As Close as You’ll Ever Be: An Interview with Seamus Scanlon


Bookslut, December 2012


Seamus Scanlon  has only been writing for six years, but his literary noir stories  have racked up an impressive roster of publications, prizes and  awards. His play Dancing at  Lunacy, set in 1970s Belfast, was staged  at New York’s Cell Theatre this past March, and now he’s published  his first collection, As  Close As You’ll Ever Be. These stories  will connect you to your shadow side.

The Irish native, New York  transplanted writer’s cast of darkly witty criminals inhabit a  nether-world of skin-head patrolled Galway housing projects, Belfast  IRA safe-houses, and the gangster Irish enclaves of South Boston and  Woodlawn in the North Bronx. The guns are loaded, the beer is  flowing, and Northern Ireland’s own punk band, The Undertones, is  playing. Scenes are set in ghostly, poetic language.

Stories like  “Teenage Sniper” read like poems, and bring to mind 1960s  British serial killer Myra Hindley’s assertion that “Sometimes  evil can be a religious experience.” In “My  Beautiful, Brash, Beastly Belfast,” which  won first place in Gemini magazine’s  2011 story competition, a child soldier avenges his twelve-year old  sister’s murder by British troops. That bloodshed is depicted as  almost beautiful is not surprising in a land steeped in both Pagan  and Catholic traditions.

In  America, we think of the Irish as a settled, successful minority,  forgetting that Ireland has for centuries been an outlaw nation,  constantly bucking and subverting British rule. Often the slashings  and shootings in these stories have a motive — retaliation for  British brutality; revenge on a pedophile priest or evil stepfather;  an informer executed by his best friends, Sopranos-style.  Several stories set in the Galway housing projects of Scanlon’s youth  explore and exploit the primitive animal urges of childhood; the  killer instinct we’re all born with, if not tamed, can lead to, and  in the case of so many of these stories culminate in, violence. From  “All in the Mind”:

Pirates  our forefathers were. Snipers once we were. Soldiers true once we  were. Heroes once we were for the Kings and Queens of England, for  Dublin Castle. Now heroin found us, bound us, gagged us, laid us down  on the hard Dublin concrete.

A  boy dreams of flying and makes a practice of it — first off the  dresser, then down the stairs, then orchestrating the falling death  of his abusive stepfather. Later in the collection, an informer goes  sailing down to his death from a stolen helicopter. Sometimes there’s  regret. Mad med student Rob, meaning to merely threaten a classmate  who called him a “homo,” winds up braining his classmate’s  father with an axe, and is so shocked by his crime that his little  brother can’t pry the weapon from his hands.

These  criminals are not without honor — women, even informants, are always  let go, and in the final story, a hardened criminal takes his  Alzheimer’s stricken mother out for a day in the country. Unlike  many books set in the underworld, this one feels like it’s written by  someone who draws his characters from life, rather than other crime  books or the Internet. From “Sure”:

I  loved Belfast the first day I arrived there. The Belfast Hills  overlooked the City, giving a sense of protection and permanence,  which was an illusion. Down in the City were the killing machines. I  love rain and the wet, slick roads. Hedgerows dripping with rain.  Mist evaporating from roadways after sudden summer showers. I liked  the Belfast accents, the sense of black humor. Of course the City was  full of violence, chaos, pain and suffering as well. I also liked  these qualities and felt at ease there.

As  in the best crime stories — the novels of Donald Westlake, GoodFellas, The  Sopranos — Scanlon has you  rooting for the bad guy. Not that there are actually any good guys. I  felt guilty sometimes for enjoying them so much. So  it was a relief to attend a reading at the West Twenty-third Street  Cell Theatre where Scanlon is Writer in Residence. Over a dozen women  — some actresses associated with the theater, some fellow writers  and alumni of City College, where the author studied writing —  performed the tales, every one of which is told from the point of  view of a violent or potentially violent male character. Read by  these women, the stories were more mischief and mayhem than menace —  all that remained was laughter.

I’m  sending off my questions to you in New York, which is Armageddon in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. How  does New York compare, weather and otherwise, to your native Galway,  and Belfast in Northern Ireland where you lived for years?

During  Sandy the winds and rain reminded me of Galway — Atlantic winds  driving rain in past Salthill and the Cladagh to the gray streets of  the City of the Tribes. Waves breaking on the Prom — broken fronds  of seaweed flung onto the roads. The clean smell of iodine.

The Atlantic near  New York is more subdued. The Hudson river makes up for it. We have  the Corrib in Galway, usually in spate. The Hudson is deeper, wider,  slower, but very attractive. Belfast has no spectacular ocean  setting, but has the Lagan, which divides the Lower Ormeau Road into  Catholic and Protestant areas, and so is a major landmark.

Belfast built the Titanic, and now people wear T-shirts proclaiming, “It  was fine when it left here,” with a photo of the ship. Belfast  is surrounded by high hills that give it an atmosphere of safety and  serenity. But for centuries these hills looked down on the killing  streets. Now things have changed for the better. The lethal streets  are more benign.

