Keith Ridgway. Photo courtesy of New Directions.
The central chapter of Keith Ridgway’s latest novel, A Shock, takes place in The Arms—a South London pub that serves as a gathering place for many of the book’s characters. “The Story,” as the chapter is titled, is about local patrons regaling one another with anecdotes, all of which speak either directly or obliquely to the stories in the surrounding chapters or to the novel at large. In one tale, a bird flies as high as a mountaintop, where its heart gives out, and it drops, only to take another flight to those same mountainous heights—“Stuck in a loop. Doing the same thing again and again.” So, too, does this novel deal in loops, reinventing itself with every chapter while following familiar characters and themes, collapsing at its center only to unfurl again, opening with “The Party” and closing with “The Song,” which takes place at the titular celebration of the first chapter.
A Shock is an artful exercise in nervous revelry. There is an exciting, almost voyeuristic quality to the reading experience, a bit like wandering slowly through the very house party Ridgway depicts. The novel features an exquisitely arranged guest list of characters. A woman spies on her neighbors through a hole in the wall. Another habitually invents elaborate personal histories. A man obsesses over what might have happened to the former tenants of his apartment. And Ridgway makes a wonderful master of ceremonies, introducing each character in turn and nodding to the many connections between. His language is realistic yet defamiliarized, balancing a fealty to the many flaws inherent in natural modes of expression and the writerly necessities of successful storytelling, rendering confusion with narrative clarity and imprecision with the utmost intention, so that dialogue may drift in and out of earshot, perspectives may shift, details may gain or lose focus as faces emerge or fade from the crowd, but always in service of honest conversation and never at the expense of a good time.
Ridgway is from Dublin. In addition to A Shock, he is the author of the novels Hawthorn & Child, Animals, The Parts, and The Long Falling, which was adapted as the 2011 film Où va la nuit. His writing has earned him the Prix Femina Étranger, the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, and the O. Henry Award. He lives in London. As much as I would have loved to attend an actual party at the Ridgway place, this interview was conducted over the phone, over the static of the Atlantic, over one evening this past April.
I’d like to start with the idea of the middle. Your latest novel, A Shock, finds characters trapped in an attic, introduced in medias res, and literally squeezed through a gap between walls. What brings you to write toward these liminal spaces?
Well, that’s where we live. In the gaps. In this book there are characters who are trapped or stuck or separated in various ways. Sometimes, as you say, literally. Stuck in a building or in part of a building. But also, there are characters trapped in looped thinking, or in poor housing, terrible work, and the political gap that allows those things. I’m not sure I’m all that interested in the spaces themselves, but I am interested in the people. And among them are others who seem less trapped. Who seem somehow to have more freedom of imaginative movement, based on something in themselves, a sort of ability to walk through things. I was interested in all these people.
Both A Shock and Hawthorn & Child follow characters whose conflicts are rooted in their own misconceptions or lack of knowledge. How do you approach the task of writing characters like that?
I’ve always been interested in confusion. And I think fictional characters often seem far too well-equipped for the world in comparison to people I know, or to myself. I’m much more interested in writing about characters who don’t really know what it is they want, who don’t even know how they got to the place they’ve found themselves. They don’t know how to proceed, how to go forward, how to go back. That’s much closer to our experiences, right? Mine anyway. And it’s funny. Confusion is funny. So I work on trying to get to know my characters. I spend a lot of time thinking about them, trying to get a sense of them. Some come very quick. Like Pigeon, in A Shock. He just wandered in, and there he was. But with most of them, it takes a bit of time. I try to move slowly. I write a lot that never finds its way into the finished book. I try not to make any decisions about these people, and I just try to allow them to grow in my imagination. Eventually they begin to take on aspects that I find convincing. Then I’m better able to write them.
Do you ever begin with aspects of your own experience? By that I mean, will you use a personal question to establish character or conflict or a driving question for your narratives?
I’m not interested in conflicts. I’m not interested in questions or in driving things. I don’t tend to think in those terms. I do often begin with, as you say, aspects of my own experience. I mean, obviously the writing has to start somewhere, right? So I use what I know, and I push it and fill it out. I tend not to think of what I do as explorations or inquiries, but maybe you’re right and that’s exactly what it is. But I don’t write in order to solve anything. I’m really not interested in resolutions or conclusions. I want to move through something, find out what it is, spend time there, see what it’s like. That’s what I want the reader to experience as well. I want them to spend some time with my characters. I want to throw a party.
That’s very much form fitting content. A Shock is filled with characters who are searching not necessarily for anything in particular. Hawthorn & Child revolves around mystery but resolves very few of the questions it raises. Is form a consideration you make after you start developing content, or are the two intertwined in a way that makes them inseparable?
I think they are inseparable. And to be honest they are so inseparable that I now largely forget how they each developed during the writing. I remember with Hawthorn & Child I hoped to write a much more fragmentary book. But a sort of coherence asserted itself. With A Shock it was almost the other way around. In the writing the shape just emerged, and at various points I realized various things—such as this bit is the middle, not the end. Actually once I got the middle, strangely, everything else fell into place around it.
Do you see yourself writing toward a certain genre or as writing for any particular audience?
No, neither of those.
I wouldn’t think so, but your work is often characterized as such—Hawthorn & Child being a detective novel, your work being situated within a kind of Modernist tradition. Do you identify with those monikers?
