A Novel Believes in the Future: an Interview with Caoilinn Hughes
Kimberly King Parsons
To read Caoilinn Hughes’s fiction is to find yourself pulled into an audacious vision. As an award-winning poet, it’s the whirring, playful precision of her sentences that is so compelling, the way she, as the Los Angeles Times notes, “makes deft use of the elasticity of language.” Her debut, Orchid & the Wasp (2018), was an ambitious book about a calculating, worldly young woman commanded by her ruthless, blistering intelligence. Her latest novel, The Wild Laughter, is centered on two very different brothers, Hart and Cormac Black, and the 2008 devastation their family suffers in the wake of the Celtic Tiger. Rooted firmly in a small Irish town, The Wild Laughter is a story of illness, sibling rivalry and sacrifice. Despite radically different subject matter and voice, this novel is as ambitious, stylish, and bold as Hughes’s debut, and though it is centered on the death of a beloved patriarch, it somehow manages to maintain the same wit, levity, and sentence-level exuberance I’ve come to admire in everything Hughes writes.
Hughes and I first met at the Tin House Summer Workshop in 2017, shortly before Orchid & the Wasp was published. We haven’t had the chance to meet in person since, but from far-flung time zones—Portland, OR for me, Clifden in County Galway, Ireland for her—we recently reconnected over Skype, where we talked about sex scenes, burning old notebooks, how “extremely puke-y” it feels to begin a new novel, and more.
Caoilinn Hughes is an Irish writer. Her second novel, The Wild Laughter, came out with Oneworld in July 2020 and has been shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards' Novel of the Year and RTÉ Radio 1 Listener's Choice Award. Her first novel Orchid & the Wasp (Hogarth / Oneworld 2018) won the Collyer Bristow Prize 2019 and was a finalist for four other prizes. Her poetry book, Gathering Evidence (Carcanet 2014), won the Irish Times Strong/Shine Award. For her short fiction, she won an O.Henry Prize, the Moth International Short Story Prize, and the Irish Book Awards' writing.ie Story of the Year 2020. She studied at Queen's University in Belfast, at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, and has taught at Maastricht University in The Netherlands.
Kimberly King Parsons: I wonder if you could talk a little about the seed for The Wild Laughter, just the moment where you knew you were in business. Since you're also a short story writer, and a poet, how did you know that this was a full-blown novel rather than, say, a story or a poem?
Caoilinn Hughes: I started out writing poetry because I grew up reading poetry and plays, not because I was precocious or was capable of reading poetry and understanding it, but actually, I found novels to be intimidating. I was a very slow reader. I was really scared of novels; I found poetry and plays really accessible. There was a lot of white space. It felt like a much more intimate conversation with the reader, whereas I felt like novels didn't really require a reader, that they were kind of passed around from one person to another to absorb them or witness them, but there wasn't really any participation. That was my perception. So I didn't really read novels until I was 18 or so. And then I preferred novels that were quite rewarding on the level of the sentence. The types of novels that I was reading were, I suppose, quite particular.
When I started writing fiction, I started with novels. I wrote three novels before I ever wrote a short story, and that was because I didn't read short stories. I hadn’t yet discovered the form. I was really a long time coming around to short stories, which I've been concentrating on for the last couple of years. I write into the dark, so I don't need very much to start. I tend to feel nauseous for the first six months working on a novel, but that's just how... that's the only way I can write, so I have to kind of trust that. Starting with stories would have been easier than novels, because the nausea doesn’t last as long!
After I got an agent and published my first novel, Orchid & the Wasp, I started writing short stories… but then I went back to this old manuscript—The Wild Laughter. I tend to throw things away, I burn notebooks when I'm finished with them. I hate the idea of unfinished work being kept because, to me, deciding what you want to try and publish—and delete—is a big part of the writing process. But there had been something in The Wild Laughter that I felt should exist. I wrote a will every year saying which notebooks needed to be burned. And I said, "Don't burn this one." And then, when I started writing stories, I thought, Hmm, maybe it's actually a novella, so I turned it into a novella and put it together with the short stories. And I was much more satisfied with it like this.
