I was recently interviewed by Sophie Grenham for her 'Writers Block' column in The Gloss magazine,
Read the full interview below or at https://thegloss.ie/writers-block-with-owen-dwyer/
Writer’s Block with Owen Dwyer
by SOPHIE GRENHAM
Owen Dwyer is a prize-winning writer of short fiction and author of three novels, including The Agitator (2004) and The Cherrypicker (2012). Born and raised in Dublin, his accolades include the Hennessy Emerging Fiction Prize, the Silver Quill, and the South Tipperary County Council Short Story competition, and he has published stories in Whispers and Shouts magazine. In addition to writing, he has a degree in European Humanities. In 1992, Dwyer founded Irish Pensions and Finance, a pension provider which operates exclusively in the public sector.
Dwyer’s new novel, Number Games, is a subversive exploration of an alternate reality where America is torn apart by war, China and Africa are super-powers, and the world is ruthlessly ruled by women. Set in Seattle in 2116, the world is split into a utilitarian network of giant corporations (known as Corpos) which are managed by a triumvirate of elderly Chinese, and inhabitants must extol the virtues of utilitarianism in a life dominated by “the numbers.” The narrative follows the path of a promiscuous young man called Li, who discovers that his entire existence was part of an experiment. When he meets a mysterious woman called Tattoo, are his troubles behind him, or have they only just begun?
As with some of the best science-fiction, Number Games gives a taste of what our world could possibly resemble a hundred years from now. With echoes of Bladerunner, this work is an interesting response to developments on our rapidly-changing planet.
Béibhinn Breathnach has said of the work – “Dwyer’s writing is direct and unflinching in depicting violence, sex and bodily fluids. It is not a story for the faint of heart and yet it is the novel’s more reflective elements which are the scene-stealers. Li’s interior narrative provides the reader with insights into substance abuse, the loss of love, and questions of identity and purpose. A novel of captivating style.”
Owen Dwyer lives in Dublin with his family. He is currently writing his next book.
Number Games (€14.99) is published by Liberties Press and available from all good bookshops.
I live in Saggart, Co Dublin, with my wife Rita and daughter Sofia. Two older children, Laura and Riccardo are away at school and college respectively. I have two other sons from previous relationships, Adam and Owen. One is in the UK, the other in Dublin. We live on what used to be a golf course, before the recession. The area, which became overgrown was overrun with wild animals ranging from foxes, squirrels and swans to deer and horses. There are rabbits everywhere. The neighbours have been slowly bringing the area under control. We have a lake behind us into which we’ve thrown several goldfish and a small quantity of hash confiscated from Rico when he was sixteen, along with a miniature bong. We moved here in 2008, riding the crest of the boom – paying top-dollar. Even today, the house is worth half what we paid for it, because of problems with the management company. We don’t care. This is where we live and where we raised our kids.
There’s a lot of history in Saggart – the church was built in the 1840s, as a result, I imagine, of the Roman Catholic Relief Act, driven by Daniel O’Connell and passed by the Duke of Wellington and Robert Peel. Jonathan Swift lived here and many of the place names still bear his name. There’s an ancient graveyard, where a woman called Anne Dwyer reposes. I wonder if we’re related; my father’s family are from Baltinglass, which is not too far away. The property tycoon Jim Mansfield, who passed away a few years ago, has left a huge mark, including the Citywest Hotel with its giant conference centre. He was a controversial figure, but you won’t find anyone in the area with a bad word to say about him.
As a child I lived a few miles away in Walkinstown and was reared mostly by my father, Dinny. My prevailing memory of childhood is of dirt and cold. When my mother and then my sister left the house, it quickly deteriorated, with cardboard replacing broken glass and grime emerging from the corners. Dinny, who was a heavy drinker, was ill equipped to run a household or to manage four high-spirited boys. We were ashamed as kids, of our family circumstances and of the state of our house, which was in the middle of an otherwise respectable suburban street of dormer bungalows. We had good neighbours who did what they could and tolerated a lot but anyone who tried to interfere, including Social Services, felt the brunt of Dinny’s enormous, uncompromising personality. In his way, he was a good father. He always listened and counselled without judgement, usually wisely. From him I inherited a healthy disrespect for bureaucracy, which has stood to me, mostly. He also imbued me with the spirit to go and get what I wanted in life, rather than expect it to be given to me.
