The Booker prize nominee and Irish Times/Aer Lingus award winner, Pat Mc Cabe talks to Pat Collins about his novels and his jump into the world of screen writing.




The most common supposition concerning Pat Mc Cabe is that people expect him to be a little strange. After all, the creator of The Butcher Boy must have a dark side to him. He seems to have captured the readers' imagination and in so doing has got his personal life and the characters of his books intertwined in the public's mind in a way that few other writers have to contend with. When you actually meet him he's friendly, courteous and probably even ordinary. Only his references to Corman, Hitchcock and general horror/schlock movies give sustenance to the notion that there is, if not a 'macabre' side, at least an offbeat element to his outlook on life.

Though Mc Cabe is known primarily as a writer of novels and as a playwright, he has recently been linked with television and film, most notably as a screenwriter for Neil Jordan who plans to film Mc Cabe's novel The Butcher Boy. Also he is currently working on a script for Thaddeus O' Sullivan. He does not differentiate between his writings; they are all part of the same drive that first set him on his course as a teller of stories.

His rise to prominence has been slow and steady and bereft of any of the hype that can sometimes cling to a writer. His first novel Music on Clinton St came and went without much ado. His second novel Carn was much more assured but only hinted at the extraordinary talent which emerged in the 250 pages of The Butcher Boy.

By anyone's standards, The Butcher Boy is an extraordinary and fascinating novel. It begins innocently enough, with only the slightest hint of menace. But as it progresses, the central character, Francie Brady, grows and matures, in age only, and we are slowly dragged into a nightmarish world of twisted logic, painful loneliness and unspeakable sadness. You yearn for the original humour to return, if only briefly, but there is no solace, no light moment, and no resting place. Mc Cabe explains, "There is a sense of Hitchcock's style, of just laying the thing, keeping it going on. You think you are going one way and suddenly everything starts to float in your head and the reader is scared. They've been conned in a way. They love this guy, he's happy-go-lucky. When I was writing it I had this feeling of dread that something terrible is going to happen. Initially, I thought he was going to murder someone all right but I thought it was going to be Philip. It was even scaring me wondering what he was going to do. When it wound up being Mrs Nugent, it was worse than I thought". It's existential in a way, but it's a 'Denis the Menace' kind of existentialism".

Much of Mc Cabe's writing is set in a time when Ireland was breaking free from the conservatism that had for years shrouded the country in a grey haze of paranoia. The characters he creates are living through a time when they can switch from singing old Irish ballads to a Cliff Richard song without stopping to draw breath. Comics are swapped, underwear is mockingly hung on the statue of a republican hero and old pubs with snugs are demolished and sprawling American-type taverns are put in their place, much to the delight of the locals who are only too willing to cast off memories of the past. Mc Cabe is a product of the times he grew up in and relishes the freedom and choice that previous generations were denied. He speaks scathingly of the Ireland that developed after Independence. "I'm 39 now and until I was about ten, Ireland was a very grey place. If you look at the cabinet papers that have just been released, you actually realise what sort of place you were living in and the state that you're father and mother lived through. The abuse they had to put up with, like living in fear of the next life, living in fear of their jobs simply because a certain section of the population had taken control and had actually made the country a more illiberal place than when the British were here; that was the great tragedy of the free state. These people got to power through isolationism. Anything that brings in colour, reveals the true nature of the people, which certainly isn't joylessness is fine with me. This was the image that the people found imposed in them. I know what that other world is like and I know what liberation and excitement I felt with the passing of that isolationism. For example I just love cable TV, I'm zapping all the time. You don't have to take it all, you dump what you don't want. We don't need people to look after us, we've had that for too long."

Mc Cabe is strongly influenced by Ireland in all its manifestations. His conversations are riddled with references to his home town and it has an unquantifiable influence on his work. He believes it is his experience, it is where he feels at home and he instinctively knows the terrain. But what about the darker side of Irish life? It seems to have a dead man's grip on his imagination. "It's about time maybe that I did address the lighter side of things but I don't always get away with it. I start off trying to be light and then it all gets fucking weird. I don't know what that says about me. When I started off this new novel I thought it was going to be great fun, about a young girl but it started wandering into psychotherapy too." This new novel is not the 'new' novel that will be released in May. That novel has already been written and sent to the publishers. It's called The Dead School. A nice light, happy-go-lucky little title.

