Writers Chat 17: Neil Donnelly on his documentary about Aidan Higgins “Where Would You Like The Bullet?”

Neil, You are very welcome to my WRITERS CHAT series. 

Congratulations on the screening in the IFI (3rd March) of Where Would You Like The Bullet?, your documentary about Irish writer Aidan Higgins (1927 – 2015), edited by Seamus Callaghy.

SG: You’ve described his work as ‘beautiful prose’ and his work is admired by writers such as Annie Proulx, John Banville, and in the past, by Beckett. Can you talk a little about how and when you first came across the writing of Aidan Higgins?

ND: It was ‘Langrishe, Go Down’ which I had read in London, possibly 1970, when living there. Full of atmosphere, bad weather but extraordinary prose. Tortured, but a different suffering to that of McGahern. Both of whom spent days crafting singular sentences attempting a sort of aria, which is ironic in Aidan’s case as he had no ear for music. Then when ‘Balcony of Europe’ was published in ’71, I bought it and was again, dazzled; the opening chapter on the father is a magnificent set piece, but also frustrated by the lack of a coherent narrative. I suppose we’re all bred on plot, of forward momentum, formed by Shakespeare on the Leaving Cert curriculum. Aidan is about stasis, the present moment, Eckhart Tolle before even he had discovered the value of sitting still. But sitting still for Aidan also meant looking back, for his mantra was, “The memories of things, are they better than the things themselves?”.  I found Aidan’s phone number in the London Telephone Directory and rang a few times but he was never in. It was cheeky to attempt to offer editing advice to such a brilliant writer but that’s the innocent impetuosity of youthful ignorance. Years later in Kinsale, when Neil Murphy was re-structuring ‘Balcony’ for  the 2010 Dalkey Archive reissue, I outlined my idea to Aidan that the  book should be confined to the Nerja sections only and to drop all the Sligo stuff and all the boring letters. He fixed me with that hawk like stare and stayed silent. I assume that any suggestions I would have made to him in London in 1971 would have been met with the same hawk like stare and silence.

What an intricate relationship you have had with Aidan’s work and the man himself. You’re right about the breeding, as you put it, we’re taught to expect and accept coherence and structure and to be constantly in motion, moving on to the next….instead of sitting still. Even more so now, I fear.  I must also pause our chat to thank you for introducing me to more of Aidan’s work, and for the opportunity to discuss his prose with some fellow Kildare writers in the documentary.

Still from Where Would You Like The Bullet?
Still from Where Would You Like The Bullet?

SG: When you discussed the documentary initially with Higgins, you told him ‘if you don’t like it you can shoot me’ and he, now famously, responded, ‘where would you like the bullet?’ The title of the documentary comes from this conversation. Can you describe the process in finding scholars, academics, writers and artists who admired and were familiar with the work of Higgins? Admirably, the documentary covers a broad range of opinions and features artists, writers, actors and academics from across the globe.

ND: I had spent years working on a Theatre Play as a follow up to “The Duty           Master” only for that play, due to a multitude of reasons, not getting a Production, so as Paul Simon puts it “if an empty train in a railroad station calls its final destination, can you choose another track?” I had to find  another track in which I could apply some other skills and I realised that Aidan would be 80 years of age in 2007 so with some help from the Kildare Arts Service I produced the “Aidan Higgins at 80” Festival at Celbridge Abbey and the possibility of a documentary followed on. Initially, I tried to encourage stablished film makers, Alan Gilsenan, Donald Taylor-Black, Eamon Little, etc, who all expressed admiration for Aidan but none were willing to go where this fool eventually tip-toed.  I said to Aidan that reluctantly I would go ahead and do it and-in-a-throwaway added, “and if you don’t like it, you can shoot me” then quick as a light switch he said:- “Where would you like the bullet”.

At first, Aidan himself as he was then, 83 years of age, was going to be in it, arriving at Springfield House, his birth place in Celbridge, and finally leaving and hitching a lift on the road outside the gate where he would have been picked up by a car driven by the Girl from the Banville Pub in Wexford with the real John Banville in the back seat. But John Banville would consent to an interview only. In that same ‘Banville’ section in “Dog Days” there is a reference to Seamus Heaney and I created scenes with Seamus and sent him the script which he graciously declined but wished me well. Aidan’s ill health        prevented him travelling from Kinsale and Denis Conway deputised. So that very experimental idea was abandoned and a more conventional approach with added surreal moments was settled on. The big problem was having no funding. It was decided that I would do sections with actors, technical staff, academics, writers, etc when they had free days from their career paying jobs. Everyone received something for their time and contribution but nothing remotely similar to what they would have got if we had proper funding and a time limit in which to deliver. The resulting film wasn’t going to be an external enterprise like a lecture, rather it would be as if I were in front of a room of students with the occasional nod to the power point, yet my overall aim was for them to experience Aidan’s conflicting gifts, the visual artist and the prose master, his personal contradictions, his sense of humour, his evolution as a writer from ‘High Art’ to accessibility; a man with too much talent, overlooked by popular trends where mediocrity is lauded.

