A father's illness, a girlfriend's mental breakdown and abuse by a priest, all set against a background of class conflict and nationalist tensions: Jim, the 14-year-old protagonist of The Fields, faces catastrophe after catastrophe. But Kevin Maher's debut novel is hardly dour. Instead, the jokes — simultaneously funny and brave — never stop coming.
Maher wrote the loosely autobiographical book, set in 1980s Dublin, while he was working as a critic and columnist for The Times in London. On the phone, he told me about teenage love, what his parents thought of his book and the "spasm-y fit" he had with a New Age healer.
Your book is in part based on your own life. Was there a part that was particularly hard to write?
"You know, it all flowed kind of easily. The part that was most upsetting to write is the conversation [Jim] has with his ailing father because I never had that conversation. My father did get cancer when I was a kid. And I think maybe the impetus behind the book — I didn't realize at first — was that I wanted to set up a conversation that this boy has with his ailing pop."
In the book, terrible things happen to people and they're not able to help each other. Is there anything you wish people had done or said when your father was sick?
"No. I think that's the human condition. Terrible things happen, and we endure in a lonely and solitary way. The voice of Jim is articulating that we're all completely alone — and he gets through it with this sort of optimistic, humorous voice. Terrible things happen and you just ... you don't fall to pieces. The connections you make with people can only go so far, even those people that you love more than your own life — there's still a gargantuan gap between you."
What parts of the book were the most fun to write?
"It sounds like a massive act of hubris to describe a book you wrote yourself as a laugh riot, but the experience of writing it was a laugh riot.
"There's a line in the book when a boy, one of the naughtier boys, breaks a window and the mother says, 'I'll call the Parish priest, I'll call the Parish priest,' in an absolute rage, looking for an authority figure. And he says, 'Well, does he know anything about fixing windows?' "
Was there a person you were most nervous about reading your book?
"If anyone, maybe my father, but he so far has been supportive. If I'm being totally honest, I don't think he's even finished the book. Or he's read the first few chapters and went, 'Oh, well done, you've written a book, that's good,' — and went back to doing the crossword puzzle."
How about your mom?
"She was one of the first people who read it. She said, 'I really enjoyed it, and I laughed at certain bits, but I wasn't too sure about the sexual elements.' "
But all they do is "shift" [Irish slang for kiss] for a while.
"That's a very autobiographical memory. I had a long first relationship, and I definitely remember in the first weeks and months doing this constant shifting thing and thinking, 'OK, this is it. I'm in the big time. I joined adulthood. I'm shifting.' "
How would you describe "shifting" exactly?
"It's a really embarrassingly repressed Catholic-Irish version of French kissing. It's almost like you'll get pregnant if you use tongue. It was an art."
In the book, Jim studies chakra and auric fields. What do you think about those things?
"That New Age stuff is autobiographical because I spent a year and a half in this tiny Scottish fishing village called Findhorn. Next door to the fishing village was a famous spiritual foundation that people come from all over the world to. My wife bought me one healing session with this amazing Dutch healer.
"I told him before the session began that I find New Age philosophies embarrassing and lame. And he put me up on a massage table and held on to my ankles, and I had a complete spasm-y fit.
"That really stuck with me. I thought, what is that Hamlet quote?: 'There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.' I kind of felt like that. Maybe there is a space for New Age 'binjy-banjy' in the world."
If you were facing a classroom of creative writing students, what would you tell them?
"I would tell them that I think you have to be sort of violently honest. My experience in writing the book is literally any paragraph where I started to go away from my emotional experience, it started to feel blank and fake. It can be a fantastical experience but as long as it was mapped to some experience that I had, to something real, then it was really easy to do.
"... My feeling is no matter who might get upset at the end of it, just try to be — it's a real cliché — but try to be truthful."
This interview has been edited and condensed.