Christian Moerk‘s story caught my eye the moment his new novel landed on my desk. And when I say story, I really mean that in two ways.
First, of course, I mean the story he’s written: the intricately multilayered novel Darling Jim, which was just recently published in the U.S. and has already earned kudos from no less than New York Times critic Marilyn Stasio. The book begins with a postman in Malahide, Ireland discovering a dead body while he’s making his rounds — “what was probably a hand” glimpsed through the mail slot — and then more grisly discoveries by the regular guards inside the house: not just that first corpse, the beaten body of Moira Hegarty, but also two more bodies, women who seem to have been held prisoner there and who are soon determined to have been the first woman’s nieces — two of the three Walsh sisters, with evidence that a third prisoner (a missing sister?) had been held but escaped. Stories ricochet throughout the community about what might have happened behind those walls, but soon another postman, Niall, gets the first inkling of the truth from a package that had ended up in the dead-letter bin. It’s a diary, apparently written by one of the murdered girls and focused to a large degree on the title character: a mysterious and potentially menacing storyteller who goes by the name of Jim Quick.
The other story that caught my attention was the author’s own: A native of Denmark, Moerk came to the U.S. in his early twenties, completed undergraduate degrees in history and sociology and then a graduate degree in journalism before jumping into the entertainment industry. He worked first as a reporter for VARIETY, then within the movie business itself as an executive at Warner Brothers (his credits included Eraser, The Devil’s Advocate, and Outbreak), and most recently covering films and filmmakers for the New York Times. While there are a few connections to Ireland in his own filmography — assisting with the productions of two Neil Jordan films, Michael Collins and The Butcher Boy — I was still curious about how a transplanted Dane turned Hollywood producer ended up jumping so brazenly into the Irish literary tradition. And that question was where I began when Moerk agreed to an interview about his terrifically engrossing new novel.
Art Taylor: You grew up in Denmark, and have lived in Vermont and New York. While you’ve said that this story grew from an actual Irish newspaper article, it seems like something that could have been relocated elsewhere, perhaps somewhere more familiar to you. What was the draw of Ireland itself? And with so many great Irish authors already out there — including a great batch of Irish crime/suspense writers — were you at all intimidated by stepping into that territory as an outsider of sorts?
Christian Moerk: I really wasn’t intimidated by the Irish literary talent, from Joyce and on down to Roddy Doyle and Pat McCabe; perhaps I ought to have been. I don’t read crime novels, really. Not because I have anything against them, it’s just that they’re often narrowly focused on finding the killer. I, on the other hand, want to tell a larger story of the people he touches on his way. I just stayed focused on my story, because if I’d sat down and thought about the local literary giants in the least, I would have been terrified, probably, and given up the ghost. I have to admit that, on the face of it, it sounds pretty absurd to have a Danish guy living in America for 22 years go to Ireland and take on the language as his own. It’s preposterous, actually, now that I think about it. Probably just as well that I just went and did it without thinking about that part too much. As it was, I merely felt energized about setting a story in a country I’ve loved and admired for many years ever since flying back and forth between Los Angeles and Dublin as a lowly film executive. But naturally, I was an outsider, and I used that in the book. The way that poor Niall can never quite penetrate what’s going on around him; the way people regard him with suspicion – all this was drawn from my own experience of holing up in a small boarding house in the winter/spring of 2007 and writing like a fiend, fueled only by Mrs. Crimmins’s scrambled eggs and tea, while trying to avoid her curiosity about why I had really come to Castletownbere. Ireland does become the invisible extra character in the novel, doesn’t it? Not every country can pull that off. Ireland, way out in its outermost regions, has resisted modernity. For me, it’s still one of the only countries in Europe that retains unruly smudges of history you can’t gentrify or modernize with a penstroke or a community plan (which is why I put Niall in Ballymun, a place that will be proudly North Side no matter how many cappuccinos they serve). Ireland’s remoteness from the Continent, its recent violent political history, and its willingness to embracy folk tales and myth (I often had dinner guests make up narrative songs about the day’s events, which they performed at the drop of a hat) all make it ideally suited for my story of wolves transgressing the way human beings do. That’s why I don’t agree that the story could have been set any place but in Ireland; the family patters, traditions and respect are all so particular that the interplay between Aunt Moira and her three nieces would not have been believable if I’d set the book in, say, upstate New York or New Hampshire. Small-town Irish religion, even faded, is an important underpinning that doesn’t exist any place else, either. West Cork is the only place this could have happened in my mind, anyway.
