An Interview with Writer Dan Sheehan

"There is fine line between bearing witness and going somewhere as a disaster tourist."

How Dan Sheehan Got His Eyebrow Scars:
1st scar—His Friend Trevor Stabbed Him With a Broken Crutch
2nd scar—Jumped by Teenagers Near a Train Station in Dublin
2nd scar reopened—His Brother Swung at Him with a Coffee Mug

I’d been impatiently awaiting Irish writer Dan Sheehan’s debut novel, Restless Souls, since reading a piece that touches on his first job in the US: a prolonged and painful employment at a bar in Times Square. His writing contains just the balance of comedy and poignancy I gravitate toward. And while I’m susceptible to ruining my own experiences with unreasonably high expectations, Restless Souls exceeded all anticipation. It’s a road novel, a comic novel, a war novel, and a mystery novel framing a character-driven story full of so much pathos it’s hard to think of any other relatively short book that covers as much ground and as many emotional registers as it does.

When Dan entered my apartment, he took a dog-lover’s moment to engage my 85lbs. pit bull mix (whom he’d never met) with some light wrestling. I hadn’t done the week’s shopping yet and offered Dan the only comestibles I had in the apartment: red wine and cashew cookie Larabars. He’d never had a Larabar before and ended up eating three of them during the course of our conversation.

—Karim Dimechkie

I. Repressive Effusion

THE BELIEVER: I swear I’m not texting, I’m just looking for the Dictaphone on this thing and—oh, I found it. It’s actually been going. I guess it’s called Voice Memo.

DAN SHEEHAN: I think it was called Dictaphone before.

BLVR: Dictaphone is definitely the better word. Okay. Your book covers a lot of territory. There are three countries, four or five time periods, two different characters’ first person perspectives, and somehow it’s all inside of 248 pages without feeling rushed or incomplete. Did the book change length at all while working on it?

DS: The book did go through some pretty sizable alterations over the course of the first few drafts. The largest was definitely this one hundred-page central section set in New York which I cut because, fun as it was to write, it didn’t move the plot along a single step. It was sort of a comic interlude where the characters wandered around the city getting up to various madcap hijinks, but really it was just me proving to myself that I could describe New York with a local’s eye. I’d only lived here about a year by then, and I think it was important that I felt like I had a handle on the city, or at least my small sections of it.

BLVR: It’s not an easy line between plot-efficiency and fun details. If the only thing that mattered was plot we could probably boil your novel down to one sentence.

DS: Right.

BLVR: But that’s not what I want. I want to read a novel with all the adventure, and the jokes, and the little wise observations. That balance is tricky. Moving on. We have to talk about research.

DS: Well, a lot of the research was wonderful because it involved me musing back over rose-tinted teenage memories of Dublin, and traveling to Sarajevo and central California—which have become two of my favorite places. I remember driving up the Pacific Coast Highway and visiting these small beach towns and surfer enclaves, discovering national parks and Elephant Seal rookeries and Hearst Castle—

BLVR: I love the scene when the characters are trying to figure out who Hearst was. It ends up being a Simpsons reference.

DS: I had to get that in. I feel like we’re losing the noble Simpsons quoters of the world, and it breaks my heart.

BLVR: The Simpsons is being buried before our eyes.

DS: It’s been so many years since anyone has watched it with that old reverence.

BLVR: I feel Seinfeld will outlast the Simpsons.

DS: Depends where you are. I’ve talked to people about this and I think it’s different outside the US. Every single person my age in Europe has seen every single episode of Friends as far as I can tell. Same goes for the first decade of the Simpsons. Wait, stop. I’ve totally sidetracked us.

BLVR: No, I did that. What was the first idea of the book?

DS: It sprang from two images in particular that I just couldn’t shake. The first was of the National Library of Sarajevo in flames, having been shelled to complete destruction from the hills above the city in the summer of 1992. I remember watching a documentary called For the Love of Books, which showed footage of the burning building—its millions of volumes, some of them ancient, priceless texts, destroyed forever. The documentary was about a group of brave people trying to transport boxes of books from another library across an exposed bridge to the relative safety of a nearby mosque. The second image was that of young man hanging from a goal posts in a field in Ireland at dusk.

BLVR: Where did that image come from?

DS: Youth suicide has long been a terrible problem in Ireland. Our rates have always been a lot higher than most of Europe. When I was in high school that wasn’t really talked about. In my parents’ generation it wasn’t mentioned at all, so we were a beat beyond that, but we still lagged far behind in terms of talking about mental health. The first time I remember it really entering the public discourse was when I was in college, and that was the mid-2000s. Meanwhile there is no one of my generation in Ireland whose teens or twenties were not marked in some way by the suicide of a classmate, teammate, sibling or friend.

