Offering insight into various creative processes and advice towards aspiring and emerging writers, here’s a quick-fire interview with the author of Love Notes from a German Building Site, A Sabbatical in Leipzig, Midfield Dynamo, The Geometer Lobachevsky, and Little Republics: The Story of Bungalow Bliss.
Adrian Duncan’s latest novel The Geometer Lobachevsky was shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize and the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award, 2023.
Sinéad: Can you tell us a bit about how you got into creative writing?
Adrian: I first got into it all by taking a creative writing course in Summer 2008 at the Irish Writers’ Centre in Dublin. I’d been studying/working as a structural engineer for the previous decade and more, and decided the year before in mid 2007 that I’d like to try something else. Over that autumn and winter and spring, I put together a portfolio to apply to art college, and in May the following year I was accepted to study in Dún Laoghaire. Then, a few weeks later I decided to try some creative writing too. So from about 2008-11 I was learning or engaging in two entirely new fields of activity – visual art and creative writing. Having just come from the world of construction, it seemed at times as if I’d landed onto a new planet.
Sinéad: In your writing, you’ve found a way to intersect your passions: engineering, architecture, literature. Previously, had trends or genre limited you in your writing and how did you overcome that?
Adrian: To be honest I didn’t know enough about the literary industry (and still don’t really) to recognise any trends and so I never really considered my work as being outside of any fashions or genres. I’d read Primo Levi’s The Wrench and The Periodic Table and from these wonderful books I realised it was possible to write about technical things in an interesting way – and this I would say encouraged me.
Sinéad: Can you talk us through your first publishing experience?
Adrian: After I’d finished up the three 10-week writing courses at the IWC I began sending some stories to The Dublin Review. The first few were turned down, but with each came an encouraging letter from Brendan Barrington, the editor. Then I sent him a strange little story called Design No. 108, which I really liked, but thought might not interest him, and lo, he came back with an email some months later saying he’d like to take it. I was really pleased and I think most likely went out for a few pints that night to mark it. Brendan and I worked on the story for a few weeks, honing it into shape. I went on to publish another four pieces since with Brendan and I can fairly say I learned much about writing and editing from each interaction. In any case, the short story is in Number 52 (Autumn 2013) of the The Dublin Review, alongside early pieces from Mark O’Connell, Rob Doyle, Caelainn Hogan, Peter Geoghegan … all writers who have since gone on to produce some of my favourite books of contemporary Irish fiction and non-fiction.
Sinéad: How do you go about finding ideas for your next project?
Adrian: The ideas tend to come from what appears but, for the sake of narrative, remains unexplored in a previous work.
Sinéad: During the early stages of writing a piece, do you dedicate time to researching before writing or do you research as you go? What is your average writing process, or does it change project to project?
Adrian: I tend to just take off without any sense of direction and certainly no sense of what the plot might become. I tend to respond to a feeling of urgency that appears around an image that keeps appearing in my mind. I write fairly unceasingly for weeks on end – to the point that even sleep becomes an irritating if necessary interruption. Then as things start to take shape a sense of character (or characters) appears and then a dramatic arc suggests itself. I try to push what the end of this dramatic arc might look like away from the process for as long as possible, and then of course I have to relent. At that point some sort of a first draft has appeared. I’ll read it over a few times, then put it away for four months or so, then read it through my fingers in the hope there is something of merit there. Generally, if there is energy, there is at least something. In the early drafts I prize energy over coherence. Then, as time passes I try to craft the thing into a complete dramatic arc and some time later again think about showing it to my agent. Some books come easily enough, some come with difficulty. I find after struggling with a difficult book for a few years, the one after comes much more easily. I can’t make sense of any of it, but I do find the whole process addictively interesting.
In terms of research, if some is needed, as I go, to help the work, then I will carry it out as best I can. If travel is required I try to do it. Most of my writing has been in the first person (that’s beginning to change now a little), so when I write from this position, I am trying to get a strong sense of the character/narrator first and see where that brings me.
Sinéád: How do you feel supported by literary journals? Did you submit widely before your debut, or did the journals come after?
Adrian: At first I sent my work to The Dublin Review, The Stinging Fly, the moth, and gorse. I don’t submit to journals that much these days, largely because in the last few years I’ve been engaged in book-length works that have taken up a lot of my time. But certainly when I was starting out I felt there was good support from journals, especially The Dublin Review, because even pieces that were being turned down came with invaluable notes and criticisms. I had no real network of fellow-writers (having not formally studied in an MA setting let’s say), so Brendan’s responses to my pieces, that did not quite work for him, were like gold. Being published in a literary journal means you are exposed to the processes of the literary industry – from the activity behind the scenes to the publicly facing aspects. As a young writer I learned much from this whole process.
Sinéad: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Adrian: I’d say probably don’t plan too much of what you write.
And if you can, try to celebrate your victories!