I was mentored by my brother David, who was two years older. He influenced me in everything, from which football team to support (Leeds are not too bad but whatever you do, keep away from Arsenal), to the music I listened to (the Beatles are okay, but you’ll have to forget about Slade), and books I read. We made caricatures out of the people around us and acted out bizarre, irreverent scenarios; our way of dealing with our environment, I suppose. Another brother, Tony, had special needs. It was Tony who, six foot four and louder than life, was sent out to deal with unwelcome visitors, like people looking for money or to cut off the electricity. A more courteous Tony is now living independently in supported accommodation, being watched over by the wonderful people in Saint Michael’s House. Our youngest brother, Donnacha, was eventually sent to live with my sister, Christine. Here, encouraged by my brother in law, he became an uilleann pipe player. Nowadays, he is an accomplished pipe maker and musician.
On early reading
I can’t remember ever not having a passion for books. As a child I was often bedridden with asthma; with no other distraction, I read. My mother, before she left, brought me at least a book a week. I started with Enid Blyton and graduated to Edith Nesbit, Lewis Carroll, Hugh Lofting, Willard Price and Robert Louis Stevenson. I read everything I could get my hands on. Myself and my pals borrowed and swapped books with each other. Books were so cheap in the Bamba, second-hand bookshop in Rathmines, they weren’t worth stealing. And you could bring your old books and trade them in. I cumulated a small library, which I took from flat to flat as a young man. I still have most of these books, including a Rudyard Kipling omnibus, given to me by Christine in 1978, an atlas and a book on trout fishing, a present from the broadcaster Ronnie Walsh, who was a friend of Dinny’s. But as far as my interest in books go, it was my mother who lit the spark. We made contact with her again, after a few years, when she had cured herself of alcoholism. She died recently but was an integral and much-loved part of our family for the last years of her life.
My writing space, these days, is on top of the house in an attic room. This is for defensive reasons. When my writing space was in the room downstairs, I was regularly interrupted by Rita (where are we going to send the kids to school?/What do you want for your dinner?/ Have you seen the size of that plumber’s arse?). The kids were worse: (Rico said Hannah Montana was a slag/The Plumber’s stuck under the sink again daddy). At the top of the house, I have peace. The room is small and the desk an IKEA knock-off. The only window is a skylight and the only thing I can see is the sky. A spider has a flimsy web, beneath the rail in one of the corners, she comes out occasionally to dine, but mostly we leave each other alone. The only other distraction might be a crow tapping across the roof to look in the window. There are books everywhere and I have no idea where to find anything. The walls are plastered with Sofia’s drawings and the desk cluttered with her hand-made pen holders and for some reason, a rocket. There are dirty cups my wife knows nothing about. The space is indisputably mine. An untidy monument to my father, in an otherwise middle-class existence. Because I work for a living, I don’t get to write every day. I do take Wednesday mornings off and I write on Saturdays and Sundays. From time to time, I’ll slot in an hour in the evening. My usual routine is to start writing from 7am in hour slots with ten-minute breaks in-between. I’ll do this for four hours before burning out for the day. Over the years I’ve developed good discipline and levels of concentration, but a time-plan is essential. For me, writing is never a chore, in fact, it is a great escape from the pressures of business. I’m at my happiest when I’m writing and agitated and cranky if I don’t stick to my routine. It was only after I got married, at the age of thirty-three I started to write, and I regret the time I wasted beforehand, doing I can’t remember what.
I like all bookshops but these days, my favourite is Dubray on Grafton Street. I go there with Sofia, while Rita shops or gets her hair done. We buy a book and read together over a muffin. I’m reading Portnoy’s Complaint, by Philip Roth, at the moment and finding it unnecessarily explicit. Maybe I’m getting old. I think I’ll have to re-read Pride and Prejudice or anything by Henry James to regain equilibrium. I read Transatlantic by Colm McCann, the book before last and was impressed by its range; he’s a talented writer. I’m looking forward to reading another of his, Everything in this Country Must, next.
