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 story, it obviously could have been relocated elsewhere. What was the draw of Ireland itself for you? 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?
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. Probably just as well that I went and did it without thinking about that part too much. As it was, I 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 and 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 embrace 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 and includes in its own structure several layers of storytelling. Even a few pages into the book, we get 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’s book, which is not only marked by a desire to tell "the true full story" but also relates its own fascination with the storyteller at the novel’s core; and then Jim himself with his 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? If not, 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.
Darling Jim first appeared in your native Denmark. Did the book change at all as you translated it for English-language readers?
I should clarify that I wrote Darling Jim in English first, not the other way around. The 2007 Danish version, then, was the translated version (and I translated the novel myself). 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.
I couldn’t do a straight translation from English into Danish, 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 untranslatable, 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.
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.
Christian Moerk’s conversation with Art Taylor was originally published on the blog Art & Literature (artandliterature.wordpress.com), and an extended version of this conversation can be found there. Reprinted by permission.