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Life in the Line

Kilkenny author Niall Bourke told David Hennessy about his debut novel Line and how it deals with issues like the plight of refugees and the unjust weight economics has in policy making.

London-based author Niall Bourke’s debut novel Line asks you to imagine a life spent waiting.

Originally from Kilkenny, Niall has been living in London, where he teaches English, for 15 years.

Although Line is his debut novel, Niall’s poems and short stories have been listed for numerous awards, including twice for the The Costa Short Story Award, The ALCS Tom-Gallon Trust Award, The Mairtín Crawford Short Story Prize, The New Irish Writing Award, and the Fitzcarraldo Novel Prize.

He has also played GAA in London as he was a member of Thomas McCurtain’s for years when he was new to the city.

In Line, the characters have spent their lives waiting. They reside in a procession that goes on for miles and has outlived generations.

The novel has been described as high concept speculative fiction and there has already been approaches about making a film of the story.

It has even had Roddy Doyle gushing about it.

And it all grew out of Niall’s hatred of waiting in queues.

Niall told The Irish World: “It was kind of a thought experiment.

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“I kind of hate waiting in queues so I was like, ‘What would be the longest queue that would keep me in it?’

“Because it would have to be something quite powerful.

“Even in a small queue I would be like, ‘I can’t be bothered. I don’t want it anymore’.

“A good example is in the airport. With Ryanair, you all have allocated seats anyway but someone still stands up half an hour before the flight boards. And then everyone else has to stand up because that person stood up.

“And you’re like, ‘If everyone just sat down, then no one would have to stand up’.

“What I was interested in was the mentality of the people who stand up half an hour early.

“Why? Do they want to stand up or are they just so scared that they’re not going to get on?

“It was that element of it that I was quite interested in.

“You spend a lot of time waiting.

“If you added all that up, what could you do with it?”

The story involves people who have lived in a queue for so long that they have forgotten its purpose.

There are rumours swirling around about what is at the top of the line.

Despite this, people are scared of losing their place as their parents and grandparents sacrificed their lives so that they could inherit it.

When the main protagonist Willard’s mother dies, he and his girlfriend decide to go out beyond the safe environment of the line.

People have drawn a comparison between the book’s relentless waiting and the refugee system where people spend years in purgatory.

It also touches on other issues like climate change, colonialism, economic exploitation, social conformity and religious fanaticism.

Writing the book over five years, Bourke says he was thinking about these things  but “not consciously”.

“The refugee thing definitely was there because you had all the debate and you had people like Nigel Farage on TV all the time.

“You can say these people are living in temporary camps but they’re in the temporary camps for 20 years.

“If you’re in a camp for 20 years, is that temporary?

“And then you have this rhetoric of, ‘Well, you can’t come here illegally. You have to get into line, wait your turn and ask properly’.

“And it’s kind of bullsh*t because there’s no real line.

“It’s not like there’s a central body where refugees apply and they go into the system.

“That doesn’t happen but that rhetoric is quite powerful. People go, ‘Yeah, yeah. You didn’t ask properly, stop coming here. Go somewhere else’.

“It’s quite powerful. People get quite worked up over it.”

Niall remembers one time he encountered some xenophobia while getting a coffee near his home in south east London.

“I was in Honor Oak Park about three years ago, I was buying a coffee and I was served by someone I think was Polish.

“And this other woman turned around to me as I walked out, ‘Blah, blah, taking our jobs’. The usual sh*t.

“I looked at her, ‘I’m from Ireland you gobshite. You’re not going to get any sympathy from me about outsiders coming into the UK’.

“She was like, ‘Yeah, but no, that’s different’.

“So there’s good immigrants and not so good immigrants.

“It’s just something to be angry about.

“Or else, it was just something that she heard and she just repeated because a lot of people do that.

“And that’s another element of the book, there’s a lot of mantra, chanting, repeating.

“So all of these things were there, I don’t think I consciously sat  down to write about any one of them in particular but I think when they’re so pervasive in the media, I think they start to filter in.

“It took me a long time to write the book so all this was kind of filtering into me and filtering into the book in kind of oblique waves, I suppose.

“I think one of the big focuses of the book is the free market gone a bit mad.

“I think the free market and climate change are quite intertwined.

“Because the reason it’s quite hard to get any consensus on changing the climate or taking steps to change the climate is because of consumerism.

“They are kind of linked together because it’s really hard to tell someone, ‘You all have to lose out for ten years so the next generation have it better’.

“People like the principle but they don’t like the reality.

“That is kind of in the book in a kind of oblique way.”

The book asks the question, what keeps people in line? “You need some kind of reason for them to stay and you probably need some kind of physical punishment but that only goes so far.

“I think more powerful than that is some kind of cultural shaming, ‘You can’t leave, you would be dishonouring your parents and your parents’ parents.

“That’s probably more powerful than saying. ‘You can’t leave, we’re gonna punish you’.

“It’s also about the willing complicity of people to be controlled and people willingly giving over their difficult decision making. Some people do because it’s hard.

“I think there’s an element of willing ignorance because sometimes it’s easier to just not ask questions because you don’t really want to know what the answer is because then you might have to do something about it.

“So it’s just easier to listen to someone else and be, ‘Oh, that’s fine’.

“That’s definitely in there.

“It’s kind of like religion, isn’t it?

“You hand over the responsibility to a priest and he looks after what happens when you die and morality, because they are hard things to think about.

“You just give it to someone else because it makes your life easier.

“Then it doesn’t make your life easier when it turns out the person you’ve given it to doesn’t use it very responsibly.

“And again, I wasn’t directly sitting down to go, ‘I really hate religion. I’m going to write something really bad about it’.

