoid. He decided to write about not having children “because I’d a lot of feelings about that but I hadn’t really expressed them before”.

“So that’s a short essay, but that was probably one of the most difficult ones to write, because I couldn’t… you’re trying to figure out what you feel yourself, sometimes,” he says. “I just knew I had complex emotions about it and I wasn’t able to express them. So I kind of had to feck around with that, and then you find ways in.” 

Freyne is thoughtful about gender, and notes that the subject of parenthood, and particularly the difficulties around it, “has been framed entirely as a woman’s issue, [which] puts a lot of pressure on women and takes pressure off men in a way”.

“But ultimately it means that certain emotions… aren’t being explored.” 

People might think about the multiple complexities and contradictions around parenthood in their own time, but to see a man write about it from his perspective adds a welcome voice to the ongoing conversation. 

Thinking about parenthood got him thinking about how driven we humans are by conformity, for example. 

“The thing that really struck me and still strikes me is that part of what people feel weird about when you don’t have kids or want to have kids and can’t, is that we’re actually… even the most hippy artsy of us are actually really conformist,” he says. “I think I say it in that essay that for the most part, you’re in step with everyone in your generation. You might be a few years later, and you might have faffed around doing something arty like I did for a while. But largely, it’s not madly nonconformist, it’s pretty much in line with your generation.

“And then you kind of hit a point where there is this big deviation and loads of people go one way and you don’t, and then you start realising that all of the markers that traditionally take you from 40 to 80 aren’t there for you. As well as the fact that you might feel complicated feelings about not having kids.

“And I was kind of curious about that. I think I want to write more about that. I said it in the essay too, like, I deeply suspect that lots of people who have kids don’t know if they want them or not.”

He clearly puts a huge amount of thought into what the reader will get from his work. There’s no sense of ego about it. He says he realised his touchstones for his writing were “to either be entertaining or helpful”, or otherwise “it’s maybe self indulgent”.

This perceptiveness about how his readers perceive him comes through in his essay Talking to Strangers, where he looks at the realities of being a journalist. “I’m slightly worried in that essay that I’m a psychopath,” he jokes about his description of how he plies his trade. 

He describes how, when he interviews someone who starts “telling you something deeply emotional and you start empathising… But then there’s another voice going ‘cha-ching – this is brilliant’, or ‘this is my intro’”. He seems slightly ashamed of his reaction, but any journalist reading it will immediately empathise – there is an emotional push and pull to writing about sensitive topics. 

“The first draft had the word ‘sociopath’ in it a lot, but I just slowly thought that was a bit on the nose and removed it,” he jokes again.

Writing this essay helped him to become “much more comfortable now” and “a bit more free” when he’s interviewing people. “I treat the interactions more like interactions a bit more than I did before,” he says.

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Writing as therapy

It’s said that writing is like therapy; that it can be so cathartic as to render the writer capable of major realisations or life changes. Some hate this idea, but not Freyne.

“My [writing] was like therapy. You’re thinking a little bit more structurally about things that were just confusing and weird to you and you’re putting a narrative on them. And putting a narrative on them, that’s what psychotherapy does, right?” he says.

When you take a narrative that’s damaging or confusing, and you make something more wholesome out of it.

He found this process “temporarily useful”.

“But then I think what happens is you process that narrative and life goes on,” he says. “Like, if I die then and there it would be, like, ‘right, I have totally self-actualised!’ But I think then your life goes on and the nature of life is that it complicates things for you again. So a year and a half later, I could safely say for about a year after that essay that I kind of sorted out a few things for me. But now a year and a half later, I’m like, ‘Oh no’, because life has complicated it all up again.” 

Before he became a journalist in his 30s, Freyne had quite a colourful selection of jobs. In the book, he writes about his time at a pirate radio station, and gigging around Ireland and abroad while in a band.

As such, the collection reveals glorious depictions of 1990s Ireland, where a tweet was a sound a bird made and an online troll was some sort of grizzled fairy living under a bridge. Ah, such innocent days. 

Did he realise he was capturing such an evocative time in Ireland’s history? “I didn’t think about that when I was writing it, but I have been thinking a lot about it when I meet younger, talented people,” laughs Freyne. “People who are clearly really talented in their 20s and 30s that are much more wracked with awareness of what everyone else is doing. And one of the things was that [time] allowed us to do our own thing.

“We didn’t have a clue what anyone else was doing. Your whole world was built on, like, these kind of carrier pigeons of information.”

With no internet and no constant stream of information, Freyne and pals were, as he details, able to construct their own views about the world – albeit, views heavily influenced by counter-culture musical figures from the US.

“Your own ignorance is kind of an amazing thing. It’s harder to be ignorant now,” he says. “I’d be pretty political now, but we were performatively political. Like we were learning about real stuff, but it was kind of based more on what Jello Biafra had done than Martin Luther King.”

The book mentions a smorgasbord of characters, some of whom have their real names, others who – like the aforementioned Corncrake – have a fancy moniker. They were sent copies of the essays they were mentioned in, to make sure everything added up. 

“There were lots of things I just remembered wrong,” says Freyne. “Our memories are weird.”

This misremembering shows the vagaries of memory, and demonstrates that the personal essay is truly personal. Though the facts and figures might sometimes be malleable, the core of the truth is in the emotions felt by Freyne at the time. And it’s through those honest emotions that his delightful essay collection will capture the minds of his readers.

Ok, Let’s Do Your Stupid Idea by Patrick Freyne is published by Sandycove and is available nationwide. 

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