"Literature is a way of establishing the humanness of others. It's interested in the relationships between people, between authenticity and truth. That in itself has to make us better disposed to each other."
Nick Laird is the author of three books of poetry and three novels, including his latest, Modern Gods (Viking). It tells the story of a BBC documentary team traveling to a small island off the coast of Papua New Guinea. Liz, an anthropologist who moonlights as an on-screen presenter, is there to report on the world's newest religion: a cargo cult started by a deeply mystic and magnetic local named Belef. Back in Liz's homeland of Northern Ireland, her sister Alison has married a former Ulster loyalist vigilante. During their brief engagement, Alison contents herself with vague notions of her husband's past. Their wedding, however, sparks front-page indignation, forcing Alison to de-romanticize any notions she had of her swain as a freedom fighter and confront the reality that she married a guy who shot up a bar on thin pretenses that it was for a noble cause. The two halves of this novel connect to form a meditation on buried belief structures, perpetual violence, and brief moments of grace that "sweep into the room." In clear and concise prose, Modern Gods offers a tight plot line with the chance to chew on abstract ideas like survivor's guilt and colonial exploitation. I met up with Nick in early June at a restaurant on Sullivan Street in New York City.
Will Chancellor We begin with our protagonist, Liz, heading home to Ulster for what she hopes to be a temporary visit. The book offers a complex take on the push and pull of origins and escape. You're also from Ulster—does this theme play out in your own life?
Nick Laird When it comes to writing a novel you think, "What do I know that other people might not?" You want to have some idea of both the particularities and the universal. That's why I wrote about the home front. But like you, I've traveled around a lot and I wanted to try to capture the strangeness of going to a foreign place, so I sent her away. There is a real place [in the Pacific] called New Ireland, but I invented New Ulster because I wanted it to be Through the Looking Glass. I wanted to conjure this idea of what it's like to go somewhere new and having your reality destabilized.
David Attenborough wrote about his travels in a book called Quest to Paradise, where he has a conversation with the leader of the John Frum cargo cult in Vanuatu. The cult worships "John from America," a GI who is said to have been good to the locals before he disappeared from the island. Attenborough asks the leader of the cargo cult, "You know, you've been waiting now for thirty years for John Frum to come back. It's obvious he's not coming, is he?" Then the cargo cult leader says to Attenborough, "Well you've been waiting two thousand years for Jesus Christ!"
WC That's funny. David Attenborough introduced me to Papua New Guinea, with footage of those otherworldly bird of paradise mating dances on Planet Earth—the unassuming black bird that transforms into a hopping neon blue face. I always love it when a writer anticipates a reader's expectations, which is how I felt when one of the characters in Modern Gods asks Liz and her production team, "What, are you here to see the birds of paradise?"
NL I was probably introduced to Papua New Guinea by Attenborough too. I had traveled to Melanesia. I spent a lot of time in Fiji and some of the smaller islands, but I knew that [for the novel] I wanted to go to somewhere that seemed real, but wasn't quite real, so that I could make everything up. So it started in Papua New Guinea, but then I wanted to go to further in, to a smaller, even more remote locale. Papua New Guinea is a country that hasn't managed to come forward in a lot of ways, partly due to its terrain, partly due to the way that it's been exploited by western companies. It's impossible, really, to put roads into Papua New Guinea, so people are living in conditions that they've been living in for hundreds and thousands of years.
WC The most interesting place on New Ulster is the deep jungle. Liz, after just a few steps, is totally lost in this rainforest. It's a deep primal place where a dinosaur could walk out from behind a tree, which kind of happens in the book with the giant blue-headed cassowary.
NL I knew I wanted her to be lost, to create that destabilizing effect. I suppose it'sKing Lear on the heath. You start with your accoutrements and then they're slowly stripped away. I wanted to see what Liz would do in that situation. So I just kept pushing her farther along this path. And I love to write about animals so I knew I wanted this cassowary to appear.
At one point the bodyguard plays a little Irish tune on the cassowary leg bone. He's been raised in a Catholic Missionary school and was beaten by the nuns. So I wanted to suggest that even though the Irish are colonial victims, they've also become oppressors in some way—they're carrying on this violence that's been done to them.
The two halves of the story were meant to comment obliquely on one another: we're all subject to the same kinds of delusions and "filter bubbles" and madness. It's like Voltaire said, "People will continue to commit atrocities as long as they believe in absurdities."
WC Throughout the book, you convey the sense of feeling both heavy and light—which is how Liz reflects on her time in New Ulster. This same contradiction, of being at once both heavy and light, appears in a poem you wrote ten years ago, "The No in November."
NL With Liz, I wanted to portray a paradoxical state, since we tend to inhabit those almost continually. Liz had experienced this thing that made her feel like she's floating. She had been removed from herself by trauma. I wanted the physical heaviness of that to convey that our bodies and souls, or at least our internal states and external states, don't always match up. I love that quote by Paul Valéry, "One should be light like a bird, not like a feather." He suggests a lightness where you can have agency and volition, without just drifting around. It's a directed levity. You want to be able to glance off things, but not be moved by things all the time.
