The chisel-cheeked KARL GEARY first shot to fame when he appeared in Madonna’s Sex book in 1992, but he’s more than just a pretty face. Having just published his debut novel, the Dubliner talks about his love of writing, his accidental acting career, the legendary Sin-e, and having Allen Ginsberg, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed as neighbours in 1980s Manhattan.
Karl Geary is a gentleman with numerous strings to his bow. A youthful looking 44-year-old, he’s a well-regarded actor, a screenwriter, bar owner and now novelist, but the father-of-two first came to public attention in 1992, when he was photographed lying in bed with a naked Madonna in a seedy motel room.
It wasn’t some tabloid sting; rather it was a staged image for the singer’s controversial coffee table book, Sex, taken by photographer Steven Meisel.
That brief modeling gig landed him on the front page of the Sunday World but, even back then, he didn’t much like talking about it. “It always seemed a bit ludicrous to me,” the affable Dubliner sighs, shaking his head. “It’s not even that I was reluctant to talk about it, there was just nothing to say. It’s a fucking photograph. Why would I describe a photograph? And now there’s the internet so… there you go!”
We’re meeting over afternoon coffee in the lobby of the Fitzwilliam Hotel. Now living in Glasgow with his actress wife Laura Fraser (of Breaking Bad fame) and their 10-year-old daughter, Lila, he’s back in his hometown for the launch of his debut novel, Montpelier Parade.
A beautifully crafted tale of a teenage boy’s doomed obsession with an older woman, the novel is set in 1980s Dublin. Written in the second person throughout, it brilliantly evokes the recessionary grimness of that grey era. Little wonder that he chose to escape it himself in real life. The youngest of eight siblings (his brother is musician Mark Geary), Karl left school and emigrated to New York at the age of 16. He ultimately wound up managing the legendary Manhattan café Sin-e, and still owns an East Village bar called The Scratcher, but it took him a while to get himself sorted.
“I didn’t work bars for a while,” he recalls. “I was a bicycle messenger, actually. I was really bad at it, because it was a commission-based thing; we were getting on average between $4 and $6 a run. But I didn’t know my way around. I hadn’t a clue.”
There weren’t too many supportive fellow expats around, either. “What was interesting is, in the late 1980s, traditionally all the Irish would have been going to Boston, Queens or the Bronx. No one was going to the East Village. As far as I could tell, there were no other Irish around. I was immersed in a very particular type of New York. Like, even New Yorkers didn’t hang out where I was hanging out.
“It was rough. South of 14th Street, down the Hudson, nobody came near there. It was fantastic because the other thing was there was no firewall between you and people. So you were up against, certainly for me, idols. I mean, Lou Reed was living on Avenue B with Iggy Pop in the same building. Allen Ginsberg was knocking around, Hal Wilner. I mean, all of these guys.”
It was through these arty neighborhood connections that he landed the Madonna photo-shoot. “There were a lot of arts scenes happening in my area,” he explains. “I suppose what Madonna was looking to do was exploit some sort of third-wave feminist movement at the time. And she was pulling from artists all over town, so it really wasn’t that unusual.
“I’d been approached a couple of times by Steven Meisel to take photographs, because I was 16 or 17 and I looked androgynous, and it was a look they could utilise. So I met her and I met Steven again, and we had a chat, and I said, ‘Sure, I’ll do it.’ And it was an hour, and it was fine.”
Karl had already started working in Sin-e by the time Sex appeared. “I was never into a pop world, so I really didn’t think that much about it,” he admits. “People like Jeff Buckley were gigging there so the calibre of people I was watching play in a small room… it was so intimate, it was remarkable. So that’s where my fix was, I was living in that world.
“I think months had passed, and then somebody called me and said, ‘Oh, that book is coming out’, and it really hadn’t been something I’d thought about much. So I was genuinely quite surprised when people asked me to talk about it.”
Although he suffers from dyslexia, Karl had always aspired to be a published writer. “Yeah, I actually wrote my first book in my early twenties, here in Dublin,” he says. “I came back from New York for the first time, and I wrote here for a couple of months. And it wasn’t a successful book in terms of publishing and stuff, but it was a great apprenticeship.
“But I would always write, and between then and now, there were many books that have been started, and you get to a certain place, and you go, ‘There’s no book here. It’s just not here.’ And that can be a couple of months in, a hundred pages in, and it’s heartbreaking. But also, there’s no point in pursuing it. It’s gone, it evaporates, you know?
“But I think what happened was it meant that I would see myself from early on as a prose writer who did other things. And there’s other things to be doing. I was lucky. I got to do some really interesting stuff.”
This is most certainly true. Those arty East Village connections also led him into the acting world. Today his rather erratic CV includes numerous films and TV shows (he even showed up in an episode of Sex and the City), but his very first onscreen role was in a 1994 arthouse vampire movie starring alongside Peter Fonda.
“Nadja was the first film I did,” he recalls. “I loved it. First of all, it was the best experience you could ever hope for. It was so low-budget, it was black and white, New York City. It was Peter Fonda, Martin Donovan, Elina Löwensohn, Jared Harris, a really good bunch of people.
“I actually got offered the role by accident. It hadn’t been on my radar, hadn’t been in that direction at all, and the guy who directed it, I’m friends with him now, a guy called Michael Almereyda, and I think I’ve done maybe five films with him since. But he wanted to tip his hat to Bram Stoker by having someone Irish in the movie, and like I said, the East Village was not awash with Irish guys. I may have just been the only one he knew. I think it was as simple as that (laughs). But it was great!”
Acting also led him into screenwriting. “Yeah, actually what I did with the first book I wrote, somebody had read it and said, ‘Look, there’s no book here. But your dialogue, you’ve got an ear. Why don’t you think about turning it into a script?’ So that book was turned into a screenplay that was made a number of years ago called Coney Island Baby, that’s what it ended up being called.”
While he’s made a lot more movies than he has published prose, Karl still views himself predominantly as a writer.
“Acting sort of does and doesn’t suit me,” he mulls. “I mean, I like films, the atmosphere of the set, the circus atmosphere. It’s the opposite of writing. And I’ve been lucky enough to work with Bill Murray, Helen Mirren and Sam Shepard, really incredible people, just some amazing work. But what happens for me is when I’m watching them work, I’m watching them as opposed to being somebody in a scene with them. I’m a natural observer, and I will tend to start to both write and direct in my head. It’s like I’m a second or two behind the great people. So it’s an issue.
“There are certain things that I think I can do quite well, but I’ve never felt that comfort that I see with really fine actors. You know what I mean? I’m not knocking myself, it’s just that I always feel very at home as a writer. It suits me, it suits my disposition.”
Needless to say, the publication of Montpelier Parade is a very big deal to him. “It’s huge,” he enthuses. “And also, again, that was four-and-a-half years work, you chip away with this stuff and you’ve no idea if you’re way off… because I don’t let much out while I’m working, I find it ruins it. So to get the critical response that I’ve gotten, it’s very moving.”
Montpelier Parade is published by Harvill Secker.