Keith Ridgway is the Dublin-born author of The Long Falling, The Parts and Animals. He has also written a novella and a collection of short stories. His fourth novel, Hawthorn & Child, magisterially subverts the standard police procedural and emerges as nothing short of a masterpiece. The novel is set in North London, where Ridgway lived for some eleven years. He has since returned to Dublin and currently teaches a course in fiction writing at Some Blind Alleys.
Hawthorn & Child is a novel, but when one of its chapters, ‘Goo Story’, appeared in the New Yorker, it was said to be part of a collection of stories. Is the distinction important?
No, not really – in one way. It’s a book. I handed it over without really thinking about what it was. I call it a novel because I feel that it needs everything that’s in it and that the pieces – which can indeed be read separately, which can even I suppose be read in any order – are diminished by being taken away from each other. But it wouldn’t do really to call it a collection of stories. That doesn’t cover it at all. That would be misleading. So in that sense, the distinction does matter a great deal. People have talked about it as an anti-novel, and I accept that. Its structure is deliberate. Its fragmentation is deliberate. Its hesitancy about being a novel is deliberate. It doesn’t want to be a novel. But tough. It is.
There were parts that drifted out of its orbit though, which have become other things. A long short story called The Spectacular being the largest one. Granta Books have made that available digitally. It’s set in the same North London world of H&C, and Hawthorn is in it. But it’s definitely not a part of the novel. It’s its largest moon if you like. There are others. Some fragments I’ve posted on my website. I’m not sure what to do with the rest. Space debris.
How was its fragmentation achieved?
I started writing a book that I wanted to be entirely fragments. It was originally going to be as many as 70 or 80 of these things, with some relationship between some of them, but it was the fragments that interested me. How they would rattle together in the same container as it were. But that didn’t happen. I drifted towards story, towards characters that reappeared, towards a more conventional coherence. So I tried to balance the two, and by so doing became very conscious of the tension between the desire for coherent stories and the facts and experiences of living, which are almost entirely fragmentary.
Your Some Blind Alleys fiction course aims to make people better readers before making them better writers. Do we live in a time when readers are failing writers?
No I don’t think so. We live in a time when publishers are failing readers and writers. But most importantly, they’re failing readers. There are plenty of exceptions of course. Independents like Granta Books and others, and a really interesting number of small independents in the States and elsewhere doing really good stuff. But publishing in general – the big houses that publish most of the fiction titles that we see in our bookshops – they don’t trust readers, they don’t care about writers or writing, they operate out of fear at the moment, and if they could they’d kill innovative literature dead and give us recycled safe-bets for the rest of time.
So that sort of publishing gets the readers it deserves. But I have to believe, or else I would have to stop writing, that serious innovative literature will find a readership too. Sure, their numbers go up and down, they come to things late, they might not make you rich or even self-sufficient, but readers are the reason I write. I want an audience. And it seems obvious to me that if I am interested in writing the way I write, there are people out there interested in reading it. Getting to them is the problem. We have to not write down to readers, or publish down to them, or patronise or in any other way offer them anything but the best we have. And at the moment, with this perfect storm of fearful publishers, on-line discounting and bullying, off-line retailers squeezed dry, digital uncertainty, readers are having to wade through a vast amount of crap to find the good stuff. But they do. I have to believe that they do, or they will. And I know they do and will, because after all I’m a reader, and that’s what I do.
How have the writers you teach influenced your own work? I’m interested in particular, but not exclusively, in Roberto Bolaño and Witold Gombrowicz.
When I teach I can only really do it well by trying to share the enthusiasm I have for certain writers or certain books. By getting excited by the possibilities of great fiction, by what it can do. Over the last five years or so the two writers you mention are probably the ones that have excited me most. I discovered Gombrowicz late. But he has changed my ideas about everything. I only discovered him after I had written Animals. And reading him has changed the way I think about perspective. And has given me more courage, I think, than previously. Bolaño is more dangerous. His style is so seductive, so apparently relaxed and almost careless that the risk is that you think you can write about anything at all, because he does. But he doesn’t. He’s so contained, so controlled, so unhesitatingly brilliant in his thought that it dazzles. But he, in a very different way to Gombrowicz, does the same sort of thing. He goes where he wants to go very directly. Fiction is a vehicle for something. They use fiction. They use it do what they want, and they love it and respect it, but they challenge it and bend it out of shape and make it something slightly else, and their own, and better.
Do you have any influences outside the world of fiction?
Of course. All art is informative in some way. Music seems to affect what I’m writing. Other things are harder to trace.
Do you care about your work being contemporary?
Yes. I want to write about what surrounds me. I work best that way I think. Stimulus and response. Recently that has meant contemporary stuff. But that could change I suppose, if something presented itself in that way. I doubt it.
Your work has been widely translated. Do you work with translators at all? If so, what is that process like?
It varies. It depends what the translator wants from me. Some I never hear from. Others become very involved in talking to me about the tone of something, or the texture of some pieces of English that they want to render if nor accurately then faithfully in some way. I’m not sure how useful I am to them to be honest. I am trapped in English.
Do you find Twitter to be an active distraction from the process of writing?
No, not really. Stimulus and response again. We live in this world, with all its bleeps and flashes and pop-ups, and I’m glad of it. I love sitting at my computer trying to write something moving or important and a friend pops up on twitter saying something absurd and funny. It’s lovely. And when I am tired of it, I turn it off and I go somewhere for a coffee and bring a notebook. I am deeply suspicious of writers who complain about these things, as if they were not incredibly interesting and filled with possibility, and entirely avoidable.
Do you have any intellectual insecurities?
Yeah. I’m not smart enough. I haven’t read enough, travelled enough, understood anything sufficiently, have no original thought and I am slow to the point of absurdity in learning anything about anything. And none of these things is likely to change.