On Number Games
Although I’ve written a sci-fi novel, I’m not a sci-fi guy. I wanted to write a funny, entertaining book which would engage the reader. It is easier to do this by basing your story in the future, where you can make stuff up. Number Games is essentially an adventure, wrapped around a love story. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. But it does have its themes, the main one being prejudice, which I see as an integral and negative part of our nature. In Number Games, our prejudice, our compulsion to make decisions based on assumptions is exploited by monolithic corporations, who are watching our every move. To explore further, I shuffled the deck and re-dealt the cards. Men assume the roles of women, Africa and China are super-powers, while America is a third-world country. The world is run by elderly Chinese women, instead of middle-aged white guys. But problems of poverty and disenfranchisement persist, which leads to the war at the heart of the book’s story.
I’ve been asked if I think what happens in Number Games could happen in real life. I can only answer that I don’t know. Nobody knows what is going to happen in this ever-accelerating society of ours, but something has to. If you draw a line from the past through the present, it leads in the general direction of chaos. Our resources are not infinite and we’re making a mess of our environment. Separately, it just does not seem possible that so much can remain in the hands of so few, while so many are deprived and suffering. All of it has to do, in my view, with human nature and how selfishness and greed filters into politics and economics. To many, the dystopian future has already arrived; the Middle East jumps to mind. We’re being managed in the first world too, through social media and online data capture and analysis. Ideologically speaking, we’re in a peculiar transition, the human race, between the mediaevalism of religion and the coldness of information technology. Where we’ll end up is anybody’s guess.
On what’s next
I’ve just finished writing another book, called Who Killed Garfield, about the assassination of President James Garfield. This time I’m going into the past, travelling by way of the nervous breakdown of the main protagonist, who interacts with the characters he is researching.
Main featured image photographed by Ruth Carden
NOVEMBER 9 2019 2:30 AM
IN 2116 AD, THE NATION STATE IS NO MORE. THE WORLD IS RUN BY A NETWORK OF GIANT CORPORATIONS, EACH RULED BY A TRIUMVIRATE OF CHINESE WOMEN. CHINA'S INCREASING ECONOMIC DOMINANCE HAS BEEN CEMENTED, THEN EXPANDED INTO THE POLITICAL; RISING ASIA BESTRIDES THE PLANET, THEIR HEGEMONY CAPITALIST RATHER THAN COMMUNIST.
FOR MANY, THIS IS GOOD: THEY FLOAT IN A BRAVE NEW WORLD-ESQUE BUBBLE OF MONEY, TECHNOLOGY AND MINDLESS PLEASURE-SEEKING. FOR OTHERS, NOT SO MUCH: THE REUNITED STATES OF AMERICA IS TORN APART BY WAR; MANY PEOPLE ELSEWHERE ARE MIRED IN POVERTY AND EXCLUSION, THOUGH NOT OFFICIALLY ADMITTED BY THE SYSTEM.
PERHAPS MOST SIGNIFICANTLY, WOMEN AND MEN HAVE SWAPPED ROLES, WITH THE FORMER TAKING CHARGE OF EVERYTHING AND THE LATTER LIMITED TO KEEPING HOME AND LOOKING GOOD. IT'S AS IF GLOBAL SOCIETY STEPPED THROUGH A MIRROR AND CAME OUT REVERSED. MEANWHILE, IRELAND IS NOW KNOWN AS IRELAND-CORPO: A RELATIVELY WELL-OFF THOUGH POLITICALLY INSIGNIFICANT NODE OF THE ALL-ENCOMPASSING NETWORK.
THIS IS IRELAND AS YOU'VE NEVER SEEN IT BEFORE. AND NUMBER GAMES IS IRISH FICTION AS WE'VE RARELY SEEN IT.
FOR ALL OUR LITERARY ACHIEVEMENTS, SCIENCE FICTION HASN'T FEATURED HIGHLY. I CAN'T THINK OF ONE HIBERNIAN EQUIVALENT TO WILLIAM GIBSON, PHILIP DICK OR URSULA LE GUIN. DUBLIN AUTHOR OWEN DWYER MAKES A VALIANT EFFORT AT REDRESSING THAT IN NUMBER GAMES. THOUGH NOT WITHOUT SOME FAULTS, HIS NOVEL IS CONSISTENTLY SMART, THOUGHT-PROVOKING AND WELL WRITTEN.
