Shane Hegarty, ‘Just parts of the story’, interview with Keith Ridgeway, in The Irish Times (24 Jan. 2003).

‘I’m never quite satisfied with the things I’ve written, and the further I move away from them the less happy I am’, writer Keith Ridgway tells Shane Hegarty

Keith Ridgway is trying to get over his travel problems. He is fresh in from London, where his airplane was delayed for an hour while they removed luggage belonging to a missing passenger. It was followed by an hour waiting by an unmoving carousel for the luggage to appear at the other end. “I’m a bit knackered to tell you the truth.” He is a regular commuter, having lived in London for almost four years now, and it is beginning to affect his relationship with Dublin, where he spent 33 years.

“It sometimes feels like I’m not quite in on everything. It’s very easy to lose touch or to get the feeling that you’ve lost touch. It is becoming quite odd to come back.” It’s a dilemma for a writer who has thus far has rooted his work very firmly in Dublin. His first novel, The Long Falling took on themes of the urban/rural divide, using Dublin as a foil to the rest of the country. His short story collection Standard Time evoked a Dublin of plentiful secrets.

And now The Parts. It is a multi-stranded novel in which the lives of six characters run parallel to each other, interweave, and eventually come crashing into one another’s. It is a novel about characters, but it can’t avoid making Dublin one of them. At times it is sharper with the city than it is with its inhabitants, the writing becomes more succinct and confident when portraying a place which, like its people, has endless personalities and versions of itself. A city that looks different to each person in it.

“Most of the things I write tend to be character driven. I didn’t set out to write anything specifically about Dublin. It’s inevitable that if you take a character and set them in Dublin that they are going to say something about how Dublin is. But that isn’t what I set out to do, and I think that I wasn’t so concerned about getting things accurate to the point where I’d get frustrated by where people might drink or whatever.”

He’s not yet sure what The Parts is about, though. “I’m only starting to do publicity and interviews for this book, and I still haven’t worked out the ‘What is it about?’ question. I’m dreading the first person who hasn’t read the book asking that, because I really am trying various ways of figuring out myself. But I just can’t. I often find myself saying things that are not the case.” He is only getting used to this sort of question again. The Long Falling used the X case as a narrative backdrop, leading to the assumption that a political statement was being made.

“People would ask me questions as if I was a constitutional expert. Endless questions. Of course, I’m stupid and I just try to answer them and get completely lost. I keep having to remind myself again and again that all I do is tell these little stories and beyond that I have no expertise or insight at all.” Being hard on himself does seem to be a condition of his. The use of the X case was, he says, “a prop” because he didn’t have enough confidence in the original story. “In fact, I quite regret it now. I read that book again and it’s like someone else wrote it. I don’t quite understand where it came from. That X case stuff strikes me as quite clumsy now, sort of stapled on.” Prizes followed - the Rooney Prize, both the Prix Femina Etranger and the Prix Premier Roman in France - but objective praise doesn’t convince him.

“I’m never quite satisfied with the things I’ve written, and the further I move away from them the less happy I am. Although, if you were ever completely satisfied then you would probably stop.” In his last interview with The Irish Times, in 1998, he was already describing the outline of The Parts. That it took five years to reach the shelves was not, he says, because it was particularly difficult, but because he tends to spend too much time thinking about a story before writing it.

“The writing drives me quite mad. You would think that the more I do it the easier it gets, but it doesn’t. I find it quite difficult, quite exhausting and draining. When I’m coming to the conclusion of something I’m not good to be around. The whole thing is a bit of an ordeal. Of course, it’s great to be able to write full-time. It’s what I always wanted to do. I think about it 24 hours a day, but thinking about it isn’t doing it.” He writes in scraps, sketches out characters until he gets to their core. In The Parts, he says, the main character Kez - a rent boy of many identities - never quite got beyond that stage. In the book, he is represented by a different typeface and by abrupt interruptions of the main narrative, sometimes mid-sentence.

“I was intrigued by the notion of a guy having a connection with so many lives, but only a fleeting one, and how he would appear to so many people. Everyone would have a different view of him. And I was interested in how these would become confused and if they could then be thrown out completely.”

Everyone, he says, has these multiple personalities, versions of themselves which they present whenever needed. He wanted the characters to catch glimpses of themselves and each other in the mirror, to catch these different versions.

Kez’s view of Dublin is from the alleys and rented rooms, sketching another side of gay Dublin to go alongside that of domesticity and saunas of The Long Falling. As The Parts progresses, the sexuality - more accurately, the homosexuality - of several of the characters becomes more central.

“I wasn’t trying to say anything. It was just in the writing and I realised that most of the characters turned out to be gay. I don’t know, maybe I’m just more comfortable talking about gay characters.” Does he worry about the book being categorised as a gay novel or of him being categorised as a gay writer? “You can’t worry about it or else you’d never write anything. What could you do? Irish writer. Queer writer. You’re already stuck with the burden of these things. Most of the time they’re fine. Occasionally some things are expected of you because of it, although more so in the case of being an Irish writer than a queer writer. The further away you get from Ireland, the more people expect a certain type of outlook and the more disappointed they are when you don’t turn out that way.”

He is already planning the next novel. “It’s going quite slowly and I’m not quite sure what it is.” Does he have even a vague idea? “I do, but I’m not telling you.” It will not, however, be based in Dublin. Being away so long is pushing him towards other settings. “Being outside Dublin wasn’t a problem for The Parts, but I suspect it will be a problem in the future.” Time for a new identity.

The Parts by Keith Ridgway, published by Faber & Faber, £14.99

 

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