BLVR: Speaking from a place of total ignorance, I feel like the Irish reputation in the US occupies two, seemingly contradictory generalizations. On the one had there’s this tell-it-how-it-is thing going on where the Irish are depicted as being very comfortable speaking their minds, albeit often through humor. On the other hand, there’s this generalization that they are somewhat repressed, tight-lipped people.

DS: It’s always hard to sum up an entire people, but part of what you’re saying is very true. There’s always been a gregariousness and emotional effusiveness to Irish people that has gone hand in hand with a very traditionally repressive culture.

The country has changed so much in the last twenty-five years. Now Ireland is quite progressive and quite secular, but when we were children, people still went to Mass every Sunday, divorce was still illegal, there were heavy restrictions on buying condoms, homosexuality was still technically a crime, the clerical sex abuse scandals had yet to break—the sensibility was just very, very different. It didn’t mean it was a repressed country in terms of personality and exuberance, but there were these long-standing pillars of silence and secrecy that stubbornly refused to fall. I feel they have now. The last great one is abortion. The referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the constitution (ban on abortion) is happening in May of this year and with it, hopefully, will come the end of one of the most shameful chapters in our nation’s history.

II. Bold Gestures

BLVR: A good fourth of the novel takes place outside of your country. Talk about writing about Sarajevo, for instance.

DS: Some friends and I were doing one of these euro-rail trips around Europe. For 150 bucks you get ten journeys in thirty days, and you live like you’ve adopted vagrancy for the month. You sleep in train stations and all that. Sarajevo was at the very edge of the allowable map on euro-rail trip.

The reason I really wanted to go was because some of the earliest images of violent conflict that made an impression on me were from the war in Bosnia. I would have been five, six, or seven years old. I remember being horrified by the dispatches from that region on the news. And then you get older and start researching and the interest in the war becomes a wider interest in the city and the country and the people and the geography. When I met Teá in 2013 it was late at night, we were at a bar and—

BLVR: Wait. You met Teá in 2013? That’s crazy. In my mind you two have been married for much longer. I guess it’s just because I met you guys as a married couple.

DS: Well we moved in together after four months and were married after seven.

BLVR: Seems to be working out so far.

DS: So far so good. When I first met her at the bar it was late, we were chatting about Bruce Springsteen, our mutual great love, but I also started talking to her about the war in Bosnia, which is probably the stupidest, least appropriate chat-up line imaginable. Luckily she was very sweet and patient and didn’t tell me to fuck off.

BLVR: When you were writing about Sarajevo, did you feel a different level of responsibility than when you wrote about Ireland? Did you feel the need to be more careful in any way?

DS: So much of the Ireland stuff was about a place that’s a mile or two down the road from where I grew up. It’s a half-generation back from me but it’s all fiction based on firsthand familiarity. With regards to everything else, I’ve always felt that you can write about anything as long as you approach it with empathy and have done your research. If you’re missing either of those things then you probably have no business writing about another country or another people. And even with the best will in the world, you’re going to mess up some stuff. I spent a long time reading books about the period, pouring over histories of the city, watching documentaries, speaking to people who survived the war, and got kind of obsessed with historical accuracy. But that can go too far. You can end up with reams of tedious description because you’re so proud of yourself for learning the details, and then of course you have to strip all that away.

Funnily enough I got so worried about capturing Sarajevo accurately and was so confident about my memories of Dublin, that I was a little blindsided by a review from The Guardian. The reviewer points out that an early scene where the characters are driving mentions that these heroin addicts are huddled together on the Liffey Boardwalk, the river boardwalk, but the river boardwalk wasn’t constructed until two years after my characters were supposedly driving in that car. And I thought, fuck, I spent so much time trying to get the details of the streets and buildings and corners in Sarajevo right and I end up getting called out on the fucking Liffey Boardwalk, which is like three miles from my childhood home.

BLVR: The same review criticizes you for having one of your characters use “meh” during a dialogue to express indifference. The reviewer says “meh” was not a thing in 1992. At first I found that unnecessarily nitpicky, but then I realized that to have someone read you that closely is really flattering.

