Writers have to be a ‘bit crazy’!

As Cork author WILLIAM WALL releases his latest novel, he explains how it came about, and how it is a companion work to his booker-longlisted hit
Writers have to be a ‘bit crazy’!

LISTENER: William Wall says the main character in his new novel ‘Suzy Suzy’ got her voice from conversations he overheard “in cafes, on buses, on the street even. It’s always the chance phrase that sets me thinking.”

SUZY Suzy begins with a sentence many people might have said or thought when they were teenagers: ‘Someone will kill my mother. It could be me.’

This establishes the voice of Suzy herself from the outset. And Suzy is the heart and soul of the book; her sense of humour drives it, her belief in justice, her unblinkered view of her family and her home town.

I wanted to write a lighthearted book this time — my last novel was about a family tragedy.

Suzy is a teenager in her final year of secondary school. She speaks in what is rapidly becoming a new dialect of Hiberno-English, heavily influenced by the internet, by television, especially American television, and by text-speak.

I experimented with the style in a previous short story collection called Hearing Voices Seeing Things. I’m a good listener and I pick up phrases and tones very easily.

The essence of Suzy’s way of speaking comes from overhead conversations — in cafes, on buses, on the street even. It’s always the chance phrase that sets me thinking, because all I know is that phrase. If I heard the complete story there would be no need to make it up and no book would come of it. It’s the fact that I don’t know the rest of the sentence or story that intrigues me and makes me want to write.

Often, for me, a book begins with a single sentence that takes up residence in my head for a while. It sits there waiting for the day I sit down to my computer in front of a blank page. It gives me the tone of voice, sometimes the tone of the entire book, and often it tells me something important about the central character. Sometimes that first sentence ends up in chapter five, but for Suzy Suzy it stayed at the beginning.

To begin on a novel requires a certain frame of mind and some kind of bizarre need to tell a story. Bizarre, because for me I don’t know what story I’m going to tell until it’s written — I don’t plot things out in advance.

Suzy Suzy by William Wall
Suzy Suzy by William Wall

This novel, in particular, has no real plot. It’s just the story of a group of friends and their families.

But a novel is a minimum of a year of your life in which you eat, sleep and speak with imaginary people. It takes a particular kind of determination — or idiocy — to want to do it, and a measure of courage to start.

You spend a year or years working on it and have no idea whether it will be any good or even whether it will ever be published. It’s no accident that most people think writers are a little crazy.

Although I sit down every day to my computer, and usually have various projects to work on — poems, stories, articles, correspondence — I still find that there’s a becalmed time between books. I have to wait for a story to find me the way a sailor has to wait for the wind.

That can be extremely frustrating, and it includes many, many false starts. I have been known to get to forty or fifty thousand words before realising that it would never turn into anything. Sometimes, that material can be re-used and sometimes not.

But one thing I know, at this stage of my life, is that the language of whatever comes to me is the key to whether I will finish it or not. I think of Suzy and her friends as speaking a strange kind of dialect poetry:

Holly goes: Why didn’t you tell me? And I said: Because I’m afraid. She said: Afraid of me? And I’m like: No, I’m afraid of what’s happening to me. And she had no answer to that because now she was afraid too. Holly had an answer to everything when we were small.

Suzy is an almost-innocent lost in the process of growing up in a family that is struggling to come to terms with, among other things, the collapse of her father’s business. I loved writing her mordant wit, her vulnerability, her intelligence and ultimately her strength.

Holly is her closest friend, and the political chorus of the book. Serena is the daughter of an eye-surgeon who cannot see how his child is suffering.

These three are the nucleus, brought together in school by their intelligence.

For years I’ve wanted to write a companion book to my 2005 Booker-longlisted This Is The Country. That book satirised the so-called Celtic Tiger which was in full swing at that time (the crash came three years later), and I wanted to write a crash-novel. Suzy Suzy is the result.

In This Is The Country, Ireland’s native form of casino capitalism is represented by the drugs business, whereas Suzy Suzy is about people and the property they own.

There’s hope too — against racism and against homophobia. Suzy and her friends belong to a generation that will, I believe, leave these forms of discrimination behind.

The crash comes to Suzy’s family but not in the way it would have affected the protagonist of This Is The Country. No-one is made destitute here, education goes on and work still exists despite losses. This is the middle class.

William Wall will launch his new novel, Suzy Suzy, at the Cork World Book Festival next Friday, April 26, in a free event at the Farmgate Cafe in Cork city at 6pm.

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