Austin Duffy: “I wanted to immerse the reader in the terror of being on call” | Fiction
AUstin Duffy, 47, was born in Dundalk and lives in Howth, north Dublin, where he works as an oncologist at the city’s Mater Hospital. His two previous novels, This alive and immortal thingshortlisted for Kerry Group’s Irish Novel of the Year, and Ten dayson early dementia, both took place in New York, where Duffy met his wife, painter Naomi Taitz Duffy, after winning a fellowship to work at Memorial Sloan Kettering cancer center in Manhattan in 2006. His new novel , Night traineesfollows three trainee doctors in a Dublin surgical ward.
What led you to write Night trainees?
It’s not a memoir, but I still have vivid memories of my internship year when I was doing medicine. [at Trinity College Dublin in the 90s] and I always knew I wanted to write about the experience at some point. You are propelled into this world where you quickly realize the inadequacy of the theoretical knowledge on which you rely for your studies. I wanted to drown the reader in – maybe that’s too strong a word, maybe not – of being on call and being the first person to figure things out for sick people. The structure, with no chapters, no real breaks, is meant to make you feel like you can’t get some air.
Were you inspired by other hospital novels?
No. While I was working on the book, I re-read Elena Ferrante’s. The days of abandonment, which has this very intense type of claustrophobic first-person narration that I wanted. And this is going to sound very strange, but what really inspired me was coming across Hubert Mingarelli A meal in winter four or five years ago. I’m amazed it doesn’t get more attention; he’s a fucking genius. It’s this short novel humanizing the experience of these three SS officers in a death camp in Poland, wandering through the forest at night, trying to get warm and cook a meal, trying everything they can to get out of their horrible homework. Obviously I’m not comparing – they work in a death camp, and as an intern you try to help people, even if it doesn’t feel like it sometimes – but something bothered me just struck about the dynamic group of these three recognizable human characters capable of doing nothing, really, but trying to get through the night. I remember thinking, I need to put this in a hospital, I need to make these people interns [laughs].
Does knowing that you are a novelist make your colleagues suspicious?
Not at all, but I can reassure them: my characters are all fictional. Sometimes people come up to you saying, oh, I know who your man was [in previous novels]. I’m sure I’ll get a lot out of this because there’s some kind of villain in the book, but it’s a total build, not someone I’ve ever worked with. If he reminds me of anyone, it’s a specific non-medical person, but that’s fiction.
How do you write?
I have a short train ride to Dublin from where I live. It’s 25 minutes of writing. If I arrive early at the station, I still have 10 or 15 minutes, the same if I take a train a little earlier at the other end. Add it all up and that’s the courage of an hour. If I take my son to soccer practice, I’ll be the oddball sitting in the car with a laptop, but that’s still 45 minutes or an hour of writing. By necessity, he is very focused: you don’t look out the window, you know?
Which came first for you, medicine or literature?
Medicine. It wasn’t that I had a passion for it, but back then [growing up in Dundalk] there didn’t seem to be a lot of opportunities in general and it seemed like something quite open. I didn’t really get emotionally invested in being a doctor until a few years later. Ironically, the year of residency helped: maybe the book wouldn’t give you that impression, but it was good to feel like a part of the hospital, because as a medical student, I I didn’t feel that at all and I found it difficult. engage. I wasn’t really writing well until I found myself in New York in 2006. My hospital room was like a box: no internet, no television, and by then it was like , if you are serious [about writing], do it. I joined the Writers Studio in Greenwich Village, a weekly craft class that got me writing every day. My first book took seven years, but it was born out of an exercise in this class.
What novels have you enjoyed lately?
Fernanda Melchor just blew my head off. On the jacket hurricane season, Ben Lerner says it makes all other fiction anemic in comparison, and when I read the book, I knew exactly what it meant. It made me feel the same as when I first read Denis Johnson son of jesus. I remember taking this at random while waiting to meet someone in a bookstore, and they came up to me and said, “Are you okay? What’s wrong with your face?
Which authors made you want to write fiction?
In college, I read the same things everyone else read – Camus, Dostoyevsky – but I was too young to have them. It was in New York that I really started reading as a writer. I remember being amazed by a story by Roberto Bolaño in the New Yorker. I have read almost all of his books since then. He is brilliant, but he gets lost in his greatest novels; I find him one of the funniest writers, and he’s better able to maintain that humor in his short stories. Javier Marías was another that I read for the first time in the New Yorker. I think it was a story where someone was sunbathing and it was just their observations around the pool…awesome. I read all his books too but I had to stop because I was starting to imitate him, and he’s not someone you can imitate; you’ll just look like an eejit.