“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Interview: Darragh McKeon, author of ALL THAT IS SOLID MELTS INTO AIR

‘Noble gases, expanding into the noble land.’ That short line from Darragh McKeon’s debut novel, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (Harper Perennial) has the appearance of a throwaway pun, but in a nutshell it captures the insidious horror of the aftermath of the nuclear reactor meltdown at Chernobyl in 1986, as the invisible, lethal radiation destroys the physical landscape and rots the very fabric of Russian society.
  Born in Tullamore in 1979, Darragh McKeon was only seven years old when the disaster took place. The obvious question is, why Chernobyl?
  “Adi Roche’s foundation brought kids from Chernobyl to Tullamore when I was about 12 or 13,” Darragh tells me when we sit down in Dublin’s Fitzwilliam Hotel. “Those kids were the first outsiders, or foreigners, I’d ever met. And I was really intrigued. I didn’t understand anything about Chernobyl. I knew it was an event, and they were here for recuperation, but we’d get these little stories about their lives. They didn’t speak English, obviously, and we didn’t speak Russian, so we only got small details, but even the idea of them living in Soviet tower-blocks was fascinating – the tallest building in Tullamore was only three stories high.
  “Then later I saw the documentary Black Wind, White Land, which Adi Roche made with Ali Hewson, and I remember them interviewing the farmers, who came back to the exclusion zone afterwards. A lot of them were old people, and the land was totally radiated and toxic and deadly, but it was home. The draw of the land was very powerful, and that really struck me – and that’s a very Irish theme, we could instinctively respond to that. It was fascinating to me that the pull of home can be that strong that you’ll give your life for it.”
  So began an obsession with Chernobyl which has culminated in All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, a novel that centres on Grigory, a doctor who arrives at the disaster site in the immediate aftermath; Maria, his estranged lover, and a proscribed journalist; and Maria’s nephew Yevgeni, a teenage musical prodigy.
  It’s a fascinating tale, not least because the characters find themselves suddenly embattled by an invisible foe that is impossible to fight back against.
  “I’ve been to Chernobyl since I wrote the book,” says Darragh, “and I’ve talked to some nuclear physicists, and someone said a very interesting thing. He said radioactivity is silent, it’s colourless, it’s tasteless, we can’t see it – none of our senses are attuned to picking up radioactivity. He said it’s because that it wasn’t part of our evolution, that those kind of man-made, highly toxic elements only came into existence about a hundred years ago.
  “When you go to Chernobyl now,” he says, “yes, it feels abandoned, and it feels like a momentous event in history happened, but that’s it – you can’t actually see it. It’s not a war-ravaged landscape. It’s actually a very peaceful place.”
  For a novel so impressively illuminated with images of terrible beauty, it was what McKeon couldn’t see that proved most seductive to him as a novelist.
  “With radiation, it’s a long-term, completely invisible phenomenon, and that’s quite interesting for a writer, because the kind of writing I like tends to get under the surface and explore the roots of things. And that whole [Chernobyl] accident happened under the surface. I mean, 9/11 happened and we all knew straight away, it was iconic, and some of the shock and horror of that event was its visual impact. But nobody even knew Chernobyl had happened until a radar in a facility in Sweden started going crazy days later.”
  Previously a theatre director based in London, McKeon has recently moved to New York. His experience in the theatre, he suggests, gives him an unusual perspective on writing fiction.
  “When you’re a director you’re the audience’s representative in the rehearsal room,” he says. “And one of the things I learned very quickly was that if you’re bored then the play’s dead. I think I took that experience into my writing. Maybe I’ll have a better sense of what’s interesting and what’s not, what’s coming across well.”
  The nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island in the US is mentioned in the novel, and McKeon also cites Robert Oppenheimer, ‘tinkering with the atom in the deserts of New Mexico during the Great Patriotic War: I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.’ He doesn’t intend for the novel to be read as a cautionary tale, however.
  “I wrote it out of curiosity, and from observation, and I tried to chart that line,” he says. “I certainly didn’t write it with an agenda. I think that’s dangerous ground for a novelist. There’s not really that many writers who can pull that off, combine a strong, artistically valid story and also have an agenda. George Orwell is maybe the only one. I was very careful to be as objective and neutral as I could be.”
  He applies the same care to his treatment of the clean-up operation that followed the disaster, when the Russian authorities – horrifically, perhaps, to a Western mindset – deliberately sacrificed lives for the sake of the greater good.
  “That idea of sacrifice is fundamental to the Russian culture,” says Darragh. “Veterans of the second world war are venerated, they’re gods in the Soviet Union. I’ve since gone back and talked to some of the ‘liquidators’ and they’re completely isolated now, they’re not supported financially or in terms of their health. But anyone I spoke to who was involved in the clean-up said they would do it all again tomorrow.”
  The novel offers a running commentary on perceptions of weakness and strength, albeit as seen through the eyes of the Russian and Ukrainian protagonists.
  “I think we don’t understand the Russian relationship with strength,” he says. “We look at Putin with his shirt off and think he’s naff, but there that kind of image is so important, it’s ingrained. Something that I found really interesting was Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who wrote The Gulag Archipelago and was the great dissident writer of that period of oppression. He came back to Russia in Yeltsin’s time, and when Putin was elected he said, ‘Finally, we are going to be strong again.’ Even Solzhenitsyn had this obsession with strength. So I tried to accept that as much as I could and not judge it.”
  McKeon is already working on his second novel, which will be set in South America, and believes he is unlikely to return to theatre.
  “I did always want to write, and I think that I probably always felt that I was a writer, but you have to get to the age, I think, at which you have something to say. Or that you have enough experience to make it worth putting down on paper. Like most writers, I tried to write when I was in my teens, and I just didn’t have anything to say. I didn’t have enough life experience.
  “I think at this stage I’ve figured out now that you are what you spend your time doing,” he says. “I think you can’t have it both ways – I kind of figured that out halfway through writing the book. So I may end up doing a show or two, but I’m a novelist now. I mean, it took me a long time to admit that to myself,” he laughs, “so I might as well stick to it now.” ~ Declan Burke

  This interview first appeared in the Irish Examiner.

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