I gave the manuscript to my agent just to have something to talk about. And he sat down with me and said, "I'm really sorry, it's just not a collection." My first thought was, “Thank you for holding me to a high standard because I'm still reasonably new as a reader to short story collections.” And he said, "No, no, no. The Wild Laughter is a novel. It has to be your next book." And then I explained that it had started out that way, and he asked if he could see what it had been. And I said no, and I had deleted it anyway, but I said, "I'm going to think about this for a couple of months and see if it's still alive to me as a novel.”
I went back into it and then I found these cracks that needed to be opened. And so that's how it all... it had a strange trajectory. But I'm glad that it's out in the world now.
KKP: So am I! As soon as I got a copy, I immediately read it, but just now in the last week, I listened to the audio book as well, read by the wonderful actor Chris O'Dowd. Did you listen to it? I know for some writers listening to their own work read by someone else can be—
CH: —I did, yeah. I narrated the audio book for Orchid & the Wasp and I discovered how hard it is. So I was delighted that Chris O'Dowd wanted to do it, especially because he's from Roscommon. He's from the town that Hart is from.
KKP: Oh, that’s amazing.
CH: But still, it's very different to hear him read it. It's a reminder that no two readers are the same. The way that you absorb the atmosphere of a scene is really different to the person beside you. And I find that kind of fabulous to think of how many variations of the novel that you wrote exist in the readers that find a book.
CH: And yeah, I loved Chris's reading of it.
KKP: He did such a great job. There's such music to every sentence, such sonic exuberance in everything that you write. I wonder if, while you're writing, are you reading lines aloud?
CH: I don't read aloud as I write, but when I feel that I've gotten to the end of a chapter or a section, I will read it aloud. But I read, I read back over... I'm a really, really slow writer, impossibly slow. I edit as I go. So generally I only have one draft.
CH: Which makes starting anything, especially novels, extremely puke-y. It's just so difficult because it's so daunting to think that that first sentence is the equivalent of taking your axe to your piece of marble that the novel sits within. And you can't retrieve whatever that first sentence takes off. You can't change the shape of it.
CH: So I really start very, very, slowly. It’s true—I think, to me, it does come down to the sentences. As you're reading them on the page, I think you are saying them to yourself as well to see if they ring true.
KKP: Yes, absolutely. One thing in particular I found to feel incredibly true in The Wild Laughter are the sex scenes, which are just—maybe the best way is to quote the exact line, from a scene between Hart and Dolly. He talks about, "slipping [his] fingers into her like a gorgeous, greasy tractor axle." Sex scenes are notoriously difficult to write well, and the intimacy between Dolly and Hart was, quite frankly, breathtaking to me. I wonder if you find writing these scenes challenging? You’re so great at them.
CH: Thank you very much. I was kind of secretly hoping that the greasy tractor axle might get me on the Bad Sex in Fiction Award.
KKP: No, it's unforgettable. And it perfectly characterizes Hart.
CH: I was waiting for it to come up in reviews. No one has commented on it, so I'm delighted that it gets its limelight.
KKP: I love it.
CH: To me, the thing about writing that is hardest is the work of situating yourself in a scene. That's the hard work that writers have to do in order to earn any readers. I find that so difficult at the beginning of every scene, trying to really be there. Just today I told my partner, "I need to now spend the whole day on Google Street View to walk around this area of Notting Hill.” I've been there loads of times, but it just, it needs all the textures. You have to really immerse yourself imaginatively in an environment. For me to be able to write a sentence that I'm at all convinced by, I spend a ridiculous amount of time kind of trying to imagine it sensorially.
And the nice thing about sex scenes is that we spend a lot of time, I think, imagining, and fantasizing, and even while we're having sex, we're often having an extra imaginative sensory experience. Or a kind of a whole scene playing out that isn't the real scene, as well as what’s real. Or maybe this is just me.
KKP: No, no. I think you're absolutely right.
CH: I find, I suppose, sex scenes an opportunity to create these recognizable moments. And one of the sex scenes in The Wild Laughter I think is quite confronting, because it's, well, it's a little aggressive. I've seen some readers take issue with the misogyny of the character in the moment, but you have to be true to what that character's perception and imagination in a moment is, or what you believe it would have been. The narrative shouldn’t be an analyst.
