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Tapping into the playful powers of language

Living

WORDSMITH Fin Keegan, whose short novel ‘The Third Life’, was recently shortlisted for the Penny Dreadful Novella Prize. Pic: Conor McKeown

Author Fin Keegan chats about his latest novella and the joy of writing 

Interview
Ciara Moynihan    

Fin Keegan is all about the word. Written, spoken or sung, he’ll tune in and savour every syllable. If the words are strung together in a pleasing way, he’ll revel in it; if their arrangement could be improved, he’ll enjoy pondering how. He’s an addict.
No surprise, then, that this logophile has dedicated his life to all things language. After completing a degree in English and Philosophy and working in a book shop (naturally), he moved to the States, with his now wife, Fiona Keane. There, he completed a Master of Fine Arts in Writing at New York’s Columbia University, before moving to Nevada to lecture in composition and world literature.  
After starting their family in the US, Fiona and Fin decided they wanted to give their children ‘an Irish childhood’. Fiona has family in both Newport and Westport, and so the possibility of Mayo opened up – and it was seized. The couple, who now have three children and live in Westport, offer writing workshops and services through their company SixPens, and Fin also works as an editor.
Originally from Dalkey, Co Dublin, Keegan sees many similarities between that east coast town and Westport. “I was lucky enough to grow up by the sea – I lived beside Bullock Harbour. Dalkey is not unlike Westport; they’re similar sized towns, and they both have strong community.  
“The public image of Dalkey has it as a sort of Irish Monte Carlo or something,” he chuckles, “but the reality is you have – or you certainly used to have when I grew up – people from all walks of life and all backgrounds. Old families, a lot of families around the harbour that made a living from the sea for many generations … So, Westport reminds me of it a lot.”
During his career, Keegan has written everything from fiction to criticism, radio documentaries to plays. He has published a biography of James Joyce, and his personal-observation column ‘The Circling Fin’ featured in the Living section of The Mayo News for almost two years.
The latest string to Keegan’s literary bow comes in the form of an intriguing novella, ‘The Third Life’, which was recently shortlisted for the Penny Dreadful Novella Prize. The competition is run by The Dreadful Press, which publishes literary magazine ‘The Penny Dreadful’, and judged by acclaimed authors Colin Barrett, Sara Baume and Paul McVeigh.

Playing with politics
‘The Third Life’ is a surreal satire set in an alternative Ireland (called ‘Hibernia’) of the late 1990s. Keegan reimagines the country’s political landscape, supplanting the familiar regime with an altogether more authoritarian one. He teases out the implications of that scenario for a set of central characters – one of whom is offered the chance to take three lives without fear of consequence.
“I suppose it’s a playful look at what might have been in Ireland,” Keegan explains. “I think the great thing that books can offer, and novels in particular, is a more colourful, and surrealistic almost, look at life. Television and film have become so good in recent years that the novel has to move into the more playful aspects to still reach people. I think you see that in Kevin Barry’s work, for instance. There’s a highly vivid and highly imagined layer to his work that sets it apart.
“Playing with language and with ideas is what appeals to me … So that’s what I was doing [with ‘The Third Life’], I was being as playful as possible, having as much fun as I could. It’s kind of a bit wild, and sometimes goes to the darker side.”
The dystopian, almost dadaist plot twists and turns, all the while poking fun, but it carries a weighty socio-political comment too.
“I suppose in the past, we have skirted authoritarianism … In the Haughey era, and even before that, in the age of John Charles McQuaid, we definitely tended towards the authoritarian, and I think we’ve done well to maintain our democratic institutions – but we always have to be on the look out for attacks on democracy. So, to some extent, my novel is aware of that danger. Even in a community-based country and society like ours, we always have to be on the lookout for the persecution and repression of more vulnerable areas of our society.”
But don’t go looking for real-life public figures in these pages. Keegan doesn’t draw on anyone in particular. However, certain Irish archetypes are woven into the fabric of the cast, the author says. “You have the creative artist or writer, people like Flann O’Brien or Patrick Kavanagh, that were hemmed in by Irish society at the time and found themselves on a dangerous path and  maybe taking refuge in drink.
“And you have almost these tribal chieftain figures that emerge and seem to cast a spell – we saw that very clearly with Bertie, but also Charles Haughey before him, and De Valera. That type of leader can be fantastic in a crisis, such as the Second World War, which – like him or not – De Valera saw us through. But on the other hand, a person like that can often decide what’s good for people by ‘looking into their own soul’ and deciding what’s good for us! That’s always something to look out for.”
The seed of the story came to Keegan out of the blue, as a random thought. “It was a question that occurred to me when I was walking up Parnell Square one day: What would happen if you were given the chance to kill three people without any repercussion?
“You have to find a form of expression for these ideas that doesn’t involve you getting locked up – or killing people,” he jokingly confides.
“It’s the kind of question that people writing murder mysteries might think of. ‘What if?’. Agatha Christie must have asked herself ‘What if everybody was the murderer, all the suspects were murderers?’ … or ‘What if the person telling the story was the murderer?’
“The great thing about fiction,” he mischievously quips, “is that you can play with the wildest ideas and satisfy your strangest obsessions in a socially acceptable form – and you can actually turn it into something for people to enjoy.”

Supporting the craft
Keegan passionately believes that everyone can write, a view that forms the foundation of his SixPens exploits. “People are hung up, or can be hung up, about their ability to write,” he says. “They think [they can't write] because they may not have an extensive vocabulary, or they had a misguided teacher in the past who told them they weren’t good at English, or they feel stupid because they pick up a poem and they can’t understand it. None of that should stop you from expressing yourself in language … No matter what your station in life, you can write, once you have a pen and paper.
Fin and Fiona have been running SixPens for a few years now. It started with weekend workshops at Old Rectory Retreat in Knappagh [outside Westport], but it has since extended to include weekly creative writing workshops for adults, teenagers and children. Alongside that, there’s drama classes in the schools and public speaking.
“Language can play out in lots of different ways,” Keegan says, “and I suppose our key aim is to liberate people, to tap into their imaginative and playful powers of language. I think everyone has a story to tell – I know it’s a cliché ‘Everyone has a book in them’, but I truly believe they do.”
Watching on and supporting others as they discover that they can write gives Keegan immense satisfaction, especially when it happens spontaneously. “It’s when the unexpected stories, sometimes memories, pop up in people’s writing – stories that they had no idea were about to appear on the paper – that’s very exciting.
“We’re so conditioned to consume nowadays that there’s an amazing power in producing. And we need that – we need each other to produce and to create … We thrive on it. And we can’t leave it to Hollywood studios to do it, because there’s a limit to what that can tell us. Some of it is excellent; Hollywood can produce excellent work, but it’s not everything. The same is true of music: Just because we can play Aretha Franklin on demand, it doesn’t mean that a great local singer like Joanne Keegan or somebody is not worth hearing.
“There’s great talent all around us, and we want to help that come to life.”

MORE For more information on Fin Keegan visit finkeegan.com, and for more on SixPens, visit sixpens.com.