Thursday 27 July 2017

Stepping out of the shadows... Rory Gleeson

Chattier than Brian, less giddy than Domhnall and not (yet) wielding the hefty repute of his father, author Rory Gleeson is carving out his own identity

Family values: 'We're a private family. You keep the circle tight and nothing gets out'. Photo: Mark Condren
Family values: 'We're a private family. You keep the circle tight and nothing gets out'. Photo: Mark Condren

Hilary A White

'I was attention-seeking and needy, and then very quiet and sullen, and like any other child just probably very, very annoying and dirty and loud."

Rory Gleeson lists all of this off as if it's been rehearsed in his head for days, before leaning back into the armchair for a hearty chuckle. He looks back with a shrugging expression. "My folks had four kids in six years, you know? God help them."

Years pass, and people and their situations change. With age can come more acceptance about the less desirable traits of our youth. This concept of today's truth being at odds with tomorrow's is a theme that runs through Gleeson's debut novel, Rockadoon Shore.

In the tale, six Dublin university students - three girls, three boys - head off for a wild weekend down the country where motivations, allegiances and insecurities will shift about the place as decisions good and bad are made.

Twitching a curtain at the hedonistic youngsters before making a dramatic intervention that changes everything, is Malachy. This elderly neighbour has had to live with the path he chose when a youthful crossroads presented itself to him at a key time in his life. The two parties reflect off one another with a subtlety that belies the author's callowness. There may not be right or wrong, Gleeson's sensitive, assured novel posits, only the choices that feel fitting to us in a particular moment.

Gleeson has written on his blog about concerns that he will open Rockadoon Shore in two years' time, read the first line and think to himself "balls". Today, he is looking away and grumbling with regret over a precocious piece he wrote for the Irish Times in 2011 about the thrill of emigrating to London ("I kind of wrote that in a reaction to a lot of people indulging a bit in the age-old narrative of 'we're being forced to leave the island'.")

Isn't he being a bit hard on himself?

"No, I think that's very realistic," he quickly replies. "It would be a bad thing if, years from now, I looked back at something I wrote and said, 'that's perfect, that's brilliant'. That means you haven't grown as an artist, you haven't tried new things and failed in different ways. It's important to be able to look back and say, 'I would have done things differently but at the time it was the only way I knew how.'"

In essence, what Gleeson is really talking about here is his long-held fascination in "how people lie to themselves, how they convince themselves that they're right because everyone is a hero in their own story". As well as entertaining, he says, he wants to try and impart some artistic solace to the reader through these characters, to say that a clear appraisal of one's flaws is an essential part of developing.

"It wasn't about old people vs young people," he frowns, "it wasn't about 'youth' with a capital Y or any of this kind of stuff. For me, the period of their lives that these people were going through was a lens through which I was looking at broader things.

"Everyone, regardless of their age, has moments where they can either look at themselves and decide to just keep going on the way they're going, to almost sleepwalk through their decisions, or they can face up to uncomfortable truths about themselves, and take it from there. It's not specific to that age."

You'd spot it a mile away; the bright red hair and keen eyes; the burly stature; the slightly no-nonsense North County Dublin brogue. The author seated today in this corner of the bar is very much "a Gleeson".

He is the fourth of that beloved Irish clan that I have interviewed over the years, and while he fits the mould physically, he'll have no difficulty shedding the DNA of his acting kinsmen and mining his own artistic identity, you sense. Over a coffee on a busy Dublin afternoon, he is chattier than Brian, less giddy than Domhnall and does not wield the outright hefty repute of father Brendan. Yet.

What all four have in common is that they are fiercely protective of their privacy and do not entirely disguise the fact that talking to journalists is not their favourite part of the job. While Gleeson is still getting used to the concept of "promotional commitments", he has none-the-less inherited the Gleeson family omertà.

"I had my first interview about three weeks ago - ever," he says. "It's a part of it. If you're happy with something you've done, you have to stand by it and be willing to send it out there into the world. But certainly that part of the life is not something we're attracted to or necessarily comfortable with. We're a private family. You keep the circle tight and nothing gets out.

"That's just a way of understanding that nothing else will come between the family, that nothing you can say in interviews and do in public will in some way hurt what's most important, which is family and friends, and keeping a sense of yourself. People can lose themselves in this public persona and it becomes about that when actually you need to keep it on the work."

The idea that anyone in Irish media would wish to do wrong by or cause harm to a family that has brought so much pride to the country is a difficult one to reconcile, I comment.

Gleeson's expression seems to concede that this is most probably the case, but rules are rules. The youngest of four brothers, Rory dabbled with the idea of acting at a young age before realising that his heart lay more in the written word. He graduated from Trinity with a degree in psychology, before pursuing a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. When all this and some writing workshops were behind him, the wanderlust of being a young man kicked in and he was eager to go out and reap the wider world for writerly raw materials.

He has been living in Toronto for the past two years, and only last week returned to his former abode of London. Christmas was his first trip home to Dublin in a year and he loved that he still knew the layout of his hometown like the back of his hand. The distance, he agrees, allowed him to look at not only Ireland and his debut's cast of quintessentially Irish characters with a clear focus, but also himself.

"I knew pretty early on that I wanted to get people's angles on things," he nods. "I wanted to put myself in a different place and get a bit of perspective about where I was with things, too. It does give you space and gets you out of the immediate overwhelming stimuli that are taking you over and impacting your day-to-day. It can be hard to think clearly about a situation when you're still interacting with it all the time and the situation is changing."

Writing ("the actual boring part of just sitting in a room with a sore arse and staring at the wall") and the idea of being "a writer", are, of course, two very different things, and Gleeson acknowledges that instilling artistic discipline into his ambition was, unsurprisingly, bolstered by his family environment.

"That was what [parents Brendan and Mary] were hammering into us from day one," he explains. "With school work, sport, whatever you were doing. If you're going to do something, do it properly, because you're doing yourself no favours by saying, 'oh well, I could have done something if I tried'.

"In the family, they know that you just put the work in, and whatever small amount of talent you might have, or an instinct for things, isn't really realised unless you back it up with hours and thought. It wasn't just this artsy-fartsy thing where you're messing around, drinking whiskey in bars and talking about life and philosophy."

He kept office hours while writing Rockadoon Shore, tapping away in the local library in Toronto and using an app to limit the amount of internet access he had in order to avoid distractions. If inspiration was not forthcoming, he'd do edits on short stories, screenplays and other projects. If that in turn was not happening, there was always some reading to do. The important thing, like many full-time writers agree, is that you position yourself at the desk regardless so that you can strike if the iron starts to get hot.

"And then," he says, "I'd go out and talk with people. Have a laugh, and get out of the room and out into the world because, again, nothing's going in if you're just in a dark room."

Between the thick beard, sharp suit and the concise paragraphs that he speaks in, you can sometimes forget that Gleeson is only 27, and a very twenty-something laugh erupts when I point out that there's a lot of fun to be had at that age, too.

"Yeah you do need a bit of stimulation coming in. My whole life isn't structured pragmatically around working all the time - you have to be able to enjoy your life a little bit. But at the same time, this is my career, and it's something I take very seriously in the approach I take to it."

Rockadoon Shore is published by John Murray

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