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After 30 Years, Neil Jordan Returns To 'The Past'

Neil Jordan wrote his novel<em> The Past </em>before he began directing films like <em>The Crying Game</em> and <em>Interview with the Vampire. </em>
Robin Holland
Courtesy of Soft Skull Press
Neil Jordan wrote his novel The Past before he began directing films like The Crying Game and Interview with the Vampire.

Neil Jordan is best known as a filmmaker — he directed The Crying Game, Michael Collins, Interview with the Vampire and the Showtime series The Borgias — but he began his career as a writer. His first novel, The Past, was published in Ireland in 1980 to great acclaim.

The novel follows an enigmatic protagonist on his search for his family's secrets in a Cornish seaside town. Jordan joins NPR's Scott Simon to talk about The Past, which has been reissued in the United States by Soft Skull Press.

Interview Highlights

On encountering The Past after 30 years

"Well, it's the strangest thing, because it's the first novel that I wrote. I don't think I've even glanced at this novel for 20 years, you know? So it is the strangest thing, trying to connect with the person that you were back then.

"In 1980 I was a young writer ... I'd written a book of short stories. I think I was unemployed, actually. Ireland in 1980 was very similar to Ireland actually at this minute, you know? It was going through a huge recession, and there were no jobs, and most people left. But creatively, it was a very, very vibrant time."

On the visual nature of the novel

"The basic drift behind the novel is of a narrator who's trying to find the reality of his upbringing — of his parentage. But yet it's all done through a series of ... visual images, you know? The central, most enigmatic character in the novel is a photographer. So the whole book almost adamantly refuses to admit any kind of element into its narrative that is not heard, or described, or can be photographed. So in a way, when I finished this book, I thought, 'Look, I'm so obsessed with visual imagery' ... I thought I would explore the possibility of making films."

On the parallels between writing and filmmaking

"I kind of regard them as the same thing, and it's hard to explain that to people, and they don't quite understand why — you know, how you can work in such a visual medium and how you can also work with words. But it's just the way I've developed, really. And I just don't see any real difference in the creative instinct — in the imagining or the dreaming up of the particular piece of work."

On using film to tread new creative ground

"Growing up [in Ireland] in the late 1960s, you felt you lived in a country that was haunted by words ... I was born in Sligo, where W.B. Yeats was born and lived. Between these two figures — Yeats and [James] Joyce and probably Samuel Beckett, you kind of felt like every acre you walked on was kind of trodden, already covered by acres of print, you know? And for me, the first time I wrote a screenplay, I felt tremendous freedom, actually ... Because it felt to me that this was an area that had not been explored by the Irish imagination in any creative way in Ireland. I just got tremendously excited and overtaken by it."

On writers' solitude

"Being a novelist is the loneliest life in the world. You know, when you're making a film you're surrounded by people, and the flow of ideas is always a communal thing, you know, so you don't feel alone. Writing a novel, you can feel really alone."

On the temptation to revise

"I don't think I would [change anything] ... You know, what you do is part of how you were then. I mean, I find some parts of it quite moving, in a way. I'm just amazed that I had the energy to think [it all] up."

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NPR Staff