‘I’m not afraid to just write, experiment, have a bit of fun’

Line’ is a novel with a premise that feels at once appalling and darkly familiar, where the characters live and die waiting. The author tells Niamh Donnelly about his own wait to get his debut published

Author Niall Bourke

Imagine a life spent waiting. It isn’t hard to do. As I write, I’m waiting on hold for the bank to answer the phone. I’m waiting for replies to various emails, for a response to an application I submitted. Then, of course, there is the elephant in the waiting room, lockdown. The world is waiting. For what? Normality? Freedom? We don’t know when this waiting will end. We don’t know what will be at the end of this waiting.

In Niall Bourke’s debut novel, Line, the characters have spent their lives waiting. They reside in a procession that goes on for miles and has outlived generations of people. They live waiting. They die waiting.

That the book speaks to what we’re doing now is “kind of serendipitous”, Bourke says, speaking from his home in south-east London. “I finished it before the pandemic, so that was more accident than design.”

In fact, Line grew out of a thought experiment. “I hate waiting in queues, just hate it with a passion. I remember queueing for the Doge’s Palace in Venice, which is really beautiful, but the queue was really big, and I just said, no.

“I bet it’s really nice inside, but I don’t want to stand in the queue. Then I started thinking: what circumstances, no matter how unusual, could there be in the world that would make me want to stand in a queue for a prolonged period of time?”

From this thought experiment grew a work of speculative fiction where characters live in tents, depend on portable tools and meagre rations for survival, and stake their lives on the hope that the line will move and they, or perhaps their descendants, “will live to see the end”.

The book’s state of relentless waiting brings to mind the Irish direct provision system, or perhaps refugee camps, where people spend years in purgatory. Bourke says he was thinking about these things “but maybe not consciously”.

The refugee crisis was “very much in the news” at the time, and “the imagery of the people in camps; in these kind of ramshackle, temporary places, made sense if I was going to write about a dysfunctional line”.

The book’s acknowledgements also include a powerful piece by journalist Olga Malchevska, The Killer Queues of Ukraine, which documents queues of about 30,000 civilians at that country’s front line, braving treacherous conditions to collect their pensions.

Originally from Kilkenny, Bourke is now head of English in a comprehensive school in Bermondsey. He did not start writing in earnest until his mid-thirties, when he completed an MA in creative writing and education at Goldsmiths University. The first story he wrote afterwards was shortlisted for the Costa Short Story Award.

Shortlisted for the 2015 award, Gerardo Dreams of Chillies was a story about a Mexican market trader. “And then I didn’t get anything published for three years. So, in a way, [being shortlisted] was really good because it gave me a sense that I could keep going. And in another way, it was bad because it gave me an inflated sense of how easy it was going to be.” He has since published a poetry collection, Did You Put the Weasels Out? (Eyewear, 2018) and now Line, which took five years to write.

Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, the satire famous for proposing we eat babies as a solution to poverty, was a major influence. “Swift was taking hardcore, liberalist, utilitarian philosophy and showing that if you follow it 100pc to its nth degree, you’re going to end up somewhere absurd. I think there was a similar intention here.”

About halfway through Line, protagonist Willard escapes the line and discovers a city called Nodnol (read it backwards), where “The Corporation” reigns supreme. The Corporation’s business model is cannibalistic, literally and metaphorically, and it has a cultish “work hard, stay positive” philosophy. It feels at once appalling and darkly familiar.

“I wouldn’t be the greatest fan of the ‘growth mindset’,” Bourke laughs. “It’s not that I don’t think it’s of any value. Like, positive thinking is usually a good thing. But it got twisted or hijacked or something. And then people made a whole industry out of it. You know, pay your workers £1 an hour, but stick a few positive slogans around the place, and it’s their fault they can’t get on.”

Within the book there is “a treatise for a new world order”, a sort of utopian vision that will buoy up markets by keeping people queueing their whole lives.

“The idea was to write a faux economics,” says Bourke, “To take something that has a nugget of scientific truth and logic and then extrapolate that out to some absurd place.”

Bourke studied economics at university and observes that it “is often accepted as a kind of empirical science that can make predictions and answer questions”.

“You know, if you do x, then you will get y. And that’s not how it works,” he adds. “Basically, the economy isn’t a thing in and of itself that exists outside of us. It is a measure or function of human interaction and activity. And, you know, what’s the point of having an economy if homelessness is increasing but the economy is getting better? What does that mean?”

When writing Line, Bourke read 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang.

“One of the things he says is there’s no such thing as a free market. I think this is one thing [Line] was trying to explore. Like, if you had a totally free market, you’d have to allow slavery, child labour, anything. The minute you step in and say you can’t do something, that’s regulation. When [companies like] Facebook are arguing for a free market, they’re not really. They’re just saying they want everything regulated in their favour.”

Line would make a great film. It’s atmospheric, fast-moving, high-concept. “If you know any agents…” Bourke jokes. Though he admits there have been initial discussions, “I don’t think that’s going anywhere for now.”

When pressed, he says his strength as a writer is “I’m not afraid to just write, experiment, have a bit of fun. Sometimes writing is presented as the greatest chore of humanity. And then you’re like, well, why are you doing it? I think if you’re not enjoying it, just go to the pub or something.”

Not a bad idea. Unfortunately, we might have to wait a while.