I’m thrilled to be able to chat today with Noel Duffy, novelist, poet and screenwriter. I had the pleasure of  meeting him recently when I was in Dublin over Easter. It’s always a bit scary to meet a fellow writer, especially when you admire their work as much as I have come to admire Noel’s. But I’m happy to say he’s all that a talented, professional and fun contemporary writer should be. And now he has a new poetry collection published by Ward Wood called In The Library of Lost Objects.

Noel Duffy was born in Dublin in 1971, which puts him just a few minutes younger than I am (ahem). He’ll divulge more about his background in our discussion below, but professionally so far he has co-edited, with Theo Dorgan, Watching the River Flow: A Century in Irish Poetry (Poetry Ireland/Poetry Society,1999) and has also published a collection of two novellas, The Return Journey & Our Friends Electric (Ward Wood, 2011).  Noel has also discovered the joys of blogging. You can follow him here.

Noel and I share a tendency towards the cross-genre, if you know what I mean, and so I was eager to hear his thoughts on the whys and hows of writing in as many genres as he does. He has also done an MFA in Creative Writing, and I was eager to hear his thoughts about that, too. He’s also a fellow science nerd, so our chat got a bit long, but stick with it. You won’t be sorry:

Sue:  Some writers concentrate on one genre, others like you and me, write across several. Although you are just now launching your first full length poetry collection, you have already published two (wonderful) novellas with Ward Wood. So I’m wondering, did fiction come before poetry or did you always write both at the same time?

Noel: Poetry came first. Most definitely. I studied Experimental Physics and did well, and after graduation I joined a PhD student doing research as part of the Human Genome Project. To be honest, that’s not as special as it sounds as nearly every university department was doing some form of research related to this global project (there was a lot of funding made available at the time). I realised very quickly that the laboratory wasn’t my natural habitat. Like most young people at a loose end, I decided to do teacher training. I also very rapidly realised that wasn’t for me either and the only thing that kept me going was that I had started writing poetry, which I had read through my time in college but not written. This was in 1995. I suppose my progress was quite fast as I published my first poem, ‘Apple’, in the autumn edition of Poetry Ireland Review in the same year. That was a big moment, made bigger by the fact that Seamus Heaney had just won the Nobel Prize and his first published poem after the big event was in the same issue. For a brief period at least, writing poetry seemed a realistic thing to do with your life. Obviously, I continued on writing poetry since that time, though my progress has been painfully slow till the last couple of years, when I’ve learned to be more relaxed about it.

The writing of prose was really unexpected. I went to do an MA in Writing at NUI, Galway, much later in 2003, with the main hope of making serious progress on my poetry collection. The irony was the one field of writing I made the least progress with was poetry. In some MA courses – such as Trinity’s – there is a more singular focus. So, if you go in as a prose writer you mostly do that. The philosophy in Galway was to encourage us to try our hand at every form of writing. Most people on the MA were, indeed, prose writers so when I took that course I had no expectations whatsoever. I think that really helped. Our tutor asked us to write a short story and when I tried I ended up writing a first draft of ‘The Return Journey’, one of the two novellas in the book. It was a deeply liberating experience. Having focussed so much on poetry, and having been a student of poetry so to speak, writing prose felt like stepping from a small room (almost like a monk in his cell) into a much larger one. I was extremely surprised at how at home I felt in the form, particularly writing in the first person. I think the key is finding a clear voice for the character, then rigorously following where it takes you. I’ve yet to write prose in the third person, and I suspect I might face some challenges in doing so. I also took a course in Non-Fiction with Prof Adrian Frazier and wrote a long piece about my grandfather which was later published in the Dublin Review. So by the end of the year, I’d produced fewer poems than I’d hoped, but discovered I really enjoyed writing prose.

As a final, general point, for me poetry is a tap that is not always running. Before the MA that led to a lot of frustration for me. By writing in other forms (prose, film, theatre) I started to write more regularly and I really enjoy the variety that offers. The one thing I find is that I can’t easily move from one form to another, so if I’m working on a screenplay I’m not thinking about anything but film. The same is true of poetry and fiction.

Sue: You also write screenplays in the way that I also write stage plays. What has drawn you to that medium? Is it the visuality of it, or the dialogue, or the chance of fame and glory?