The novel draws on the seanchaí tradition — Irish storytelling — and includes in its own structure several layers of stories. Even a few pages into the book, we get the postman Desmond’s story (which also includes the townspeople’s various takes about what might have happened to the dead women), the beginning of Niall’s story (which includes him wanting to be a storyteller of a sort himself with his artwork), then Niall reading Fiona Walsh’s book, which is not only marked by a desire to tell “the true full story” but also relates its own fascination with Jim, the storyteller at the novel’s core; and then Jim’s own stories, another layer. And that’s only the beginning of where all this goes. Was this structure something you’d planned from the start? or how did those layers emerge in your own quest to tell this tale?
I planned it all from the start. As a big fan of Kurosawa’s 1951 film Rashomon, in which a violent incident between a samurai, his bride, and a robber are recounted from each person’s point of view, I wanted to attempt a multi-layered story in which each scene becomes part of a daisy chain; the more you pull on it, the more will be revealed. But I will tell you that the characters often grabbed more space than I’d planned for them originally; Bronagh the dour, guilty cop, for instance, elbowed her way in and showed she could be more than just a plot point. Likewise, desperate Aunt Moira took on many more colors once I’d decided not to treat her as a villain; her need to be loved made her multi-faceted, which is much more fun. But even with the structure I’d laid out – I always write a 75-page treatment before I start writing the book; it’s a chronological spine, complete with plot transitions, some dialogue, and main dramaturgical points – the story itself shifted direction a few times, forcing me to stay on track. Like a Russian doll, really.
While oral and written storytelling takes center stage, there’s a strong visual element to the narration as well. You’ve worked in filmmaking yourself and written about films and filmmakers. How did that background in the visual arts impact your work as a novelist?
I think it’d be dishonest to deny that I think very visually about introducing each scene. Naturally, as you can see, I often become a camera made from flesh and blood when I peer over the ridge to see the lights on a graveyard poor Niall is about to walk near, or see how the bay has been swept clean of boats; I do use the visual medium to ground each scene before diving into each person’s psyche. It’s probably second nature. I don’t think of it as I do it. I find it natural to set the scene. Anything else feels like cheating.
Any plans afoot to make Darling Jim into a film? And if so, who do you see in the starring roles?
Ha! Good question. Well, since leaving the film business several years ago, I think I’ve been innoculated against the need to see it appear on the screen; writing the book and having it published is enough for me. We’re playing with the idea of, perhaps, letting film people read it, but I’m not in a hurry. Should someone warm to it, I would let them run with it, rather than become part of the process; the business has too many egos for me to be interested in trying to wrangle my way into it – and the writers always lose. Who in the starring roles? Hmm. Someone Irish, for sure. I think I’d feel pretty unhappy if it were populated by three Hollywood actresses as the Walsh sisters and an American actor as Jim – there are certain cultural traits and interpersonal regional energies at play that don’t travel at all. I probably see either Colin Farrell (Dublin big mouth), Charlie Hunnam (English, but could pull it off), Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (also Irish, and seductive) or Cillian Murphy (hails from West Cork) as the seductive seanchaí. Christian Bale, too, perhaps. Might be hard to cast a movie star, though; if this ever became a film, I don’t see it as a blockbuster, but a mystery that requires a gentler touch. For the rest of the cast, I’ve been out of the business too long to pick someone who fits, but Ireland and the British Isles are chock-full of wonderful people who could make this come alive. A Keira Knightly type might be too polished a way to go for the Walshes; I would go in the direction of someone like Andrea Corr (of The Corrs) or Susan Lynch. In a way, it would be wonderful if the sisters could be three unknowns, rather like it happened in The Commitments. The amazingly versatile Fiona Shaw, who worked on The Butcher Boy when I helped supervise it, would be great as Aunt Moira, and if one went younger, Rachel Weisz fits just as well. Ooh, or Tilda Swinton – lethal. Ciarán Hinds would be great a Tomo, Jim’s assistant. Saoirse Ronan (Atonement) is too young to be a Walsh, but that’s the type that would also work – intense, but angelic-looking. That said, the book is what matters to me. I don’t really yearn for the film.