I was trying to also be true to a male experience of sex with somebody he’s not into. In an era before the language of consent…kind of threading that line, I think, was quite interesting to do. It felt very much... I didn't go into that scene intending there to be any, what's the word I'm looking for? Well, crassness, but then I kind of lived through that scene and it became somebody expressing their frustration in… almost borderline violence. It was interesting for me to try and explore the difference between and the psychology of the character, of the same character in the same kind of physiological situation. But when their psychological situation is so different across sexual encounters, how the scene that's lived and that's experienced by the reader is so fundamentally different.
KKP: In Orchid & the Wasp, Gael is a person who's not defined by her relationships—she's very independent, but Hart is almost the opposite. He's defined exclusively by his relationships to his father, to his brother. I wonder if that was something you set out to do differently with the second book? Or was it just that this is how Hart sort of revealed himself to you? There's a claustrophobia in The Wild Laughter, whereas Orchid & the Wasp felt so free. Gael sort of just moves about the world, she does what she wants. Was that an intentional shift?
CH: Yeah, they're very different characters. To my mind, Gael is a lot smarter, but the narrative voice in Orchid & the Wasp is at an arm's length. There's kind of an ironic distance all the time. So it is quite a challenge for the reader to know that a line that's given straight by the narrative voice isn't straight, if you get me. That there's kind of an irony sitting there almost all the time. In fact, in the US edition I had an epigraph by Ayn Rand, who I find to be obnoxious. The point of the epigraph was to make sure that the reader knew from the first line that the tension in the novel was coming from somebody trying to ironize the world around them in a way.
It's interesting because while the plot of Orchid & the Wasp is freer, and the character is from an upper middle-class family, she is very much imprisoned by the realization that's taking place over the course of the novel. Her father was this banker for Barclays and he taught her… he gave her this equipment for how to succeed in capitalism, which is that she needs to protect her privilege—she has her privilege, so she needs to protect it—and she needs to be morally adaptable, to have her wits about her, basically, and this is the kind of formula that he gives her. And he gives it to her very frankly, and brutally in a way. And over the course of the novel she’s testing this out. She desperately doesn't want it to be true, but deep down she knows that it is, or she feels that it is.
CH: And over the course of 10 years, as it's proven to be true, actually her choices become increasingly limited. And she even comes to believe that living a good life is a form of self-delusion, that it isn't attainable. But there’s another self-delusion in resignation. It's really a novel about cynicism and disillusionment. Gael is still very young at the end of the book, so the actions that she'll take haven't been determined at the end.
In The Wild Laughter Hart is interested in bravery, and he’s trying to convince his father on some level that he isn't culpable. So it's a very different ethic and a different level of engagement. He's frustrated by neoliberal social impacts too—he knows that something is wrong, but he doesn't quite know how to name it. It's a similar set of frustrations and disillusionments. But at the same time, Hart is in a very different place to Gael in that he is trying to control his own narrative, desperately trying to describe himself and his father as some kind of heroic figures, as having a form of bravery, of not being to blame. Gael isn't interested in that. She's perfectly... Well, she'd rather that they all admit culpability.
KKP: For all of their differences, I find them both to be tremendously charming, probably because they’re both so funny. Their observations are so wry and sometimes mean—so much humor comes through their voices. The Wild Laughter isn’t a light story at all—this family is going through some serious shit, it’s actually incredibly tragic—and yet I kept cracking up. Is humor your natural tendency? Or did you set out to get some levity from the subject matter in The Wild Laughter?
CH: I love reading funny books, and I find all sorts of things funny. I try to write what I like to read, and I also find writing so painful and excruciating that I need there to be humor in it. I amn't very funny as a person, but I really enjoy other people's sense of humor. I watch a lot of comedy. I have huge admiration for standup comedians because I just think it's such a vulnerable-making vocation. And the intention of it is so pure, to make people laugh just by what you say. And it's so hard to do.
