I’m always excited when I meet a successful writer and Irish author Carlo Gébler is no exception. He is participating as a panel member in this year’s Florence Writers Publishing Day 2018 and, as is now the custom, we interviewed him before his arrival to see what makes him tick.
Carlo Gébler was born in Dublin in 1954. He is the author of novels, short stories, plays, memoirs, biographies, and works of narrative history. His most recent publications (all from New Island) are The Projectionist, the story of Ernest Gébler, and the short story collection, The Wing Orderly’s Tales, a collection of interlinking stories told by a prison orderly serving a lengthy sentence in a fictional prison, HMP Loanend, and The Innocent of Falkland Road, a novel set in London in the 1960s.
You come from a family of writers, as both your mother and father wrote professionally. Was storytelling a large part of your upbringing?
When I lay waiting for sleep I would hear him typing in his study downstairs, the sound muffled but soothing.
My mother had a portable and wrote during the day. When I came in from school I would hear her typing in the garden shed, the sound small and tinny as it carried over the flowerbeds.
When I was six or seven, I noticed both parents would send away typescripts and get money back in the post. The production of art, as my father was fond of saying (quoting Lenin, he said, though I’ve never managed to track down the source), was always an economic activity. It was a lesson learnt early and never forgotten.
In other words, to return to your question, it wasn’t so much storytelling that impressed me in childhood (that came later, when I knew more) as the business of writing: you could earn a living doing it. That’s what I grasped, that was the lesson I learnt.
Throughout your career you’ve done a variety of writing, including novels, plays, memoirs, short stories and historical works, to name a few. Can you speak to any benefits this range has had for your career? Are there any ways that such a broad focus has challenged you?
In the writer’s A – Z D is for the divided self. That is what you have to be if you want to function as a writer today. In order that you can understand what I mean, let me tell you (this is plucked at random from the back catalogue of memories so to speak) about my working life starting January 1, 2007 (which is 11 years ago).
I wrote a play, full length, Henry & Harriet for performance at this year’s Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival.
I pushed on with My Father’s Watch, the book I co-wrote with Patrick Maguire, one of the Maguire Seven, who was wrongly convicted of nitroglycerine offenses: I wrote fifteen or twenty thousand words and delivered the finished MS to The publishers. It was 180,000 words.
I delivered my novel A Good Day for a Dog to the publishers. 90,000 words.
I applied for and got a job as a temporary lecturer at Queens University Belfast. I got the job so I then did the teaching work.
I spent every Monday (Bank Holidays excepted) in HMP Maghaberry teaching and wrote reports on what transpired.
I wrote some reviews for the Irish Times.
I wrote and gave a talk in various libraries around County Leitrim on reading and reviewing.
I organized a talk for some young Americans who were brought to Ireland by the Smithsonian and who were brought to my house (for lunch – this gig involved shopping and cooking as well as writing) by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.
I read a lot of novels for the Kerry Ingredients Prize for Irish fiction. I was one of the judges.
I kept my diary.
I wrote some letters.
I read a paper every day, two on Saturday
Are you exhausted, because I am? And that list isn’t even exhaustive. I have left off all the emails and the telephone calls to my agent and all the other people that I had to deal with as part of the business of being an author.
My point is not to prove that I am the Stakhanovite of Derryhillagh (though I often think I am) but to illustrate the sheer variety of endeavour that is required. You have to do and think about an awful lot of things, or operate on an awful lot of fronts in many media, if you want to support yourself as a writer in the early 21st century.
And as it went in 2017 (my random example) so it continues in 2018.
And as a way of living, I don’t recommend it: however, it does have this virtue: you are never bored.
Do you set particular times to write, or do you have a particular routine that helps you in the writing process?
No, I can’t: see question two above: I squeeze the writing in whenever I can. I don’t have the luxury of setting times aside to write.
Many new writers struggle with the concept of finding their unique ‘writing voice.’ If you had to write a few descriptive sentences to explain your voice, what would you say? Do you have any advice for new writers on how to develop a voice?
Read and read and read.
Your (fantastic) book The Wing Orderly’s Tales is set in a prison, and in the book, you mention that the characters are not based on real people. I’d imagine your time as a creative writing tutor in the prison system gave you insight into the social influences of crime. Can you tell us a bit about how you moved from the ground level of your personal experiences working with inmates, back out to the more ‘birds eye’ view of the structural and psychological influences that turn some towards crime, and then back into the creative world of developing your characters?
Here’s a sort of answer, though an inexact one to your query about: here’s the full confession regarding prison and myself (which was published in the Irish Times – but no matter): In 1991 or 1992 I was asked to cover for a writer who’d been teaching creative writing in HMP Maze, or Long Kesh if you prefer, and who had
had to leave suddenly. It was a six-week contract.
Long story short, that six-week job turned in to a full-time part-time job and I have been teaching prisoners in Northern Ireland’s prisons ever since and I am still doing so, under the aegis of the charity the Prison Arts Foundation. My work was and continues to be incredibly varied: I help and have helped with creative writing (plays, novels, poems, memoir, the works) but in addition I’ve helped with the writing of petitions, Open University essays, letters to the Secretary of State and personal statements for Life Sentence and Parole Commissioners. I’ve run several book clubs too.
In my life (I’m now 63) I have been the recipient of many kinds of good fortune but the prison work and the encounters that I have had (with prison staff as well as prisoners) as a result of that work is the experience that has most changed me as well as being the best thing that’s ever happened to me.