Noel: In the same year that I did the Higher Diploma in Education, someone gave me a copy of John Berger’s novel To The Wedding. I was becoming interested in film and found the book very cinematic, so I decided to adapt it for screen purely as an exercise to try learn the craft of screenwriting. I read about three-act structures and so on and had cards for every scene which I rearranged on a wall, using pink ones for important plot points. Again, this exercise was mostly to keep me sane during the teacher training where I was mostly teaching maths. In any case, a couple of years later, someone told me that there was a new (and, in fact, the first) screenwriter agency in Dublin and they accepted my adapted screenplay straight away. For a moment I thought film was a real future for me. Sadly, nothing came of that and I really only came back to film seriously in the last five years. I do think that the fact I’d written a couple of screenplays before the MA probably helped me as a prose writer, as I understood the principles of storytelling and characterisation and how to write dialogue and so on. However, the one thing that’s difficult to do in cinema is to create an interior voice, so first person prose is very attractive for that reason. You can climb into someone’s head and explore their thoughts, as well as their actions and what they say.

I suppose a small part of starting to write films is the excitement of cinema, certainly. You might even say the glamour! It is, also, I think the dominant narrative form of our time really, so yes there is a certain urge to be part of it. Knowing what I know now, though, it’s also one of the hardest fields to break into as a writer. I’ve also come to realise that the writer takes so much risk in the film. You write a script on spec and put hundreds of hours in and then hope you can find a producer. If money is sought and got, it’s only then that most of the other key players enter.
So, you can put a lot of work in and never know if you’ll get a payday or see the film on screen,  even if it’s good. Films quite simply cost a lot of money to make. In a way, it’s quite frightening to think that something you write might require one and a half million pounds to realise on screen, if not more (and that’s considered low-budget in today’s market). Obviously, convincing people to give you that kind of money isn’t easy.

Someone gave me some very good advice when I started out with this. They said, don’t be the guy with one screenplay in his bag going from producer to producer for years; keep writing them and maybe one will eventually get made. I took this advice and have written five features, with three that are in the shop window, so to speak. That leaves you options when you do meet producers. I’m finally getting to the point where I have relationships with a number of them and there is a possibility of getting things off the ground, but in this business nothing happens quickly so you have to be very patient. I also know now that in film, the writer generally doesn’t receive the credit they deserve. If a film works it’s usually the director and the cast we’re aware of – certainly not the writer!

To answer your question more directly, what really attracts me to screenwriting is that in the same way I love reading poetry and prose, I love watching movies. Like fiction, you are working in the dramatic form with characters, a premise, and dialogue to try bring a world and story to life, but screenplays are more stripped back and exacting in a certain way. You have to understand that you are doing this for the screen and not the page, so that leads to differences in emphasis. In that sense, a screenplay only really exists when it’s projected by light. You need skill and imagination, say, to create a scene in 18th century Dublin in a novel. The same is true in film, but that scene might cost 100,000 euro to realise! So words are free. Celluloid isn’t.

Sue: I know that you have gotten an advanced degree in Creative Writing. At the risk of  being too controversial here — do you think it was worthwhile? Is it really just a way to make contacts?

Noel: I think from what I’ve written above, the MA in Writing was very useful for me and helped me to become a prose writer more than anything else. When I took the course it was only in its second year, though I was probably one of the most experienced writers on it as I’d published poetry for nearly eight years in journals and so on. I think a lot depends on the dynamic of the group of people involved, as well as the tutors. Our group was very supportive of each other in the main and, as I pointed out earlier, the philosophy of the programme was to try as many forms as you could and see where you were at the end of the year as a writer. It was also great to have so much feedback from tutors.

At the same time, I do think there is a danger in the emergence of more and more MAs of this kind. When they started in the States in the late 50s they were centres of excellence in writing with very high standards. Now, nearly every university in the States has one and you can’t help but feel that those standards don’t always apply and that they are a money-making exercise for some institutions (the same is true of screenwriting courses, I should add).  The other problem over there, is that I’ve heard some publishers won’t look at your work if you don’t have one (or one from a particular university), which is simply ridiculous. In the end an academic qualification isn’t the measure of a writer, the work is. The true qualification is to be published.
One thing I’d add as a final note. For me the year after the MA was my most fruitless as a writer. In a sense you’re in a lovely bubbly of creativity, but when you leave that bubble is gone. You face the harsher world of publishing houses and agents, sending manuscripts out and so forth, and waiting months to hear back and most often receiving rejection letters. After all the attention you received on the course, that’s a difficult transition. Overall, though, for me it was a great opportunity to step out of my normal life (trying to write while making a living etc) and to just ‘be’ a full-time writer for a year. That was wonderful, really.
    I just want to add a final thanks to Sue for inviting me onto her excellent blog for this interview. Answering her thoughtful questions has been a real pleasure. I hope they may be of some use to others also working at the writing coal face or those thinking about it.

Sue: Thank you, Noel. It’s been great chatting with you. Best of luck with both of the recent publications. And to all my friends out there reading this, I urge you to check out his work. You’ll be happy you did.