WC I want to talk about the process of poetic composition versus the process of writing a novel. When you're writing poetry, do you move from image to image, so that the whole thing is like a glass bead necklace?
NL My poetry tends to begin with words. Sometimes that's an image, but it tends to have a kind of verbal texture, some little frisson that strikes me as interesting. And it might come to nothing. It might be two words; it might be a line and then you take it and set it down, extrapolate from it, whip it up into something else. The initial impulse might even be gone from the finished version of the poem. With the other novels, I kind of dragged them along by the scruff of the neck. With this, I wanted things to arise.
WC There's an image in Modern Gods of a missionary standing on a tree stump at the crest of a hill, holding up a cellphone to try and catch a bar of service. Does an image like that get fixed in your head and anchor a page or two?
NL I think that's below the level of consciousness. Certainly with poems it's only after reading the poem that I'll discover something in it. Sometimes there's a narrative scaffolding that's not fully conscious.
WC At one point in the book, Liz tells the camera, "Again and again we find particular objects repeating in Belef's iconography—certain things that are good to think with." That phrase struck me hard. That we think with things. Are you doing that as a writer?
NL I suppose that's what writing is, you're thinking with objects—especially if you write metaphorically. Making Liz an anthropologist allowed me to think that way, and using the frame of a documentary allows you to comment on some of the events, so that you could point at them rather than let them slide by.
WC In your first book of poetry, you also feature an anthropologist. This seems like a long-stewed concern, viewing time not ever in the instantaneous, but always with the moment of reflection in a deeper time.
NL Well if you grow up in Northern Ireland, the weight of history is on you all the time. Not to be grandiose about it but I do think that if you grow up in a place where people you know are dying or being shot or being chased out of their houses or being bombed, very early on you ask questions about why it's happening. For me, writing is a way of uncovering reasons. We can't hope to understand the present without looking backwards in certain ways. I suppose the point of fiction is to establish the Story, as the movement [in Modern Gods] is called. But you start to worry about which stories are becoming the dominant narratives and you might want to complicate those stories. Certainly I've felt that all my writing is about complicating received narratives—because I grew up with so many from school, from church and from politicians. Northern Ireland is a place where you're given these things as your birthright and then you have to either accept them or challenge them. And I think writing is a way of pushing back against an accepted narrative.
WC It's interesting that you've isolated the past and not the future. You could either locate the present as having the weight of the past, or you could destabilize it with the pull of the future.
NL We have these movements, Trumpism or Loyalism or the Cargo Cults, that promise a new future and locate a kind of transcendentalism in this promised future that never arrives. I'm more interested in the present. We can only find moments of the eternal, as Spinoza calls it, in the small-scale present where we notice the way the sunlight falls on a leaf, or we notice a butterfly, or the way our dog chews on a carrot.
WC And that present moment is never ours. We necessarily share it. And there's a dividing line in Modern Gods between how Liz's producer, Margo, sympathizes with the locals in each moment and how Liz actually empathizes with them—gets all the way in.
NL Margo had to be a professional and keep everything at arm's length. Whereas I wanted Liz to feel it more. Margo has a job to do, which is to make this film. I didn't want her to be an entirely unsympathetic character, but I did want to show partly how ludicrous it is to move someone from here to there and expect things to be the same.
WC It's interesting that we use the phrase "sympathetic characters" when really what we're looking for are empathetic characters. And in this novel, we're asked to empathize against the backdrop of bare violence. Is empathy an antidote?
NL You have to hope that's one of the points of literature. Once you show a person as a human being rather than an object, once you show complexity, it's much harder to kill a person. If you have a simplified idea of what the object of your hatred is, but then you complicate that in some way, it debars the hatred. It's all a political intervention in some way. Whether it's poetry or fiction, it's all political. Literature is a way of establishing the humanness of others. It's interested in relationships between people, between authenticity and truth. That in itself has to make us better disposed to each other.
WC How does the landscape play into this?
NL It's no coincidence that the three strong monotheistic religions all grew from the desert landscape. Whereas [those] in jungles tend to be pantheistic: there's a god in every rock, a god in every plant. This teeming theology of everything seemed to me more humane. It wasn't just you and God and everything else had to be cleared out of the way. It's complicated and it renewed itself. There's a love of plurality. External factors brought about an internal system.
WC The trees are telephones and the ancestors are the seven stones in the pool. There's this sense in Modern Gods of pantheism allowing you to listen. There's a stillness that allows you to be receptive.
NL It's the same thing of locating the transcendental in the momentary—in the small thing rather than in the great banner ad.
Will Chancellor is the author of A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall (Harper, 2014).