Interview: Julian Gough, author and Trinity Writer Fellow

Irish author Julian Gough has just announced his latest book, Infinite, after selling the rights to Picador. He is a winner of the BBC National Short Story Prize, he has written for Minecraft and for the last few months he was Trinity’s own writer in residence. tn2 spoke to him about writing, Irishness and technology.

How did you end up as the Trinity Writer Fellow?

They advertise every year, invite people to go for it and, having not been interested before, I’ve come over the top of the hill. There’s a Buddhist saying that you spend the first half of your life learning and the second half of your life teaching, and I think I’ve hit the point where I can actually be of some use to somebody.

How much of the role is about teaching and how much is about writing?

It’s a weird hybrid. It’s writer in residence and you also hold workshops with the creative writing M.Phil and the undergrads. Part of the attraction is it bides you the time to work on your own material. But I’ve actually become quite interested in teaching. Teaching might not even be the word, but talking to other writers earlier in their careers about writing. And also, writers are neurotic, damaged, obsessive individuals so one of my neurotic obsessions is the state of Irish literature. I worry about the direction it’s going in, so I thought if I could corrupt the minds of a generation at Trinity that might help steer it in directions that would end up creating more books that I would enjoy reading.

Your writing is not traditionally Irish and you often write genre fiction. Do you think then that the fact Trinity chose a writer like you for this role represents a step in a more interesting direction for Irish writing?

I was pleased that they went for it because I sent them a proposal which warned them that I wouldn’t be doing it traditionally and I was keen on a forward-leaning role rather than a backward looking one, that I was interested in where literature was going rather than where it had been, and they reacted well to that.

Are there other signs or ripples of things that excite you about Irish writing?

Yeah, these are interesting times. I think there is a generational shift happening. I’m a big fan of Kevin Barry. His short stories are wonderful. He’s now in the great position of having influenced the writing of everyone who’s come after him. There’s a lot of people writing very Kevin Barry-esque stories right now. But that’s better than them writing McGahern-esque stories. I love John McGahern but he cast too long a shadow for too long. So I think it’s healthier if we’re being over-influenced by more contemporary figures.

Do you think modern Irishness is being represented?

I think it’s starting to happen. I think it’s been a bit delayed. […] There was a sort of default mode Irish novel for a while that was set in the past, written in the past tense, this tragic mode, lyrical realist style and it was very predictable and it didn’t do anything for me and I just couldn’t understand why so many people were still writing that novel. There’s less of it now which is great.

Why do you think so many people were writing that kind of novel?

I think national literatures in slightly isolated countries — and Ireland is an island off an island off a continent — can just get into habits. They can accidentally define themselves too tightly and just not question the stuff they write. One problem Ireland has is that its market is abroad. Most people reading Irish fiction are not Irish. They’re American or British; the English-speaking world. But the people reading Irish fiction have a view of Ireland that’s about thirty years out of date. So you end up writing for an audience that don’t know what modern Ireland is and have a comfortably out-of-date vision of Ireland in their heads and if you keep giving them that they’re perfectly happy with it because that’s what they have come to expect. I think what happened in Ireland in the last thirty years is that we drifted into writing heritage fiction for export. We weren’t writing it for ourselves. We were writing to satisfy a nostalgic vision of Ireland elsewhere.

Do you think that Irish writers should continue to write about Ireland?

The time at which Irish writing was at its most vibrant was when it was at its most open. When the writers weren’t even living in Ireland, they were living in France or Switzerland and they were encountering other languages and versions of literature and they had a really wide variety of choices. They couldn’t accidentally be parochial. Weirdly, as Ireland has opened up to the world as a country, its literature has become less open to the world because Irish writers have been able to stay at home and buy a house and make a living in Ireland. When that wasn’t the case Irish writers were forced to engage with the world. So it has been a paradoxical couple of decades.


You’ve sort of started to answer this but do you think it’s necessary for Irish writers to leave Ireland to write about Ireland?