HIS HERO, AND OUR LENS THROUGH WHICH TO EXPLORE THIS STRANGE NEW PARADIGM, IS LI: A YOUNG MAN WORKING AT A LOW-TO-MIDDLING LEVEL IN IRELAND-CORPO, WHO SPENDS MOST OF HIS SPARE TIME TAKING DRUGS AND FLINGING HIMSELF INTO RECKLESS SEXUAL ADVENTURES.
HE'S A LIKEABLE SHMUCK; THE KIND OF GUY WITH JUST ENOUGH DEPTH TO REALISE HOW SHALLOW HE IS. HE DRIFTS THROUGH HIS EXISTENCE WITH A VAGUE SENSE OF DISSATISFACTION GNAWING AT HIS PSYCHE.
WHEN HE MEETS TATTOO (AMUSINGLY, HE TAKES AN AGE TO BOTHER LEARNING HER REAL NAME), LI IS THROWN INTO A GLOBE-SPANNING SERIES OF ADVENTURES - PERHAPS MISADVENTURES IS CLOSER - WHICH GRADUALLY REVEAL THE TRUE NATURE OF THE CORPO STRUCTURES, AND THE MISERY MASKED BY IT.
DWYER'S STORY JUMPS FROM DUBLIN TO MANCHESTER, ATHLONE, CARLOW, CAPRI AND, FINALLY, SEATTLE. THE FUTURE OF HUMANITY HAS, THROUGH HAPPENSTANCE AS MUCH AS DESIGN, ENDED UP IN HIS HANDS.
VOLUME IS GEDEMPTTHERE'S A LOT TO ADMIRE IN NUMBER GAMES, PARTICULARLY HOW WELL RENDERED IT IS: THE TEXTURES, RHYTHMS, SOUNDS AND EXPERIENCES OF LIFE IN 2116 ARE EXPRESSED WITH SHINING CLARITY. AND DWYER WRITES REALLY NICELY, WITH CHOICE PHRASING, PROVOCATIVE OBSERVATION AND, FOR THE MOST PART, VIVID CHARACTERS WHO FEEL REAL, EVEN IN THIS WEIRD ELSE-WORLD (LI'S BROWBEATEN DAD IS A MINOR BUT ESPECIALLY GOOD EXAMPLE OF HOW CHARACTERS CAN CHARM AND SURPRISE).
WHERE NUMBER GAMES FALTERED, FOR ME, WAS IN WHAT AFICIONADOS TERM 'WORLD-BUILDING'. NOT SO MUCH THE BROAD STROKES - IT'S NOT TOTALLY IMPLAUSIBLE THAT THE CHINESE WILL RISE TO THE TOP OF THE PILE, WOMEN WILL GAIN ASCENDANCY OR CAPITALISM WILL SUPPLANT DEMOCRACY.
BUT I DIDN'T FULLY BUY SOME OF THE DETAIL, PARTICULARLY THE SWAPPING OF SEX ROLES. WOULD MEN AND WOMEN REALLY SLOUGH OFF MILLIONS OF YEARS OF BIOLOGICAL CONDITIONING JUST LIKE THAT? WOULD WOMEN IN THIS PUTATIVE FEM-TOPIA BE AS SEXUALLY AGGRESSIVE AS SOME MEN ARE NOW? DO BASIC HORMONAL REALITIES NOT PRECLUDE THIS?
ANYWAY, SMALL QUIBBLES; AND LI IS AN AGREEABLE HERO, WITHIN A STORY OF REAL AMBITION AND VERVE, TO MAKE YOU OVERLOOK THEM. KUDOS TO LIBERTIES PRESS FOR TAKING A SHOT ON HOME-GROWN SCI-FI, AND HERE'S HOPING NUMBER GAMES IS MERELY THE FIRST OF MANY.
