NEIL JORDAN’s latest novel opens at a carnival. Teenage Andy wanders into a hall of mirrors, and finds himself stuck inside the glass — watching his reflection walk out to join his parents. And so the fantastical novel proceeds, ending in gothic horror and mayhem.
Immersing himself in Irish myths and legends, Jordan started with this theme of the changeling, one that fascinates him.
“I started to read all these things I read as a child, like this green man who seduces young ladies at night, and I mixed them all up in my head.”
The book seems as much based on the split we can feel in ourselves — a theme he explored in his novel Mistaken, published back in 2011.
“I wasn’t aware of that when I was writing Carnivalesque, but it’s a thing that has lately crept into everything I do, and I don’t know why.”
Is he aware of having two sides?
“Well, obviously! There is the one that makes movies and the one that write books,” he says. “And the one that had daughters in my 20s and the one that had sons in my 40s. I do feel that. It’s just a rich theme, and I think it’s a sense everyone has; that the life you actually live could well be an illusion, and you are waiting to find out what the real life is.”
In the novel, Andy’s mother, faced with this blank version of her son, feels a sense of dread. And this, Jordan says, is just an exaggerated form of what all parents go through when a boy morphs into a teenager. As the father of three boys who has been based at home, it’s an experience he knows.
“It’s so terrifying when your child becomes someone you don’t know. A different child comes home from school one day and you think, what happened?
“It’s different with girls; they’re much more malleable and more concerned with their parents, but with boys its startling, because I don’t think they have a language for where they go. They vanish into an inarticulate place.”
Jordan suspects that he was a nightmare as a teenager.
“I must have been impossible. My father was a school inspector: he taught in the teacher training college. I was disengaged, and a bit of a dreamer. I performed so badly in school. I found it hard to concentrate and was really bad at maths, particularly algebra. And that was bad because my brother used to get first place in Ireland.”
Was he a kind of changeling in his family?
“Oh yeah. Totally. They used to go on holiday, on all these amazing trips, and I would say, ‘I don’t want to go away with you people’. I refused to go with them, so they’d leave me. This was when I was 13 or 14 until I was 20. I must have been an odd adolescent.”
The hall of mirrors was inspired by one Jordan remembers from Bray, Co Wicklow.
“I lived on the seafront for years. There was a mirror maze there; a well-constructed one. You could get totally lost in it. I shot in there for The Miracle,” his magical coming of age movie released in 1991.
Bray inspired Carnavalesque too, and the idea that carnival people — carnis — could be a race apart. He paints them as a fantastical people who don’t age until the fatigue causes them to die; who can’t give birth, and, having no gravity, have to pretend they don’t have special powers.
“A carnival used to park itself on the grass dividing the beach from the road every summer, and my daughter would lose herself there. She got to know all the carnival dudes — it was a safe place for her to be, actually — but they seemed to belong to a different race. They could pull up machines and hammer things and they were lean and muscular and slightly swarthy.”
Always split between being a writer, and filmmaker, Jordan applied to the National Film School after college, and got a place, but he couldn’t afford to go.
“It was horrendously expensive if you didn’t get English grants.”
Had he gone, he feels it would have been a total waste of five years.
“I’ve met people who did go and it consumed their whole youth; some of them were still doing student films aged 33.”
In contrast, Jordan found himself on the dole, and needing to provide for his wife and young family.
“Having children saved my life in a way.”
I ask him to explain that statement, but he veers off track, muttering that you don’t have to be taught how to look after a child.
“If I hadn’t had kids I would have gone to America. I would have wandered the planet for sure.”
Instead, he co-founded the Irish Writer’s Cooperative because he knew people who were finding it impossible to get books published.
“All these people around me; Dermot Healey, Desmond Hogan, and Ronan Sheehan were getting stories published in magazines in Britain and Belfast but nobody could get actually published, so I went to the Arts Council and they gave me money to set up a small publishing company. I published Des’s book, The Icon Maker, and it became very successful.
“I used to cycle around on my bike with the books on the back and give them to bookshops. It was lovely! They were thrilled to get them, and I had nothing better to do. But the enterprise had a fatal flaw. The moment we published a writer and they became successful they were taken up by an English publisher.”
In 1976 his debut, a book of short stories called A Night In Tunisia, won the Guardian Fiction Prize.
“They say it also won the Somerset Maugham Prize too, but I don’t remember that.”
A novel followed in 1980, then he wrote a screenplay — and being unhappy with the way the filmmaker changed it, decided to make his own films. Not everyone approved.
“The minute I made Angel two things happened. I became far better known as a movie maker than I ever had as a writer and I got flown to all these festivals. But older writers regarded it as some kind of deep transgression to the vocation that had been placed on my shoulders. At the time movies were regarded like property development.”
His success as a movie maker is legendary; with almost 20 films to his name, and that Oscar in 1992, for best screenplay, for The Crying Game. But since he was hit by a bus four years ago, he hasn’t made a movie, and instead, has written two novels, bringing the number to seven.
“I feel I’ve neglected my career in films. It’s an odd feeling, like I used to get when I was making movies in the ‘80s and felt that I should really be following that scribbling vocation of being an embittered starving writer.”
About to go back to moviemaking, he is worried about the state of film.
“It’s becoming this rarefied form that is endangered. The films I used to make like Mona Lisa, The Crying Game and The Miracle are becoming like opera or the literary novel. It’s in danger of disappearing from the world.”
The accident has left him with a dodgy knee, and he can no longer run, or windsurf. But he can still cycle, though not up hills, and he swims every day from his Dalkey house, unless there’s a storm raging.
At 67, is he easy to live with?
“I’m apparently a very good father but a very bad husband. I’ve been told that,” he laughs.
“I’m a mess! I pretty much live in my head, but most people do, don’t they? I have nowhere else to live.”
Published in The Irish Examiner on 15th April, 2017
Picture by Nick Bradshaw.
Bloomsbury Circus, €15.99;