Neil Jordan is in the unusual, some would say luxurious, position of being acclaimed both as a writer and as an international filmmaker. Indeed, he was a writer before he was a filmmaker. In 1976, he published Night in Tunisia, a collection of stories that were ahead of their time, edgy, modern and groundbreaking. He followed with a novel, The Past, about a young man trying to make sense of his family through a series of images. It was a new voice in a new era. Then he got a break, making a documentary about Excalibur, the John Boorman film, and followed this with Angel, a powerful film set in Northern Ireland. A commercial film breakthrough came with Mona Lisa, but he never stopped writing. Between what were usually larger and more ambitious films, he came out with well-crafted, atmospheric novels, often set in the past, and a elegiac contrast, although not dissimilar, to his big, colorful movies.
He has a novel out this month from Bloomsbury entitled Shade, which has appeared in the U.K. to very good reviews. It returns to many of the themes that preoccupy Neil Jordan. Set in the first half of the 20th century, the book is narrated by Nina Hardy, an Anglo-Irish actress whose lonely, haunted childhood was changed by the arrival of her long-lost half-brother Gregory, and then shattered by the the horrors of the First World War. Much of the first part of the book is from the child's perspective, with garden games, explorations and friendships, while the second deals with the painful experience of war, alienation and exile. Told in flashbacks, from different points of view, the book opens with the central narrator telling us she is already dead.
"I like to look at ghosts and memories and how they affect the present, rather than dealing directly with the present itself," says Jordan, sitting back on his white settee, the sea visible through his study window in his home six miles out from Dublin city, along the coast. His writing—and his films—often have a dreamlike quality, explicitly stated even in the titles, like In Dreams, or his second novel, The Dream of a Beast (Chatto & Windus in the U.K., 1983). "I had dreamt this life," says Gregory in this novel, "the sea, the river, I had dreamt her and she had dreamt me." But Jordan doesn't necessarily see the artist—or filmmaker—as a further version of the dreamer. "Everybody dreams," he says, with a shrug, "but very few write. It's much more difficult to give shape to things."
It would be hard to get a more beautiful and striking location for Jordan's home, overlooking a long strand and the sea to England. His film company, the Company of Wolves, is here, named after the Angela Carter short story, which he adapted for the screen. He divides his time between here, another impressive house in West Cork and the various foreign locations where he is making big budget movies. Having had plans for a screen version of the dissolute Borgias, he is now filming Breakfast on Pluto, a further collaboration with Irish novelist, Pat McCabe. They also worked together on The Butcher Boy.
In 1994, his third novel, Sunrise with a Seamonster (Bloomsbury) appeared, dealing with the revolutionary politics of his father's time, and a fraught relationship between son and father. The new book, Shade, by contrast, deals with characters who appear somewhat shielded from political involvement—at least, at first—and its landscape is drawn from where Jordan's mother grew up, around the Boyne estuary, on Ireland's eastern coast. But Jordan quickly stresses that he got the idea as much from working on the set of TheLast September, a film adaptation of the novel by Anglo-Irish writer, Elizabeth Bowen, which he worked on in cooperation with another Irish writer, the acclaimed novelist John Banville. This world of twilight aristocracy and crumbling big house has been a staple of Irish writing, but Jordan is inspired by it in a different and unusual way.
Shade has a strong, painterly feel in the slowly built-up imagery, not surprising given Jordan's artistic family—his sister and his mother are both painters—and he agrees that he certainly remembers how things "looked rather than how they felt." Consistent with this, there is also the sense of a filmmaker at work, setting the scene and using exquisite phrasing, such as the old couple separating, "finally, like two tugs that had plied the same waters for years, tied together." But there is a strangeness, too, and blunt observations which can be both truthful, but also riskily overreaching. It is heartfelt stuff, and Jordan is one of those few writers who can be almost self-consciously literary and get away with it, possibly because he also has a raw, childlike naïveté, which is genuinely endearing and experimental.
While there are echoes in Shade of his other work, critics see possible influences, such as Anna Rice's Interview with a Vampire (he directed the 1994 film), which may have pointed to the idea of a mother losing a daughter and replacing her with a ghost or vampire. Or "The Company of Wolves,"where a girl becomes a wolf and runs wild. Or even The Butcher Boy, as Shade also has a disturbed young man who becomes vengeful and violent. But Jordan shirks this and prefers to talk about more conscious influences, such as, interestingly, the American South. When I mention echoes of Carson McCullers, he agrees and talks of William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, but also of the more recent Donna Tartt novel, A Secret History. Shade is, in many ways, a gothic novel, he adds: "there is a death, a strange landscape, an isolated house and a series of childhood events. And"—he shrugs and smiles—"a secret to be discovered."