Mc Cabe is also of the generation, perhaps the first generation, that has had cinema as a constant influence on their lives. It is not surprising therefore that his novels are effortlessly visual. His characters and the places he writes about are devoid of descriptive passages in the physical sense but we are left in no doubt what Francie looks like and we have been in his towns and villages a thousand times. The shop fronts, the streets, the surrounding fields are vivid in our mind. Mc Cabe's own love of the visual medium is obvious from his misty-eyed recollections of going to "the pictures, as we used to call them". Yet, he says that adapting his novel for the screen was never a consideration. He knew it was a very visual novel but he was more than surprised when Neil Jordan rang him up out of the blue, asking him to write the screenplay of The Butcher Boy. "Initially I didn't think it could be made into a film. I thought it would have been too complicated."
The structure of the story in the screenplay remains largely unchanged from the original but there were some new scenes added. Mc Cabe chuckles and becomes animated as he explains one particular scene which Jordan, his obvious soul-mate, penned himself. "The two boys are coming, riding across the Diamond on real horses. They pull up outside this pub and suddenly this grey wind starts whistling and there's dust everywhere, in their faces and their eyes, like a nuclear Winter. They stroll into the bar and there are three figures sitting hunched at the bar. They slowly turn around and they've got pig's faces. That's real Neil Jordan, it fucking is". Whether he knows it or not, it is also pure Mc Cabe.

They had already begun casting in Monaghan and the notices that the film was going ahead appeared in the papers when things started to go wrong for the film. Interview With The Vampire was opening in America to tremendous reviews and with huge box office success. As a result, Neil Jordan was finally offered the golden opportunity to direct his biopic of Michael Collins. It was an offer that Jordan could not refuse. Good news for Jordan but perhaps disappointing for Mc Cabe? "No, not really. These things are in the lap of the Gods. Not until Neil Jordan is ready and that's fine with me".

Mc Cabe's first venture into television drama began with the line "… The world is a sad place, and no mistake. One minute you're as happy as Larry, and the next you're away off with a machine gun to kill all round you". It set the tone for the next half hour and was easily the most innovative drama commissioned by RTE in the 'Two Lives' series. His brief was to write a script for two people and one location but ended up with "five people and two hundred locations, called The Birdman Of Abbeyshrule ." Some months later he tried again and came up with Die Screaming Mama which was to be the blueprint for A Mother's Love's A Blessing. His love of the horror genre was obvious all through the drama, most especially the hilarious parody of Psycho. "I mean it was ludicrous in the same way that Psycho was ludicrous. I was really a big fan of Corman. I've seen all those films God knows how many times. They were always on in the cinema when I was growing up. Anything that was good horror or schlock. I bring all that into my writing. It's so much a part of me that I couldn't keep it out even if I wanted to". Charlie Mc Carthy directed with superb flair and originality and proved himself to be in perfect harmony with the workings of Mc Cabe's mind. The acting of Pat Kinnevane and Joan O'Hara was perfect for this nonchalant, irreverent half-hour of pure pleasure.

There is a family that I know of who have watched A Mother's Love's A Blessing over twenty times. Visitors to the house were ambushed with a video tape of Mc Cabe's debut and were subjected to watch a family lose all sense of reason, as their lips moved in unison with the actors. For months after transmission the young kids walked around the house absentmindedly singing the 'Bridey ' song. It's a reaction that isn't completely unknown to Mc Cabe. "I thought that the people who would like it, would really like it but a lot of people slated it. A few critics just lambasted it. It was ludicrous. They said it was all over the place and the plot didn't make sense. That's the risk you take. Someone came up to my father-in-law and said 'I was looking at that thing your son-in-law wrote on TV. He's stone mad' and said he turned it off after 10 minutes."

He is on record as saying that he was depressed at the quality of television on RTE over the Summer and few could disagree but he does seem to have developed some mild regrets. "Maybe I was being unfair cause it was the silly season ya know. There's been a lot of good stuff on lately so I'm changing my opinion. I was just in bad humour because I wanted to see television and there was nothing on. It came out like some big sweeping statement about the state of television which wasn't my intention at all. I was just pissed off. There's a danger when you haven't your guard up you say things that are quite casual and all of a sudden people are taking you really seriously as if you were some kind of spokesman. I was just speaking as a punter: 'there's nothing on the fucking box man'. It never ceases to amaze me. Why should anyone give a shit what I think about RTE".

