in conversation with Jesse Montgomery

Being a teenager is a rough business and we all know it. For most of us, year thirteen or fourteen marked our entrance into that first period of prolonged transition, where our irretrievable childhood begins to shade, class period by class period, into some imagined adulthood. The process is a painful one, and, if we are to emerge as beautiful, tri-lingual, Princeton bound butterflies, we have to leave a lot in the cocoon (level 18 half-Elf wizards, Blink-182, and Mad TV, for example).

Set at Dublin’s Seabrook Academy – a venerated private high school known for preparing the next generation of bankers and businessman – Paul Murray’s new novel Skippy Dies is a big, brilliant romp through this period in life, and a strong contender for my favorite book of last year. Both boisterous and melancholic, the book manages to portray the extremes of adolescence with a humor and concern that never condescends or stoops to cynicism. Instead, Murray delivers what is one of the warmest, funniest, and most readable stories of the year.

Longlisted for Britain and Ireland’s prestigious Man Booker Prize, and quickly optioned by famed Irish film director Neil Jordan, Skippy Dies was without a doubt one of the big sleeper successes of 2010. Because Murray so adeptly blends a generous depiction of the trials of youth with a sharp critique of the world young people have been handed, the novel feels balanced in a way that most books about children do not.

Paul Murray and I spoke over the phone early one morning in late December. We talked about the common plight of teenagers, credit bubbles, and the inevitable approach of the specter of Death.

First of all congratulations on all of the great press you’ve been getting, I saw that Skippy Dies was named TIME’s third best book of the year over here…

Oh yeah, it’s amazing, that…

To begin with a broad question: how was your year?

My year was…pretty strange and exciting [laughs]. It was very different from how I thought it was going to go because I didn’t really see any of this stuff coming down the line at all. I sort of thought of [Skippy Dies] as being kind of a long, quite strange book whose humor might click with some sort of a cult audience. But I never anticipated it finding the readership it has. [The year has] been a real lesson in not ever thinking you can second guess what life is going to do.

At what point did you realize that Skippy Dies was going to be such a hit?

Well, the Booker thing was the real game changer. Skippy Dies got great reviews in the UK and here in Ireland, but when you publish a book you get maybe a month of publicity and then that’s kind of the end of it. But when the Booker noms came out in July it really took off. The Booker is just such a huge deal over here, you couldn’t overstate it. Books don’t really enter the national conversation at all, except for the Booker prize, and it’s sort of the one aspect of the publishing industry that the media pays any attention to. When your book gets nominated it suddenly starts selling in much larger numbers and people start picking up on it who wouldn’t have picked up on it before. That’s where it all started, I guess, that was a clear change. And then the rest of it. It sort of came out in the States with that wind still in the sails.

When did Neil Jordan decide that he’d like to turn it into a movie?

I think it was in March or April. That was also really strange [laughs].

You may be tired of hearing this, but your description of high school is pretty uncanny. I was actually working in a public high school when I read Skippy Dies, and was floored by just how much seemed to be held in common between the kids in your book and the kids that I work with.

I mean, adolescence is something that everybody has to go through. That may be a banal way to say it, but I think that’s partly why the book has crossed over. It’s an extremely difficult thing to go through, and I think the tragedy of the world at the moment is that it’s more and more intent on turning us all into teenagers and making us long for this period in our life when we were totally at sea. I mean, you know what it’s like to be fourteen – it’s awful, really, really, awful. I don’t know why anyone would want to put themselves back in that time in their life.

So much of the novel exhibits a profound concern for the world today’s kids have been handed, one which you have written is “devoted to erasing the past.” Could you elaborate on that?

In Ireland there was an economic boom [that lasted] for the last ten years, which was called, unfortunately, the Celtic Tiger. The main twist of the Celtic Tiger was that Ireland quickly went from being a church-bound, rural, poor country to an incredibly wealthy country making a lot of money from IT and computers, and all of a sudden, everybody was buying things all the time. That became the national pastime, the national discourse. Any kind of wealth signifier, people were just fucking there.

And what people seemed to be up to was distancing themselves from their own past. It’s like people were ashamed of having been poor, and having been unsophisticated, and having been vulnerable. The whole country was trying to banish that image of Ireland as a backward, parochial place and replace it with this new image of Ireland as a gleaming, shiny, cutting-edge country. This was, of course, impossible, but it was also really dangerous because there were so many people who didn’t fit that image of sophistication, wealth, and success. Those people were basically erased from the picture. If you were poor, if you were marginalized, if you were old, you weren’t a part of this new version of society we were being given. In a time of great wealth and opportunity, those people were left to fend for themselves, and I think that is not unique to Ireland.

