Wednesday, 18 September 2013

The Kindness of Strangers

The Kindness of Strangers
Samizdat Publishing in Ireland in the 21st Century

A brief account of the writing and publication of the novel The Kindness of Strangers

At the end of 2010, about a month after The Year of Disappearances was published I was being interviewed by historian Patrick Geoghegan for his Talking History programme. During the interview Geoghegan asked me what my next project might be. I explained to him the origin of The Year of Disappearances, how it came out of a novel I had written about Sing Sing and the killings at Knockraha, and that I was planning to bring that novel out sometime in the following year or two. Geoghegan signed off by saying that he looked forward to interviewing next year about the novel – even though this was a history programme, not a literary one.

The point is that the novel never came out – until now – but the story of its pre-publication travails is an interesting one and one that is instructive for anyone contemplating writing about subjects that some people would rather were not written about. The novel I wrote between 1999 and 2003 and which I called The Kindness of Strangers – the title came early which is unusual for me – deals with some of the more gruesome and tragic of the events that took place in Cork during the War of Independence. It is set largely in Knockraha and is based on the composite experiences of a number of Volunteers in the area, several of whom were relatives of mine. These were republicans; they were prepared, as one neighbor put it, to ‘do their bit’ for Ireland. They were prepared to die for Ireland, come to that. But they were not happy with a lot of what was going on in the area; they were not happy with the nightly killings and the grim task of regularly burying bodies in the locality. They felt they were being used, and they were.

Because the subject matter was so delicate – as well as being appallingly dark – I believed then that the only way to deal with it would be through the medium of fiction. Besides, I had little historical research done at that stage and I had never written non-fiction. Having said that, compared to writing fiction, writing non-fiction is a dawdle. You marshal your facts and away you go.

The writing of The Kindness of Strangers was a heartbreaking, eviscerating experience. The book went through countless drafts and was eventually whittled down to just over half its original size. I even called upon the help of an editor to go through the manuscript one last time, so sick was I of looking at it – and not for the usual reasons that writers become tired of their work-in-progress but because of the amount of suffering in the book. Yet in that suffering lies its unspeakable truth. When it was finished I showed it to my agent and a number of people whose judgment I valued. The word came back that they thought it was very good. I expected I’d have no problem in publishing it, having at that stage two novels published in Ireland, both of which, while they were not bestsellers, at least covered their publisher’s expenses. Ten years ago it was still possible for relatively unknown novelists to get their work published, assuming it was good enough.

The first question publishers asked on receiving the manuscript of The Kindness of Strangers was ‘is this true?’ In other words, was it based on fact? When I said, of course it was. I was told that I was effectively doing the story a disservice by publishing it as fiction. ‘People will want to know how much of this is literally true’, one publisher said. ‘You will not get away with publishing it like this, particularly in Ireland. People will want to know the factual details.’ So I was sent off to the stacks much against my own instincts and ended up almost a decade later with a ton of historical research done and The Year of Disappearances. This is not how I would have wanted it. A history book is provisional; it is dependent on the sources available at the time of writing. I could see that with the centenary of these events looming that a whole raft of new material would be released in the years up to and including 2023. This would almost certainly make parts of the book obsolete. To do a proper job on the subject you would probably have to wait perhaps another decade. But I might not be around by then; and if I was I might not have the energy for such a task. So against all my instincts, I researched and wrote it.

I’m glad I did it now though, not because I found answers to all the questions I posed at the beginning, but because I found the right questions to ask. It will not be possible now to avoid the awkward issues posed by The Year of Disappearances much as some people might like, or go down the road of wishy-washy ambivalence which has characterized much of Irish historical writing of the period. The Year of Disappearances asks hard questions. I make no apologies for that. But it is a history book and, as such, is provisional. Better books will be written on the subject, perhaps, with any luck, books that are even more probing. At least that’s what one hopes.