In summary, it’s made me more radical, more skeptical (of good intentions), more tolerant of human folly and possibly even slightly nicer. It’s also enriched me – immeasurably.
I’m a writer, a storyteller and the tale, the ‘what happened’ is my principle obsession. I want, I crave narrative and in a jail, unlike elsewhere in modern neo-liberal culture, narrative is everywhere.
Jails teem with stories and to work in a place, a jail, where stories are everywhere, was and is an incredible gift.
And then, on top of the wealth of narrative, there was and is the content of that narrative. I am middle class and privileged. Most of those that I meet and met in jail did not come from the background I came from and had not lived the kind of life I had lived. They had lived a rather different kind of life: one where things had gone wrong and the accumulation of things going wrong was what had led to them to come to prison.
Imprisonment, as I learnt from the life stories I was told (and readers need to remember that prisons, contrary to what they would like to think, are places of searing honesty and not hotbeds of dissembling and rhetorical dishonesty, so these were true stories I’m talking about here), is never simply a consequence of badness or criminality or malfeasance.
Imprisonment, on the contrary, is always the consequence of a cascade of catastrophic events many or even most of which have nothing to do with badness or criminality or malfeasance and everything to do with, for example (and this list is provisional) the rupturing of attachment to the mother, poverty, family dysfunction, poor housing, alcohol, bad school experiences, sectarianism and terrible luck.
Crime, as I discovered (and I’m talking all kinds, the gamut from fine defaulting to murder and everything in between) is invariably what comes at the end of the long list of calamities and is invariably, when you look at the long list of calamities, the product of those calamities. Without the calamities – no crime.
Yes, yes, I know: we can choose not to do wrong, just as we can choose to do wrong. Yes, absolutely: we all have free choice only we forget at our peril that the distribution of free choice in modern society is not equal. Some of us (people like me) have more free choice than others (like many of those I met when I was teaching in the Maze and Maghaberry); yes, I know this goes against a principle piety of modern neo-liberal culture, which would have us believe we are all morally equivalent but there we are, I am going against this nostrum and saying, baldly, it isn’t true. It’s a lie. As I discovered, or, as I would prefer to put it, as I was taught by the prisoners who told me about their lives, the amount of free choice you have varies according to your economic and social status. The people who go to prison have less free choice, much less free choice, than
people like me.
Readers who are sceptical of this opinion may, at this stage be wondering whether I am not a victim of an insidious form of Stockholm Syndrome: I have spent so long in jail they could be forgiven for thinking that I have started to identify with the specious warped worldviews of the criminal and consequently I have lost touch with
our accepted norms.
Well, okay, but I still have a strong sense of right and wrong: I still understand and accept that prisons are part of our social practice (though I’d very much like to see them reformed): and I can even see that under certain circumstances and in the histories of some of the men I have taught that imprisonment has been good, meaning the education they received while imprisoned has been helpful.
But the position I have reached is that I believe all that I have stated here about the efficacy of imprisonment (if it involves education it can work) and simultaneously I have come to see or believe very emphatically that our certainty that crime alone is what puts a man or occasionally a woman in jail is nonsense. That doesn’t sound like new variant Stockholm Syndrome to me.
Inevitably, my experience of prison has produced fiction, a collection of stories called ‘The Wing Orderly’s Tales’ published by New Island: these stories which are set in a fictional prison are narrated by an orderly, Harold ‘Chalky’ Chalkman, the guy who cleans the toilets, buffs the landing, dishes out the dinners and makes up the Welcome Packs for the new prisoners. He’s hard, violent, devious, bookish, intelligent and beady: but he’s also a sentient, thinking, feeling human being (as all prisoners are) with his own albeit left-field ideas about right and wrong and what constitutes the right way to live and the wrong way to live. He has had a calamitous life (though the stories, which are all set inside the fictional prison of HMP Loanend, focus exclusively on him as he operates on the wing rather than on his backstory) and what the stories describe is his struggle to lead a good life, or at least a good enough life on the wings. Prisoners, as I try to show through these stories, are just like us – they are intensely moral beings. But then of course, they are, they’re humans, just like us.
I understand that you also teach creative writing, and in particular a course title ‘Writing for a Living’ with the Trinity Oscar Wilde Centre. What do you hope your students walk away from your classes understanding about creative writing and writing professionally?
What do I hope they’ll learn? Simple. What they need to be able to do survive on Grub Street.
It’s like this. On Grub Street (O’Grub Street in Hibernia) in order to make a living, creative writers (poets, novelists, playwrights) usually have to do all sorts of other kinds of writing in parallel with their preferred one in order to make a living. These other kinds of writing include literary reviews, reports (for publishers or
cultural institutions), treatments (usually for film or television or radio), features (for print media), catalogue copy (usually though not necessarily for fine artists), introductions, references, manifestos, invectives, polemics, and travelogues. And this list is not exhaustive.
Though journalists and academics can also, of course, produce these kinds of writings writers are the people often asked to provide them by commissioning editors because they, these commissioning editors, believe writers will give something more than an academic or a journalist will give them.
So what I teach at the Oscar Wilde Centre for Irish Writing is how to do the kind of writing that the students will, very likely, on graduation, find themselves being required to produce. Writing for a Living will (it is my hope) prepare them, for that, for this, and it will do that, this, in the following ways. One, it will immerse the student in these various forms and genres, and two, it will oblige the student to try his or her hand at writing some of them. It’s very simple. What they do with me is what they will have to do later and what they learn is what they will have to do later. At least that’s what I hope.