When author Ryan O’Connor was a child, he went through a period of hallucinating on an almost daily basis. “I saw angels and demons, and Vikings chasing me down the hallway,” he tells Dazed over the phone. “Really vivid hallucinations. When I close my eyes, I can still see them. I see them now as if they were real things that happened this morning.” These visions went on for about a year and then, after six months with a child psychologist, he says they were “therapised” out of him.
Cut to 16 years old, and the young Scottish writer was traveling every American state (barring Alaska and Hawaii) on Greyhound buses, the preferred transport of literary legends such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. It was on this journey – more specifically outside a house party in Nantucket – that O’Connor met a woman who invited him home with her. Later, as they were lying in bed, she said: “Just to let you know, they’re right above you, and they want you to know that they’re real and still looking out for you.” Understandably, O’Connor had no idea who ‘they’ were, until the woman – a perfect stranger in a distant country – described a scene he’d witnessed a decade before, aged six or seven. “She described an angel I saw when I was a child,” he says. “Exactly as I’d seen it, and in incredible detail.”
For years, the apparitions were an element of O’Connor’s past that he tried to hide from, the author says. “I was kind of scared of it, to be honest. Then as I got older, and I confronted a lot of chaos in my own life, I began to miss them. I thought maybe they were there for a reason. And I tried to get back to them, and get back to that place.” In part, O’Connor says, this is what he was trying to do with his debut novel, the voids – to get back to that place.
Set in Glasgow, the voids follows one of the few remaining residents in a high rise building earmarked for demolition. Most of his neighbors have already left the condemned block of flats in an “unholy exodus” – all that remains are those pushed out to the margins of society: heroin addicts, widowed pensioners, and the Bird Man. These are, for the most part , the characters who populate the narrator’s life as he drifts through deserted apartments – the titular “voids” – and traverses the “broken landscape” that surrounds the high rise, pursued by sinister drug dealers, ghosts, and memories of a troubled childhood.
So far, this may sound pretty far from O’Connor’s American road trip. In fact, the setting of the novel is more closely based on his years in a Glasgow bedsit, followed by a stint in a real condemned high rise, where he encountered “artists and misfits and people from all walks of life” (O’Connor himself admits that “the fiction wears a very thin veil”). The influence of Nantucket’s angelic encounter shines through, however, in flashes of spirituality, usually brought on by vast quantities of alcohol, or mystery pills the narrator picks up at a run-down bar.
If you interpret the voids as a straightforward tale of alcoholism and drug abuse, though, “you’ve completely misread it”, he says. Really, the drugs are just a medium for the narrator’s endless quest to find and occupy “hallowed pockets of existence” (other paths to these transcendent spaces include “insanity, religion, mathematics, art” – in one early draft, he reached his own version of heaven in an obsession with butterflies).
“When I write about these things, they’re quite sincere,” O’Connor explains, of the novel’s otherworldly overtones. “I’m not just doing it for a novelistic effect. I’m trying to put it out there that there are amazing, beautiful things in the world, and strange things in the world, that we’ve lost sight of.”
“It’s that thing, the ‘lost lane-end into heaven’,” he adds, quoting the rhapsodic 20th-century novelist and poet Thomas Wolfe. Over the phone, O’Connor’s voice begins to crack, and he apologizes for getting so emotional (though he is nursing a hangover from last night’s reading). “I believe that actually does exist, and if you open yourself up to it you can see it, or get back there. That’s the spirit I’ve tried to imbue the book with.”
Could you give us some background on the genesis of the voids? How did you arrive at your debut novel?
Ryan O’Connor: I initially had a novel accepted for publication when I was 20 years old, a long time ago, but basically I got a bit carried away with myself. I thought I was going to be the next Jack Kerouac or Charles Bukowski or something. I was living in a bedsit in the west end of Glasgow, and at the time it was all artists and misfits and people from all walks of life, and [the book] was a series of sketches that portrayed this world I was living in.
It was quite raw, and very loose, and the publisher liked it for what it was, but I thought I was going to write the great Scottish novel, and rewrite it. I handed it back into them, and they said, ‘This is not the book we wanted to publish’. They were right, because I kind of killed it. But at the time, I ended up taking a lot of acid and phoned the publisher and said all publishers were pimps and I wouldn’t be their whore. I went on this ridiculously bonkers rant, and that was the end of that publishing deal.
