Karl Geary on his first book: 'I find writing excruciating'
Emigrating to New York at 15, rubbing shoulders with Lou Reed and posing beside a topless Madonna in her 'Sex' book, Dubliner Karl Geary has led a life less ordinary. Here, he tells Tanya sweeney about his debut book
It's not every day that you meet a Dubliner with links to Madonna, Peter Fonda, Breaking Bad, Sex and the City and Jeff Buckley. Suffice to say that Karl Geary has lived what can only be described as a life less ordinary. And it's precisely his life - taking in co-ordinates as diverse as Talbot Street, the East Village and Glasgow - that has made the 44-year-old one of the most intriguing debut novelists for some time.
After a five-publisher scrum, Geary signed a major deal with Harvill Secker, and now finds himself in the same rarefied stable as Karl Ove Knausgaard, Haruki Murakami and JM Coetzee. And after the self-imposed exile of writing a novel, such validation is… well, a welcome, if unexpected, result.
"It's kind of bizarre," says Geary, reflecting on the brouhaha. "When I set out to write this, I figured, 'if it doesn't get published, fine', but it was a story that I wanted to tell.
"You're spending so many years isolated [writing], and what threw me more than anything was how decent and kind each publisher was when I met them. I just fell head over heels with my editor, and there was a real sense of unity there in terms of what the book was."
Geary had tried his hand at writing a novel in his twenties, and is glad that the book never surfaced.
"I find writing excruciating," he confides. "I took me four-and-a-half years to write this book. The difficulty lies in where you need to go [psychologically] in order to do it. It goes beyond solitude. Some have described writing as an entirely masochistic experience."
Whatever agonies or self-consciousness Geary felt during writing are nowhere to be found on the page. In fact, Montpelier Parade - the tale of an unlikely relationship between a teenage butcher's apprentice and an older, complicated woman - is the work of a deft, fearless writer.
Evoking the subtly dark comedy of Patrick McCabe, and the delicious lyricism of Peter Murphy, Geary has a keen recollection of the folly and hunger of youth. Add in a gut-spinning plot twist, and it's safe to describe Montpelier Parade as one of the first significant releases of 2017.
The book is strikingly original, not least in its deployment of the second-person narrative: "I didn't want to do that, but I tried writing in the first person and the third, and it didn't seem to work in terms of getting as close as I could to [the character of]Sonny," reflects Geary. "Writing it this way, the story almost becomes like an accusation."
And while Geary's topography of 1980s South Dublin is vivid, his homespun dialogue authentic, Geary wrote the book in New York, the city that has (until recently) been his hometown for decades.
"There's a terrific history of Irish people writing in exile," he laughs. "Patrick Kavanagh puts it more eloquently than I could when he talks about how intimately we know the place we grew up in. There's a thing that happens in childhood where time feels very slow. I wanted the book to feel like a rural novel; something to do with the pace and timing and tempo."
Growing up the youngest of eight children ("a gaggle of Gearys") in a working-class neighbourhood in Blackrock, Dublin, Geary struggled with dyslexia in school; a condition that was only diagnosed later. He left school without doing the Inter Cert and found himself, aged 15, working in a wallpaper shop in Talbot Street. Armed with only the address of a character called 'Johnny One Eye', he decided to try his luck in New York.
A careworn path, certainly, but it's safe to say that young Geary had anything but the typical émigré experience. Within a fortnight, he was 'battered' by a Chinese gang and was nearly shot on Tenth Street.
Another Irish emigrant, Shane Doyle, asked him to help out with the running of a run-down bar called Sin-é. The rest is famously rock'n'roll lore. At the time, all roads led to the joint: Marianne Faithfull, Sinead O'Connor and Lou Reed were patrons, while Jeff Buckley recorded a live album there that would send him into the stratosphere.
"It was definitely a fascinating time in New York and being caught in that era was exciting and energising… I don't know that we knew it at the time," he says, referring to Sin-é's singular mythology. "We certainly didn't go to sleep at night thinking, 'we're doing something really special here'.
"Back then, you paid 200 dollars to live there and I feel bad that young people now live in the same apartment for up to $5,000. But because of those rents, I didn't have to work around the clock. I'm lucky to have experienced that."
Geary downplays the experience: "If you put in the perspective of its time, I don't think it was that unusual," he shrugs. "The Irish usually went to the traditional spots like the Bronx or Queens, so maybe because I ended up in the East Village, I wasn't your traditional economic migrant."
That's putting it mildly. Soon, Geary was running Sin-é, and started to meet some interesting characters at work. Among them was Jodi Peckman, photo editor of Rolling Stone.
The encounter led to Geary being photographed kissing a topless Madonna in Madonna's Sex book (understandably, he's sick of the subject). Later, he met film director Michael Almereyda in what became a rather fortuitous encounter.
"Michael approached me about doing a film with Peter Fonda… he was looking for an Irishman as he wanted to tip his hat to Bram Stoker," he recalls. "He asked me to audition and screen test.
"As a kid, I had an Easy Rider poster on my wall; the only one I ever had. And talk about a fella who doesn't disappoint," he adds of Fonda.
After appearing in Nadja and then training as an actor, the parts kept coming: Gold In The Streets (opposite Jim Belushi), Painted Lady (opposite Helen Mirren) and Hamlet (opposite Ethan Hawke). There was also a memorable appearance in Sex and the City, in which Geary plays a lovelorn Irish bellhop to Kim Cattrall's sexual libertine Samantha Jones. More recently, he has appeared in Ken Loach's Jimmy's Hall, and I Am Not A Serial Killer alongside his wife, Laura Fraser (of Breaking Bad fame).
For now, he and Fraser live in Glasgow with their daughter, Lila. "I love the idea of being closer to Ireland," he says. "I love getting to Dublin; Sligo, too [where his son Billy lives].
"New York, in a sense, had run its course for me," he adds. "I remember seeing Patti Smith talk in Brooklyn and a young woman artist put up her hand and asked, 'what would you say to an artist living in New York now?' And Patti Smith replied, 'leave'.
"It's very flat in New York - it's shifted more to the psyche of mainstream America and has become a home for upwardly mobile, middle-class people. I still have a bar there, The Scratcher, but it's the last place in the city you can walk into and have people know you by name."
While a lucrative multi-book deal was of no interest to Geary ("selling fiction before you've written it is dangerous"), another novel is percolating.
His remarkable life is surely a rich literary seam to mine, but the juicy memoir looks set to remain at large.
"I've no interest in biography," he says. "There's a truth to the fictional landscape that feels current and connected. The truth is the one thing I do find endlessly fascinating."
Montpelier Parade is out now via Harvill Secker