How to pronounce Darragh McKeon: Da-ra McKeon
Darragh McKeon discusses his novel, All That Is Solid Melts into Air
What inspired you to write a novel set around the Chernobyl disaster of 1986?
I was 10 years old when the Berlin Wall came down and I was really intrigued by the imagery and language surrounding that event. 'The Iron Curtain' is a very evocative phrase for a kid. I can remember imagining that half of Europe was literally partitioned by a chain-link curtain. It all kept becoming more absorbing: the Velvet Revolution. The Eastern Bloc. Star Wars (the military space programme, not the George Lucas cash cow). A neighbour named his cats after the Communist Party policies Glasnost and Perestroika. The Soviet Union became a place of fascination for me.
A few years later, children from the regions surrounding Chernobyl came to stay in my hometown for the summer, hosted by local families. Until then my only knowledge of the disaster was the images that have become so familiar, of infants with shocking physical abnormalities. But here were teenagers my own age who appeared to be in full health. You would see them in shops, staring at the goods on the shelves. The dentists in the area would take care of their teeth. There were a few cringingly awkward cultural exchange evenings in the function room of a pub.
Details were passed by word of mouth: their lives would be significantly extended by even a short stay in our town; many of them lived in apartment blocks twenty storeys high; each apartment was the size an average Irish kitchen. By age 14 I had seen perhaps one building taller than four storeys, so this fact in itself was incredible. Ultimately, it became my way in to the subject. When I sat down to write, years later, I began by imagining what kind of lives they led in these vast communist apartment blocks.
In my late teens I watched the documentary Black Wind/White Land presented by Ali Hewson. I was very struck by interviews with farmers from the exclusion zone around Chernobyl; people who had returned to their land, even though it was infertile, contaminated, deadly; the bizarre tales that emerged from those farms. Later, in my early twenties, I came across photographs of Pripyat, the feeder town for the nuclear plant. The place seemed stunned, so stark in its abandonment, and I recalled those farmers and wondered at the strength of the bond that had pulled them home. This is what propelled me into research and then into writing.
When did you visit Russia and how did this trip affect the novel?
I didn't visit until very, very late into the process. I started my research in 2004, but it was only in 2011, after my agent had shown serious interest, that I finally went to Russia.
It probably cost me a couple of years in terms of how much research I had to do to compensate, but on a practical level - both in terms of time and money - I couldn't afford the trip. When I started out writing the book I was scraping a living as a theatre director and each production places enormous demands on your time. When I could grab a week or two, I'd use it to write. I could probably have borrowed money. But I imagined it would involve a conversation along these lines:
- What are you writing about?
- Eh, the breakdown of the Soviet Union.
- I see. Any part in particular?
- Well, the Chernobyl disaster.
- Did you say you had a publisher interested?
- Right. And you're looking for some money?
I really couldn't face it.
Not travelling had its own benefits though. I had no idea, in general terms, what Moscow looked like at that time. There are very few books in English that give an insight into day-to-day life in Russia in the 70s and 80s. There weren't even photographs to turn to. Russian photographers have written that if you used a camera on the streets at that time, you were suspected of spying. I had only a few details to work from, so instead I had to concentrate everything on the interior world of my characters.
Arriving in Moscow was both exhilarating and slightly unnerving. I had written a few scenes based in specific locations: one that springs to mind is when Yevgeni, a small boy with a broken finger, gets caught in a rainstorm in the area between the Lomonosov University and the Moscow State Circus. When I was researching, Moscow didn't have Google streetview, so I used a combination of Panoramio photos and Googlemaps. I knew what fragments of these places looked like and how they were linked, and I often travelled through them in my imagination. Seeing these places for myself was as if my imaginings had been made real, but also greatly altered. It was a little like walking into a gallery to see a famous painting and being completely familiar with its composition but totally surprised by its scale.
So, you've been working on this novel for almost 10 years, can you tell us a bit about what these years were like?
When I started writing, even though I had researched very diligently, I think I hadn't quite admitted to myself that I was working on such an epic novel. I was fitting the writing around my life, slotting in a few days when I could.
After two or three years I realised that you can't write a half-assed book about the collapse of the Soviet Union. I had to either drop it altogether or fully commit to it. So I rented a small warehouse room in an industrial estate in north London, closed the door and shut myself away for a few years. The building was owned by a family of Hasidic Jews. They split it into units, put a shower, a sink and a radiator into each, and rented them out to anyone who was prepared to live in such basic conditions. Mostly these were artists: photographers, a drag queen, a DJ, furniture designers. The basic conditions didn't just suit artists though. In the next building was a Chinese sweatshop. Underneath us, a Polish brothel set up for a few months.
Occasionally I fell behind on my bills. At one point a bailiff burst into my apartment with a warrant to take everything I owned because I was 220 pounds in arrears on my council tax. But I wrote and wrote, sometimes all night, sometimes getting up before dawn. There were weeks I barely left my apartment.
My agent contacted me around seven years in. I signed a publishing deal a year later.
How did your work in the theatre affect your writing? Why did you change disciplines?
Peter Brook the legendary English director - says that a director is someone who has a stronger sense of direction than the others in the room, someone who has an instinct for which way to point a story. My novel has several storylines. Because of my background I was able to adapt as they unfolded and guide them towards an ending. So being a director was a great foundation. The most useful lessons were those I learned from watching choreographers at work. They really understand how to take an abstract concept - such as rhythm or repetition or gesture - and turn it into something real and alive. I think this mainly affected my sentences, but also on some of the larger set pieces in the book - such as Mathias Rust, the German pilot who landed his uncle's plane in Red Sqaure, or the explosion at Chernobyl. I think I approached these with a choreographer's eye as much as a writer's eye. It wasn't so much that I changed disciplines, at a certain point my writing just took over.
Which authors have you been inspired by?
Colum McCann's Dancer was a big influence for me. Reading a Dubliner write about a Russian ballet dancer gave me permission to take on a subject that was so distant from my own experience. There are many others: E.L. Doctorow, Andrei Makine, John Berger, Marilynne Robinson, Neil Jordan for a start.
But I keep coming back to Don DeLillo and Michael Ondaatje.
How do you feel about the novel now that it's finished? What do you hope that people will take away from reading the novel?
The beauty of being a writer is that you get to inhabit different worlds for long periods of time. Having spent so many years imagining the lives of a nine-year-old piano prodigy or of a metal worker in a vast car factory, it will take some time to step away from them. I sometimes wonder if I'll be capable of writing about anything else.
For me, the mark of a good play or film or book is that it stays with you for a few days afterwards. I hope my writing is strong enough to have that effect on readers.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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