But if a novel is good – good as a piece of literature that is – it may last on its own right. So I was optimistic that, now that the essential history of Sing Sing and the Kockraha killings was firmly in the public domain that I would have no problem now in finding a publisher for The Kindness of Strangers. You would think that, with all the controversy that went along with the publication of The Year of Disappearances, which no doubt boosted sales, and the broadcasting of In the Name of the Republic, a TV documentary on the subject made in 2013, that I’d have no problem in having it published. You might think that, but you’d be wrong.

There are a number of factors at work here and it is not possible to pinpoint the exact reasons why the book failed to see the light of day. But the bottom line is that Irish publishers would not touch it, despite my agent sending it out to anybody who one would expect might have been interested. The subject matter is of course grim. The book is not for the faint-hearted. We don’t like to look up close and personal on this kind of stuff. But that is the whole point. To be truthful you have to live in the place your character lives and see the world that he sees and see it through his eyes. Many of the men who were involved in the killings at Knockraha were damaged by what they had witnessed. I know this because I am related to some of them. (Others, of course, could casually boast of their deeds. But as secret British recordings of Wehrmacht officers held in captivity during the World War II show, it takes all kinds to run a death facility.)

It is also true that we are going through a massively disruptive phase in the history of publishing. It is now extremely difficult to get novels published in Ireland and the UK unless you are an established author – and even the latter are now finding it difficult. Also publishers like to categorize their writers. If you’re a historian, say, then you cannot possibly write fiction and if you’re a fiction writer you cannot possibly write history and so on. The market dictates and publishers are conservative. Most genre-jumping authors are considerably better in one genre than another. Philip Larkin for instance was an average fiction writer though he was an incomparably great poet. Who reads Arthur Conan Doyle’s historical work now? Others however benefited from mixing genres. Orwell is a case in point. His fiction and non-fiction fed off each other to the benefit of both. Any half-decent writer should be able to dabble in all genres, if only for the fun of it. (Which is why I once wrote a spoof crime novel, mainly because I wanted to take the mickey out of various elements of Irish society and literary pretension.) Eventually, of course, you realize you have only one life and that you’d better prioritize and get to work on what you really want to leave behind. And what I wanted was to produce one good book, just one.

The main problem in my case, however, was that the controversy caused by The Year of Disappearances was itself a barrier to publication. Publishers were running scared of what I call the Alias Smith & Jones brigade (‘and all the trains and banks they robbed, they never shot anyone’): republican polemicists and apologists who make life as miserable as possible for anyone who dares to tell certain truths about Irish history – particularly where Protestants is concerned. From Tom Dunne to Peter Hart to myself, if you say that Protestants were ever targeted (for any reason) in any of the Irish wars then, as old Redmondite propaganda used to put it, you’re sure to be ‘hung from a sour apple tree’. They even take this fight to publishers and in the case of Peter Hart to Trinity College when they tried to have his PhD degree posthumously rescinded on the basis of minor, even debatable, errors they found in his footnotes. This is not so much a case of the tail wagging the dog as a single hair wagging the tail that wags the dog. But no publisher wants these legions of wretched propagandists emailing and pestering and writing to papers and manipulating online commentary and trying to cause as much trouble as possible. Life is too short.

So for various reasons, political, historical and commercial realities conspired to ensuring that The Kindness of Strangers remained on the hard drive. Yet my belief – and I would say this, would'n’t I? – is that The Kindness of Strangers, if it manages to find a readership, will probably outlast The Year of Disappearances. Because fiction can tell the truth much more economically and effectively and without the caveats or the kind of footnotery that is necessary for historical writing. History tells us what happened. Fiction tells us – or at least should tell us – what it’s like to be there when it happened. Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago in all its volumes of appalling detail tells us what it was like for many people in Russia in the middle years of the 20th century. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich tells us what it was like to be there, and it tells us in 140-odd pages. Is it vastly inferior? I think not, though it depends on the former for its authority.