I think the Irish people have never been contained by the Irish national border. To be Irish has always been a tremendously blurry thing because most Irish people don’t live in Ireland. In the last century or so more Irish people have emigrated than have stayed at home. So the people that stay at home in Ireland are the minority and if you count descendants then the vast majority of people who self-identify as Irish do not live in Ireland and that truth is not properly represented in the literature. Most Irish life goes on elsewhere and you couldn’t tell that from reading the literature.

The idea that there is an Irishness that you can get closer and closer to the further west you go until you fall off the edge of the country is damaging to most of the humans who live in Ireland and who might be gay or black have an English accent or many of the other perfectly good versions of Irishness.

There was a funny thing that Sara Baume said in the Irish Times that had me just jumping up and down in my seat with eh… emotions, big emotions. A lot of Irish writers were asked to pick their favourite female writer and she picked Peig Sayers. One of the things she said was that Peig had an authentic Irish voice and I respectfully but forcefully disagree with the assumptions behind that statement. I think De Valera’s constitution did enormous damage to Ireland by defining Irishness so narrowly as a sort of Catholic, Irish-speaking thing; basically as anything that wasn’t English. Declan Kiberd has written very well about this in Inventing Ireland, that we defined ourselves at the birth of the state against England which meant we had to leave out half of ourselves because to be Irish is to have a deeply blurred identity that blurs into Englishness. There’s a huge overlap. If you’re an Irish working class guy in Limerick you have so much more in common with an English working class guy in Nottingham than you do with your own leadership class in this country. A third of the British army have always been Irish. Wellington’s troops in the Peninsular War were a third Irish. We went all over the world colonising, we were just able to do it under someone else’s flag. […] The way we ignored the Irish who died in World War I for such a long time was absolutely disgraceful and it was all down to de Valera. And it’s because of that definition that a writer in the 21st century can say that Peig Sayers has a truly authentic Irish voice but Peig Sayers didn’t speak English, lived off a rock off the rock that is Ireland, couldn’t write, so if that’s authentic then we’re fucked because we’re not Irish writers at all with our English language and our going to places and our reading books and our being able to write words on manufactured factory paper or even use electronic typewriters. It’s a de Valera version of Irishness that leaves us all out. No, Peig is not a fucking authentic Irish writer. She is one of many versions of Irishness and she’s an outlier, she’s not at the core of the Irish identity because there isn’t a core. The idea that there is an Irishness that you can get closer and closer to the further west you go until you fall off the edge of the country is damaging to most of the humans who live in Ireland and who might be gay or black have an English accent or many of the other perfectly good versions of Irishness that are not included in de Valera’s definition or Peig Sayers definition.

You live in Berlin and you’ve travelled for writing projects so how does location affect your writing?

There are certain places I like writing about. One of them is Tipperary, one of them is Nevada and I probably know more about Nevada than most Americans because they don’t go there and I do the odd time. The last book I wrote was this epic novel that I ended up breaking into three called Jude which is very much about Irishness and Englishness, and definitions of Irishness, and it’s also a kind of a history of the novel in three books. It was very ambitious and I don’t necessarily expect anyone to read or understand or love it but I was very happy with it. But at the end of it I just didn’t want to think about Irishness and language and identity much anymore. That was a very high ego novel so I decided I wanted to write a low ego book. I had a few ideas about where we’re going in terms of technology and human relations and love, and the envelope I found to put them in was a sort of a science-fiction-y tech-thriller set in the near future. Then I had to set it somewhere so I felt it wasn’t a Republic of Ireland story. It needed a very postmodern landscape where the technology could really dominate the landscape. You kind of see these images and stills in your head when you’re starting out on a book that you know feel right. It felt like a guy out in the desert wearing some sort of technological helmets getting dehydrated getting his head fried. The desert I know is Nevada. I’ve been to Burning Man a few times and I’ve hung around afterwards and helped clean up. Nevada has a nuclear test range, it’s where they developed the stealth bomber and it’s got a whole area that is pretty much off the map. So I thought Nevada and the test ring and therefore Las Vegas because that’s where you’re going to live. Also Vegas has been the fastest growing city in America for the past number of years. It’s also one of the first major American cities built after the freeway system was invented so it’s incredibly car centric. It’s a very future-oriented city and I love the imagery of it that it has the pyramid, the empire state, the Eiffel Tower. It’s a Ballardian, Baudrillardian dream. It’s so over the top.