DS: Right. And I get it. People are protective of their cities. Especially if somebody is describing your hometown, I mean it’s my hometown too, but it’s really only my version of Dublin. It’s a mixture of fiction, things I remember mostly accurately, and then things I remember inaccurately, and that’s fine. At least it’s my city and my people to piss off when I get something wrong. What I never wanted, through negligence or lack of research or lack of empathy, was to end up depicting Sarajevo in a way that was lazy or simplistic. I mean I’m sure there’s things I got wrong but it wouldn’t be for lack of trying.

BLVR: There’s a character in the book who has a little bit of a hang up regarding his obsession with other people’s suffering, and he’s accused once or twice of being a war tourist. I thought that was interesting because I feel like a lot of white privileged guys live in fear of being accused of that. And there’s a confusion that comes with being interested in suffering that’s happening far away, which isn’t, at face value, an inherently bad thing. But if it goes on long enough you start questioning your motives, worrying there’s something impure about it.

DS: There is a line between bearing witness and going somewhere as a disaster tourist. Sarajevo is an incredible, iconic city. It was traditionally known as the Jerusalem of Europe because it’s been a place where different religions and ethnicities and cultures have met and co-existed for hundreds of years. Within a couple of hundred meters you’d find a mosque, a synagogue, a catholic church. It was also a very vibrant, cosmopolitan place—a city of music and culture, a city that hosted the Winter Olympics in 1984. So I was entranced by all of that. But, if I’m speaking honestly, a large part of the reason I wanted to visit back in 2007 was to see this place that had, only a decade previous, withstood the longest siege in the history of modern warfare. That was a big draw for me then. I’m ashamed to say it, but there was certainly an element of disaster tourism in that impulse.

BLVR: I know I brought it up, but I’m realizing as we speak that I’m not entirely sure what constitutes war tourism. Is it someone going to a war zone to get their kicks? Or what exactly is it?

DS: It’s a good question. War tourism is such an evocative term but what does it actually mean? I suppose it can take a number of forms. For me, if you go to an impoverished part of the world, or somewhere recently lain low by war or natural disaster, and one of your first impulses is to take a photograph with a local child to use as your Tinder profile picture, then you’re probably as much a disaster tourist as the brash adrenaline junkie who wants to feel the earth shake. Then again, most people do go on humanitarian missions with good intentions, the efficacy of which is sometimes undermined, though not always negated, by a more ignoble streak.  And I think that most people, on some level, do want to help, do feel pangs of guilt when they see, for example, updates from Aleppo or Ghouta on the news.

BLVR: I thought about Syria a lot when I was reading your book.

DS: Yeah. Before writing about Sarajevo, I was trying to wrap my mind around how something like the Siege could have happened in the 90s? How could a capital city like this have been abandoned for years by the world in the age of the 24-hour television news cycle? But then you look at Syria.

BLVR: You started writing two years into the Syrian war?

DS: In 2013, yeah. Back then the idea that the war would still be raging in 2018 was unthinkable. The death toll of the Syrian conflict is now over three times that of the Yugoslav Wars. In many ways the battle for Aleppo resembled the siege of Sarajevo. Both were attempts to destroy a city, to wipe out entire neighborhoods of people, to decimate the infrastructure, to attack cultural centers; neither were about simply seizing control. It was always about more than just driving people out and acquiring a stronghold. It was about killing a city.

BLVR: When we spoke on the phone the other day I told you the book made me a little misty.

DS: Just you and the dog, weeping away huh?

BLVR: It came at an unexpected moment. It wasn’t in scenes of war or death. It was when the main characters were teasing each other. There’s so much sincerity and love communicated through the insults and sarcasm in this friendship. It’s all action based devotion.

DS: These are guys who are always talking at each other, teasing each other, giving each other shit. They don’t really have a language to convey worry or affection or grief about the things they’ve done or the regret about what they’ve failed to do. Really the only way for them to demonstrate these things to one another is through bold gestures. Whether that’s punching a guy out because he’s speaking ill of the dead or taking this kind of ridiculous road trip into the unknown—

BLVR: It’s very Good Will Hunting.

DS: We’ve all experienced a version of that before. You spend years among these people who you become very close with but you never build an earnest or open communication channel. The whole wild goose chase of the road trip serves as a therapeutic process for them; there’s so much about the tragedy and the grief of the years before the story of the book starts that they have not come to terms with, but they’re now trying to deal with it in the only way they know how.

BLVR: I call it Dumb Love.

DS: Yeah.

BLVR: There’s something almost animal about it. Or familial. It’s this I-will-kill-for-you reflex. There’s nothing intellectualized or diplomatic.