So, difficult and all as it is to believe in a liberal democracy in the 21st century, it is possible for a book like The Kindness of Strangers to remain unpublished because it offends certain people and does not suit the political agenda of others. This is not the state-sponsored barbarism that Solzhenitsyn had to put up with it, but it is heading that way. There are eerie parallels between the barracking he got from Russian Literary Gazette in the 1960s and the kind of abuse heaped on Hart and myself in Ireland for daring to say what cannot be said. Mikhail Bulgakov once complained to Stalin that there were 301 reviews of his work in the Soviet press; 298 of those were hostile or abusive. The internet is the modern equivalent of state-sponsored propaganda and censorship. If you were to go by the first page or two of a Google search for The Year of Disappearances a year ago you would be forgiven for thinking it had never received a positive review. But the internet is also a wonderful facility. I was able to compile this blog in order to tell the truth and maintain a foothold in the first page of Google – which is otherwise swamped by an army of semi-professional republican clickers – to combat the negative propaganda.

But there are other parallels. Writers critical of the old Soviet Union had to publish their work on samizdat presses, underground publication in which tracts were published, photocopied and disseminated secretly. Thanks to Amazon’s CreateSpace and other similar outlets, it is now possible to do something similar, even if Amazon’s moves to world domination in the book business is surely not in the interests of writers no more than it is in the interests of the book trade as a whole. Nonetheless, you can now publish The Kindness of Strangers online and get it to a potential readership and nobody can do anything about it. You can fly the limitations of a local publishing market, whether these are commercial or as a result of bowing to pressure and propaganda. Professional polemicists can’t plant negative reviews in the press because newspapers do not review online publications. Because there’s no forum other than sock-puppet ‘reviewing’ on Amazon they can’t use their influence with the Irish media to position second-raters to pick holes or find spurious ‘faults’ with the book. And of course you also avoid the nauseating process of interviews/reviews and self-promotion that normal publication entails, where, on this particular subject, every word you utter is liable to be distorted or picked upon.

There are three reasons why you should buy this book. One is that I like to think it’s a good book – of course I would say that – but a work of fiction is answerable only to itself and succeeds or fails only on the terms it sets out for itself. I would also hope it finds a readership beyond the relatively limited realm of those who are interested in Irish history. For the latter of course it only works if it genuinely depicts what it was like to be there, in East Cork, at the edge of the pit in 1921, putting people down on a nightly basis. But I would like to think it is more universal than that, that there are universal truths there, about the nature of war, of man’s inhumanity to man and about the vulnerability of individuals on all sides of any conflict and how no one side has a monopoly on victim-hood. (Dinny, the young IRA man in the novel, is as much a victim as those he is burying.)

But there is another reason for reading this and the truths that it contains, one which applies in particular to Irish readers. We must stand not aside and let political propagandists dictate what can or cannot constitute history. History is what happened; it is not what people might like to think happened. Nor is it something to be distorted for political ends. We must not brush these matters under the carpet, either willfully or otherwise. This is a new and very dangerous form of censorship. If we are to go down the road of accepting what people like the online ‘critics’ of The Year of Disappearances say, we are sailing very close to fascism. This is a scary place. It should never be forgotten that Hitler was voted into power.

So this is a form of samizdat publishing. All in all, I’m reasonably happy with it. The process avoids many the things I hate about being a writer. Whether or not it works and the book finds a readership remains to be seen. But one thing is sure: nobody would ever read it while was still buried on the hard drive.

Gerard Murphy 18/09/2013

Sources for The Kindness of Strangers:

James Fitzgerald, Cnoc Ratha, History and Folklore of Knockraha (Knockraha, 2005).
Tom O’Neill, The Battle of Clonmult: The IRA’s Worst Defeat (Dublin, 2006).
Gerard Murphy, The Year of Disappearances, Political Killings in Cork, 1921-1922, 2nd Ed, (Dublin 2011).
The statements of Martin Corry, Michael Leahy, Mick Murphy, Edmund Desmond and Sean Culhane in the Ernie O’Malley notebooks (P17b/-) Department of Archives UCD.