Karl Geary: ‘I was writing out of confusion and horror, rage and love’

·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose/The Observer

Before making his literary debut in 2017 with Montpelier Parade, Irish-born novelist Karl Geary spent more than two decades acting and screenwriting, with credits including Coney Island Baby (starring his wife-to-be, Breaking Bad’s Laura Fraser), The Burrowers and an episode of Sex and the City. (Just don’t ask him about his shirtless appearance in Madonna’s 1992 coffee-table tome, Sex.) Now 50, he’s back with a second book, Juno Loves Legs, a piercing platonic love story whose misfit protagonists careen into young adulthood in 1980s Dublin, where he himself grew up.

How did the new novel start for you?
With Juno’s voice and this line: “Dear Legs, it’s not gone my way.” She’s a bit of a bully – she elbowed and kneed her way in, screaming to be heard. I was writing a totally different book set in New York, but once I had her voice it just flatlined on the page.

Did you know any Junos and Legs growing up?
I knew tons. What’s curious is these are outcasts among the outcasts, right? They both feel incredibly helpless, but friendship and kindness emancipate them. Juno performs this little act of courage in the playground and Legs takes her hand, and change starts to happen.

Was your education at the hands of nuns and priests as harsh as theirs?
It was pretty savage actually. I was careful not to overplay those cards because it becomes caricature, but in some ways I think I was kind to the establishment. When children are treated in that way, where does that trauma go?

Your first novel was also set in 1980s Dublin. Are you nostalgic for that era?
I wasn’t writing out of nostalgia – it’s something between confusion and horror, rage and love. That was a specific moment in Ireland with the receding Catholic stronghold. There was a sense of hope, this shiny new modernity… It was quickly snatched up by globalisation and now we’re living in the wake of that. We’re still letting our young people down. There’s a trove of homeless people outside this very nice hotel.

When did you leave Dublin?
I left in 1988. I was 16 and I’d been out of school for a while, selling wallpaper. I had a phone number of somebody in New York that I’d spoken to once who ran a bicycle messenger company in the East Village, and they said come on over.

What was the East Village like back then?
It was wild. A lot was going on – the crack epidemic, the Aids epidemic. But there was also this cultural explosion and it introduced me to different ways of being in the world.

I was dyslexic and didn’t read as a child. I came to it late

For a while you managed Sin-é, the venue where Jeff Buckley once performed. Did any writers step on to the stage?
Allen Ginsberg performed several times. He was quiet and warm, quick to smile. I remember going to see Leonard Cohen playing in the Beacon theatre. The late Hal Willner had got tickets and came with Ginsberg. During the concert, a fan threw a book on stage for Cohen and screamed: “Look at the book, Leonard, look at the book!” Cohen paused, and the room went silent. “I see the book,” says Cohen, “The book sees me… The communion is perfect.”

You live in Glasgow now?
After Montpelier Parade, I thought: writing novels is all I want to be doing. How do I structure my life in a way that I can do this? Glasgow is probably one of the few cities that’s affordable in that way.

Why do you think it took you so long to become a novelist?
I wrote my first when I was 21. It was terrible. When I fell into acting, I thought that was what I was supposed to be doing. It didn’t suit me at all – I’m far too shy. Also, my brain is hardwired as a writer, so I was always rewriting lines, but I was very quick to discard my own instinct because of my background. I looked at the statistics recently of working-class people in the arts – it’s appalling and getting worse.

Both your books focus on working-class characters.
When we think about prose, working-class people are used for comic effect, or as a trope. I really wanted to not do that. If you take the delicate interactions that people have in their lives, you have a chance of revealing people as people, outside of their class. You get a more tactile, almost sensuous sense of a world that’s usually left out.

Why did writing about a platonic love affair appeal?
Sexual relationships, wonderful though they are, we understand, but when you take that out of play you get to ask more interesting questions. How do people come together if not physically, how do they stay close, how do they love?

Vintage clothes shops and sewing feature plenty as well.
I love vintage shops. You walk in and get that smell – it’s the smell of stories, because every garment has been worn for a multitude of occasions. And sewing is very like writing. I took a course in Glasgow and made a dress. It’s a dog’s dinner but I’m so proud of it.

What kind of a reader were you as a child?
I was dyslexic and didn’t read as a child. I came to it late. I’m very aware that I have blind spots but you learn to self-educate, you learn what turns you on. It’s a good way to spend time.

What’s the best book you’ve read lately?
The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevsen is incredible. It’s exactly why you’d want to read. It just speaks to you and it’s all in there – life’s messiness, ugliness, beauty. Also, How to Build a Boat by Elaine Feeney is gorgeous, and Fern Brady’s Strong Female Character is a punch in the gut – I loved it.

Tell me about a book you’ve not finished.
Frankenstein. I started it and I don’t know what happened. It’s so contemporary and brilliant and the whole history of the book is fascinating. I’m still gasping to read it.

What do you plan on reading next?
I want to go back and read more of Chekhov’s short stories. I’m interested in finding a way to make stories smaller and language simpler, and Chekhov certainly leads to that. I also want to read more Anne Sexton. I’ve a quote from her on my studio wall: “Watch out for intellect,/ because it knows so much it knows nothing/ and leaves you hanging upside down,/ mouthing knowledge as your heart/ falls out of your mouth.”

Juno Loves Legs by Karl Geary is published by Harvill Secker (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply