Interview with Seamus Sweeney, author of ‘Dublin Can Be Heaven’

Séamus Sweeney is a writer new to Alt Hist, but with a number of writing credits in publications such as The Times Literary SupplementThe GuardianThe SpectatorNew StatesmanThe Lancet andThe Scotsman. We asked him a few questions about his story for Alt Hist Issue 3, ‘Dublin Can Be Heaven’, his other writing, and what he thinks about breakfast.

Are the Organisation and characters you write about based on historical reality? How did you come up with the idea for them?

Andrija Artuković was a politician of the Croatian fascist Ustaše state, and was nicknamed “the Himmler of the Balkans” for his part in genocidal war crimes during World War II. He fled to America via Switzerland and Ireland, where he spent 1948 and where one of this children was born. A good online source for reading about him is Hubert Butler’s essay “The Artukovitch File”, available at Obviously in reality he went to America, rather than meeting the fate described in the story. The Organisation was made up by myself out of whole cloth; probably the proximate inspiration for the story was Daniel Leach’s Fugitive Ireland, a book about the various minority nationalist groups (Basques, Bretons, Scots and others who looked to independent Ireland as an exemplar) and collaborationists who fled to Ireland post World War II. Leach’s book shows just how marginal such groups were, and how the still-new Irish state trod the difficult path between asserting its sovereignity and avoiding Allied opprobium. While it is a scrupously unsensationalist and sober look at this issue, it contains enough imagination-provoking titbits to launch a host of counterfactual stories.

What was the status of Ireland during World War Two?

Neutral, but on the Allied side. Not entirely a sophism; one of the strengths of Leach’s book (and many others) is that it shows how Ireland’s neutrality, in the early years of the War, was beneficial to the Allies. Entering the war on the Allied side not only would not have been very popular (less than twenty years previously the Irish Free State had violently acheived independence) but would have required the Allies to protect Ireland militarily against the inevitable Axis attacks. Not to mention the pretext provided for a German invasion which would have tied up Allied forces quite severely. In any case, as the war proceeded Ireland’s neutrality was more openly derided among the Allies.

How did you get into writing?

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing. When I was a child, I was into books about dinosaurs and Usborne’s fact books. I began to write my own versions in copybooks. In school I was always writing ideas for stories and poems, although I rarely finished them. What boosted my confidence in terms of trying to get published was being involved in the university paper, The University Observer, where I was writing a few thousand words for publication every couple of weeks. While this was non fiction rather than fiction, it gave me confidence in approaching editors and I later began to review books for the TLS and The Lancet and other outlets.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

I work as a doctor which is rather busy, and spend time with my family. Which is also rather busy.

Are you working on any other short stories or novels at the moment and if so can you tell us a bit more about them?

I am trying to finish a longish short story about time travel. A couple of years ago I got thinking about the emotional cost of time travel, especially if you couldn’t go back to your own time. I guess it reflects universal concerns about the passing of time. My time traveller is a father whose child has a seemingly incurable disease, at least in our time. The songwriter Jule Styne had a saying: “its easy to be clever, the really clever thing is to be simple.” It’s quite easy in a way to be drawn into long pseudophilosophical bits, and harder to focus on the emotion.

What are your ambitions as a writer?

To have a fidelity to the characters, the ideas and the emotions I want to explore, and to follow where they lead. At any one time I have a few particular threads I want to follow. Sometimes I think “this would make a novel” and when I plan and write, the idea naturally coheres into a short story. The other day I was reading JG Ballard’s introduction to his collected short stories, and he remarked how many writers – himself included- saw the novel as the great virility test of a young writer. And yet while there are no perfect novels, there are perfect short stories. On one level I would love to write a novel, on another it would have to be for the artistically right reasons and not “because it’s a novel.” So I’ve answered your question with an answer about how I don’t want to write a novel, which is not something I have done in any case.

Where and what is the best Irish breakfast, what’s the difference to English and American?

The contrast is probably more with continental breakfasts! The classic Irish breakfast is sausage, egg (fried or scrambled), white pudding, black pudding, rashers and toast. Laterally you get a hash brown or two, and in a lot of cases a tomato or mushrooms. There are many places that do wonderful Irish breakfasts, and many places that do terrible ones. The last one I had, which was pretty good, is a place called Howard’s Way in Churchtown in Dublin,

Séamus Sweeney’s stories and other pieces can be found at

Don’t forget to take a look at ‘Dublin Can Be Heaven’ too.

