Paul Murray is fascinated by stories. Not just those that sit on shelves but the stories we tell each other and ourselves. While on the surface, Skippy Dies (Hamish Hamilton, February) is a comic novel set at the (fictional) Dublin educational institution Seabrook College, the book is about the power those stories have. Murray says: "When I started writing it I didn't really have anything in mind but the theme emerged about how people rely on stories, how humans love drama and have this need for a narrative arc in their lives."
Seabrook is a college on the verge of its 140th birthday. The book begins with Daniel "Skippy" Juster challenging his best friend Ruprecht Van Doren to a doughnut-eating contest. Skippy collapses and dies during the competition but his final moments involve writing 'TELL LORI' in jam onto the doughnut shop's floor. How Skippy got there, who Lori is and the aftermath of his death unfolds over the course of the novel.
Rapid cultural change
While the Irishman was writing it, he says two powerful fictions were being told in wider society. The first was the build-up to the Iraq war, or "a huge institutional lie" as Murray puts it. The second is the Irish economic boom and the country's subsequent collapse. Murray says Ireland moved from a "1950s culture into a 21st century culture in a very short period of time".
He says: "I used to work in a bookshop and when customers were disappointed about something, which happened quite often, they would say 'oh, your days are numbered' and say it with a certain type of triumphalism.
"But when the internet was starting to take off, there was a huge amount of propaganda saying how everybody's lives would be completely reorganised and how we interact and communicate with one another would change. We wouldn't need to go to the shops anymore or walk down the street. There was a massive goldrush for this new business paradigm. Everyone would get rich off the back of it. But it soon disintegrated and everyone lost a lot of money."
Murray says that the economic collapse has left Ireland "screwed". "People are going on strike because they bought these expensive houses and they don't know how they are going to pay for them anymore. They're like children. There's a lack of awareness because we are in a world where we are all connected. Integrity matters because your actions will come back and bite you on the ass."
Ireland's drive for modernity, no matter what the cost, is written into the novel in the form of the college's management. Seabrook is led by Gregory Costigan, a ruthlessly ambitious temporary headmaster dubbed "the Automator". He has his heart set on a new high-tech wing for the school, at the expense of demolishing a building built in 1865. And he also thinks the Paraclete Fathers, the Catholic priests who teach at the school, are "outmoded".
Costigan's media-savvy scheming is reminiscent of former Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern, who stewarded Ireland through the booming Celtic Tiger years but managed to leave office before the bubble burst. Ahern famously once said: "we live in the future", a quote Murray brings up during the interview. "I loved that, it was ridiculous. It was like he lived in a silver spacesuit or something. That's the way the country was going. You had the sense that the boom was being used to abandon the past and beat it down. Everything that [had] happened was useless and antiquated and we are better people for having moved on from it."
Politics aside, the book's emotional centre is the Seabrook fourth years who board at the school and their friendship. Murray says he is surprised by the lack of adult books about teenagers, something that is surprising given the dramatic potential of first love, playground fights, concerts and school discos (all of which feature in the novel). "Teenagers lives are quite operatic, or rather they see their own lives as operatic. So that's clearly great fun to write about because it's a time of high emotion. That was part of the appeal in writing it because you could do very dramatic scenes and emotional moments as well. And teenagers can make the kind of jokes that others definitely couldn't."
These jokes result in a hilarious read, full of quirky incidental characters like hip hop-loving teens Patrick "Da Knowledge" Noonan and Eoin "MC Sexecutioner" Flynn or Dennis, possibly the world's most cynical teenager who dubs Ruprecht "Von Blowjob". "Humour is a rarified concept in novels. You can watch 'Superbad' or 'X-Factor' but when you read a book, it has to be something very refined and restrained. This is a bit irritating."
Between the cast of characters Murray kept adding to, handling the lives of teenagers and the political machinations of a school, what initially started as a short story kept growing and growing. The book took seven years to write and was delivered as a 1,000-page behemoth. He spent three months honing the book down to a more palatable 650 pages. He says: "I remember Leonard Cohen once saying he had to get a song absolutely perfect before he would throw it out. I spent three months working on the book doing this crazy cull. I felt like a psychopath, hacking my family apart with a machete." He pauses. "That's probably not going to look good in print, is it?" he laughs.