But when I write, if there's humor, it's coming from the characters. I suppose I orient myself around fairly funny characters because that's the kind of company that I want to keep while I'm writing. But some of the characters—like the Chief doesn't really have any funny lines in the book, but he accommodates humor. And probably one of the funniest people in my view is Nóra, the mother character, but because Hart doesn't really see her at all, he doesn't understand her, and he has no interest in understanding her, he doesn't get to enjoy what I enjoyed when I was writing her.
She had the most lines that made me crack up, that still do, when I read the manuscript, I remember when she first said them. When I saw her saying them. Like when Hart is complaining about his brother doing chin-ups upstairs and she says, "Good, he'll be fit for pallbearing so.” It's such an acidic, bitchy thing to say, but it's also just hilarious.
KKP: I love her.
CH: And it's also a protection mechanism for dealing with the prospect of losing your husband. But I love funny writers. Lorrie Moore I love.
KKP: Oh, me too.
CH: Mary Gaitskill, Doris Lessing I find hilarious. Kevin Barry. Paul Beatty. Dorothy Parker. Toni Morrison can be very funny. Janet Frame can be very funny. Even people who are writing really dark work, just some of those lines I pause over them and yeah, you want to soak it in.
KKP: I'm working on a second book now, and I think I know the answer to this question already, but does it get easier the second time around? And has your attitude about publishing in general or about the writing process changed?
CH: Oh, man. Well, I didn't experience the publication of my first novel very well. I found the involvement of an author in a book's failure or success to be quite confusing. And I really wanted to do everything I could to help it. And it was very unclear whether or not you can actually help a book find readers, and whether you should, because that can take an awful lot of time. So it depends, I guess, on what kind of writer you are, how important readers are. Some people really don't mind and they'd actually rather not know. For me, I'm just all about the readers. Nothing I've written makes any sense without a reader. The role for the reader is bigger than any of the characters in the book. It's partly why probably I'll always have a small readership, because it's a big ask of the reader. There are some novels where you're not really needed in them. I tend to get less from those sorts of books.
So yeah, I find that all very difficult, and I probably spent far too much time stressing about it and not writing, when the truth is that the best thing you can do to find future readers is to write more, and to write your best work, and to try not to compromise or to adapt your work to where you think the readers will be or what you think they want, because then you'll actually lose the readers that you—however few they were—that you did have for your last book.
Trying to maintain that belief in the worthiness of whatever story you're writing, that's the real challenge for writers. The best thing you can do is try and trick yourself, if you have to, or find that kind of belief in it being something worthwhile doing.
One argument for that with regards to the novel as a form at the moment is that these times… this year (2020) has been so incredibly strange. It has made time morph in a way. Whole days and weeks disappear where we don't know what we did. When we speak to people on the phone, we don't really have very much to tell them because not much has been happening.
KKP: It’s so true.
CH: But if you read a novel, you have a lot to say and you've been to a lot of places. And something that's become to me, I don't know, quite heartening about the novel as a form—being in the early stages of a new novel myself—is that the novel is something that believes in the future. The act of writing one is an act of faith in the future. And I think that's quite a nice thing to be doing and to be enacting.
KKP: I’ve read that you like a gestation period between projects, that you don't like to jump from one right to the next, but it sounds as though you're already on to a new novel, which is so exciting. Can you say more about it?
CH: Well, I spent the last year writing short stories. I don't believe I have enough of a readership to be able to publish a short story collection next—
KKP: —oh, I think you do! I can't wait for a collection from you. I say, do it.
CH: Oh, I don't know that I should, that I can really put my indie publisher into that position, but certainly if it's not the next it'll be the fourth. But I have started a new novel. I really wanted to start that process of investing in the future, or the idea of it. Convincing myself that it will exist. And oh my God, why do we do it? The work of novels is just so overwhelming. But I do have these four very stubborn female character sisters, all of whom have PhDs and none of whom have husbands. So it’s clearly destined to be a bestseller.
CH: The working title is The Alternatives.
Kimberly King Parsons’s debut collection Black Light was nominated for the National Book Award, the Story Prize, the Texas Institute of Letters First Fiction Award, the Oregon Book Award, and the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction. She lives in Portland, OR, where she is writing a novel (forthcoming from Knopf) about Texas, motherhood, and LSD.