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New Historical Fiction Book: The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst

The Stranger‘s Child by Alan Hollinghurst

Hardcover: 448 pages
Publisher: Knopf (October 11, 2011)
ISBN-10: 0307272761
ISBN-13: 978-0307272768

Available from

Available from

Reviews and Description from Amazon:

“Brilliantly written, intricate and wide-reaching . . . An almost century-long cavalcade of changing social, sexual and cultural attitudes, exhibited in sensuously imagined scenes and scrutinized with ironic wit . . . Marvelously acute in its attention to idioms and idiosyncrasies, tone and body language, psychological and emotional nuances, the book gives intensely credible life to its swarm of characters . . . Masterly in its narrative sweep, richly textured prose and imaginative flair and depth, this novel about an increasingly threadbare literary reputation enormously enhances Hollinghurst’s own. With The Stranger’s Child, an already remarkable talent unfurls into something spectacular.”
—Peter Kemp, The Sunday Times (London)

“Not only Alan Hollinghurst’s most ambitious novel to date, but also his funniest since The Spell . . . Hollinghurst is perhaps our most literary contemporary novelist, in the sense that his books are . . . playfully, but never merely flippantly, studded with allusions. . . . The principal theme of the workings of time and memory [is] brilliantly embodied in the book’s structure, with its bold narrative leaps forward . . . The novel’s long chronological reach (1913 to 2008) allows the sometimes melancholy but often comic workings of time to become apparent. . . . In a novel covering a large swathe of time, an entire era or society can be evoked in a phrase . . . Period indicators are always spot on . . . Although many of the scenes he describes are in themselves amusing, his great comic gift is displayed in the precise deployment of language as much as in the beadiness of his observation. Like Evelyn Waugh he creates comedy from the tension between the elegance of his prose and the often indecorous things he is describing, and so the reader is caught between amusement and exhilaration when someone with a terrible hangover staggers to the lavatory where he is ‘sick, in one great comprehensive paragraph.’ Hollinghurst’s pouncing on exactly the right, though often unexpected, word for his purposes is all the more effective for occurring in a prose of considerable poise. . . . In this populous story even the most minor character is brilliantly realized, and Hollinghurst’s nimble changes of narrative perspective frequently wrongfoot the reader, whose sympathies undergo a number of unexpected readjustments. Beautifully written, ambitious in its scope and structure, confident in its execution, The Stranger’s Child is a masterclass in the art of the novel.”
—Peter Parker, The Times Literary Supplement (UK)
“Highly entertaining and, as always with Hollinghurst, the dialogue is immaculate and the characterization first class. . . . Every Alan Hollinghurst novel is a cause for celebration, and this spacious, elegant satire is no exception.”
—David Robson, Sunday Telegraph (UK)

“Bloody-hell-this-is-good . . . Punctuated by abrupt and jagged turns of fate, skillfully redolent of life lived forwards, this story is fabulously involving and rich. It’s also very funny, in a dry and forgiving way. The silky precision of its prose . . . is matched by the mimetic completeness of its fictional world. This is an exercise in realism of a dazzlingly high order: it really does seem to be observed rather than imagined. The touches of extraneous detail are unobtrusive, concrete and exact. . . . The Stranger’s Child is a knowingly literary performance: a descendent of E. M. Forster or Evelyn Waugh by way of A. S. Byatt and the Ian McEwan of Atonement. . . . The novel’s presiding tone [is] arch humor. That humor is central: softening the book’s melancholy with a wan and forgiving sense of the vanity of human wishes. . . . In the end, the central character in The Stranger’s Child is neither Cecil nor Daphne, but time itself, breaking the threaded dances and the diver’s brilliant bow. There’s a whiff of the Possession-style scholarly page-turner in the closing sections . . . but the larger movement of the story is towards entropy. More of the past is always going to be lost than recovered. Rather than use its scale to produce the weightless afflatus of a family saga, The Stranger’s Child captures as well as anything I’ve read the particular gravity of time passing, and the irrecoverable losses it brings with it. It is an extraordinary achievement.”
—Sam Leith, The Spectator (UK)

“An opulent epic that follows the variegated fortunes of two aristocratic families from 1913 to 2008. . . . Possibility and fumbling desire run through the narrative like a rippling electric current. . . . Mortality [and] mythology feed into an extravagant and playful riff on literature itself, rich with references to the novels of E. M. Forster, Evelyn Waugh and Hollinghurst’s beloved Henry James. . . . Like everything Hollinghurst writes, the story also has a keen sense of aesthetics and the history of taste.”
—Claire Allfree, Metro (UK)