You’ve moved  around a lot. I grew up in  Galway, then moved to Cambridge, then to Southampton, then to  Belfast, then back to Galway, then to Washington Heights in 2006 to  attend City College’s graduate writing program. I originally moved to  Belfast because I was interested in the history of Northern Ireland,  and I liked the women’s accents.

The violence in  your stories often has an established motive within the IRA or  gangster moral code. Sometimes spurred by a personal insult, as when  a young boy takes revenge on his mother’s cruel driving instructor.  Are such incidents drawn from life? Everything  either happened or almost happened. Or could have happened.

Your characters  are full of black-humorous observations, as when a reluctant robber  is unable to resist when he sees an armored van full of cash open its  door for McDonald’s drive-thru takeout: “I couldn’t believe it.  Just when you thought you saw everything, something like this  restored your belief in human stupidity.”

Irish  humor is fatalistic and essential for survival. It may date from  centuries of colonization and gray clouds all day — rain, hunger,  famine, and emigration. The Catholic outlook of self sacrifice, pain,  purgatory, and reward in the next life needed some antidote. The  related Irish sport of “slagging” may have arisen from the  peasantry who had to be verbally dexterous, to insult landlords in a  way the English didn’t realize were well-crafted put-downs.

One of your  stories, “Infection,” is about a twelve year old boy  who joined the Aryan Youth. Why would an Irish kid want to emulate  Hitler?

Since 1914, Ireland  had been ambivalent about Germany because they were the enemy of  their enemy, England. They were natural allies since Ireland had been  trying to get its freedom from English rule for 800 years. The 1916  Resurrection occurred midway through World War I. Hundreds of  thousands of Irish were fighting in Europe for the British, but a  number of Irish volunteers decided to strike. They had weapons from  Germany, Lugers.

In World War II,  the IRA tried to get arms from Germany to fight the British, who were  still in Northern Ireland, so the link was still there. Ireland was  neutral, mostly to emphasize our split from Britain. This is the  ostensible reason why the Irish President Eamon DeValera signed the  book of condolences in the German Embassy in Dublin after Hitler did  everyone a big favor by offing himself. Hitler also had an  Irish nephew, who went to Germany hoping uncle Adolf would give him a  job, but Hitler hated him on sight. Intolerance rules the waves. For  fifty years, there was a Swastika laundry in Dublin. It only closed  in the 1970s!

In  America, we think of the Irish as a long established immigrant group,  and very powerful. Your characters are a mess! They feel more like  the Irish immigrants who came over after the potato famine. You write  of construction workers drinking until five and then getting up at  seven to go to work, banging nail guns at each other to keep awake.  Do you worry about reinforcing bad stereotypes?

No! The Irish can  take a joke. They can see the basis of it but are not offended. It is  sympathetic overall. They still miss Ireland. They love their  mothers. They drink Barry’s tea and eat Tayto. What more can you  ask?

In one or two of your  stories, Irish gangsters spar with the Dominicans who have largely  replaced them in neighborhoods like Washington Heights. You felt no  obligation to whitewash the truth of that conflict.

Political  correctness has no place in fiction. It’s as bad as the Nazis burning  books.

The humor,  ruthlessness, and alternate universe your characters inhabit struck  me as a kind of an Irish The Sopranos. You say you’ve never  even seen the show! You’ve also been compared to Quentin Tarantino.  What are your influences? Do books like Dennis Lehane’s on the Boston  Irish match up to your reality?

Lehane is  audacious, brave, a great writer, and has great integrity. His books  are authentic and harsh. You can also read Michael Patrick  MacDonald’s All  Souls memoir, which outlines the real suffering of a white  Irish American enclave in south Boston, which the reader will never  forget. Other influences: Anthony Burgess’s A  Clockwork Orange; Jack Abbott’s In  the Belly of the Beast; Aleksandre Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer  Ward and A  Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich; Mary Renault’s  biographical treatment of Alexander the Great, Fire  from Heaven; the real life story of a Brazilian peasant who  performed psychic surgery, Arigo Surgeon of the Rusty Knife; The  Art of Memory, British historian Frances  Yates history of mnemonic systems. Also, Maria Edgeworth’s Castle  Rackrent and Sex Pistol John Lydon’s memoir, Rotten:  No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs.

How would you  classify your work — crime fiction, literary? Literary  and crime fiction are compatible. That’s what I am aiming for at  least!

You’re writing a novel. Will you use  the same cast of characters who appear in your collection, mad med  student Rob, Jimmy, and Jacko?

Jimmy, aka Victor  “Kraytwin” McGowan carries through from the story  collection, and is the main character in the novel. He’s sixteen and  three quarters when he visits Boston. The title is A Week in the  Life of Victor Kraytwin, Aged Sixteen and Three Quarters.  Everyone dies basically. The Kray twins were famous East End London  gangsters in the 1950s and 60s. I am trying to appeal to different  strands of readers.