You used Kickstarter to fund one of your trips to Vegas. Have you tried to engage with new interactive ways of publishing?

With things like Kickstarter you can actually re-price the relationship [between author and reader]. And the beautiful thing about it is that it’s completely voluntary.

I’m fascinated by the future because it’s going to arrive soon and eventually it’s going to kill. It’s where my kid is going to live. I think that Kickstarter and Patrion and the various mechanisms whereby artists can speak directly to their fans, their readers, their listeners, their viewers, to their wearers if they knit things — I think those are the future. I think that for art forms that can be digitised, so not oil paintings, but recorded music, written literature, there’s going to be a transition to a completely new model. Maybe the old model will survive in parallel because it’s surprising how long systems survive even after a better one comes along because they’re just deeply embedded in the cultural ecosystem. So I would imagine print books like vinyl records will go on forever but they won’t be at the centre of the culture in the same way that vinyl records are not at the centre of the culture. That process is only beginning to play out. In parallel to that you’re going to get an alternative economy where your really intense fans are given a way to help you do it through Kickstarter or Patrion or whatever future versions will come up. If you write really strongly flavoured stuff you’ll tend to have passionate fans. You might not have many of them but they will be passionate and their love for what you do is inadequately valued by the current system. In the current system, you put a book out every three years or whatever and sell one copy of it to your superfan and you will eventually get a euro. And their love for you is worth more than a euro but there’s no mechanism for them to express that love. So all they could ever do is give you one euro every three years and that misrepresents the relationship. Just in strict market terms its mispricing that relationship. So with things like Kickstarter you can actually re-price the relationship. And the beautiful thing about it is that it’s completely voluntary. They can still buy your book at the end but if they’d like to be more passionately involved and to help you create the work you can set up funding tiers to make that happen. My Kickstarter project included postcards that I would send to the people who had donated and they would be more story filled depending on how much you wanted to give me. There was lipstick on them at a certain price and then bullet holes in them at a higher price and I was startled and moved by the fact that quite a lot of people wanted to give more. Some people said they didn’t even want a postcard they were just happy to have a mechanism to help you do what you do.

Can you see writers in the future completely bypassing publishers?

Yeah. The interesting thing there is that if you can get the small number of fans who love your work to give you fifty euro instead of one euro, you need fifty times fewer fans to make your project viable and having done that you can give it away because it’s not the selling of the copies that’s funding you. It’s the relationship with the people who love what you do. Then you can give away the piece of art digitally without going bankrupt. You could actually liberate literature from the market which would be an amazing achievement. And you can finally have a situation where writers are able to write what they want to write rather than what the market demands they write. I think that could be the most astonishingly liberating thing for literature. People like Amanda Palmer are really important. She pioneered this with how she funded her Theatre Is Evil album on Kickstarter.

How do you think the future of publishing will impact on the novel as a form?

I think the novel is a product of the printing press. It’s the product of an industrial model of production that requires that stories be told at a length of 200-400 pages because that’s the sweet spot for selling a product that has certain fixed overheads at a certain price. It’s not a comfortable length to write for writers. It’s not a length we would voluntarily write if we didn’t have the print industry that’s based around it. There’s fixed production costs on a book. You’ve got to print it, bind it, pay someone to design a cover, put it in a truck and bring it to a warehouse and sell it to a shop. How much is that square inch of shelf going to earn over a certain period of time? The sweet spot for the industry is a book of between 200 and 400 pages because they can charge enough that everyone makes a profit and everyone gets paid and the reader feels that they are getting enough words for their money to satisfy them. It’s really hard to make a profit on a book that’s 70 pages long because the reader will feel ripped off at the price it has to be. It’s really hard to make a profit on a book that’s 3000 pages long because the publisher will incur costs that are too high. All of these things evaporate when you go digital.

What forms will writers gravitate towards when digital publishing is possible?