After that, I moved to the south of France and my life took a different turn, but I’ve never stopped writing. Eight or nine years ago, I became homeless and ended up getting a flat in a high rise, and I wrote a book while I was there, but again I ended up going off again into the wilderness. Then I wrote this book, the voidsabout the experience of living in the high rise.
What drew you to the tower block as the spine of the novel?
Ryan O’Connor: I’d only been in the high rise for about a couple of months when the notice came through that it was condemned, and was set to be demolished. In the end, the high rise I was in wasn’t knocked down, but three or four of them around me were knocked down, so I spent a lot of time photographing them, and was able to get inside them and see these abandoned flats .
I found that kind of broken landscape incredibly poetic. If a few houses on a street are knocked down, you can walk along that street and point out, ‘That’s where my house was’. When the high rise is knocked down, there are a good few hundred people whose lives were up in the air, and all of a sudden it’s gone. Where do you point to? You can point up and say: ‘Up there, that’s where I kissed my lover, or that’s where my grandmother used to make a cup of tea.’ But it’s gone. It’s just a space; to void.
“the voids isn’t meant to be a redemptive novel, or a cautionary tale… There’s poetry, and glory, and love to be found in all walks of life” – Ryan O’Connor
In the novel, that poetic landscape is contrasted with gentrified spaces, “surgically a-imagined in stainless steel”. Can you expand on that concept of “un-imagining”?
Ryan O’Connor: In Glasgow, a lot of the older buildings with so much history have been sold off to developers and knocked down and replaced by these soulless glass, steel structures. I think often, when a place loses its history, it loses its heart. I think that’s indicative of something that’s prevalent in modern society in general.
I was exploring that idea: when you take the heart out of something, what remains, and what fills that void? It’s almost like a cellular change that occurs, like if you take too much ecstasy and the body is altered in a negative way, it doesn’t have a map to follow to get back to its original form. I think a similar thing can happen spiritually, with a place.
Do you think fiction has a responsibility to tell the stories of people pushed to the margins by these changes?
Ryan O’Connor: I think it does. the voids isn’t meant to be a redemptive novel, or a cautionary tale. I’ve tried to represent the lives I’ve encountered in a way that doesn’t see them as victims or people to be pitied, but as people living, in their own way, glorious lives. I didn’t want people to feel sorry for the characters that you meet in the voids. There’s poetry, and glory, and love to be found in all walks of life.
If someone chooses to spend part of their lives as drunks, and end up dying as drunks… there is no more validity to someone living a sober life. There’s this idea that they’re contributing to the system, but what is the system? The whole thing is a game, and certain people don’t want to play. These people shouldn’t be pitied, because maybe they have, in their own ways, more beautiful, meaningful lives than someone who holds down a job.
“We’re a culture that has everything, and yet in some ways have nothing, because we’ve lost [a] sense of ritual, and a kind of deeper understanding of ourselves” – Ryan O’Connor
How would you like this novel to change people’s perspective on their own lives?
Ryan O’Connor: I would like to think that they would glimpse the world of light that exists beyond the seeming chaos in people’s lives. There is darkness in the novel, but I did attempt to permeate it with some light and hope. It’s a spiritual book, really. The central character’s on a spiritual quest toward the light, and the alcohol and the drugs are really just a medium. They’re his way to connect with the angels and demons in his head, and in his past.
This seems to be a recurring theme in contemporary fiction, the turn toward a new version of spirituality. Why do you think we’re drawn to this kind of story today?
Ryan O’Connor: It’s nothing new to say that we live in a materialistic world, and that’s something that is explored in the novel… the emptiness that people feel in life. We’re a culture that has everything, and yet in some ways have nothing, because we’ve lost that sense of ritual, and a kind of deeper understanding of ourselves, and of the world.
I think people definitely are out there searching for something with a bit more meaning and depth. I guess all the old religions have not served us that well, have they? Look at the Catholic church – I’m a Catholic, as it happens – but they’ve not really fulfilled that promise of God, of the bigger, fuller sense of things. But looking for meaning, I think that’s hardwired in us. It’s been there since day one.
the voids is out now