Some notes from the author ...
Kilbrack was bought for publication in 1987, but it wasn’t until 1989 that it came to be edited. In manuscript the book was a sprawling mess, and my editor demanded: “Cut it by a third. And lose two characters.”
“Which two characters?” I inquired.
“Any two,” she answered: “it doesn’t matter which.”
It was one of the most arduous undertakings of my life. The original MS had been penned in a season of happy and innocent plenty. My life had changed drastically since. Now, in ’89, when I came to this re-writing, I was living on the edge in London, more or less homeless – and my dog with me too! I was determined to infuse into the light and frothy original the darker truths that life so recently had betrayed. (Not life, but fate – as O’Leary Montagu, the novel’s hero, would put it: “tricky-handed fate”.) Did I succeed? It’s hardly for me to say.
The township of “Kilbrack” is based on a village in County Tipperary where I had spent some months working as a barman in a back-water, no-hot-water, one-room pub. The customers were few and far between: country people, very much stuck in their ways and outrageously suspicious of this newcomer in their midst. O’Leary Montagu’s inadequacy behind the bar reflects my own. I never did get the hang of pouring stout, sufficient to meet the clientele’s satisfaction. Instead I thought to interest them in cocktails, and I can claim of my time at that bar that I introduced the Harvey Wallbanger to Tipperary. With small success: it was stout the people wanted, and in the end I gave up and let the customers pour their own. Those customers, of course, were the models for the characters we meet in Kilbrack.
There are some good jokes in the novel. My favourite is the confusion of lesbians with avocados. And there are moments of poetry too. An old folk-rhyme tells of magpies: that the seeing of one magpie forbodes sorrow, the seeing of two foretells joy. What Kilbrack asks, I suppose, in the end, is: What do no magpies mean?
And I’m proud that all those years ago I felt the same as I do now about tolerance. It is not the opposite of intolerance: it is some wishy-washy in-between. The true opposite of intolerance is encouragement. It is encouragement that people need, especially the young, and most especially young gay people.
There is no acceptable name for those islands which comprise Britain and Ireland. The usual term – the British Isles – indicates an unwarranted ownership of the one by the other. But for readers not from these islands I should explain what a “lemon jiffy” is. Lemon jiffy? It is a plastic lemon-shaped lemon-coloured thing – commonly available at your local grocery – the lemon-knobbed skin of which conceals a source of lemon-flavoured juice. Cooks might buy it to have a reliable (though unfresh) source of lemon for cooking, etc. Why wouldn’t they buy an ordinary lemon? Here at last the usual term can profitably be used. It’s the British Isles, don’t you know.
An encouraging word to aspirant writers
Kilbrack was first published in 1990 by the London publishers Weidenfeld & Nicolson. A clever way of answering the question “How did it do?” would be to say, “It didn’t.” Such little splash did it make, it could hardly be said to have flopped. The publishers refused it a paperback release. Strange to say, I wasn’t too put out. At least I had been published, and by a respectable London house. I was no longer in awe of publication and I felt myself released from the dread onus of expectation. For my next book I would take my time, travel where I would, find my voice, my truth, whatever you call it, unhindered by hope or ambition.
That book, of course, was At Swim, Two Boys. Its reception might be summed up in the term “critical success” – happy words for any aspiring writer. An upshot of this was a new-kindled interest in my previous works. The rights to Kilbrack were dusted off. Now it has been published anew and is available throughout the English-speaking world. There are even translations in store: Italian and Polish.
My point is that the most dismal failure need not be final. The unloved book, the scorned manuscript, may still one day find a readership. The only course for a writer is to continue writing. Because writing, in the end, is what writers do.
I had come to despise Kilbrack. I could not read it, I could not bear to see it on my shelves. It seemed to me not so much a previous novel as a novel of a previous incarnation. Then, last Christmas, advance copies of the US publication arrived. Armed with a bottle of holiday champagne, I withdrew to my study and read the book at one sitting. I was surprised: I really enjoyed it. I found it both funny and touching. I was telling this to a friend in the media business here, and he responded: “That’s easy, so. Give a free bottle of champagne with every copy, and you’ve got yourself a bestseller.”