NOVEMBER 9 2019 2:30 AM
I was asked recently where the idea for my book Number Games came from. It’s very difficult to pinpoint inspiration. In my case there seemed to have been a lot of different strands of thought playing around in my head over time, which came together as a result of a trigger. The trigger was a conversation I had with my son about the cutthroat nature of the singles scene in London, where he was living and working at the time. His experiences, as well as stories he told me about friends of his, made me think about the role prejudice plays in our interaction with one another. The use of Social Media exaggerates and amplifies our inclination to accept or reject one another for the most superficial of reasons. And I’m not just talking about size and shape. All sorts of other bizarre stuff from hairstyles to clothing to jewellery comes into brief consideration before a potential candidate is swiped to rejection oblivion. This got me thinking about how brutal and isolating prejudice can be, to both the victim and the perpetrator. It was bad enough in my day, when you were left trembling with disappointment in a phone box, but at least you were given a reason. (I’ve been told this by friends of mine).
Secondary sources have always been a great resource. Great books give great perspectives and books like Gulliver’s Travels, Number 9 Dream by David Mitchell and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaids Tale were particularly inspirational for me. These novels contain alien landscapes against which the protagonist’s natural beliefs are scrutinised. By using such a device, the authors were able to interrogate their own ‘real life’ societies in an interesting and inoffensive way. You can get away with a lot if you base your book in the future, the past or in some strange land, and, you can challenge readers to think in new ways. Jonathan Swift was ahead of his time when he wrote Gulliver’s Travels in the 1720s and the book is still ahead of its time today. His use of satire is extraordinary. Which got me thinking. We’re all so uptight and defensive in this age of political correctness – wouldn’t it would be interesting and possibly funny to reverse our roles. Why not reverse the whole world? We are all, or I am at any rate, slaves to our preconceived notions. But what do we really know or understand? Very little, probably. The big idea behind Number Games was to rethink that which we think we already know by challenging prejudice. By writing the book I found no answers, but I discovered a few new questions.
Getting published is ridiculously difficult. It’s a Catch 22 of not getting anywhere until you’re known and not being known until you get somewhere. If you renamed The DaVinci Code and sent it surreptitiously to 1000 publishers, it would probably end up on the slush pile of 999. Many classics from To Kill a Mockingbird to Ulysses were famously rejected time and again. Rejection is a fact of life for writers – we have to learn to live with it. In my case, I’ve had more rejections than a pimply kid at a disco. In my experience it is a timely and futile exercise to continually send cold submissions to Agents or Publishers. So, what do you do? The most important thing is to keep writing what you want to write and not allow yourself to be discouraged or distracted. But be practical. It helps to seek guidance from someone who knows more about the industry than you do. I sent the book into Vanessa Fox at Writing.ie for an appraisal. She gave me valuable advice and we worked through the manuscript together over a period of a month or so. Vanessa was good enough to recommend publishers who would be interested in that particular type of work and even sent an introductory email to one or two. This generated genuine interest and my rejections improved in quality – the manuscript was actually being read. I sought and listened to feedback and continued to try to improve the work. I researched publishers, readers and agents and wrote personalised submission letters stating why I felt my book would be right for them. I entered competitions. I met other writers and industry people by going to Festivals. Eventually Sean O’Keefe from Liberties Press responded to a reworked submission, resent a year after an initial rejection. We met and agreed a deal. I should probably be looking for an Agent, but I’ve been happy with Sean who has been particularly supportive and professional, editing the manuscript and giving me pointers.
(c) Owen Dwyer
When setting out to write something you should always start with a theme, in my view. Pick something you care about. Better still, pick something other people will care about too. You may still be fixating on why Mable, your childhood crush, threw you into the friend zone and this may be the most important thing in your world but will anyone else care? Maybe they will, if you open up the subject and make it about more than just you. Having a theme gives a spine to your writing and allows you check-in with your plot as you go along – to see if it is consistent with the ideas you are trying to develop. For example, if you write a chapter about how Mable loved to walk her dog, ask yourself what relevance this has to your theme – to the thing you care about.