“But I think any system that relies on people being compliant are kind of the same, whether it’s a political system or religious system.

“If you boil them down to the fundamentals, you have to hand over responsibility, not question and you have to act on faith.

“I can see why people do it but it’s kind of problematic, I think.”

Niall has noted many people breaking with religion day-to-day but not with the traditions and customs.

“I definitely think in Ireland religion is more of a going through the motions thing.

“I know a lot of my friends are not religious at all and they would tell you as much but they still get their kids Christianed.

“Why? ‘Because that’s what you do’.

“You don’t have to do it. ‘Ah, you do’.

“You’re like, ‘No, you actually really don’t.

“So it seems there’s a big gap between saying they’re not religious and breaking the social conventions. That is a step too far for many people. It is quite interesting to see in Ireland.

“It’s going to be interesting to see what Ireland is like in 20 years’ time because I think it’s changing.”

Niall was inspired by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and what it says about issues like imperialism and racism.

“One thing I wanted to do was ask that question of civilization.

“This idea that the West kind of own civilization and everyone else is kind of barbaric in some way is definitely something I want to explore.

“The idea of what is civilised and who gets to decide is an interesting question.”

The novel sees Willard escape the line to discover a city where a corporation’s cannibalistic business model reigns supreme with a cultish “work hard, stay positive” example of the chanting Niall mentions.

Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, the satire famous for proposing people eat babies as a solution to poverty, was also a major influence.

“I was well aware of it and that idea of pushing an economic utilitarian argument, taking it and then just pushing it until it gets absurd.

“I’d say that’s been the bit of the book that’s been most controversial, which is quite interesting.

“Some people have really liked it. And some people have gone, ‘It’s so boring. Why is there an economics paper in this book?

“It’s quite interesting for me.

“Because I think I could have written a standard dystopian story but I think the world has enough of them.

“I just didn’t want to do that.

“So that kind of A Modest Proposal satire is definitely in there.

“The funny thing about A Modest Proposal is you had hardcore, utilitarian liberalists saying: ‘Yes. What’s the problem with this argument? Why don’t we eat some of the children?’

“That’s probably the sign of a good satire: If you get someone to say, ‘Yeah, so what’s the problem?’”

Bourke studied economics at university and observes that it is often accepted as a kind of empirical science when it is not.

“The thing about economics is it’s obviously made up.

“It’s not immutable like the laws of physics that would just exist independent of humanity.

“Sociology, accepts that and says, ‘We are the study of humanity. And if humanity didn’t exist, neither would sociology’.

“But economics kind of doesn’t, it kind of presents itself- well some economists- as a kind of empirical science.

“It’s like, ‘Look, this law’s right, this is a law of economics’ when it’s not.

“And they have this kind of rule in economics, Ceteris paribus, which means all else being equal.

“So they’ll say, ‘Ceteris paribus, if we change x, then y will change’.

“But it’s not always equal so what they’re really saying is, ‘We don’t know’.

“They’re saying we don’t know but they’re presenting it as this kind of empirical kind of science.

“I suppose my issue is with the voice economics has in policy making.

“The government has a whole army of economists, even though they’ve proved a lot of the time they can’t make predictions, they don’t really know what they’re doing.

“Imagine they had an army of philosophers or sociologists.

“It doesn’t matter how many times they get it wrong or make a bad prediction. It’s still like, ‘Oh, ask the economist’.

“I think economics is very valuable. I’m not trying to get rid of the whole discipline.

“But I don’t know why it gets quite so much credence as a really hard science.

“I guess the class system is in The Line a little bit.

“I think in the UK as well- a little bit in Ireland but probably exaggerated in the UK- the class system tells you, ‘Working class people, you can’t do that, you can’t work in those jobs. City bankers, it’s really hard. No, you can’t’.

“It’s not. Of course, the people that are in it are going to say that.

“I’m pretty sure a lot of people could be a senior trader if they were just given the right experience.

“They have this whole lingo, city traders in the city of London, real technical lingo and it’s not because it’s that technical. It’s because it’s a barrier to other people getting in.

“I think if you were told enough, ‘It’s really hard, you can’t do it’, then you can go, ‘Okay, it’s really hard’. You hand it over to other people.

“One thing about the book is that ultimately it is satirical, it’s not meant to be serious.

“The economics is very satirical.

“I’ve seen a few really good Black Mirror episodes where I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s ridiculous but it’s also pretty close’.

“The fact that you go away and think about it, I think ultimately that’s what I wanted to do with the book.

“I was like, ‘I could write maybe something that’s more commercial or whatever but I’d rather write something that somebody is going to go away thinking about’.

“They might think about it because they hate it or they might think about it because they love it.

“I’d rather do that than write something that someone reads and totally forgets about.

“What book has ever appealed to everyone? I don’t think there is one reader.

“I think you need to decide what you want to do. Do that to the best of your ability.”

The book has been widely lauded.

Roddy Doyle said: “Line is an extraordinary novel – gripping, unsettling, brilliant.”

RTE said: “Disturbing but sublime – an impressive debut.“

The Irish Independent said: “At once appalling and darkly familiar.”

Of his successful debut, Niall says: “It’s very hard to gauge with a book.

“It’s kind of hard to gauge what success is to say it’s doing well.

“Okay, if you sell a million copies and they make a film of it, that’s certainly one measure of success.

“But beyond that, what is success? Is it the number of sales? Is it people writing good reviews? Or is it people just reading it quietly and enjoying it? And you wouldn’t know anything about that.

“I think how you define success could wreck your head.”

Line is out now on Tramp Press.

For more information, go to niallbourke.com

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