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Adrian Duncan: Bogs, Bilbao and electrification

The former engineer (now a star Irish novelist Adrian Duncan) on his creative method, mathematics and the unescapable Irish bog.

Photo: Finn Richards.

Adrian Duncan may be Irish, but he’s not exactly what comes to mind when you hear ‘contemporary Irish fiction’. This Longford-born artist and author, a Berliner since 2014, originally worked as a structural engineer. His fiction – which has earned him massive acclaim in Ireland – typically features topics like bogland, geometry, construction sites, brooding men and (naturally) the midcentury electrification of the Irish Midlands.

His 2021 short story collection Midfield Dynamo and 2022 novel The Geometer Lobachevsky (Lilliput) have both been praised on these pages; next month will see a nonfiction book called Bungalow Bliss and the re-release of his 2020 novel A Sabbatical in Leipzig on the UK press Tuskar Rock. We sat down with Duncan at a Prenzlauer Berg café for a chat about his work.

First things first: a book a year! How on earth do you manage it?

[laughs] Well, there are two parts to that. The first is that I’d been writing in obscurity for 12 years. For instance, my short stories came out in 2021, but I’d been writing it since 2008. The other answer is that my books tend to stem from each other.

There are technical things that get repeated, ideas that get expanded – so each book just sort of grows out of the last one. It’s like the aerials you get on cars, where you pull them and each next bit just kind of pops out. I don’t plan out my books, so I always end up with a surplus from the previous book, some idea or other.

You don’t plan?

I don’t know many other writers, to be honest, so I don’t know how other people do it. Myself, I just sit down and write, whenever I feel like there’s something I need to write about. And I’ll just write for as long as that energy’s in it, and then that is my first draft. It might take three weeks, or six weeks, and then I put it down for six months. And then I read it through my fingers thinking, ‘Oh I hope it’s not absolute bollocks.’ If it isn’t, then I’m like, ‘Okay, that’s good – we can work with this.’ And off I go.

A Sabbatical in Leipzig follows an ageing engineer living in Bilbao who looks back on his life – the places he’s lived, the bridges he’s designed, the wife he lost. It has this fascinating tension between the melancholy of his situation and his mathematical approach to the world. Do you, an engineer-turned-author, relate to that?

I find with metaphors that I turn my back on them, they’re not my interest.

Yes, although I suppose his melancholy would be a little more than mine, you know, but then he’s in more pain than I am. And the way he goes about looking at things is definitely more professional than my way. But I see an interesting logic in doing things like he does. You know, he repeatedly navigates around this set of sculptures in the Bilbao Guggenheim, using a different order each time, approaching them in such a deductive but unfinishable way, it’s almost comedic.

Deductive thinking is very useful in certain areas of the world, but it’s completely pointless in so many others. But for this man, who was an engineer all his life, this would have been his habit of thought. I have actually seen that artwork in Bilbao, [Richard Serra’s] The Matter of Time, myself. While I was there, I thought about how he would interact with the sculptures: he’d look at them as objects with weight, density – that sort of quality.

One of the novel’s central images is this photo of the narrator that his brother took in Ireland, back when he was working the land for his father. Bog, turf, peat – these things recur in your fiction, often in tension with the engineering mind. Is that a metaphor for the untamable unconscious, or do you really just love this bog?

For a lot of people, that moment when light appeared in your house was the most memorable thing of that whole age. And it marked the beginning of a huge shift for Ireland away from, you know, pure Catholicism.

No, no, it’s definitely not a metaphor. I find with metaphors that I turn my back on them, they’re not my interest. As for the bogs, obviously I’m from the Irish Midlands, so there’s a bog near me, and there was once a power station in the distance. They’re just memories – that’s where my work comes from.

That photograph doesn’t exist, it just seemed like the standard photograph that you would have back then. His brother gives it to him and he speculates it was meant to ground him, essentially, away from what the brother thought were these highfalutin abstract ideas he was getting into. There’s no meaning beyond the fact that this stretch of land is very meaningful to him, although I don’t know why.

Throughout your work you keep returning to this rich imagery of power stations versus bog – and to the historical moment when the Irish Midlands got electricity…

The Midlands didn’t have an industrial revolution like the UK did until after the war. And this was when they started mechanising the whole country. They started extracting peat, bog, turf, all that kind of stuff, and building power stations to produce an energy grid, putting light into the countryside – that was the ‘Rural Electrification Scheme’. The change that came was so huge, and so strange, I think of it as a sort of magic – a sort of magical realism.

For a lot of people, that moment when light appeared in your house was the most memorable thing of that whole age. And it marked the beginning of a huge shift for Ireland away from, you know, pure Catholicism. I did an awful lot of research, reading texts, travelling, oral research, and I’m not even finished looking at it. It’s given me two or three books, but there’s more to it, there always is.

Are you content to continue writing about the things that fascinate you?

[laughs] Yes, absolutely. The only thing I find important is that you’re not pretending to be interested in something – you have to be interested. When you are interested, there is an energy which you cannot fabricate.

Recently I wrote something about a certain photograph I have of my parent’s house – it is one of these bungalows, with a mound of turf to the right, my dad’s engineering office behind the front lawn, and then an electricity line. I was looking at that and I thought, in terms of my fascinations, I haven’t actually left my parents’ house. The turf, the electricity, the bungalow, the engineering. And the lawn that we used to play football on. I’ve never really left that place behind.