Draw a schematic of your plot. Write out a list of your characters. Do this on the first page of the foolscap you are using for rough notes AND put it on page one of your manuscript (where it can’t be lost but can be changed). Include a general overview of your initial idea and why it links in with your theme. Break down your outline into ideas for chapters then break these ideas into component parts which will become paragraphs. I write a first draft straight through. I don’t over think, I just keep writing until I run out of time or energy. I keep going until I literally, lose the plot. This is the most enjoyable part of the process for me, because you can let yourself go crazy. You’re going to tidy everything up later. You’re going to go back to your schematic and get yourself back on track. Or, better still, you’re going to find new tracks.
Most of the time I spend writing, I spend re-writing. Checking for simple things like the length of sentences and chapters. Check punctuation, then re-check. Commas, colons, full-stops etc, can completely change the meaning of a sentence. Compare: I want you to be like my friend, to, I want you; to be like my friend, and, I want you to be, like, my friend. Dump words like ‘very’ and ‘that’ wherever possible. Limit your adjectives and try to banish adverbs altogether. Try not to add anything to ‘said’. If Mable said something, then she said it. She didn’t utter, mutter or stutter and if she did, it doesn’t really matter – it’s what she said we care about. If she said it earnestly, cruelly or dismissively it’s more effective if we can get this across in a different part of the sentence or paragraph. Levelling her eyes at me, in that cruel way of hers, she said. ‘What are you doing on my balcony?’ Italics. Use them when referring to a brand name or sparingly when emphasising a word. ‘Why are you so cruel, Mable?’ Indentations. You may be a one or a two tab person, that’s your right. But be Consistent.
Check timelines – how could Mable have eloped to Africa when she was doing her Junior Cert the last time we heard from her? Treat each paragraph like a small movie scene. Does it stack up against the scenes immediately before and after? It’s fine if Mable leaps from novitiate to raging alcoholic, but how did we get there? Again, be consistent. If Mable never curses in Chapter 7 but is swearing like a sailor in Chapter 8, she loses plausibility as a character. Unless, of course, you have given her reason for the transformation.
Point of view if handled incorrectly can be disorientating for a reader and can lead them to be confused and therefore lose interest. How do we know whose point of view we’re reading? By seeing the action first from that character’s ‘point of view’. There was a loud crash and when he peeped out from under the covers, Mable was glaring at him from the doorway of her bedroom. She was clutching a cleaver. ‘You better not be naked under there,’ she said.
Characters are important. Great plots and themes are anodyne without great characters. Think of someone you know or knew who interests you and take bits of their personality/behaviour for your characters. Take a little from here and there; composite. Get under your characters skin until you know them better than you know real people. The stronger your relationship with your character, the more consistent and realistic your portrayal will be. Use other characters to describe your characters (think Nick Caraway on Gatsby). Use idiosyncrasies. Use human weakness or strength as their motivation. Create conflict by pitting their desires against their morality (think Hamlet). Be compassionate. Compassion turns good writing great.
When I finish a first draft I go back to the start of the book and write a one or two sentence synopsis of each chapter. I ask myself if the thing makes sense and if I have been true to my theme. Usually, I will change things around, getting rid of some bits, adding in others. When this is finished, I go back over each chapter, paragraph by paragraph. I read once off the screen and make corrections. I read again aloud, taping myself, play back and make more corrections. Finally, I print and re-read, making further adjustments with a red pen. Anything I don’t love; I get rid of. Anything doesn’t make sense has to be changed to make sense or go. After all of that, I leave it alone for a couple of weeks and work on something else. I’ll re-read then, make adjustments and send to a professional reader for their opinion. Painful though it can be, if you care about your work, you’ll welcome an experienced and objective opinion. Don’t send it to a personal connection; they’ll only tell you it’s great.
Writing is enough to drive you insane. Think of all the alcoholic writers, think of all the suicides. Think of JD Salinger and Philip Roth living for years in isolation. James Joyce was castigated and died in poverty. Oscar Wilde was crucified. Most writers are just ignored and unrecognised, arguably worse than any of the above. But if you love doing it, writing is one of the most rewarding and fulfilling activities you can engage with. You’re always learning, discovering new things, about your subjects and about yourself. Writing is a craft as well as an art. It needs to be learned. Go to a class. Watch Youtube videos. Buy books. Do it, not because you want the recognition or financial rewards, do it because you want to get better. Because you have something to say that you care about.
(c) Owen Dwyer