Ian Maleney is a writer based in Dublin. Born and raised in Co. Offaly, he works as a freelance arts journalist, primarily for the Irish Times, and as the online editor at the Stinging Fly. His essays have been published by Winter Papers, gorse, and the Dublin Review. He is the founder of Fallow Media, an interdisciplinary publication for music, photography, and long-form writing on the internet. Minor Monuments is his debut.
Ian will be joined by Nicole Flattery, Adrian Duncan and Lucy Sweeney Byrne in conversation with Madeleine Keane at the DBF Emerging Writers Event. We sat down with him to discuss dad rock, Twitter and his book, Minor Monuments.
EMILY: So, how are you?
IAN: I’m good.
EMILY: That’s good. I’m glad we were able to meet in Galway – are you teaching in NUIG?
Ian: I am. I’m teaching non-fiction and editing for the MA in writing.
E: I’m actually doing the MA in Literature and Publishing so we’re cross-referenced with each other. I guess we’ll just go for it then. So, in Minor Monuments, you write a lot about recording the sounds around you as a way to sit with yourself or capturing the atmosphere that is immediately around you, and I was wondering do you still do that now?
I: Not as much. Not for reasons that I’m tired of it, exactly… it’s just that I’m not in environments as much that make sense as often.
E: And you’re busier.
I: [Laughing] Yeah. I left busy behind a while ago and I’m whatever is beyond that. Temporarily, thankfully. But no, I don’t do it as much as I’d like. There would be occasions where I do have time to do it and I do find it very relaxing.
E: Sort of an off-topic question, but you talk a lot about music in the book – like Brian Eno and other musicians like that. What music do you listen to now?
I: My listening habits these days are almost 100% classic rock.
E: [Laughing] Like the Eagles?
I: Yes, like the Eagles! Very much like The Eagles. Yeah, it’s just been a sort gradual, I dunno… “daddening” of my listening habits. I think I spent a long time listening to very weird music that other people just don’t really get.
E: And it’s reversed into the opposite of that.
I: Yeah, I probably just overdosed on it to a certain extent, and the conversations around it and the type of experiences that come from it. I don’t want to belittle them at all, they’re very important. But I’ve gotten a little more interested in broad strokes.
E: Like more simply good music.
I: And also, just on a social level. I love the riffs and the solos, just the same as everybody else – but what I’ve noticed is the big feelings that actually cause millions of people to relate. They’re interesting too. If you can do something powerful with that then it’s a beautiful thing… which is not to say all classic rock is good, most of it is terrible. But there are obviously gems.
E: I love the Eagles personally; a lot of people hate them.
I: I ended up watching the Eagles documentary with my dad a while ago and there were just bits in that where it’s like… this is better than I thought it was. “I Can’t Tell You Why” … that was the song that sort of broke the ice for me. It doesn’t sound like the Eagles at all, but it was nonetheless the Eagles, so. It kind of went from there to a couple of other little weird bits towards the end of their career more than the start.
E: One of These Nights is one of my favourite songs of all time. I’m like… they’re a really good band! There’s a reason why their Best Of is one of the top-selling albums of all time.
I: Perhaps THE best selling album of all time. I remember being at a house-party and the person I had gone with had left, so I was with people I had met that night and didn’t know very well, and one of them was trying to be very cool, hogging the iPod and playing a bunch of pitchfork-y, indie music that was very cool and extremely boring. I was just like, you know what… we need to listen to Elton John. And everyone was immediately in a better mood and I thought you know, [pop music] is actually quite powerful.
E: Read the room.
I: Exactly. It’s two O’clock at a house party, you don’t need to prove how cool you are by playing male twenties kind of thing, like… “I’m so serious.”
E: [Laughing] We need Elton John, guys. I was actually at the Holy Show launch the last day and I saw the film that you had made for it. I thought it brilliant, because when you talk in the book about format – like even with your mom getting the camera and the blurriness of the photographs and then, obviously, the format of sound – you combined film with reading aloud from a text and sound from recordings as well. I was wondering, was that something you always wanted to do, combining the book with visuals and sound?
