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4:13 am
Sat January 19, 2013

After 30 Years, Neil Jordan Returns To 'The Past'

Neil Jordan is best known as a filmmaker — he directed The Crying Game, Michael Collins, Interview with the Vampire and the Showtime series The Borgias — but he began his career as a writer. His first novel, The Past, was published in Ireland in 1980 to great acclaim.

The novel follows an enigmatic protagonist on his search for his family's secrets in a Cornish seaside town. Jordan joins NPR's Scott Simon to talk about The Past, which has been reissued in the United States by Soft Skull Press.


Interview Highlights

On encountering The Past after 30 years

"Well, it's the strangest thing, because it's the first novel that I wrote. I don't think I've even glanced at this novel for 20 years, you know? So it is the strangest thing, trying to connect with the person that you were back then.

"In 1980 I was a young writer ... I'd written a book of short stories. I think I was unemployed, actually. Ireland in 1980 was very similar to Ireland actually at this minute, you know? It was going through a huge recession, and there were no jobs, and most people left. But creatively, it was a very, very vibrant time."

On the visual nature of the novel

"The basic drift behind the novel is of a narrator who's trying to find the reality of his upbringing — of his parentage. But yet it's all done through a series of ... visual images, you know? The central, most enigmatic character in the novel is a photographer. So the whole book almost adamantly refuses to admit any kind of element into its narrative that is not heard, or described, or can be photographed. So in a way, when I finished this book, I thought, 'Look, I'm so obsessed with visual imagery' ... I thought I would explore the possibility of making films."

On the parallels between writing and filmmaking

"I kind of regard them as the same thing, and it's hard to explain that to people, and they don't quite understand why — you know, how you can work in such a visual medium and how you can also work with words. But it's just the way I've developed, really. And I just don't see any real difference in the creative instinct — in the imagining or the dreaming up of the particular piece of work."

On using film to tread new creative ground

"Growing up [in Ireland] in the late 1960s, you felt you lived in a country that was haunted by words ... I was born in Sligo, where W.B. Yeats was born and lived. Between these two figures — Yeats and [James] Joyce and probably Samuel Beckett, you kind of felt like every acre you walked on was kind of trodden, already covered by acres of print, you know? And for me, the first time I wrote a screenplay, I felt tremendous freedom, actually ... Because it felt to me that this was an area that had not been explored by the Irish imagination in any creative way in Ireland. I just got tremendously excited and overtaken by it."

On writers' solitude

"Being a novelist is the loneliest life in the world. You know, when you're making a film you're surrounded by people, and the flow of ideas is always a communal thing, you know, so you don't feel alone. Writing a novel, you can feel really alone."

On the temptation to revise

"I don't think I would [change anything] ... You know, what you do is part of how you were then. I mean, I find some parts of it quite moving, in a way. I'm just amazed that I had the energy to think [it all] up."

Copyright 2013 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Neil Jordan is best known as a filmmaker, including his 1992 film "The Crying Game." His other films include "Mona Lisa," "Michael Collins" and "Interview with a Vampire." Most recently, he's created the Showtime series, "The Borgias." But before he started making movies, Neil Jordan was a well-regarded novelist. Now, his first book, "The Past," written more than 30 years ago, has been reissued in the United States. He tells the story of a child's search for the truth about his parents' murky history. We asked Neil Jordan what it was like to pick up the novel that he'd written so long ago.

NEIL JORDAN: Well, it's the strangest thing because I don't think I've even glanced at this novel for 20 years, you know. So, it is the strangest thing trying to connect with the person that you were back then, you know.

SIMON: Well, who were you in 1980?

JORDAN: In 1980, I was a young writer and I was a - I'd written a book of short stories. I think I was unemployed, actually. Ireland in 1980 was very similar to Ireland, actually, at this minute. You know, it was going through a huge recession and there were no jobs and most people left. But creatively, it was a very, very vibrant time. And the basic drift behind the novel is of a narrator who's trying to find the reality of his upbringing, you know, of his parentage. But yet it's all done through a series. It's a whole host of visual images, you know. And the central, the kind of most enigmatic, character in this novel is a photographer. And so the whole book almost is - adamantly refuses to admit any kind of element into his narrative that is not heard or described or can be photographed. So, in a way, when I finished this book I felt, look, I'm so obsessed with visual imagery that I thought I would, you know, explore the possibility of making films.

SIMON: And you've made such well-known films too.

JORDAN: Yeah, yeah, absolutely, yeah. Well, I mean, I kind of regard them as the same thing. And it's hard to explain that to people. They don't quite understand why, you know, how you can work in such a visual medium and how you can also work with words. But it's the way I've developed really. And I just don't see any real difference in the creative instinct, in the imagining or the dreaming up of the particular piece of work.

SIMON: So, how did you get into films and why?

JORDAN: Growing up as a writer in the late '60s, 1968, 1972, you felt you lived in a country that was haunted by words. You know, you felt, I mean, I was born in Sligo, where W.B. Yeats was born and lived. Between these two figures, Yeats and Joyce and probably Samuel Beckett, and, you know, you kind of felt every acre you walked on was kind of trodden. I was already covered by acres of print, you know. And it's, for me, starting with the first time I wrote a screenplay, I felt tremendous freedom actually, you know, because it just felt to me that this is an area that had not been explored by the Irish imagination in any creative way in Ireland. And I just got tremendously excited and all overtaken by it.

SIMON: Do you ever, now that you're a filmmaker, envy the special effects budget that a novelist can use?

JORDAN: The way that our imagination can go anywhere. If they dream of a dinosaur, the dinosaur appears in page without you having to realize it. And what people don't realize the kind of joy and thrill there is in actually building a perfect picture of something you have in your mind, even though it takes time and it's expensive. Yet, it still is very pleasurable and it still is part of the same process. You know, and the process is creating a piece of art or telling a story. I mean, I have to say being a novelist is the loneliest life in the world. You know, when you're making a film, you're surrounded by people and the flow of ideas kind of is always a communal thing, you know, so you don't feel alone. Writing a novel you can feel really alone.

SIMON: When they came to you and said they wanted to reprint this novel, may I ask, did you pick it up after more than 30 years and read it again all over?

JORDAN: I've begun to, yeah. I've begun to. It's just thought I could have had an entirely different career.

SIMON: Without getting specific, did you begin to reread your novel and ever come across a line and say to yourself, boy, I wish I had a chance to redo it?

JORDAN: No, not really. You know, what you do is part of how you were then. I don't think I would. I mean, I find some parts that are quite moving in a way. I'm just amazed that I had the energy to think up it all.

SIMON: Neil Jordan, perhaps better known these days as a filmmaker but also an accomplished novelist. His 1980 novel, "The Past," has just been published in the United States again. Mr. Jordan, thanks so much for being with us.

JORDAN: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.