Big thanks to Maeve Mulrennan for her interview, which you can read over at The Honest Ulsterman – or below.
Niall Bourke’s début novel Line will be published by Tramp Press in April 2021. The publishers describe Niall’s new work as high concept speculative fiction, The Road meets A Modest Proposal, containing ‘timely subject matter concerned with societal collapse and a Brexit-like catastrophe.’ I spoke to Niall, who is based in London over Zoom in January, shortly before he returned to remote teaching.
We began by discussing Niall’s short story The Erection Specialists which was published in the October 2020 issue of The Honest Ulsterman [i]. The story centres around the main character working on a marquee in the west of Ireland. Each line is punctuated by a ‘tilde’ symbol: ~ that gives a rhythm and pace to the story, which has no full stops and only two paragraphs. I asked Niall to tell me about his motivation behind this story:
“I began The Erection Specialists by playing around with voice; In fiction I’m interested in voices that aren’t considered literary. I don’t think working class people with average jobs get a lot of space in literature and when they do a lot of the time they are caricatures. I was interested in doing something different although maybe I fell into trap myself maybe a little bit in some ways. When I was in college in NUI Galway I spent one summer working with a company putting up marquees. It was an interesting job, I met a whole range of people. There was some stereotypical building-site type banter and macho masculinity but also there was – tenderness is too strong a word for it – a sensitivity maybe. The work was marginally dangerous so there was a low tolerance for people who couldn’t do it properly: you would get shouted at. You would dropped off somewhere and collected the following day, so you would work really hard to get the marquee up and then take a long break, it was lovely especially if you got on with the other people.
Irish literature maybe has a good track record around depicting the working class, I think English literature maybe hasn’t gotten its head around that. To a certain degree the class system is more apparent in the UK, you can’t seem to get away from class here and it comes out in the literature. I grew up in Kilkenny and basically you didn’t have upper class people there the way you have them in England, like the 15th Earl of something who had inherited the family estate.”
The structure of The Erection Specialists means that the reader moves through the story relatively quickly. Niall talks about the inspiration for this structure, where the ~ mark, or ‘Tilde’ as it’s called, pushes the story along:
“I read a short story by Sean O’Reilly, from his really great short story collection Levitation, published by Stinging Fly. He did something similar where he used a forward slash. I got a bit of inspiration from that but didn’t want to ape it totally. I played around with hyphens, they were problematic as it was hard to tell when it the story moved in and out of dialogue, so I played around with different symbols on the keyboard. The rhythm in the story found itself and it was written fairly quickly. I don’t often write like that, I’m usually more methodical with a lot of time spend on editing. In that story the voice took off in a rush, the voice reflects the busyness of the day. The main character is trying to tell you something important but can’t come out and just say it, it’s upsetting for him so he talks around it. There are moments where the pace slows down, with longer lines, and less dialogue. The story is like a bad dream that the narrator can’t get away from, he is retelling and reliving it.”
Tramp Press are publishing Niall’s novel Line in April. I asked Niall to speak about the setting where people live in a line. Niall explains:
“Line is about people that live in a queue or line for so long and for multiple generations, that they have forgotten its purpose. The fear of losing their place motivates people. There are rumours swirling around about what is at the top of the line. The biggest drive for people to stay in it is that their parents and grandparents sacrificed their lives so that they could inherit their place. It would be almost sacrilege to just renege your place and the sacrifices of your ancestors for your own selfishness because you don’t want to wait anymore. At the beginning of the novel the main character’s mother dies, which is the inciting force for him and his girlfriend to go out beyond the safe environment of the line. The death in itself isn’t a strong enough incident to make the character go against the superstitions and traditions of the queue, as people have been living and dying in the line for generations. The main character finds a book sewn into her possessions that she never told him about, and it’s this that starts the events that unfold.”
A lot of dystopian fiction includes physical movement as a manifestation of the psychological movement or development of the characters as they come to understand the true meaning and consequences of their environment. Many stories feature people trying to find a way out, whether that’s walking across a country, trying to find a family member – there is movement or an attempt to escape. Niall sees similarities in his novel:
“That all rings true, about wanting to find answers, the truth, and sometimes there’s a realisation that it may have been better to stay ignorant. There are very few different types of stories in general – you can have different structures, characters, style and all of that but ultimately stories boil down to four or five different types; I think that says something why we read and what we want from reading. These things weren’t consciously going on when I was writing but it’s interesting to think about it now.”
I asked Niall if the characters commitment to the line was similar to a person’s commitment to a family business, such as a farm or a family-owned pub;
“People can’t step out of the queue, they have inherited their place in it. Stepping out would be like telling your parents you won’t take on the family business. The Line is a metaphor for lots of things; a sense of obligation and duty to whatever it is you feel obliged to whether it’s your family, nationalism or history, for example.”
The publicity surrounding Line draws a link to Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, I asked Niall to elaborate on the comparison:
“Line can be seen as satirical to a degree and A Modest Proposal is one of the best examples of satire. It takes a utilitarian economic premise and extrapolates it to the nth degree to see how far it goes, and that some people will not have a problem with it. Line is trying to do something similar. I was also exploring the Line as a metaphor for the economy: the book could be described as sci-fi but I describe it more like economics-fi, it’s economics gone mad. The economy should be measure of how people are interacting, a measure of how much we’re spending and how well we are or not doing but at some point the economy supersedes the people who make up the economy, like when the government chooses not to spend money on houses because its bad for the economy – well what is the economy for if it doesn’t help us with basic needs? It all gets mixed up somehow. In the book the need to sustain the line supersedes the needs of the individuals in it. There are similarities to contemporary politics, how a lot of the time the priority for political parties is not governance but to retain power. I don’t mean that as a cynical voter, I don’t think they’re doing it because they’re megalomaniacs (although some of them might be) but they believe rightly or wrongly that the best way for them to affect change is to stay in power. So staying in power has to be part of their drive once they get into power. But what point does the mask become the face? Those questions of economics and power are in Line: the main function of the line is to survive and it will sacrifice whatever it needs to make that happen.”