I think we might be going back to an oral tradition after a brief diversion. What’s the natural length of story that we evolved to hear? I think it’s the kind of length of story that you can focus on and pay attention to around a camp fire. So it’s somewhere between the short story and the novella. That length is comfortable and satisfying. And another length that’s satisfying is that length again and again and again. If you can hear a story of half an hour or 45 minutes and you like those characters you might want to hang around with them again the next night for another half an hour. So I think stories will get shorter than the novel and longer than the novel. We’re drifting back towards listening to stories rather than reading them. It’s just as easy to have a digital sound file as it is to have a digital text file. Having someone tell you a story is a much more natural way to consume it. Just a few weeks ago, Audible started selling contracts for audio first books where you don’t even do a print book you go straight to audio. If that happens it changes the kind of story you tell and the way you tell it and the kind of sentences you use. Henry James does not really work as an audiobook. Audible are trying to move the whole market to audio so some of those books won’t even work in print. If they can do that they’ve fucked up the whole print industry brilliantly. I’m not hostile towards them or anyone in the publishing industry. Anyone who wants to tell stories is okay by me. I like the old print industry but I also like Amazon and I’m really enjoying the whole war between the two of them.

Gough wrote the ending for epic video game Minecraft.

The other growing industry that you’ve had experience in is gaming. You wrote the ending story for Minecraft. What was that experience like and how much freedom were you given creatively?

I was given huge freedom by Notch to do the ending of Minecraft. He wanted something to happen but he wasn’t sure what. He wanted there to be a narrative at the end to reward people for getting that far. A big AAA game definitely wouldn’t have given me that freedom so it was really lovely. He said do what you like, it can be as long as a novel or as short as a poem and then when I gave him what I wrote he didn’t change a word of it and he said it reflected a lot of his own philosophy so it was a very satisfying experience.

Do you think literature writers will be given more of a platform to write for games?

Yeah. I think there’s a huge blurring of borders between all the art forms and it comes out of digitisation. I think digitisation is going to collapse the barriers between music and writing and film and games. I think there will be new art forms pretty soon. In terms of the written word you’ve got Twine now which is a tool for writers to write text-based games. A lot of people are trying different things. There was an app called Tapestry that I was fond of that went bust. With Tapestry you tapped to see the next line, the next thing might be a line or it might be a photograph or it might be text, or just one word. It created a really weird dynamic because you didn’t know. You could control the speed that it unfolded at, you could pause on a line and think about it for a while. I really liked it. I rewrote a poem of mine with photos and broke it up very differently for Tapestry. It was very satisfying. I would love if people did more of that. Robin Sloan pretty much invented the form of the tap essay with a thing called Fish. So new arts forms will come out of this and computer games will eat everything. The name “computer games” is too narrow and reductive for what it is. The things that could fit under the banner of computer games are infinite. You could describe a novel as a text adventure with no choices. It’s just a subset of computer games. All literature is a subset of computer games.

The current standard narrative of most major computer games is quite limited and dull. Do you think that will change?

In mainstream terms games have become an astonishingly conservative art form really quickly. But around the edge of that you’ve got some indie game developers doing weird and interesting things. They just haven’t found traction yet. Minecraft was a great breakout hit and that did open things up. Although what ended up happening was lots of people tried to rip off Minecraft rather than thinking, oh actually there’s a whole new way of making games. Something interesting about that was that when they were developing the game in Beta with real players, the players tried to push it back to being a conservative game. Notch was constantly bombarded by people saying: why can’t we have guns? I’m so glad he didn’t give in! But real writers could make a huge difference. The fictional worlds are not properly imagined in games and therefore no matter how good the writer you bring in at the end it’s going to end up feeling kind of conservative and like you’ve seen it before. With a computer game you’re imagining the fictional world right down to the fucking physics of it! And that has beautiful wonderful consequences if someone clever does something with it like with Portal or something where they actually reimagine it very fundamentally. You’ve got to imagine the game right down at that level and that’s where the writing is happening. The consequences are going to come out of those extremely basic early decisions and they’re all being made by developers who have exactly the same culture and background. It’s all made by guys in their 20s and 30s who have no social skills. And some of them are my friends and I love them but they really need to get Naomi Alderman in there at the start. Or some people that aren’t exactly like them. I want to praise people like Naomi Alderman. More people like her.