Darling Jim first appeared in your native Denmark. Did the book change at all as you translated it for English-language readers? Or what challenges did you encounter in the process of translating the work?
Firstly, I should clarify that I wrote Darling Jim in English first, not the other way around. The 2007 Danish version was my translation, too. This is because I write all my novels in English first, then translate them right afterward for the Danish home market. So, in other words, the Danish version was not the original, even though it was published first. That’s why I’m so delighted to finally have someone read the story exactly as it was intended. In terms of shifting the story from one language to the other, I couldn’t do a straight translation, because the languages and the tools they have in their idiomatic arsenal are so dissimilar that I had to re-shape many expressions to fit – in this case – Danish ears. Swearing, for instance, takes on a different tone in West Cork than it would in Copenhagen. Ireland is filled with local expressions that are intranslatable, such as “gobshite” or “manky.” That meant I had to invent some, or jam existing Danish one into the same hole to see if they’d fit. My U.S. publisher has retained all the Irish-isms and resisted the urge to Americanize the dialogue, which I’m so grateful for – anything else would have been a disaster. What has emerged now, after four novels, is a system where I try to graft the story from English into Danish with a pretty light hand; it’s about conveying the meaning, rather than the literal translation. If you force it, the story will seem obviously translated, and that should never happen. Authenticity – or the illusion of it – is key. That means I really write each novel twice, rather than translate the English original, to be honest. If I didn’t, the Danes would instantly be able to tell the story was “born” in another tongue – and that breaks the spell instantly, doesn’t it? Most readers in Denmark still have no idea I conceive and write in English first – they’re convinced I start in Danish. And most Americans have looked for the “translated by” credit somewhere and have been confused not to find it. And the answer is simple. It’s just me and my bifurcated head.
You mentioned “after four novels” a moment ago. While this is your first novel to appear in English, it’s not your only book. Why was this one chosen for your U.S. debut, and are there plans for your other novels to follow, after the success of this one?
It wasn’t really chosen as part of a master plan. Rather, my life-saving Swedish agent, Joakim Hansson from the Nordin Agency in Malmö, had read the Danish version and was convinced it could work over here in the U.S. (Only weeks earlier, my big-time fancy and lazy U.S. lit agent had pooh-poohed it as something that would never sell in America because it was “too European,” whatever that means. The Swedish guy disagreed. Naturally, so did I. And, so, thank God, did many Americans, as it happily turned out.) I’m hearing that, after Darling Jim, several publishers worldwide are interested in my previous novels, the conspiracy drama The Council of Ten (already printed in Germany and Russia) and the inverted Robinson Crusoe-type thriller Sea of Shadows, as well as the first leg in a trilogy I’m commencing right now, a psychological drama set in Vietnam called The Emperor’s Garden. No firm U.S. plans for these just yet, because I think Darling Jim needs to have an unfettered life a good while longer; it really is a stand-alone in so many ways, not the least of which is the infusion of folklore (not “fantasy” – an overused term that makes people think of Harry Potter rather than the wellspring of tales that inspired it) mixed with modern drama that can probably never be replicated – nor should it. The other books are… well, I guess I’d call them “emotional thrillers,” because the key for me isn’t who the bad guy is but, rather, why he/she got that way. Uncovering the murderer is the easy part. Revealing their anxieties, desires or excuses is much more rewarding for me.