Not really, no. I like to read detective books. I don’t think Hawthorn & Child is one of those, but there is that other literary tradition of using that form, using the detective novel, or what looks like a detective novel, to do something else entirely. I suppose it belongs to that, but I tend not to think about those kinds of things, where I land or where I lie along the spectrum of literature.
It may not be useful, right? Just do the work.
Yeah, I suppose just do the work. But I don’t even think about those things as a reader really.
What are you reading now?
I’m reading Victor Serge for the first time, a book called The Case of Comrade Tulayev, which is quite something. And I’m reading a book of poetry by Caleb Femi, a poet from the South London neighborhood where I live now. The book is called Poor, and it’s fantastic. I’m going through that as slowly as I can. Savoring it.
The dialogue in A Shock is handled with a kind of fluency that is almost transcriptive. It feels faithful and authentic, especially in “The Story,” which is the central chapter of the novel. What inspired you to lean toward that more naturalistic speech?
A Shock is about my neighbors. Not literally, but all the characters in the book live in Peckham and Camberwell in South London, where I’ve been living for a few years now. I didn’t try to capture any particular South London tone or voice or anything like that. But I wanted to get the sense of absurdity, the gallows humor, but also the kindness, in the way people here talk. People are funny. And I love dialogue that just lets people be the way they are. I like to allow characters to not quite listen to one another, or to talk over one another, or to misunderstand things, get things slightly wrong, say dumb things. I like the way the dialogue works like that, everything it reveals.
That kind of realism manifests in a lot of ways in A Shock. I was struck by the way you render physical intimacy—the sexual honesty of your writing. Can you say a little about how sex plays a role in your work?
I don’t know what role it plays. It’s there. It’s part of the lives of the people I’m writing about. People get horny, right? What can you do? You have to let them do what they want. So I write about that. And it’s nice to hear you say there’s honesty in that, because I want it to be straightforward, if you like. This is just the way people are with each other, often, and it’s fine. It’s really fine. I don’t know to what extent it gets written about. I wanted to write about it, so I tried.
Can we talk about rodents? A dead mouse kicks off your novel Animals, a rat makes an appearance in the third chapter of Hawthorn & Child, and A Shock is just littered with rodents. Why rodents?
I never even notice my obsessions. People read my books and say things like, You really like gay saunas. Or, You’re terrified of rodents. And I’m like, How did you know? I tend to write something and then forget about it as soon as it’s finished. I’m slightly startled—there’s a rat in Hawthorn & Child?
It doesn’t play a big role. But mice play a big role in A Shock.
You know that therapy where you overcome your fear by exposing yourself to it? With that scene I think I was trying to write my way through my longtime fear of mice. Let’s just have as many mice as possible. I’m not sure it’s worked. I’m still very nervous about rodents of any description. I think that’s rational. Animals is a book I wrote a long, long time ago, but I was interested in the fragility of our constructed world, and how close it is to a very different world, and I’m not sure any of us are particularly well set up for dealing with that. And sometimes you get a sense of the peril. A flash of it. I reread Sartre’s Nausea recently and was amazed at how a lot of it had obviously found its way into my own thinking in Animals, and to some extent in Hawthorn & Child, and in A Shock as well.
I’ve read that you don’t enjoy writing. Is that true?
No, I love writing. I don’t know where that came from. Oh, no, I do know where that came from. I was fed up with writing. So I stopped for a long time—I just didn’t bother anymore—but I came back to it a few years ago, and I really like it now. I get annoyed if I’m not able to do some writing. If I go a few days without having been able to do any writing, I start to get kind of angsty. Yeah, I enjoy it a lot.
How did you come to writing initially?
Oh, Christ, I can’t remember. The roots of it are buried and no longer accessible to me. I read a lot as a kid, and reading has always made me want to write, right from the beginning. I don’t know quite how that works, what the mechanics of that are or the psychology of it, but if I read something fantastic, something I love, it makes me enthusiastic for writing. Reading has always been my biggest pleasure in terms of art. I think the answer is in there somewhere. I can’t remember. I’m really old now.
I wouldn’t say you’re really old.
I feel really old.
Fair enough. Your novels weave characters and motifs across places and time—beautiful in their structural complexity—expressing variations on common themes, often incorporating stories within stories. How much plotting takes place away from the page?
It’s pretty much all in my head. I do a lot of thinking, but I don’t sketch out plans or plots in advance of writing. At points in the past, I felt it would be a good idea if I did that, and I tried to do it. It’s never worked for me. I need to write my way into things and then I need to write my way out of them, and that seems to be how it works for me. But I do a lot of thinking. I imagine all writers do a lot of thinking, right? I don’t think I’m doing anything unusual there. I feel like I’m working hardest when I’m thinking, and then by the time I get to the page I kind of know what I want to do. So a lot of thinking and then the writing itself goes relatively quickly. Then I have to spend some time fixing it.
When you’re working outside of a conflict-resolution model of storytelling, how do you know when a story is finished?
I was going to say that old, hackneyed thing—you don’t finish work, you abandon it—but I’m not sure that’s entirely true. I don’t feel I’m abandoning stuff. I think I get to a point where it feels like everything I wanted to put into the book is there, and I can’t work out a better way of organizing it. At that point it feels like I can’t do anything else, therefore the work must be finished. I think that’s how it works.
Christopher Notarnicola’s work was featured in The Best American Essays 2017 and has been published in American Short Fiction, Bellevue Literary Review, Consequence Magazine, Image, North American Review, The Southampton Review, and elsewhere. Find him in Pompano Beach, Florida, and at christophernotarnicola.com.
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