How do you feel about technology more generally? How do you feel technology will impact on human relations?

I actually get quite cosmic on this. I think we’re going to become a sort of weird super organism. I think the development of technology and of the human world is actually a meaningful event. This is going to sound like woo-woo! But I think it’s a meaningful event where the meaning is at a higher level than we can comprehend as individuals.

You’re talking about singularity?

I think we’re going to hook up our brains and be aware of each other’s states more and more as time goes on until eventually we’re going to have an emergent property from that that might as well be a kind of global brain and body, one mind, one consciousness. What that will be like I don’t know.

Yeah. I have a lot of sympathy with Kurzweil’s vision of the singularity. I don’t know if it will turn out exactly the way he thinks but he’s on to something. He’s part of a tradition that goes back to Teilhard de Chardin who basically predicted the internet in the 30s or 40s which he called the noosphere. His theory was that everything is going to connect. All information is going to connect. All people will connect with each other in one great electronic information web that is one unitary thing. I think he’s right. Already we’re mildly telepathic. Just by checking into Facebook in the morning you can tell what kind of mood your friends are in for the day. You’ve got mild telepathy. I think we’re going to hook up our brains and be aware of each other’s states more and more as time goes on until eventually we’re going to have an emergent property from that that might as well be a kind of global brain and body, one mind, one consciousness. What that will be like I don’t know. It probably won’t be like us. I talk a lot about myth because we’re going to need new mythologies for that transition. If we hold on to the old ones which are all about a guy killing another guy and about good versus evil, well the Western ones, well they’re not helpful right now. If we’re connected to everyone else but we hate half of them and half of them hate us we’re in real trouble. It doesn’t work and it’s not necessary. So we need new mythologies because the old ones are all broken. We need new mythologies that allow us to love each other and not be embarrassed to accept each other and not feel like we have to force other people to be exactly like us.

So are you against cloning?!

No! I’m not against anything! But you know we’ve got to love the clones and the clones have got to love us.

So you want equal rights for clones and cyborgs…

And androids and intelligent dogs! It’s all going to get very blurry. Wait until genes start blurring out. The collapse of genre boundaries and art form boundaries with digitization is going to be replicated across species boundaries with DNA. People are going to start getting fluorescent patches of skin instead of tattoos, wiping in a few genes from some deep sea fish. Then they’re going to start making their dogs more intelligent. Then they’re going to start giving their children gills so they can win swimming competitions and it’s all going to get very very blurry and the only way that’s going to work is if we all love each other. We’ve just got to work out a way to incorporate love and compassion into the heart of everything we do and every interaction. I think the transition from an industrial model of scarcity (where if someone wants to read a book they have to pay for it and then you put them in jail if they steal it) to an affectionate model or a gift economy (where people who love your stuff give you the money to buy the food to buy the time to write the next book and you give them the book back and also to other people) is part of a social transition that is going to transform the world in the next few decades. It’s going to sound very idealistic at first but I think it’s actually intensely practical. We have to move to a love and compassion and gift based economy and luckily we’ve ramped up the production industry and have technology that makes that actually viable. I think we can transition from economics of scarcity to economics of abundance which requires a complete transformation in human relations as well as in industrial structures.

So do you think that with the way technology is developing, it’s almost inevitable that we’ll build new kinds of human relations and be able to build new mythologies based on compassion?

I’m not sure that it’s inevitable. I think it’s always possible for human beings to fuck things up. The first couple of stabs at a post mythical world were Nazism and Soviet communism. We’ve already tried being rational animals that don’t have a myth to hold it all together and that didn’t work. I think it will come together but it won’t feel inevitable. It will feel like a battle for a while between possibilities of utopia and dystopia. I think the technology is going to force the culture to make huge adjustments but I’m actually quite optimistic about where it’s going. I know a lot of people aren’t but I am. But inevitable? I wouldn’t want to get complacent. We have to make it happen.

Photo by Mark Callendar.

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