I: Yes, in a way. I think when I originally started off trying to write what became the book, it was more a sound project than it was a literary project. Gradually, in my head at least, it was like, “Okay, this could be part sound, part literary, part visual.” Then the book side of things took over, that was the form that it took. And it’s only because of Brendan Mac Evilly at Holy Show that it’s really come back to what was almost its original genesis, I suppose. I didn’t expect to do this, but it is fitting that it’s happening. I was lucky that I had been recording stuff for years, audio and visual. So it wasn’t that difficult to start rounding it back up again and having recordings on the hard drive going back 5, 6 years and to martial them into something more cohesive. We’ll know tomorrow if it’s worked, because it’s the last day before the show on Saturday.
E: Did you make it with Brendan?
I: No, a filmmaker named Jamie Goldrick. He makes documentaries and commercial work. He’s a brilliant videographer, so he came down to Offaly with me for a day and went down by himself yesterday for a little bit. He’s stitching it together, I’ve been doing the sound.
E: I was wondering, because the book is so personal and so specific to your life and your experiences, was it surprising when… I mean, this is the impression I’ve gotten from the general reception of it, is that it really resonates with people. Was that surprising to you, that it was so universal, that feeling of belonging but also not belonging?
I: It’s not surprising exactly, I don’t feel like I’m a unique person or anything like that [Laughing] Um… I don’t feel like my experiences are in any way unusual, they’re pretty mundane, really. I have been taken aback a little bit by peoples’ openness, particularly with their stories of caring for family members. That’s been, probably the most… rewarding is an awful word, but it is rewarding. It’s the most meaningful part of it. When someone who you’ve never met comes up to you and says, you know, “This is what’s happened to me and you got it” or, “It made me feel better to read it”. That wasn’t on my mind at all as something that would happen, but it’s definitely been pretty nice.
E: It’s the connection across so many people you’ll never even meet. It’s nice.
I: I think the big thing was like, I’m not an expert on Alzheimer’s disease. I’m not a medical expert at all. And also, I wasn’t in any way the primary caregiver there at all. I was very much a peripheral figure, and when you write about something so personal to people like that and is so difficult and often traumatic, you don’t want to mess it up. You really don’t want to get any detail wrong, or write in a way that either reinforces a lot of the clichés that are around Alzheimer’s, which I find lazy most of the time. To hear from people who have had much more intense experiences than me, that it’s what they had gone through or at least reflected their experiences in some way, that’s the best compliment that I could ask for. It’s the only one that really means anything. Whereas the stuff maybe more personal to me, like you know, leaving home and the sort of tortured relationship that is there… someone said that she’d been recommending the book to fellow culchies in exile and I was like… that is the target audience for sure. But I feel like I know loads of those people, so I don’t really feel the same sense of worry about getting their experience right. I’ve talked about it with loads of friends, I know most of my friends are probably in similar situations. So, it didn’t feel as fraudulent as such. There was no real need to confirm that I’d done a half-decent job of it. Whereas with the Alzheimer’s stuff it was much more worry about what I was doing. You’re treading all over peoples’ deepest experiences that they have, and their relationships to people who are closest to them. You have to be very careful. No-one’s come out and said I’ve gotten it totally wrong yet, so I’ll take that. [Laughing]
E: No, it is amazing. I personally grew up in the suburbs in Cork City, and what you write about is really something I’ve been thinking about in the last year. I had moved to Galway then away to America for a year, then to Cork and then back to Galway and it was like… this strange feeling that I belong but I also don’t… my accent has changed and no-one knows where I’m from. A lot of the book really said exactly what I’ve been trying to say but haven’t been able to. So, thanks, you did a really good job! [Laughing] One of chapters that I really liked was about John Von Neumann, what you say about remembering vs being reminded. I thought about the book Ongoingness by Sarah Manguso – which is about her obsessively recording everything that happens in her diary, because she’s afraid of forgetting anything. You also talk about the internet in that chapter – and I was wondering, do you think that the rapid development of what is essentially the biggest recording device ever made is a good or a bad thing – as in, considering that our folklore had to be passed down by word-of-mouth, do you think that it’s a good or a bad thing that the internet can now record everything that we do and say, as a way of being reminded instead of remembering?
