After Gunter Grass

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Tomorrow I will enter my ninth consecutive day of toothache. This, before you all rush to point out, was wholly avoidable. If you don’t darken the door of a dentist for the better part of a decade and subsequently ignore those niggly not-quite-right pains in your jaw; those small particles of tooth, (probably just stray nuts), which appear in your half-chewed brownie; those increasingly common fever dreams where all your teeth fall out into your hand, mid-yawn; well, you’ve only really got yourself to blame for the pain.

I should have known much better and have now booked an appointment with a, (hopefully very understanding), dentist on the Lisburn Road. In the interim I’ve been self-medicating with cheap Rioja and Nurofen, nursing my throbbing jaw into the wee small hours and writing, writing, writing all through the night like that one man who wrote Confessions of an Opium Eater in a single drug-fuelled sitting. Strange things have been appearing between the lines of my stories this week and while this might be everything to do with the toothache and a little to do with Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian” (which I’ve been ploughing my way through before bed), I’m pretty glad to have my strange back. Things were going a little bit Irish literary fiction there for a while and it really didn’t suit me.

I’ve been writing seriously, (and by seriously I mean, on a lap top with labeled folders), for over ten years now. It took me a good year before I felt confident enough to let anyone read anything I’d written. Even then I wasn’t sure whether my stories were genius, drivel or middle-of-the-road mediocre. I’m still not sure a decade later but from time to time I do let people read them. It’s useful to get feedback. Readers spot your flaws long before you do. The process keeps you humble, (or militantly convinced that you’re just not picking the correct proof readers). However, the main thing I have learnt from various readers’ reactions over the years is that I don’t write “normal”. People tend to express this opinion with a varying level of tact; the level of tact directly correllated to miles travelled from Ballymena town centre. There have been too many choice responses to list them all here but some of my favourites have included, “you’re a right weird one, aren’t you?” “sure, it’s not even proper writing,” and that old perennial, “I dread to think what’s going on inside your head.”

Now, we all know that there is no such thing as a normal writer. Every story is a leap of imagination, an attempt to create something out of nothing or assume the character of someone you are not. This kind of imagination-driven outlook should, in my opinion, be considered normal but most often it’s not. The majority of “normal” people struggle to see beyond the next coffee break/stop light/Facebook update and have lost much of their capacity, or even inclination, for imagination. Writers imagine us out of the normal, into other possibilities and this is a very necessary gift. Therefore, every writer, every artist, no matter how straightforward or seemingly unoriginal, is at least a little bit abnormal.

There also exist, however, writers who are simply more abnormal than others. They do not want to write stories they’ve read before. They care not one jot for what sells only what should be written. They write the books which they themselves would wish to read if given the choice. They piss most people off and captivate the remaining few. They refuse to be subject to the rules of time, mortality, science or reason. They balk at the very notion of a linear plot line, laugh in the face of grammar and semantics, invent words, invent ways of understanding words, dispense with words all together and break into unbound imagery. They sometimes hit with devastating accuracy and sometimes miss the mark entirely and are not one inch diminished for continuing to try. They mock the tired bastions of politics, religion, sexuality and art and get shot for it. They clean make shit up; the sort of glorious shit which needs to be written down and read and revelled in. They are like children when they write but they are not innocent.

In my best and bravest moments as a writer I have aspired to be a similarly strange one. I have wished to write the kind of stories which give me heartbreak and goosebumps as a reader. Stories by writers like Richard Brautigan and Aimee Bender and Kurt Vonnegut and Karen Russell. The kind of writers who don’t make that much ordinary sense up close with a microscope, but from a distance with good humour, feel like somebody suddenly tore the roof off.

For the longest time I didn’t understand why I was writing the way I wrote and how, raised on a diet of Enid Blyton and Agatha Christie, all this strangeness came to the surface every time I tried to string a paragraph together. Later, I would stumble across those authors already listed above and an unholy host of others, including poets, painters, theologians and musicians who somehow felt like that Biblical notion of the great cloud of witnesses passing on before, making the road seem just a little bit less lonely. Reading them, watching them, learning them, I came to feel a little more secure in my strangeness.

Three years ago during the first of many story-swapping coffees with Sinead Morrissey she leant across the table and said, quite urgently, “of course you’ve read The Tin Drum. Everything will make sense when you read The Tin Drum.” I hadn’t read The Tin Drum. I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t even heard of it but I went straight out and bought it and read it and then read every other Gunter Grass novel I could get my hands on. After this I felt, for the first time, completely assured in my own enduring oddness and wished someone had pressed this book upon me at twenty one or twenty five or even thirty.  (I also felt more jealous of another writer than I have ever been before or since).

This morning Gunter Grass died and I did not know him. He was old and German and I’m not sure I even realised he was still alive. I will never write anything as strange and marvellous as The Tin Drum. Those kind of novels are too remarkable to appear more than once in a lifetime and I suspect you must live through an enormous time to have the capacity for such a book within you. But I still wanted to say something today. I wanted to say that I am thankful for Gunter Grass and all his precocious strangeness. I am, a slightly bolder writer for coming after him. I am grateful for the risks he took and the lightness with which he held terribly heavy truths. He was a brave man to write the things he wrote and a kind man to write them so eloquently. If you haven’t read any of his work please, please, please go and buy The Tin Drum tomorrow and stay up all night reading it, (ideally with a large glass of wine and no toothache). It will charm you and intimidate you and, if you are a writer, remind you why we do what we try to do with words.

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