“Sumptuously retelling a familiar narrative of English decline through a series of friendships and encounters which form a sort of daisy chain of erotic and literary influence, [The Stranger’s Child is] elegant . . . affecting, erudite [and written] with tenderness and sensuous immediacy. As an accounting with class and history, Hollinghurst’s new novel will be compared to Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day and Ian McEwan’s Atonement. . . .The novel deals with the short life and posthumous reputation of Cecil Valance, a poet whose lyrical outpourings are given huge poignancy by the carnage of the trenches. . . . Hollinghurst has a feel for the fragility of memory, and the brutality inherent in the modernist drive to ‘make it new.’ Victorianism, with its sentiment, clutter and decorum, has special importance in The Stranger’s Child . . . It is the signal achievement of The Stranger’s Child to show that, despite the silence in which relationships like that of Cecil and George were shrouded, their influence has echoed on through the years, as an unconscious pattern for other friendships and love affairs. In the present day, when the immediacy of a young man reciting Tennyson has been replaced by a website with audio clips mouthed by an animated Tennyson avatar, this tradition persists, against the odds.”
—Hari Kunzru, The Observer (UK)

“Intelligence, perceptiveness, skill and sensibility . . . [this is] a complex, stylish comedy of class, politics, art and sexuality . . . The Stranger’s Child feels like the kind of novel that [E. M.] Forster might have written . . . An impeccable, ironic, profoundly enjoyable plot structure, with ‘secrets nested inside each other,’ The Stranger’s Child could be usefully compared with A. S. Byatt’s Possession in its account of the way [the poet] Cecil [Valance] is mythologized by memory, misunderstandings and lies . . . It is Corley Court, the ‘violently Victorian’ ancestral home, which is at the heart of the novel. Like Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Darlington Hall and Sarah Waters’s Hundreds Hall, the house is both the setting and the magnifying glass under which the characters’ obsessions and frailties are to be exposed. . . . The narrative [is] largely carried by dialogue, much of it so freighted with irony as to be a delight in itself. Musical performances reveal character (another Forsterian hallmark), but the novel’s chief pleasure is itself akin to music: characters and details concerning life and love move in and out of focus to reveal unexpected discords and harmonies. . . . Probably the best novel this year so far . . . Gorgeous.”
—Amanda Craig, The Independent on Sunday

“Delightful . . . In Hollinghurst’s eagerly awaited new novel we see that if history is written by the winners, biography belongs to the survivors. . . . Tremendously readable and engrossing.”
—John Harding, Daily Mail (UK)

“If this wonderfully well-made and witty novel doesn’t win the Man Booker Prize, there is no justice in the world. . . . This is Brideshead Revisited in reverse. . . . Hollinghurst evokes the world of [Rupert] Brooke and of the Bloomsbury set. And he does so through the depiction of the sort of people who have written about that world—Michael Holroyd, the biographer of Lytton Strachey and George Bernard Shaw, comes to mind. This evocation is refreshingly ironic, even satirical, as is the comic nailing-down of what it’s like to be a book reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement (of which Hollinghurst was once deputy editor). . . . The real villain is the passing of time. . . Constantly provocative, intricately plotted, slyly hilarious—in short, a triumph of the storyteller’s art.”
—Brian Lynch, Irish Independent

“Eagerly awaited . . . Charming . . . Perfect . . . Hollinghurst writes so carefully and subversively, often with one eyebrow raised in sardonic amusement as he satirizes the excesses of his mostly high-born protagonists . . . elegant people partying on the edge of the abyss . . . [He] is interested in what it means to love someone or something that is perpetually unattainable . . . The Stranger’s Child is broader in scope and more generous in outlook than anything [he] has written before, as well as being structurally his most ambitious work and his most restrained sexually. What remains absolutely characteristic is the gracefulness of his sentences, scrupulously scene-shaping and mood-patterning.”
—Jason Cowley, Financial Times

Product Description

From the Man Booker Prize–winning author of The Line of Beauty: a magnificent, century-spanning saga about a love triangle that spawns a myth, and a family mystery, across generations.

In the late summer of 1913, George Sawle brings his Cambridge schoolmate—a handsome, aristocratic young poet named Cecil Valance—to his family’s modest home outside London for the weekend. George is enthralled by Cecil, and soon his sixteen-year-old sister, Daphne, is equally besotted by him and the stories he tells about Corley Court, the country estate he is heir to. But what Cecil writes in Daphne’s autograph album will change their and their families’ lives forever: a poem that, after Cecil is killed in the Great War and his reputation burnished, will become a touchstone for a generation, a work recited by every schoolchild in England. Over time, a tragic love story is spun, even as other secrets lie buried—until, decades later, an ambitious biographer threatens to unearth them.

Rich with Hollinghurst’s signature gifts—haunting sensuality, delicious wit and exquisite lyricism—The Stranger’s Child is a tour de force: a masterly novel about the lingering power of desire, how the heart creates its own history, and how legends are made.

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