- 27 Jul 17
In Nick Laird’s latest novel, Modern Gods, one of this generation's finest writers ventures into new territory to examine the stories we tell ourselves to deal with faith, love, grief and death. He talks about cults in the Pacific, the peculiarities of his home country, and why he’s never been afraid of causing offence. Interview Peter McGoran
“When I think back to reviewing books as a 22-year-old pup and slagging off some writer who was in their sixties and who’d been writing for years, I have to laugh at my own arrogance,” Nick Laird reminisces.
A book critic himself in his younger and more vulnerable years, Nick Laird has learnt from experience never to read reviews. After a career of being humbled by teaching the written word, the Northern Irish novelist and poet stands by the dictum first given by Ezra Pound, then later repeated by fellow Mid-Ulster poet Seamus Heaney – “Pay no attention to the opinions of those who have themselves produced no notable work.”
Giving himself the widest possible berth from the opinions of critics, Nick Laird has upped and left his home in New York City – where he teaches a course in Creative Writing at NYU – to holiday in the quiet repose of the Irish countryside (NB: for the teeming hordes of literary paparazzi out there who’ve ever wondered where successful novelist-couple Nick Laird and Zadie Smith spend their summers, it’s in a cottage in West Cork).
Modern Gods, his third novel, focuses on the story of two sisters from Mid-Ulster. They are Alison, a domesticated mother-of-two who comes head-on with Northern Ireland’s dark history when she marries an ex-UFF member who has tried to bury his past; and Liz, a college professor living in New York who travels to Papua New Guinea to film a BBC documentary about a new religion, led by a charismatic middle-aged woman named Belef.
More broadly, the novel also focuses on the theme of storytelling itself. It’s about the narratives we all invent to justify our actions, to explain our place in the world, or to rationalise our ideas of what’s ‘foreign’ and what’s ‘local’. Also, what’s good and what’s bad, and what will lead us to eternal salvation or damnation.
“I’ve had the nucleus for Modern Gods for a while,” says Nick. “I’d always liked this idea of having one character going out to deal with a tribe that was new and foreign, and then coming face to face with problems there. Like that Joyce quote from Ulysses: ‘Think you’re way escaping then run into yourself. Longest way round is the shortest way home.’
“Then I’ve been fascinated recently by some of the ‘cargo cults’ which formed in the 20th century around the Pacific. They emerged in small tribes who came into contact with Western technology and more advanced societies. I read David Attenborough’s book, Quest For Paradise, and he writes about going out to an island in Vanuata where he met a cargo cult who worshipped a figure called ‘John Frum’. The book reasons that a lot of these cults came into existence because tribes encountered a new mix of technology during the Pacific Theatre in World War II. And they think that ‘John Frum’ was actually a GI soldier who had been kind to this tribe, and that the term came from a corruption of ‘John, from America’.
“But this particular tribe had been doing a lot of things like marching and praying to get this ‘John Frum’ to come back. David Attenborough recounts that he went to the leader of the cult and said to him: ‘You’ve been waiting nearly 20 years for this man to come back. Do you still think he’ll return?’ And the leader responds with something like: ‘Well, you’ve been waiting 2000 years for your leader to return. Do you think he will?’ Whenever I read that, I started to think that maybe there’s something going with the way these tribes look at religion, and maybe it has a lot to do with what we do in Northern Ireland.”
As the novel develops, it “passes the narrative baton” between two stories, one in Mid-Ulster and one in Papua New Guinea, and becomes part-domestic saga, part-anthropological study. Nick says that, with the cult in Papua New Guinea, he examines Northern Ireland “through the looking glass”.
“It’s easy to forget just how weird Northern Ireland is sometimes,” he says. “It’s currently the only place in Europe where our actual politics are subsumed by identity politics. I find myself wishing that Northern Ireland would become more like the rest of the world, but what we’ve seen in the last five years is the rest of the world become more like Northern Ireland. People are becoming more extreme and hardened in their positions.”
Modern Gods has a lot to say for contemporary society, but it also includes several allusions to real-life events in Northern Ireland. One of the major plotlines revolves around a Troubles-era pub massacre which bears more than a passing resemblance to the Greysteel Massacre of 1993, when two UDA gunmen entered a pub in Derry wearing Halloween masks, shouted “Trick or Treat”, and opened fire on the crowd, killing eight people and wounding 13.
“The event in the book isn’t actually about the massacre itself,” Nick explains. “None of the names or identities are the same, the only thing that makes people think it’s the same is that line, ‘Trick or Treat’. I took it out of the book originally, but it just seemed so malicious and made it so much worse that I decided to put it back in.
“But people going into a pub and shooting the place up, that wasn’t that uncommon in Northern Ireland. And because I’m a Protestant, I wanted to write about loyalist paramilitaries rather than the IRA. That’s just the way it had to be. I felt more qualified to explore it.” Nick pauses for a moment before finishing, “Greysteel was a fucking disaster.”
Did the writer think he might get a strong reaction to its inclusion in Modern Gods?
“Oh certainly,” he replies. “My first novel was supposed to be kind of a comic caper, and still my parents were getting phone calls at all hours in the morning, with people telling them to ‘fuck off’. But it’s not my job to worry if people are offended.
“I think what’s worse is people being too intimidated to speak about these events. I’m doing a documentary at the moment for the BBC to try to get people to give testimony about the Troubles, but it’s almost impossible to get people to talk, because they’re scared. In the absence of any genuine truth and reconciliation, people are still scared.”
Modern Gods is out now, published by 4th Estate Books.