I: The aspect of it that I’m interested in is the retrieval, rather than the storage, if you know what I mean. They’re two separate things. Maybe it sounds kind of stupid, but I’m not very good at recording things. I don’t write in a diary, I don’t make notes very much. There are times that I wish that I was better at it, because I am relying on some pretty faulty grey-matter up there to try and actually hold on to stuff. But I’m just not in the habit of backing things up externally. I do most of my research on the internet, I do appreciate the vastness of it and its comprehensibility and the way its structured, how open and accessible it is. Which is why, certainly in that chapter, it’s more of an issue with something like Facebook as being a wall-garden rather than the internet in general, which is very much an open platform. I try to retain the distinction. So, for that reason I think that the internet itself is obviously a brilliant thing, I can’t find fault with it like that. I think there’s often a certain tendency to assume that, because of the type of book that I’ve written and because of what it’s about, that I’m not interested in technology or skeptical of it in some way. I am skeptical as one should be, but I love computers, the internet, I love it all. I probably spend you know, fourteen, fifteen hours a day on a computer. It is my life in a depressing way, but I do love how available it makes information that just would not be available to me otherwise. I love libraries for the same reason. There’s so much good in it. I think more of it is about how we use it and how we choose to interact with it rather than the technology itself or anything like that. We can have a better internet if we…
E: Do better. [Laughing]
I: Yeah, basically! It’s not closed at all; you can make of the internet whatever you want. That’s the beauty of it. It just so happens we’re in a very… closed off moment with it. A depressing moment in terms of the history of the technology, it didn’t have to end up this way. I don’t think it’ll stay this way for that long either.
E: I think as well, just as a person who has always been obsessed with keeping archives of… certainly social media mostly, Bebo and MySpace and stuff like that, trying to download the archives of photos and blogposts that I, or whoever, have done… I just thought it was interesting that these things are now available to me, I will always have these things on my hard drive. I’ll always have those stories and those pictures available to me in a way that people, like in our parents’ generation, will not. That chapter made me stop and think, is that a good thing?
I: Well, and I don’t know if it was before or after I wrote that chapter, I downloaded and deleted my entire Twitter archive.
E: I was actually researching for this interview and saw that! I thought you must have only just made one.
I: No, I’ve been on Twitter for 10 years. I was starting to feel haunted. Permanence is not a given, but I had just accepted it up until that point. The things I said, I can delete them, you know?
E: [Laughing] They’re gone. You’ll never know what I said.
I: No! And out of curiosity I made a little bot that would randomly combine the first half and second half of two tweets from that archive to see what would appear… and that was just mortifying. I had a very busy period… I think most people do this, they go through a very quick ramp-up in terms of how they use the platform, and then they get to a point like, “What am I doing?” and then it just falls off a cliff. And that was exactly what happened to me. Going from the stats in the Twitter archive I went from hundreds of tweets a month to like, a handful a year. Something clicked and I just thought, “I don’t have to do this anymore.” It’s there now, not for any real reason. But I’m always on the edge of getting rid of it altogether. I do use it for reading and organization of lists, things like that. I don’t have to engage with Twitter as such, but I’m always working around the platform as much as I can to actually make it work the way I want it to, rather than the marketing department would like it to work.
E: Yeah, like what you were saying, it’s what you make of it. Two weeks ago I would tweet probably ten times a day and now I’m trying to cut down to once, then eventually none. It’s this compulsion of, “This is a thought I’m having and now I’m going to record it.”
I: Yeah, the feeling is just like, no-one cares about my thoughts anyway.
I: And they’re not interesting. They’re not even interesting to me. If they’re interesting to me, they’ll come out some other way. But most of them are not interesting, they’re just things I’ve thought.
E: Or what I’m doing.
I: Yeah. And what I’m doing is never interesting. I don’t do anything. It’s just work and sleep. I think it’s the way the platform shapes speech and makes all that speech seem show-offy.
E: Because essentially, that’s what it is. You’re doing an action that takes energy to put this out there.