I was actually studying in Galway at the beginning of the end of all that, right when the housing market was starting to go belly up and banks were beginning to collapse. I remember noticing those topics of non-discussion – the Travelers, for example – even as an outsider.

Yeah, yeah. I mean, in a way I think science has replaced religion. We’re still just looking for someone to tell us what to do because we think that the world we live in is fucking unendurably horrible, and instead of tackling the many problems that are around us we look for some sort of magic bullet, or magic elevator that will lift us out of the world we find ourselves in. And that’s kind of what the book is about, I guess. So, erasing the past, erasing the present, just trying to get away from where we actually are right now – that’s the logic of capitalism, right? To make people dissatisfied and then offer them false ways out of it.

Of all the characters in the book, which was the most fun to write?

Most fun? The dialogue between the kids was probably the most fun to write. I really enjoyed the jokes, I think there are some good jokes in there. When you are working on a book for seven years, and you’re reading the same things over and over again, it’s hard to see the good things after awhile. But, if there’s a joke in there that I still find funny after x years, that really helps you keep going with it. So a character like Dennis or Mario, they were very fun to write. There’s also a character named Carl, a quite scary, violent boy, who I really enjoyed writing. He’s not an intelligent person, so it was interesting to try and represent someone who doesn’t really have the vocabulary to describe, or even understand, how he’s feeling. It’s like someone who’s never driven a car finds themselves hurtling down the freeway.

In his introduction to Richard Farina’s Been Down So Long it Looks Like Up To Me, Thomas Pynchon writes that “undergraduate consciousness rests in part on a set of careless assumptions about being immortal. The elitism and cruelty often found in college humor arises from this belief in one’s own Exemption.” I always liked that quote, and kept returning to it as I read Skippy Dies. Do you think Pynchon’s quote holds true for teenage consciousness?

I love Pynchon and that’s a great bit of writing, that introduction. But yeah, I think that’s true. [Kids] behave in extreme ways because they can’t conceive of dying or being hurt. As you get older – I’m in my mid-thirties – you become more aware death; it sort of seeps into your consciousness and you become aware of the down side of everything. But yeah, teenagers think they’re immortal. More worryingly though, is that in a world which encourages us to act like teenagers, society at large thinks it’s immortal. That’s the really scary thing.

You can see it writ small or writ medium in our sort of encouraging these cycles of manias that we’ve seen in the last ten years like the internet boom, the property boom, and the credit bubble. These are a result of really smart people acting in a really foolish way because they can’t conceive of failing or being wrong. I think it all comes down to the same thing: a really wrongheaded sense of your own doom, and I think we need to recognize that reality is contingent, everything you do is arbitrary, and no one really knows what’s going on. I think everyone should sort of have that branded on their arm: that you don’t know what’s happening, you don’t know what’s happening.

I mean, it’s the same thing here with global warming. I’m looking out my window now at yet another incredible snowfall. It never snowed in Ireland, but this year we’ve had about twenty days of really heavy snow, and we had the new national record set for lowest temperature night before last at minus-seventeen. That stuff is real and it’s changing the world around us right now, but because we can’t imagine the whole fucking thing collapsing on top of us we go “oh well, you know, the scientists will fix it,” or, “someone will save us at some point, so we can just carry on as we are.” But we can’t carry on as we are, you know? At some point we’re going to have to own up to the looming specter of…you know…death.

On that note: Skippy Dies took you seven years to write. Are you planning to rest on your laurels for the next seven years, or start something new? I hear sequels and zombies are big now so…

[laughs] Yeah, man, zombies are a good way to go…I don’t know though. I’d like to write something short, that’s what I’d like to do, something short and funny. I’m going to try and not spend seven years on the next book. That’s my main object.

Did you manage to get much reading done this year?

Yeah, I read a lot of great books, it was a good reading year. The one that really stood out to me was a book called The Rehearsal, by Eleanor Catton who’s from New Zealand. It’s set in a drama academy and its just quite quick; an awfully funny novel, mostly with young protagonists. What else did I read? A book called Me Cheetah? Which is sort of the autobiography of the monkey in the Tarzan films, really really funny book, The Ask by Sam Lipsyte, Freedom, which was just a joy to read, I thought, The Possessed by Elif Batuman which is a truly funny book… I read Tristram Shandy, which people had been telling me to read for years and years and years, and always seemed like it could quite possibly be very annoying because its sort of “postmodernism in the eighteenth century,” which seems like a potentially annoying combination, but it’s…have you read it?

Not really, just bits and pieces. I’ve read the beginning where he narrates his own birth…

Yeah, it was a joy. It was really a wonderful book. It’s very warm and its very funny and the digressions work because the central characters are so lovingly drawn. I found it really instructive, because the novel is such a capacious form and you can really do what you want as long as you do it well.

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