Co Tyrone-born ex-Saville Inquiry lawyer Nick Laird on his new novel Modern Gods
Co Tyrone-born author and former Saville Inquiry lawyer, Nick Laird's new novel draws uncomfortable parallels between the post-Troubles north and the surreal religious dogma of an obscure cult on a Pacific Island. David Roy spoke to the award-winning New York-based writer about his most ambitious book to date
FROM Orritor just outside Cookstown, Co Tyrone author and poet Nick Laird currently lives in New York – as does Liz Donnelly, a key character in his latest novel, Modern Gods.
Originally from the fictional Northern Ireland town of Ballyglass (effectively a reimagined Cookstown), this academic with a stalled career and disastrous personal life seizes the chance to present a BBC documentary about the Story, a strange new cargo cult on an island off the coast of Papua New Guinea.
However, before Liz can begin her journey into the humid rainforests of New Ulster, she must first return home to the cold grey drizzle of 'old' Ulster for a family wedding: unfortunately, her younger sister Alison has conveniently chosen not to fully investigate her groom-to-be's tearful admission that he's "done things that no-one should ever do – the worst things you can do".
Liz leaves for New Ulster just as the horrific, Troubles-related scandal breaks, which is when Modern Gods splits into a pair of parallel stories combining Laird's authentically realised family/domestic foibles and shocking accounts of brutal political violence set on familiar Northern Ireland turf with increasingly surreal and uncomfortably harmonic goings-on in the steamy jungle.
The book follows the Cambridge-educated former lawyer's Betty Trask award winning debut novel Utterly Monkey (2005) and its follow-up, Glover's Mistake (2009), as well as a trio of poetry collections: 2005's Ireland Chair of Poetry Award-winner To A Fault, 2007's On Purpose, which won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, a Somerset Maugham Award and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and Go Giants (2013).
Laird (42) will launch his latest tome with a special event at No Alibis bookshop in Belfast on July 5, but admits he's still somewhat uncomfortable with the promotional duties required of him every time a new book hits the shelves.
"You have to be a sort of split personality," he tells me over the phone from the New York home he shares with best-selling author wife Zadie Smith and their two children.
"The person who writes those books and is happiest sitting in a room by themselves thinking things through is not the person who then has to go out and talk about them.
"I do find all that stuff quite hard. You can have nice enough evenings, but I've also done readings where there were three people in the audience – who then got up and walked out."
However, the former Cookstown High School pupil says he's definitely glad to finally have Modern Gods finished and ready to be published.
"I suppose it took four or five years, with a lot of footering around," he chuckles of the new book's extended gestation. "I am a world-class footerer! Also, I wrote a book of poetry and then life just got in the way: I was teaching every year at various universities [he's currently teaching creative writing at New York University], I had two kids and my mother died.
"Although I like to write fiction, I still certainly wouldn't call myself a fiction writer first – but it's good to have things to fill your time while you're waiting around for poems to happen."
The parallel narratives in Modern Gods offer Laird the chance to delve into Northern Ireland's Troubled past along with a far-flung fictionalised conflagration, exploring the corrosive effects of historic violence and the thorny matter of truth and reconciliation – or the lack thereof.
"I knew I wanted to have two 'halves' about all the things we've had to deal with in Northern Ireland, with one being a weird 'though the looking glass' version of the other," he tells me of the book's structure.
"We find out that there are kind of similar lessons to be learned. There is no one 'right' answer to how people should be or feel, and I think the book tries to talk about that."
The need for victims and survivors of violence to be 'heard' fuels key confrontations in the book and also forms the backbone of Laird's next project.
"In the absence of any truth and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, it doesn't seem to me that there is a forum for people to tell their stories," he tells me.
"Art has to be a space where you can encounter the pain of other people and where things can be said that are not allowed to be said in political or social discourse.
"And there is kind of aegis on art in Northern Ireland to deal with things that are 'under the carpet', as it were.
"I'm making a poem film with the BBC at the minute where we interview victims and I've written a wee poem for them to say to camera or to be used in between as links, based on their verbatim testimony.
"We just wanted to create a space or place for people to tell their stories. I know there's been a lot of that in Northern Ireland, but I felt like there can't be too much."
While working on the Saville Inquiry during his 'previous life' as a London lawyer, Laird gleaned some eye-opening first-hand experience of the north's ever-evolving peace process.
"Ted Heath was one of my clients," he chuckles ruefully. "I think my firm put me on it because I was the only northern Irish person in the building.
"Lord Crawford, the defence secretary, would say to me things like: 'But Nick, the Irish don't really think that we sent people out to kill them that day – do they?'
"I'd have to tell him, 'Yeah, some of them do, you know – some of them do.'"
:: Nick Laird will launch Modern Gods (published by 4th Estate) at No Alibis in Belfast on Wednesday July 5 at 7pm. See NoAlibis.com for details of how to obtain free tickets.