Well, it is great that you tip-toed and ventured – and got past the hawk-like stare to wonderful conversations. It’s a real shame, though, that ill health prevented Aidan from travelling to star in his own documentary. Having said that, Denis Conway does a wonderful job. The film really captures something that’s hard to pin down, you see it in the writing of others, such as like Desmond Hogan; conflicting gifts and a sense of constant internal battle. It epitomizes the idea that talent can be both a gift and a curse, and, at times, society welcomes and rewards mediocrity.

SG: You’re a writer yourself, Neil. Would you say that you have been influenced by Higgins, at a conscious or unconscious level?

ND: A dramatic person, if not a dramatic writer, that’s Aidan. Though heavily          influenced by Nightwood by Djuna Barnes, of which T.S.Eliot said it would ‘appeal to readers of poetry’ which could equally apply to Aidan. He was also influenced by William Faulkner and those trembling vines on long wall sentences. Marcel Proust has a lot to answer for. Too many writers have collapsed with exhaustion from their attempts to imitate the descriptions of the path and hawthorns in ‘Swann’s Way’. Aidan was very reluctant to edit anything. I think this might come from a fear of not being appreciated.  John Calder, publisher of Samuel Beckett, would spend whole days with Aidan editing sections of ‘Balcony’ only upon Calder’s going home Aidan would return the edited sections to the manuscript. The great  novels of F.Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway were moulded by the brilliant editing skills of Maxwell Perkins. If only Aidan had been so lucky. Less is more, always.

It’s a case of wanting to show the reader your heart and soul that have gone into the writing. The relationship between Carver and Lish also springs to mind, here. Every writer needs a good editor. You’ve answered my question, if I may say so, in a very Higginesque way!

IMG_0022
Aidan Higgins watching a cut from the film where Denis is outside the Banville pub.

SG: Like Higgins, you’re based in Kildare. How important do you think place was for Higgins? Is it important to you in your writing, and why?

ND: I’m from Tullamore, Offaly and live in Kildare. Place was important for Higgins because he never recovered from the wound of his parents loss of Springfield and having to move away. Something was cut short in him, thus his true theme was the search again for love until finding it and sanctuary in Kinsale. Kildare doesn’t deliberately feature in my writing apart from one fictional male character in the play ‘Chalk Farm Blues’ who hails from Kildare, but the County itself is not explored. In my poem, “Girl in Black Leather Coat”, set in London, the mystery Girl in question just happens to be from Kildare town. But nothing could compete with the surge I felt in a London theatre upon first hearing McCann in Act 11 of Harold Pinter’s ‘The Birthday Party’ exclaim, “Tullamore, where are you?”- the character probably calling for a refill  of Tullamore Dew Whisky, rather than calling up a memory of a town he had once stayed in, or passed through.

Our birth places always surface when we’re away. It’s like we’re more connected to them then than when we’re actually there and, you’re right, the loss of Springfield was so huge for Aidan – and all the family really, this comes across in your film, Neil – that he seemed to spend much of his life trying to recover or fill that void.

SG: So which of Higgins’s publications would you recommend to a Higgins novice?

ND: Start with Donkey’s Years then Dog Days then Langrishe, Go Down.

SG: You wouldn’t go with Balcony of Europe? Probably after those three…So, lastly, Neil, some fun questions. 

  • City or countryside? City in Winter, Country in Spring, Summer, Autumn.
  • Novel or short story? Novel = ‘Mysteries’ by Knut Hamsun ….Short Stories = ‘ Dubliners’ by James Joyce.
  • Coffee or tea? Both
  • What creative project are you working on now?  I would love to do another film but only with proper funding. I would never wish it on anyone to have to repeat an odyssey like the one I’ve been on for the last seven years. I’m working with my neighbour, Poet Donald Gardner, on a project to  celebrate his 80th year.

Thank you, Neil, for such generous answers. And I, for one, am glad you took on that odyssey. Such a fitting tribute to an undervalued writer.

Where would you like the bullet? Will be shown on Sunday May 19th @ 2pm at the Hugh Lane Gallery, Parnell Square as part of the Dublin International Literary Festival. Admission Free.

More details on the film Where Would You Like The Bullet can be found here: https://neildonnelly.ie/where-would-you-like-the-bullet/

Follow Neil’s creative projects which include film, poetry, stories, and plays.

https://neildonnelly.ie/film/