In the recent past Mc Cabe would certainly have been recognised as a play wright above his work for the screen but he says that he doesn't thrive under the restrictions of the stage and was recently quoted as saying that he was giving up writing for the theatre in favour of cinema. "I find writing for the theatre incredibly difficult. If I had the choice between going to the theatre and going to the movies I would always go to the movies, so there was something obviously wrong. You shouldn't do that if you are a proper theatre writer. I really believe the magic of the movies and I don't always believe the magic of the theatre. It can be magnificent but I always think they're letting on(laughs). Its much nicer to have a house burning down with real flames than people waving papers on a stage. I mean, on stage you spend all your time wondering how you get the fucker off. In the movies you just shoot him".

His hectic schedule of prose writing and the stop-go-stop nature of The Butcher Boy hasn't dampened his enthusiasm for screen writing. He is currently working on a script for Thaddeus O'Sullivan called, you guessed it, Lonesome In Paradise. "We pulled the story out of thin air and it was very exciting. We just went out and ate and talked about things. I just kept on writing and writing and I'd send him ten pages and he'd edit it. He was like a one man film school as far as I was concerned. He knows instinctively what works and what doesn't. After about a year we came up with 15 or 20 pages that seemed to be impermeable. If I was doing it on my own it would be very difficult. He's like a safety net and I can take all the risks. When you've got a steady hand on the tiller it gives the imagination free rein which is exciting". He laughs when he says that the script is written with the pulse of a Country and Western song , the Americana of small town Ireland. The music of the sixties, especially the music that droned all over Ireland in the sixties seems to have left its mark on his psyche. "There are times when you are 16 and you're listening to Philomena Begley every Saturday night and you want to hear Dr.John and you get frustrated. As against that, there were other times when it seemed perfect for the place, this lonesome wail coming out. I didn't like it or dislike it I suppose. It's part of the landscape, part of the experience and that's really why I address it".

Irish cinema is littered with writers who turn to the medium at one time or another. In fact recent Irish cinema would almost be non-existent if not for the influence of writers and adaptations from short stories and novels. Mc Cabe joins the list of Jordan, Beckett, Joseph O' Connor, Hugh Leonard, O'Flaherty and the many more who have intermittently turned their hand to writing for the screen. One could almost be forgiven for thinking that in some ways this ad lib approach has hindered the development of cinematic development in Ireland. "There may not be a history of cinema in Ireland but there's no reason why Irish screen-writers should ditch the literary thing. These movies have been shown in Ireland since 1910. They are there for the taking. I mean Angel is pure cinema. It's a beautifully written, textured economic script that doesn't lean on the whole Irish short story tradition. It's written for the screen and there it belongs. I approach a screenplay differently than I would a novel. I like to see it through a lens. I frame it. That's not really a problem for me. I spent so much of my time in cinemas I can see the screen very easily. The more unnecessary dialogue - the weaker the script. You should cut down the dialogue to a minimum. Don't use ten words, use two. That is to some extent the short story tradition too. You cut everything to a minimum. Suggest rather than state. I always hear music as well. I somehow find myself hearing the soundtrack over the picture. That's one of the things that really attracts me to the cinema - the opportunity for the synthesis of music and image".
The life of the writer is by its nature a solitary one and Pat Mc Cabe is no exception. In common with most writers he believes that it is only enjoyable five per cent of the time and the rest is just donkey work. "There are times when I hate it. When it's going hard it's depressing. You have to have discipline. If you're talking about a book of four hundred pages, you wouldn't get far with random jottings. You'd be at it for twenty years". If writing is so hard , could he imagine a life without it? "No! I wouldn't have any function. I wouldn't know what to do. I'd probably lose my mind if I lost that means of expression!"

If his T V debut is anything to judge by, then it's only natural to expect some cinematic delights when The Butcher Boy is brought to the screen. He may be only a punter, as he says himself but the cinema has given him plenty. After years of watching other peoples work, he now has the desire to write in the medium and that can only mean some great moments when those lights go down and our eyes open wide in anticipation .

 

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