Interview: David Butler (City of Dis)

It may have taken David Butler almost a decade to finish writing his most recent two novels (The Judas Kiss 2012; City of Dis 2014) – but since then the publications, productions and awards have come flooding in: a poetry collection (Via Crucis, Doghouse, 2011), a short story collection (No Greater Love Ward Wood, 2013), the Fish short story prize in 2014, and three prize-winning one-act plays. ‘Twas the Night Before Xmas won the SCDA ‘Play on Words’ in Scotland in 2013 (& is published by Spotlight); Blue Love won the Cork Arts Theatre Writers’ Award in 2015, and Sweet Little Lies is one of three finalists for the SCDA ‘Play on Words’ in 2015 (winner tba in November). City of Dis was shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year award (2015).


In City of Dis, Willy Regan roams the streets of Dublin in search of company and experience, following the death of a mother whose care overshadowed/stole most of his adolescence and young adulthood. The characters he encounters are as eccentric and needy as he is: the mysterious Yelena who resists commitment, suicidal Chester Mather; the aptly named Danger Danaher. One by one each of these draws Willy further into murky, unpredictable worlds en route to the inevitable tragic outcome. Along the way, Willy observes ‘Every trouble in this world is caused by a man’s inability to stay quietly at home.’ But the novel is all about moving through the city, recording impressions and responding to chance encounters. Even though he knows that nothing good waits for him on the streets, Willy is as irresistibly drawn to them as he is to the elusive Yelena. Despite his better judgement, he is compelled to follow trails, hide evidence and generally throw himself deeper and deeper into trouble. Dublin is as much a character as any other in this dark, bitterly comic, clever novel.


DIS 001 (1)Where did the idea for City of Dis come from?

Like almost everything I write, City of Dis began as a voice rather than an idea. It was the voice of an ‘innocent’ who’d reached middle-age without any significant relationship beyond his mother’s tyranny; an anachronistic, bookish voice undermined by self-deprecation and dry wit. From this, the mother’s irascible voice was born, then the voices of Yelena, Danger, Chester, Ciaran Crowe et al. I was delighted when Kirkus Review recently summed up the novel as: ‘A dark romp featuring delightfully crackling dialogue and the mental gymnastics of a protagonist so on edge he tries to silence a yowling cat with poison.’

You’ve said that both The Judas Kiss and City of Dis could be termed ‘Dublin noir “first-person narratives inhabiting the borderlands of illicit desire and violence” What did you mean?

Both novels are gravitationally bound to a violent crime and, in attempting to understand that crime, each explores our darker passions and obsessions. That said, to my mind, a contentious term such as noir is best thought of in terms of tone rather than content per se. Noir has a narrative toughness that often borders on self-parody, a black humour that acts as a check on its own urbanity. Dublin humour seems to me to lend itself to that, as does the dialect and accent of such centres of the Irish diaspora as Liverpool and Glasgow… It’s not for nothing that in American slang, a Private Investigator is dubbed a ‘Shamus’!

You’ve also said that you find it useful to be working on more than one project/text at a time – can you say more about that?  Most of us find it hard enough to keep track of one!

It’s not always immediately obvious to me in what genre an idea or a voice will best develop and come to life. As a modus operandi, having something on the go in different genres has sometimes got me out of jail in terms of writer’s block. My first published novel, The Last European (2005) was written while I was doing a Spanish Literature PhD in Trinity, and whenever that novel got stuck, I worked certain passages into poems which eventually led to the Via Crucis collection. Likewise, a central chunk of my current novel in progress, Under the Sign of the Goat, evolved into a one-act play, Blue Love, which won an award down in Cork earlier in the year. I guess my reading would be just as various, jumping about from poem to play to story…

You use your knowledge of theatre and acting to get inside the skin of your characters – do you go out about your everyday life in character?  Or do you leave your characters somewhere in the vicinity of your desk?

