Karl Geary is in his car, in Glasgow, talking to me via zoom. After spending many rackety years in the States, the Dubliner is happily settled in Glasgow. After a lifetime of yearning to be a writer, he’s pursuing it fulltime, and his second novel, Jude loves Legs is about to be launched.
“One of the things about getting older is that life gets smaller and simpler,” he says. “You know yourself better and you know what you want and don’t want. And even if it’s by a process of elimination – which in my case took 20 years, you land in this good place.”
Leaving Newpark Comprehensive without passing exams, Geary landed in the States at 16. Living in the East Village, he pursued many occupations, including acting. And, becoming a reader, he also tried to write novels. His first, at 22, didn’t work, but was turned into a successful screenplay.
“I tried a few more, but I couldn’t sustain them,” he says. “In retrospect I was too young and had too many problems. Alcoholism was part of my story at that time, and I just couldn’t sit still the way you need to.”
After twenty years he drifted towards Brooklyn, and from there to Woodstock. He owned a bar called the Scratcher, but in the end, missing Europe, he decided he didn’t want to live like that anymore. And that’s when he moved to Glasgow.
Geary’s first published novel, Montpelier Parade, a tender love story between a teenage boy and an elusive Englishwoman, was an utter delight. Hugely acclaimed, it was shortlisted for a Costa Award, and for an Irish Book Award. And his second, also set in Dublin, is even better. But it wasn’t an easy novel to write.
“When I started this I was cautious,” he says. “It wasn’t a book that I wanted to write.”
He’d been penning a novel based in New York, and it was pretty much complete, but it was dead on the page.
“While I was writing it, and drinking coffee in the morning, I was writing paragraphs of Jude Loves Legs without knowing what it was. This voice just came like elbows in knees, out of the page, and I thought, God, this is what I need to be doing. But what do I know about it?”
Geary’s problem was his limited experience of the working-class life.
“I felt that I didn’t have the right to write it,” he says. “Most novels I’ve read are from the middle-class perspective, and the characters can do anything and its exotic in some way.
“But when a working-class person is an alcoholic it’s sort of a trope and the energy changes. Nothing is individualised, so what I wanted to do was break it apart a bit, and go, surely they have sensibilities and hunger for different things, and not just finding a way of making the rent. I wanted to explore that in an authentic way.”
He writes about poverty, and the religious cruelty and prejudices that were prevalent in Dublin in the eighties. Best friends since Jude protected the delicate Legs from school bullies, both have their problems; Jude’s father is an alcoholic, and her mother, a talented seamstress, struggles to feed her family. Brought up by a troubled single mum, Legs becomes the target for the religious figures he encounters at school.
Life becomes harder still when Legs gets on the wrong side of the law, and Jude leaves the suburbs for Dublin. After years apart, they find each other and their deep friendship flourishes again. Theirs is a tender love story, as they support each other through trauma, hurt and loss.
It’s a strong theme, but it’s the characters who make this novel so special. Jude, in particular, is many faceted. She’s troublesome, sure. But she’s also hardworking, insightful, and intensely loyal. She hates school but likes nothing better than reading in the local library. And she’s brimming over with love.
“Juno has so much love that it just comes out. She’s almost a love waiting to find something to attach itself to. Isn’t it great that she finds Legs?” says Geary. “Isn’t that what we’re all looking for? What else is there, really?”
Juno adores her mam – and admires her strength. So she’s confused when her sister, estranged from the family, lets on that there was another, less forgiving side to her.
“When we think about the people we admire when we’re young, there’s a point when you realise there are no heroes. We are all flawed, but that’s ok. Realising that is heart-breaking, because you want the people you love to be as good as you think they are, but it’s part of becoming an adult.”
We’re given a glimpse of a softer side of the two religious characters too – the power-crazy Father and Sister. That’s part of the care the author took – to present the era he grew up in authentically. He was keen, too, to show that the faults of the eighties – of cruelty of institutions and the indifference of the state, still remain.
“I’m not writing from a place of nostalgia,” he stresses. “It’s not just an eighties book. The themes I write about haven’t gone away. They shapeshift but they still exist in society. I’m writing from a place of rage, furious that these things continue.
“In Irish history we go from 100 years of colonial rule into Catholicism, and now we’re into the corporate world. All these levels of power take away from people, and I don’t feel that our wellbeing is at the forefront of these institutions minds. It really does seem to be about power and control.”
He also explores the effect of HIV in Dublin.
“Living in New York in the eighties the Aids epidemic was brutal. There was so much fear, and I lost a lot of friends. And you go, Oh My God! What was that like in Ireland? As you can imagine, it was as bad if not worse, because of all the prejudice.”
The ending of this wondrous novel is open ended, but Geary feels that Jude will find a way to survive.
“Juno is a lot brighter than I’ll ever be,” he says. “She shines in a way like the best parts of myself. Her friendship, or love affair with Legs – she got to have that. Some people never have that.”
Karl adores being a fulltime writer.
“I’ve been lucky,” he says. “I’ve had a few residencies, including the Centre Culturel Irlandais. That was amazing! I could go and just be. And it was wonderful talking to people who are looking at the same stuff but from different disciplines. Talking to a painter or a musician, you think, My God, that’s the way they see the world.”
Currently writing a screenplay for Montpelier Parade, Geary has a raft of ideas for his third novel.
“But none of them are sticking,” he says. “You kind of explore them and then they fall away. I’m hoping that a voice will appear; without that it’s academic.”
He used not to read when he was writing, but advice from Eimear MacBride changed that.
“Reading perks up your ability to observe technique,” he says. “And for me, in particular, I need to fill in the education I didn’t have, I’m always filling up my blinds spots.”
Living with his wife, Laura, and their 16-year-old daughter, while his son works in Dublin, he feels totally settled.
“Glasgow works for me,” he says. “I like it. I’ve done my rock and roll life and am content to let it go.”
Juno Loves Legs by Karl Geary. Harvill Secker: €15.75. Kindle: €10.93.
Published in the Irish Examiner on 11th March
© Sue J Leonard.