DS: I grew up with guys who are the closest people in the world to me, and for whom I would do anything. But I wouldn’t know how to communicate that verbally in a way that, hopefully, I can communicate comparably strong feelings to people who I’ve met and bonded with in later years. Those relationships are from a time when that way of expressing myself wasn’t available. I didn’t have the language.

III. Qualified Admiration for Bono

BLVR: Why did you come to the US?

DS: Some of it was itchy feet. Some of it was that it was the lowest ebb of the economic collapse in Ireland. Dublin’s an artsy city but at that time the idea that there would be a steady wage in it or that I could pay rent on the back of doing stuff like this—that wasn’t going to happen. I’d never been to America and there was a visa open to graduates within a year of graduating. I had gone back to school to do a master’s, and I had a few months left in that window, so I said fuck it I should make an effort to come over here. I found an internship at the PEN American Center and applied, did a Skype interview. I thought it went pretty okay. So I went down to the American Embassy and applied for a visa. I came over and worked that job during the day and the god awful Irish bar at night.

BLVR: Tell me again why it was so awful.

DS: I had never been to the US before. All my siblings had lived in New York, and I probably should have asked them more about it. They would have told me to get a job at an Irish bar somewhere where there were regulars who would tip. It might have been a bunch of finance people who come in and drink themselves stupid and get obnoxious, but they’d still tip, you know. But I went to Times Square because that’s where I thought people went to go get Irish bar jobs in New York.

BLVR: You intentionally went looking for work in Times Square.

DS: I landed in the US on the 14th, on Valentine’s Day, 2013, and I went and applied for jobs on the 15th. I just figured Times Square, there’s got to be a lot of bars in there, I just needed to make some money straight away.

BLVR: Who was the clientele? What kind of people get beers in Times Square?

DS: Terrible people, Karim. Terrible, terrible people. No, that’s not fair. There were a lot of tourists, many of whom didn’t know to tip, which wasn’t ideal, but the bigger problem was that there were no real regulars. Nobody wants to make the bar on 45th street their regular haunt anymore because getting there involves running the gauntlet through this chaotic, Disneyfied hellscape. It was about the least lucrative bar job you could get in the city. The guy who ran the place was a racist old goblin too, but that’s another story.

BLVR: There is a U2 quote in the beginning of the book. And U2 comes up a couple of times in the story. Is U2 still cool over there? Or is liking U2 comparable to liking Kiss or something?

DS: The short answer as to whether they’re cool at the moment in Ireland is probably no. When you team up with Apple to drug people with your new album against their will, you run the risk of that I suppose. Bono’s savior complex doesn’t tend to be received that well back home either. So I was a little worried about using them in the book. I do have huge love for old U2, as I think most people back home do, but like all of the dinosaur or soon-to-be-dinosaur rock bands, there’s a degree to which, after a point, you become your own tribute band. We’re certainly not at a moment when U2 is peak cool. In 1991 and 1992, however, when people were listening to Achtung Baby and Joshua Tree and October and these albums (which I will defend to the death, by the way), they were. Also we have to remember that U2 were the first major rock band to play Sarajevo after the siege was lifted. It meant a lot to the people in the city. It meant a lot to the band. They wrote a song about it. You can be cynical about it but it was a genuinely inspiring moment

BLVR: Wait tell me more about the savior complex. What is that about?

DS: Most of the U2 concerts will have screens in the background talking about something terrible that’s happening in the world and how we need to pay attention to it. That’s a noble thing. If you’re using your celebrity platform to talk about the disappeared in Argentina or the shelling of Sarajevo, or the troubles in Northern Ireland, that’s a good thing and I genuinely admire Bono for it. But people respond badly to the arrogance of thinking you can solve a country’s complex problems by throwing money at it or making some speeches from a stage. And they’re not wrong, but I’ve always felt that the good work accomplished far outweighs the irritation of having to listen to a multi-millionaire rock star sermonize.

Dan Sheehan is an Irish fiction writer, journalist, and editor. His writing has appeared in The Irish TimesGQThe Los Angeles Review of Books, GuernicaTriQuarterlyWords Without BordersElectric Literature, and Literary Hub, among others. He lives in New York, where he is the Book Marks editor at Literary Hub and a contributing editor at Guernica Magazine.

His debut novel, Restless Souls, is available now from Ig Publishing (US).

More Reads

Reality TV Coaching and the Reticence of Rob Kardashian

Lucas Mann

A Review of Florado Helios Muybridge’s Tombstone

Hayden Bennett

An Interview with Amen Dunes

Madelaine Lucas