Again it comes back to voice and rhythm. To play a character on stage, you need to inhabit their speech and idiolect. At one level, they’re entirely defined (on the page) by their own discourse. But you also need to inhabit rather than merely play them, if you are to avoid caricature/cliché. I think the same holds true for characterisation in fiction. In writing The Judas Kiss, I set myself the task of understanding how a paedophile can justify himself to himself, (and how other characters make excuses for him.)  One way to approach this was to create a complex of first person narratives so that each character is seen from a variety of perspectives which don’t quite mesh. I can’t say I was ‘method-acting’, bringing each character around with me 24/7, but I had to believe in them (in every sense of the phrase) while they were narrating their respective sections.

Dave B headshot

David Butler

How aware were you of other novels that portray Dublin as a character in its own right? Do you see yourself as part of a tradition there?

I’d say very aware! Gerald Dawe, who co-judged the Novel of the Year in Listowel along with Eileen Battersby, commented on the family likeness of Will Regan to Sebastian Dangerfield. In fact, though I’d read The Ginger Man, I was entirely unconscious of this. Joyce’s Dublin, on the other hand, is as domineering a parent as Moll Regan, particularly insofar as character is defined in Joyce by language and idiom. The Dublin speech-rhythm of Beckett’s magnificent First Love is part of that tradition, the Flann O’Brien of Eamon Morrissey’s The Brother, Behan’s Quare Fellow, also Anthony Cronin’s Dead as Doornails and The Life of Riley.
I’m aware this is an exclusively male canon. Almost all of the many 20th Century Irish female writers and playwrights whom I admire place their heroines in the Big House, or in small-town Ireland, or they are ingenues arriving in the Big City. Specifically, with Will Regan, although the events take place in the run up to the millennium, I was after the rhythm of the inner-city Dublin of my own grandparents, who lived in the house with us as I was growing up.

City of Dis speculates about fate, destiny etc.  Did you come to any conclusions while you were writing it?

Both City of Dis and The Judas Kiss broach the question of whether there is a pattern to our lives, a question that has been posed in literature certainly since Sophocles’ Oedipus. It seems to me that, of all ‘philosophical’ questions, this is the one that most naturally belongs to literature because in creating literature we necessarily impose pattern and order. Despite the best efforts of the avant-garde, fiction and drama can only ever give the illusion of accident or free will. The issue is not itself a religious one, or not merely a religious one. To the extent that there are religious points of view expressed in each novel (Br Martin, Ciaran Crowe), their perspective can’t be said to prevail upon or take precedence over the protagonists’ (Bluebottle; Will Regan). The final lines of both The Judas Kiss and City of Dis foreground this indeterminacy. As to whether I’ve come to any conclusions, Chekhov said the task of the artist is to imaginatively and precisely pose the question, never to answer it.

That’s a great quote, from Chekov! There are several layers of writing in the novel.  Or writing about writing. Chester is writing a play – and the manuscript offers clues to his behaviour; Willy is writing his own account of events. Along the way, he often comments on the progress of his notes, in a way that continually remind us of the constructed nature of the novel. Can you talk about that?

In part, this relates back to the previous question. Any author must needs select and order their material, thereby imposing a logic on the inchoate together with the illusion of causality. More generally, this is what all memory does, being both selective and causal, in the construction of personality. I wanted to have some fun with this idea…

Looking at the summary of your work rate 2012-14, we’re obviously late catching up with you – so what are you up to now? What’s next?

I’ve recently finished a third draft of my current novel in progress, Under the Sign of the Goat. Although the protagonist is again a Dubliner and it once more gravitates about a violent death, the action is set entirely in small-town Ireland and it is, moreover, a third-person narrative. Meanwhile I’m working toward a second poetry collection and second book of short stories, and, just to shake things up, I’m about 20,000 words into a children’s novel! Oh, I’m also currently trying to find an energetic literary agent, all suggestions welcome!

Here’s a link to one of David’s short stories, “Return”:

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