I: So, I just don’t feel comfortable in that tone of voice. It seems forced by the platform on everybody who uses it. I’d rather not speak and just listen for a while.
E: Absolutely, because again… I think it’s just this year that I’ve really ramped up usage of social media. Just something about giving people access to your whole life doesn’t feel good anymore. People would come up to me and ask how I am, only to backtrack and say that they already knew.
I: I remember years and years ago, when I first started using Twitter, and you’d meet people that you knew from Twitter but didn’t know in real life… I had that interaction with someone once and he was like, I feel like you should have an “@” over your head or something. [Laughing]
E: That’s funny you would say that actually, because the most recent friend I made was through Twitter. She moved to Galway and found me through a mutual friend that we both follow. And now we’re really good friends! But I’m also aware of how rare that is. I only have one more question – when you wrote about coping with anxiety by gathering information and trying to take control by having as much information as you can so that you can deal with the whichever situation… Do you think that doing that as a form to cope with anxiety or feeling of powerlessness is just a part of being human? Part of making art? Is that what it’s about?
I: It’s certainly what I’m about – it’s hard to generalize. For me, it goes back to what I was saying about the internet, that’s one of the reasons why I’m so positive about it. It gives me access to information that makes me feel more in control, or that I’m doing something. The fact that there are, say, a hundred PDFs in a folder makes me feel like I do have some knowledge about some topic that is contained in those PDFs even though I’ve never read any of them.
E: [Laughing] But you could!
I: But I could, they’re there, I’ve started the research. So, there’s a double bind to that where the information is more available than ever, but in terms of what’s actually useful to you when you’re making something, it’s about discarding 99% of that information and finding the bits that actually are really, really important, that stick out. For me, anyway, that’s a very long process. It’s takes ages to sift down into something that’s worthwhile. But that’s an anxious process as well, because you always feel like you’re missing that bit.
E: Like, what if this particular information is better than I realize?
I: Exactly. I remember, shortly after I finished writing the book, before it came out… I found a book by Annie Ernaux called I Remain in Darkness in a second-hand bookshop. I love Annie Ernaux, I think she’s a brilliant writer and I hadn’t read this book. It was about her mother’s struggle with dementia. And I was like… “Oh, God.” [Laughing] “I really should have known about this, I should have read this before, this should have been a thing that I had to hand when I was writing my book, and oh now what if I have to…” The drafts had been finalized, everything had been signed off and gone to the printers and I was like, “Well, what if I need to insert something from this?” But it was just a total habit. For years, anything at all related to Alzheimer’s or dementia I was stuffing into a folder and being like, “That’s my information for this and that’s what I’m going to get through.” I had dozens and dozens of books and PDFs and all the rest. I’d say I read two or three books about dementia that made any difference to me at all. I still had to go through all of the stuff to get those, to find them.
E: Because you don’t know! What if, at the very end, there’s the information that I needed?
I: Exactly. The telling bit, the bit that actually changes something in your mind, in your conception in what you’re doing, I mean that’s not easy to find. Often, it’s more about approach than it is about the information itself. It could be the application of poetry to dementia or something like that, and using poetic metaphors to discuss it. That’s not something that every clinical neurosurgeon does but there are some books that do that. They were much more helpful to me than a dozen clinical guides or stuff that is more technical, I suppose.
E: Trying to find the real connections between what you’re reading and what you’re trying to put out there.
I: Yeah, what I’m trying to do in terms of how it relates to me and what I can do with the information rather than what it can do for me. How can it become part of my thought process and not start to shape what I’m actually thinking? Because that’s why I’m trying to do. Most of that is trying to say what I’m thinking.
E: [Laughing] Express yourself.
I: Yeah, express a single thought, and that’s rarely as easy as people make it out to be. If I can find the information that helps make that thought clearer in my own head, then it becomes something that I can use, that I can build on and draw on in the process of writing. For other people, I can’t say. [Laughing]
E: Okay, that was my last question. Thank you so much. I was going to ask you something else, but it’s gone…
I: Should have written it down.
E: You’re dead right.