Waiting for what comes once you reach the top of the line becomes the focus; there is no care for welfare whilst in the line, it is always about the future. The image of thousands of people queueing and waiting to be relieved of a paralysis that is supposed to be temporary brings to mind massive refugee camps, where everything is ‘temporary’, even though the average length of time a person lives there is estimated to be seventeen years [ii]. Niall agrees that large refugee camps came to mind for him when writing Line:
“Refugee camps were big force in visualising Line, I had Syrian camps on the Turkish border in mind. Migration and refugees are integral to the book. The fact that the camps are supposedly temporary does not make it better, the temporary nature is no consolation for the people living in it.”
I asked Niall if, like camps the temporary nature of the line meant that repression moulded his characters.
“Yes, and the main moulding is compliance, it’s similar to how organised religion works; ‘don’t worry about now’ worry about the future, just do what you’re told now’. There is a weight of communal compliance and expectation and it’s seen as sacrilegious to speak up. There is architectural repression in Line – physical presences to get you to obey. If you go somewhere like the Four Courts or the Old Bailey for example, the architecture is built to intimidate. That alongside the arcane language and the way people dress is to exclude and mould compliance. Subtle ways are often more effective than say, armed police. I’m sure there’s some design companies whose brand of architecture is about maximising compliance.
Certain services in the UK are privatised like prisons and the train system. Many prisons in the UK are operated by a for-profit company called G4S, who cut corners in order to make profit but which for the good of society its detrimental. Privatisation is a debate raging here in the UK. My novel looks at where we would end up if the market was totally laissez-faire and allowed to regulate itself. Most people think that we would end up in a bad place but despite that, those who advocate for privatisation and laissez-faire are the ones with power, even though the argument for privatisation has been disproved so many times.”
I asked Niall if the history of Margaret Thatcher was being revitalised at a time of political and social uncertainty;
“Yes, but Tony Blair also had a hand in privatisation, it wasn’t just conservatives. He garnered power with the centrists through the creation of PPIs – Public Private Initiatives. His intentions were to save the State money but now we are seeing the seeds of what was started under the Conservatives and then New Labour. Certain things like trains shouldn’t be privatised – you can’t have a fair market when your barrier to entry is having the use of a train line.”
When I think of the conservative laissez-faire approach to the economy, my mind usually moves to colonialism, in terms of Ireland’s own history of repression under that system during the famine but also in connection to slave labour, both historic and modern. The approach of prioritising the economy over the people who contribute to it is connected has contributed to more than 40 million modern slaves, which includes adults and children in forced labour, human trafficking, sexual exploitation, debt bondage and forced marriage, and carried out by individuals, corporations and governments around the world. I was interested to know if this and systemic, institutionalised racism that grew out of colonisation informed Niall’s novel.
“Not overtly, racism is not at the heart of Line but those structures of exploitation are there: no matter how inhumane and violent the slave trade, or child labour will be, some economist somewhere may make a justification for it in terms of increased GDP or supporting the public purse. People such as Daniel Hannan in the UK have an audience for extremist economic justifications. There are many key figures in the UK political landscape whose families, political alliances, communities or networks did very well out of colonial history – remember compensation went to the slave owners and not the enslaved people. Great Britain was built on and became a very wealthy country from the benefits of colonial oppression long after slavery was abolished. There’s a part of society that won’t engage with that or even acknowledge that it happened. Colonial legacy is in the novel for sure.
It’s those ingrained systems of oppression at the heart of the novel rather than it being about exploitation, racism or slave labour.”
I’m currently seeking out historic critique on how Ireland was both colonised territory and complicit in the colonisation of other territories, and how this maligned consequence has impacted on subsequent generations.
Niall brings up an interesting point: “There’s a difference though, in that the profits of colonialism didn’t feed directly back into the Irish economy. Institutionally Ireland didn’t participate in that way, it was to support the British economy overall. Individuals may have profited through it, countries like Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Great Britain, their whole system of governance was set up to channel money from the colonies back into their economy as effectively as possible.”
Finishing up our conversation, I asked Niall about the impact of Line being on the 2021 Tramp Press list. “They love the arts and supporting arts as much as they can. Their backlist is really brilliant, it’s a huge validation for Line. I don’t know what way the book is going to go, sales-wise, but one thing I know is that whatever happens it won’t be from want of Tramp Press and my agent Brian getting fully behind it.”
Niall is originally from Kilkenny but now lives in London, where he teaches English. He writes both poetry and prose and, since completing an MA in creative writing at Goldsmiths University of London in 2015, has been published widely in magazines and journals in both the UK and Ireland. His poems and short stories have been listed for numerous awards, including twice for the The Costa Short Story Award, The ALCS Tom-Gallon Trust Award, The Mairtín Crawford Short Story Prize, The New Irish Writing Award, and the Fitzcarraldo Novel Prize. In 2017 he was selected for Poetry Ireland’s Introductions Series. His debut poetry collection Did You Put The Weasels Out? was published in April 2018 and was longlisted as one of The Poetry Schools’ books of the year. In spring 2021 Tramp Press will be publishing his debut novel, Line. He is represented by Brian Langan at Storyline Lit Agency.