Oisín Fagan’s new short story collection, Hostages, explodes typical perceptions of literary fiction, using sci-fi tropes like UFOs, torture chambers, revolutions and genocide, all set in his native Meath. Add to this a twisted sense of humour and coruscating writing style, and you have a writer unafraid to think big.
How did your editor at New Island, Dan Bolger, help shape Hostages?
Me and Dan worked through the book. I gave it in to him last June, and he said, “This is cool, but it needs work.” I’d send him in a draft and he’d send it back. I go over the top a lot, and he taught me that the plot, the characters, the events are already so insane, I don’t need to keep putting a stress on that.
He also taught me about constructing ABC stories, as in beginning, middle and end, or, “This character wants this, and make sure they want this throughout the whole thing.” Which I didn’t know. Well you do know it, but you say to yourself, “Fuck that stuff, I’m writing all my dreams.” So we’d chat about that, and then relax into a chat about hip hop. Proper order.
He took care of me, but I’ve been taken care of by a lot of people, though not in any constant way. Say for example, Declan Meade, Tom Morris, Sean O’Reilly, or Dave Lordan. I’ve submitted four pieces to them over five years, but I would have encounters with them. This might be just one coffee that lasts for two hours, but it does have an effect on what to emphasise in a story.
Does hip hop influence your writing?
One of the stories has hip hop very deeply rooted in the structure: ‘Being Born’. I’d always wanted to write a blowing up the school story, ever since I was 14. But I needed a form for it. I’d written a draft of ‘Being Born’ which was an “I’m so sad, and I’m in school” version.
I did the draft like that, but I have different concerns now than I did then. I was looking for a form for it. There were these two songs by Nas, and I knew when those two songs came along that if I put them together that could be the form to hold it.
One song is Fetus (Belly Button Window) [from 2002’s The Lost Tapes] which is entirely told from the perspective of Nas in his mother’s belly. The other song is I Gave You Power [from 1996’s It Was Written] but it’s told from the point of view of a gun. It’s entirely first person, but the gun has all these feelings. Nas took an object and set it from the gun’s perspective. So I just stole that for ‘Being Born’. It’s like an object, but it’s also an object being born.
How important is place in Hostages? In the story ‘Costellos’ you imagine Meath from the late 1500s to the 2200s.
It’s a history of Meath, but it’s more like a re-jigged, heavily-fictionalised history of my family which came to me around that time. The Fagans are all over Meath, it’s a really common name. ‘Costellos’ is the reason I wrote Hostages. When I wrote ‘Costellos’ I thought, “It’s all about Meath. That’s what I am, that’s what I know.”
The stuff later – once we go beyond 2016 – I think that’s more global, but it’s definitely based off Meath. The future events are like past events of Meath. I can’t comment on it too academically because it’s where I’m from. I think I’ve written Meath into it deeply in different ways. It’s a Moynalvey book. Moynalvey’s where my family is from, and then there’s the neighbouring parishes where you go to school. All the places are written into Hostages so deeply, that there’s little things people could only recognise if they were from there.
The story ‘The Sky over Our Houses’ reads as sci-fi at first, like with later stories, but it’s quite misleading in this sense.
This is getting quite theoretical, and I don’t want to give anything away, but that was about if an individual has to deal with a crisis, how an individual would go about it, because individuals are weak things. The story is about building towards a collective.
It is misleading, it’s supposed to be shocking; you’re meant to be distanced from this person, who is disposing of the bodies in this way. Then afterwards, you’re supposed to grow to like this person. It is misleading in the overall arc of the story, but it’s definitely there in the arc.
I say sci-fi because I have no other way to describe it. I don’t want to be one of these lads who goes, “Oh I write sci-fi, but it’s actually literary.” I really respect sci-fi, and I respect the genres and motifs. I prefer it to literary literature probably.
I think the weirdness in ‘The Sky over Our Houses’ is because it’s like a realist story. But I think it’s about a cool family. The way I grew up was: “Family is beautiful and nurturing.” You look around in literature and that doesn’t exist, how sound a sister is or a mother or father is. That was the main thing that kept me writing it. The mother is definitely a hero, a community hero, but she’s not of the community, which is interesting. I wanted, with this book as a whole, to have heroes, but not heroes in the way, “Oh, I’m a man and I’m doing mad stuff!” More organic leaders, community leaders, stuff like that. She is cool, and she’s based off someone very real.
There’s a large death-toll in your stories – the bodies almost lose their significance. This seems very sci-fi, which in contrast to literary fiction that closely focuses on a person’s death, is more interested in civilisation as a whole.
