How do your academic and your creative pursuits cross over?
In some ways I see them as very separate. I certainly have to work on them completely separately. It’s like having an easel and a set of paints in one room and an easel and a set of paints in another room. But I’ve always seen my creative work as itself post-colonial. It asks tough questions about authority and power, which are post-colonial questions. So my creative work, to a certain extent, brought me to the whole area of world literary studies.
Did you ever feel that you might go down a solely creative career path?
Absolutely! At the time I took my first permanent academic job it was a little as though I was, speaking from an Irish point of view, taking the Queen’s shilling. I think there was a particularly grim moment when the new head of department at my job called me into his office and said, ‘All these junkets are all very well but you have got to understand that you are now a serious professional literary critic and teacher. You have to knuckle down and start churning out academic stuff.’ It was a bit of a crisis actually because there are only so many hours in the day and the week and so you have to do the one thing rather than the other.
Could you tell us about your recent short-story collection, Sharmilla, and Other Portraits?
Almost as a bona fide finger exercise, the writing of short stories has always been enormously interesting to me. I’m particularly a fan of Katherine Mansfield who only ever, because of her circumstances, wrote short stories. So I’ve written them and published them as I’ve gone along for actually, about twenty years. The first short story in Sharmilla I probably wrote in about 1984, but it sat around for a while before I published it.
Is there any advice that you would give to aspiring novelists?
Point one: keep on. And point two: keep on keeping on. Every day is very solitary because you have to go back; you’ve got to thrash it out again. The right word in the right place is a very difficult thing to achieve, but it is achievable, as long as you put in the work.
Could you tell us about the creative project you are currently working on?
I have been writing a fictionalised version of my father’s early life. He was fifty-three when I was born and therefore, to my young eyes, a very old man. He was something of a colonial officer; if you know your Conrad, a sort of a Lord Jim or even a Marlow figure. He had been in the Far East before the Second World War. And very helpfully for me, he left literary but still quite useful sketches of his times in the 1930s and the 1940s. And I’ve been using these as a kind of cord for the fictionalisation of his life. So I’ve been writing that up but inevitably the story of one’s father, remote a figure as he was, is a story of oneself.