My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.
The Restless Souls novelist on reading his reviews, working as a medical equipment tester, and writing responsibly about war and trauma.
Set in early 1990s Dublin, Sarajevo, and California, Dan Sheehan’s Restless Souls (Ig Publishing) is a debut novel that lives up to its title. Sheehan deftly guides us through the minefield of the coming-of-age experience, moving his characters Tom, Karl, and Baz across the boundaries of setting, time, narrative voice, and genre. Both funny and tragic, Restless Souls examines how war and loss burrow into our very marrow, and what it means for friendship, love, and life in the aftermath. Sheehan grew up in Ireland and now lives in New York City, where he is the Book Marks editor for Lit Hub and a contributing editor at Guernica.
Sara Nović How does it feel to be a debut author? Your editorial work deals with aggregating reviews, I wondered if you find them valuable in a different way than the average writer.
Dan Sheehan I was all set to play it cool and avoid my reviews completely but that, unsurprisingly, has not happened. I told myself that Google-searching my book reviews in the U.K. and Ireland was in service of finding pull-quotes to build momentum for the U.S. release, and that’s kind of true. But what’s far truer is that I caved.
SN You’re a braver man than I.
DS Already I regret it.
SN Do you feel like you might learn anything from reading them?
DS I’m cursed/blessed in this instance with a really shitty memory and an inability to dwell on these things, but the mixed reviews still linger in the mind longer than the good. There was a Guardian review that was pretty positive but the reviewer, a Dubliner who is the same age as my characters, pulled me up on including a boardwalk in Dublin that was built three years after when my story takes place. I read that and thought, I flew to California and Sarajevo to make sure I got certain specific details right, and then I go ahead and fuck up a boardwalk two miles down the road from where I grew up. So I probably could have done without reading that.
SN Why did you choose Sarajevo as the novel’s central location?
DS When I sat down to plan out the novel, I knew I wanted to write about Sarajevo in some capacity. It’s a city that I fell in love with when I first visited about a decade ago, and a place I find endlessly fascinating. We’re talking about a capital that was known as the Jerusalem of Europe because of its long history of cultural, religious, and ethnic diversity. A five-minute walk through the Old Town district can take you past a mosque, a synagogue, an Orthodox church, and a Catholic cathedral, as well as countless kafanas, bars, hookah lounges, and small museums.
Having said that, my reason for setting one of the storylines there, and using the Siege as a catalyst for the book’s central journey, was seeded years before I ever visited the city. I was very young during the war, but the footage from Sarajevo that aired each day on the evening news from 1992 until late 1995 made an impact on me like nothing had previous. There was something about the ongoing chaos and brutality of the Siege and how that was reported that I couldn’t shake. I was befuddled to watch how correspondents arrived not in the wake of a single brutal attack, which was how I understood coverage of the Northern Ireland troubles at the time, but to cover the continued, and seemingly unending, destruction of this beautiful valley city. I don’t think it takes a child’s naïveté to be shocked by how the world can watch on impassive for months, for years, while a city dies. We need only look at Aleppo for a recent example of how things barely change.
SN Did you ever worry about how you were going to handle the themes of war and suicide? How do we, as writers, make sure we do justice to the characters’ traumas and push readers beyond the bounds of rubbernecking?
DS It was certainly something I thought a lot about as the book came together. The bulk of the violent incidents in the Sarajevo chapters are based on specific historic events, and Gabriel’s death is inspired by the ongoing epidemic of suicide among young men and women in Ireland—something that has devastated countless families and friend groups in the last quarter century. The novel invokes the personal tragedies of thousands of people, and it was extremely important to me that this was done in a nuanced and respectful way.
The danger is always that in an effort to depict the full severity of the trauma suffered, you flatten characters, stripping them of any aspect of personality that doesn’t relate to that trauma. I think that’s something foreign correspondents and war reporters have to be especially careful of with each story they file: not to reduce complex human beings to ciphers and simply indulge that disaster tourism impulse that, unfortunately, is in all of us to some degree and that we should actively fight against. I hope that the characters I’ve written read as more than just the tragedies they’ve fallen victim to—that people see in Gabriel and Jelena more than just lives cut short by violence. That’s the very least we owe the real-life victims of war and suicide, and it’s also the very least we owe the characters we create.
SN I wasn’t in Sarajevo for the Siege, but I had family and friends there, and I found what you wrote true to both the war, and what I love best about the city—its centuries-old tradition of diversity and unabashed liveliness even amidst the destruction and its aftermath. I think your affinity for the place comes through.
DS That, genuinely, means the world to me. Full disclosure: I was a bit nervous sending the book to you. I know I came at this with respect and empathy and a great deal of research, and I think that’s a base-level requirement for a writer, but still, I worry. Maybe it’d be arrogant as fuck not to worry about how people directly connected to a war you’re writing about from a remove will react. Sarajevan friends have been supportive of the writing of the book, which I’ve appreciated so much, but it hasn’t come out in Bosnia yet so I’m mostly still in the dark on that front (gulp). My mother-in-law, who is originally from Sarajevo, called just the other day to tell me how much she enjoyed it, which made my day. There are always going to be false notes and anachronisms with a project like this, and I’m prepared for that if they’re pointed out, but I hope in an overall sense that I’ve been able to do justice to the way the city felt during that period.
The last thing I would want is to depict siege-era Sarajevo and its people in a reductive or voyeuristic way. There was chaos and carnage and terrible, unfathomable loss during those years, of course there was, and to not put that at the forefront of a fictional depiction would be ridiculous; but it’s important to remember that people carried on living too. They published newspapers and produced plays and played football and studied and worked and fell in love. They also drank and laughed and argued over stupid shit like the people of every other city did at the time—Sarajevans just had to do it while shells rained down around them and snipers tried to pick them off at intersections on their daily commute.