I think you’ve gotten what I was going for. I don’t want to write literature about individuals and their feelings, I respect the literature that exists on that, but my concerns are not individual. I don’t believe in individuals at all, in the same way some people don’t believe in God. They have no value, and I find it hard to understand people who consider themselves as individuals, as though that could matter in a world where so many bodies pile up. I honestly believe it’s deeply hypocritical and antihuman to pretend you care about individuals in a world like this.
Maybe everyone’s an individual in Hostages, because that’s the basic organising unit within a plot, but they have to be understood through the lens of community more, the dialectic, the state, or politics. The individual is something literature segues into a lot, because it invites you to be familiar with a person, to put emphasis on them rather than others. That’s what literature does – it invites you to be familiar with individuals. But I don’t think that’s how the world works. And literature doesn’t have to work that way either.
What does sci-fi mean to you?
I love sci-fi, but it’s a recent love. My basis would have been 20th century Latin American and Irish authors, 19th century English and French literature and stuff like that. So I came to it late, and it spoke to me about my concerns – which were “Fuck the personal”. That can be title of your interview. Fredric Jameson wrote an incredible book on sci-fi, called Archaeologies of the Future, and after that I read loads of Philip K Dick and Kim Stanley Robinson. I feel we live in a sci-fi world, not in the sense of technology, but in the sense that sci-fi understands the world, which is as a series of struggles and developments being fought out in a future still up for grabs.
The problem for me, as a little rural boy, is I think sci-fi goes too big. They do civilisations, whereas for me it should be, “What form can carry a community?” It’s just an incredible genre. Originally, I would have come to sci-fi more through movies. If you get into sci-fi it’s fucking strange. The films, like Alien and Blade Runner, they’re about “We’re running away from a thing!” Whereas sci-fi novels are genuinely weird, they’re like strange philosophical tracts, long things that misbehave and fluctuate in strange ways.
A lot of your stories seem to be about society breaking down and returning to something more primitive, like in JG Ballard’s work.
I would disagree with that. JG Ballard was a pessimist, a psychologist. I’m an optimist. I don’t believe that psychology can explain structural events. At the very least I’m full of hope. I believe in the revolution, I believe in the end of starvation and war and egalitarianism and all that. I think that whenever society breaks down it’s because of structural reasons that come about by a ruling class, or other societal reasons. I don’t believe that it’s something internal to humans. I believe unless you put people under massive pressure some form of sane order will emerge, usually structured around large families and interconnected communities.
Maybe people might think that because some parts of the book are shocking, the societal breakdowns are damning. The breakdowns of society are because there is one class of people using another class of people. If people are let alone they’ll live in families and organise themselves; there’ll always be conflict, but societal breakdown is something pushed on you from above, I feel. And it always gets in the way of that most necessary class war we must all engage in.
JG Ballard I think is an incredible stylist, but he doesn’t believe in the whole human project. I do, and so I don’t have much time for that outlook, and I don’t believe that way of understanding the world gives much back, or has a lot of depth, or solace, or hope, or warmth. And people are warm and loving.
You mention revolution, and revolutions feature quite prominently in Hostages. Does the revolution in ‘Costellos’ carry through to the later stories?
They could be, I don’t know. I had this idea a few years ago, and I don’t know do I still hold this idea. The whole linked worlds theme, having characters reappear, and different events narrated, like everything is structured around that revolution – I thought that repetition is very comforting, and you find a lot of that in modern culture, but I also thought it was very egotistical for a writer to put that on the world, to put a new place on the map and overlay it over the real world. Maybe you just create an event in a real place, and things keep happening, people move on, and maybe that’s what life is like.
So no, I think they could both be and not be the same revolution, which is harder to do than linking things up and having repeated events referenced in the story, or having a character reappear, which is very easy to do, but which people think is some magical sleight of hand on a writer’s part. It’s not my thing though.
The revolution in ‘Costellos’… I believe in the revolution. Fully, 100 per cent committed. No messing. But then the revolution begins and there’s the joke right after, which is “The revolution lasted 15 minutes, the counter-revolution lasted forever, which we’re still in.” This is a joke on my part, because though I’m a revolutionary socialist, I think some of my kind are conning themselves if they think there is a deep enough class consciousness or level of organisation to maintain anything above a two-day rising. Class consciousness and community organising have to be built systematically for a long time. There’s no short-cuts. It was like a joke, and a political point as well, but it’s also based off reality, probably.
I like that you could read the revolutions as the same, and I like that also you couldn’t. I like that it wasn’t like, “I created this cohesive world”. Rather a Meath/socialist world was there and I noticed it and you can keep noticing it, because once you see it it’s everywhere.
Hostages by Oisin Fagan is published by New Island, available now.
Words: Eoin Tierney
Images: Jamie Goldrick