The sade new came to Sligo that Dermot Healy passed away this week. Here is an exclusive interview the Sligo Weekender had with him in December 2008:
North Sligo based Dermot Healy, author, director, actor, raconteur and all-round national legend, talks to Paul McMahon about writing novels, Force Ten, and the sea.
The first time I saw Dermot Healy I was walking along Stephen’s Street in Sligo, towards the Garavogue River, carrying my banjo. A man, who looked like he had just stepped off a deep-sea fishing boat, was walking towards me. As he passed, he smiled and waved to me as though I was an old friend.
Later on that same day I told my friend, John Cullen, about getting waved to by this stranger and when I described him, John said, straight off the cuff: “Ah, that’s Dermot Healy, the writer.”
John stood up and pulled a book out from his shelf “A Goat’s Song”. “Is that him?” he said, pointing to the photo of the author on the inside sleeve alongside the rave reviews of his highly acclaimed novel. “That’s him,” I said, “that’s the man.”
“How are you Paul,” said Dermot Healy, pulling his car up, a year later, last week, outside my house on the Bundoran Road. I got in and we drove off in the direction of Ben Bulben’s head that rose into the dark gathering cloud like the fin of a shark.
“There is not a writer I know who hasn’t finished their book before bringing it into a publisher. And another thing, if you show it to someone before it’s finished, this person you’re showing it to has a bizarre way of turning up in the book itself,” answered Dermot, in response to my query.
“Non-fiction is different. Because it has already happened, you can explain to the editor what it is about.
“Graham Greene wrote 600 words a day, then stop – sometimes mid sentence – to leave a start for the next day.
“The best writing will never be known beforehand. Suddenly, as you’re writing, something that at first didn’t seem to have much importance can take over the direction of the book. Odd moments… If you have it all planned out beforehand, there is the possibility that this creative process, these odd moments, may be restricted. Writing a novel you will never know what or who you will meet”.
However, Dermot said there are writers who write out their plot first. “Colm Toibin, for instance, always puts his plot in place before writing the novel. So there is nothing hard and fast.
“There’s a whole new theory out there now that a writer should send the first three chapters of their uncompleted book, all shined up, to a publisher/ agent, along with a synopsis, a plan, of the complete book.
As we continued our conversation the sky opened like a waterbed sliced with a knife, Dermot turned on the wipers and continued to talk: “But the whole book can get consumed by these first three chapters; the unwritten will suffer. After you have given the synopsis to the agent you will feel obliged to stick to it. You might kill the novel.
“But if you have the first draft done, then you can send on the three chapters, because you know where you’re going. And an editor can be a great one to see into the core of a just finished novel.
Dermot said he too had that experience as have others in the trade. “Pat McCabe came to me years ago, with his first collection of short stories and he was asking me the same questions that you are.
“Then Pat moved onto the big story, the novel. An editor later told Pat, after he read his manuscript: you see the boy in your book, when you got into his head, into the mind of the boy, then the book got interesting. Pat went off and rewrote the book, coming from the mind of the boy, very quickly. That was The Butcher Boy.”
I asked if the writing process is such a lonely, abstract occupation; can having someone there giving feedback, and a deadline, not keep you on track to get the book finished?
“Having someone there is great but the process itself should be the spur,” he responded, as we approached Grange, took a left, and drove in the direction of the sea.
“The writing process gives us back this push to write further. When I get to the end of the page I have moved it on that bit. When I’m on a novel I write for two to three hours in the morning when the head is fresh and then come back to it again in the evening. Then sleep on it; sleep is a great editor,” he says, grinning, smoothly shifting gear. Being a non-driver, I get the reassuring feeling that Dermot Healy likes driving.
Surrounded by neat, hand-made stone walls, Healy’s white North Sligo cottage with blue doors and blue window frames is adjoined by a long extension encased in grey stone. The wild Atlantic, just as I had imagined, is a short stone-throw to the right.
The interior of the cottage looks like the home of a visual artist; yellow fishing netting hangs from the wooden rafters, a wide hearth of rocks – pulled out from the sea and picked by himself – protrudes over the wooden floor. He built the house along with a friend from down the road.
Books and original paintings line the pastel coloured walls. As Dermot lit the fire, I pulled a book off the hearth by Czeslaw Milosz, the Lithuanian poet, opened a page, and read a random line: “And the heart doesn’t die when one thinks it should.” Healy has lived and written here in this cottage for twenty years.
“Do you think there is a connection between creativity and strife?” I asked him. “Is it not uncanny that Yeats, Joyce and Synge came out of the War of Independence in the same way that Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon, among many other world class writers, came out of Belfast during the troubles?”
“Belfast had a powerful energy about it; there was a war going on. I lived there for a few years. It was full of poets from all around the world,” he answered with
“Ted Hughes was going there a few times a year. Allan Ginsberg was there. Brodsky was there. I was lucky to hear them. Have a look at this,” he says, jumping briskly up, leading me outside, past a knee-high statuette of Betty Boo – that I imagine belongs to his wife – and over towards the sea.
Beside his house Dermot has reclaimed twenty feet of land back from the ocean, filled it in with soil, planted it with grass seed and protected it against the barrage of the tides with chest-high, box-shaped wire cages filled with rocks.
Pointing to the cages of rocks Dermot explained: “Myself and two friends made those, and filled them by hand, they are called gabions,” clasping the wire netting with his hands.
“You see this one here,” he says, slapping the “breaker” gabion as though it were the head of a faithful animal, “the sea hates this one. This lad breaks the waves. If you come out here during a storm the sea is tossing all these rocks about inside the cages but it can’t shift them. It’s like a battle, a tumult. A drunken Saturday night in town. The sea loves a huge rock, to get a grip of it and to hurl it about. But the sea can’t move these.”
“What is Force Ten?” I ask him later, as we are driving back towards town, referring to the literary journal that he edits and puts together.
“Force Ten is energy. We have Colm Tobin and Roddy Doyle in there alongside lots of others, including prisoners from Castlerea who have never previously published anything. It got good reviews in The Independent and The Times.”
I asked the obvious question: “How did the prisoners come to be in there?” He explained that he has been running writing workshops, in prisons for years. “The language of these people is often so simple, yet so direct, so powerful. One of the prisoners wrote once if I didn’t get life, I’d be dead.”
The next issue of Force Ten will be published in spring. “At the moment I’m trying to finish one new book of poems to give to the publisher before Christmas. Then there is a second collection, called The Fool’s Errand, I’ve been working on for eight years. I have a novel I’m working on for six years. With luck I might get it done by next summer. Who can tell? I’m also reworking a film script at the minute for a film-maker friend of mine. 30 years ago I wrote it for him. It wasn’t made. Next thing he phones me from Los Angeles. t may never see the light of day.”
And what Dermot didn’t say about Force Ten was that many of the contributors are based in Sligo, Cavan, Leitrim and Roscommon; that it is a serious literary journal for local writers and artists, especially emerging ones, to have their work published in.
In the same way that The Blue Raincoat Theatre Company has earned Sligo a highly respected place in Irish National Theatre, Force Ten helps to put Sligo on the Irish Literary map in its striving to genuinely capture the suffering and creativity of humanity.
As we neared town Dermot told of how he was once driving along, somewhere in Sligo, with a Russian friend of his. “The Russia said to me: ‘Do you know all those people?’ “I asked what people?”
“All the people you wave to,” said the Russian. “Well, no,” I said. “That’s strange, he said, in Ireland, strangers wave to strangers. “Well, I said to him,” continued Dermot, without taking his eyes off the road, shifting gear, with the lights of Sligo in the distance, “when strangers wave back, they are no longer strangers.”