SN You said earlier, “when you sat down to plan out the novel.” Did you know you were writing a novel at first?
DS I knew I wanted it to work as a novel, but I was also acutely aware of the danger in trying to force together pieces that didn’t fit. The initial difficulty I had was trying to combine the Sarajevo storyline with another story that focused on young men in Ireland going through the grief and trauma of losing a friend to suicide, and doing it in a way that would be respectful and compelling and add up to a novel that was greater than the sum of its disparate parts. I told myself at the time that if it felt like the existence of one narrative strand or section was shortchanging another, rather than enhancing it, I would be ruthless about cutting it, and that’s what I did. I had a whole central section set in west Harlem, which I probably wrote because it felt like a way to affirm that I had gotten my feet under me in America, as though I must be settled if I can write a story set in my new neighborhood. But it amounted to a 100-page comic interlude that didn’t advance the story one bit, so I had to kill it with fire.
SN I’ll look for it in your next book!
DS Ha, thank you. If there ever is one.
SN I remember feeling after my first book: Well, that’s it; those were all my thoughts!
DS Right. This is the story I’ve managed to wring from my entire life so far. See you again in a quarter century.
SN Reviewers refer to this novel as “genre-bending.” I experienced an interesting tension between the road-trip buddy novel and the much darker themes associated with war writing. Certainly, I’ve always been a fan of humor in war writing—the Bosnian poet Izet Sarajlić is a kind of master of this—but it’s not something we see a lot. I think people are, understandably, afraid to mix those two things. When you were writing, how much did you think about genre or audience in general?
DS At the beginning I had a vague sense that the stories could and should connect somehow, and maybe if that was all it was, if I didn’t find myself returning to both again and again in my mind, I might have chosen one and made that the entire novel, but then it wouldn’t have been the right book. The more I threaded the two storylines through one another, the more sense it made for them to exist together—the more I realized that they had to exist together. Karl is prompted to re-interrogate his feelings around his surrogate brother’s suicide because of the state Tom is in when he returns from Bosnia. Similarly, Tom’s story—his entire life—would drift off into blackness without these men there to keep him tethered to the world, to reconnect him to something that trauma had stripped away. I never really thought about what audience the book would be most suited to, or whether the genre-bending aspect would be appealing or off-putting to anyone but me.
There may not be a huge, untapped market out there for hybrid Bosnian War/California road-trip novels studded with Irish colloquialisms, but that was the story I needed to write—the one that felt true and significant to me, so I was going to get it out of my system no matter what. Tonally, I suppose I just enjoy that mixture of light and darkness in fiction and the attempt to find balance for the two is always something I’ve been drawn to. I have a background in theatre criticism (and in trying, and failing, to write plays) and have always been a little obsessed with the streak of jet-black humor that runs through much of the best contemporary Irish drama. Playwrights like Marina Carr and Mark O’Rowe, in their depictions of people living under clouds of rage and grief and confusion, are able to infuse stark depictions of stagnating lives with an almost mythic grandeur. The way, in their best work, they construct sentences—lines that are both tender and apocalyptic, musical and brutal, full of gallows humor and intense sorrow—floored me and made me want to play with dialogue more and more in my own fiction, which is why, I suppose, there’s so much of it in the novel.
SN I also found it really in keeping with the general darkness of Balkan humor.
DS Absolutely! And that really was a wonderful surprise—the similarities there.
SN Do you relate to any of the characters more, or do you have a secret favorite?
DS I would say I’m particularly fond of Baz and Jelena in equal measure. I would have loved to have written a scene with the two of them interacting; but alas, it wasn’t to be.
SN Jelena is a badass.
DS She really is. Jelena is the polar opposite to Baz in terms of common sense and ability to navigate the world effectively, but they share a complete absence of filter, which I’ve always admired in people. Both Karl and Tom suffer, to varying degrees at different stages in their journeys, from a lack of self-awareness. They’ve convinced themselves that their motives are entirely pure and their decisions are sound. Baz and Jelena, on the other hand, know exactly who they are and are far more pragmatic about what that means. They’re unafraid to call bullshit on the partly romantic, partly selfish plans dreamt up by these men that they’ve come to love so fiercely. Jelena and Baz are impulsive, and at times that makes them do extreme things, but they’re not delusional (though Baz does have his moments), and their loyalty is absolute.
SN What is the weirdest part of your writing routine or process?
DS I suppose it involves intense periods of reading and writing, broken up by long stretches of being too busy, or too disorganized, to do much of either. I worked so many different jobs over the course of writing this novel—bartender, waiter, script reader, editor, medical equipment tester—that the amount of useful work I got done on any given month was subject to the demands of another, usually weird, job.
SN Medical equipment tester!?
DS Probably my favorite of all of them. I was doing under-the-table bar work and that was going through a dry stretch, so a woman I knew put me in touch with a medical equipment company who needed a test subject. I’d show up to a hotel conference, take off my clothes, and lie on a gurney. Then, the sales rep would hook me up to a machine (kidney ultrasound or some such) and doctors would file out of their lectures and shuffle over for a demonstration. Easiest money I ever made.
SN Well, I really loved Restless Souls. I am very much looking forward to your Harlem-based medical-equipment-tester novel in twenty-five years.
Sara Nović is the author of the novel Girl at War (Random House), the fiction editor for Blunderbuss Magazine, and an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Stockton University.
My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.