Novelist Nick Laird: 'I wouldn't take advice from Zadie about poetry, but I'll certainly take advice from her about fiction'
As his third novel, Modern Gods, is published, Co Tyrone-born Nick Laird talks with Emily Hourican about writing, the childhood friend murdered by the IRA at Teebane and being 'Mr Smith' to his wife.
You spend a lot of time wishing that Northern Ireland would become like the rest of the world, but recently it seems like the rest of the world is becoming more like Northern Ireland." So says Nick Laird, poet and novelist. Much as he is keen to stress that he loves Northern Ireland, this isn't a compliment. "People's positions have hardened into them and us; it's a disaster, this idea that other people are essentially different to us. It's not true."
We're discussing his new novel, Modern Gods, his third, which is set between a small town in Ulster and an island called New Ulster, off the coast of Papua New Guinea with fascinating echoes bouncing between one and the other.
The novel tells of two sisters, Liz and Alison, their relationship with each other and with the land of their birth, and is a subtle, sometimes funny, often mesmerising exploration of history, memory, religion, corrosive identity politics and love.
Nick, who is tall and thin and elegant, dressed Teddy Boy style in a sharp suit and almost-quiff, grew up in Cookstown, Co Tyrone, and now lives between New York and London with his wife, novelist Zadie Smith, and their two children.
Of his childhood in Northern Ireland, he says: "When you're a kid, everything seems totally normal. It was only when I went away to university that I realised it was a strange place. The actual odd stuff, like having to go through police checkpoints when you go to school, and having your friends blown up, is one thing, but the character of people is different."
When he says "having your friends blown up", he's not being abstract and generalising, but tragically specific. His friend Davy Harkness was killed by an IRA bomb at Teebane in 1992, when a van carrying construction workers, who had been repairing an Army base, was blown up.
"I was sitting in my living room with my sister and heard the bomb," Nick recalls, then adds with what seems to be characteristic discretion, "it always feels a bit weird and distasteful talking about one's personal relationship to the Troubles, though."
Clearly, it's complicated. After his first novel, Utterly Monkey, which had "some terrorism stuff in it" was published in 2005, his parents received strange, silent phone calls for a time, tacit reminders that nothing has gone away. His own feelings of belonging and rejection are subtle things, but pack a punch.
Nick is Protestant, sees himself as Irish not British, has an Irish passport, and considers partition the "greatest tragedy in Irish history", and yet he has been forced to accept that, as he wryly puts it, "you can count yourself something, yet other people in the country aren't massively keen on you being around".
There's a hilarious scene in Modern Gods - which has wonderful moments of very wry humour - in which Alison, on holiday in Rhodes, meets another couple from Northern Ireland, and tries to connect clues and social dots to find out who they are, whether they are Catholic or Protestant.
Does that still happen, I ask? "Yes. It's an automatic little reflex that everyone in the north has." But, he adds: "I think everyone in Ireland has it as well." He describes giving a reading in Cork and saying that his grandmother had been born there. "What was her name?" a woman asked him and when he said, "She was a Shannon and her mother was a Kingston", the woman responded instantly, "Oh, yes. Protestant."
Laird is a poet as well as a novelist, but before he was either of these things, he was, briefly, a lawyer, specifically, a litigator: "I sue people, or defend people who are being sued." He also worked for a time on the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday.
"My dad was very keen that I would become a lawyer," he says. Nick was first in the family, along with his sister, to go to university, of which he says "something about a university education is alienating in families, it just is", with what may be a shade of regret, then adds, "but then, growing up is a form of alienation, as well".
He went to Cambridge where, "I applied for law and changed to English at the last minute, because I just thought, 'I don't want to do this'." The deal he struck with his dad "was that I would do law afterwards". His dad, though, doesn't seem to have been able to wait for the formalities - he told everyone Nick was studying law from the outset.
"After Cambridge, I got a scholarship from a law firm to go to the College of Law in London, then I went to work for the firm for four years. Once I'd signed my book contracts for the first poetry book and the first novel, I went back to law and tried to do them both, to write at lunchtimes and stuff, but I was working too hard to keep everything going, so I finally resigned."
He didn't, he says, hate law. Not at all. "There were lots of things about it I liked, not just the monthly salary cheque. It was nice to work with a team of people. Being a writer is essentially self-starting and fairly solitary. But if you want to write - and I had always known I would write eventually - everything else seems sort of second place."
Writing, he says, is "really a vocation rather than a job and you can't really be kept from a vocation".
His father hasn't entirely given up hope however: "My dad would still say to me, 'Do you ever think about going back to the law?' I say to him, 'You know, things are going okay, dad, you don't have to worry'."
It was at Cambridge that Nick met Zadie Smith. In fact, Nick has the distinction of being the first publisher of her work.
"I was the editor of The Mays Anthologies (a collection of Oxbridge writings) and she sent a story in. I'd never met her, but I thought, 'Oh my God, this is head and shoulders above everything else I've seen'.
"That went in the book and then we met at the book launch. Obviously, I think she's an absolutely first-rate writer, but she was always very, very good."
The two were best friends before they were a couple, and married in 2004, by which time Zadie had published White Teeth (which Nick edited) and become the hottest literary sensation since Martin Amis and The Rachel Papers.
For some years, Nick had to put up with being 'Mr Smith' at literary events, often elbowed out of the way as people clamoured to get to his wife. "I've sort of accepted being Mr Smith," he says. "I remember an episode of Larry Sanders when Rip Torn, the producer, tells Larry Sanders that if he goes out with Sharon Stone his ego will get a daily kicking, and I'm not Larry Sanders, and Zadie isn't Sharon Stone, but if you go out with someone well known, you do get given your pedigree a lot.
''I had dinner with a friend, whose husband is a Pulitzer Prize winner, and she said she comes home and screams 'I'm a person, too'. I'm not at that stage any more but I'm used to being put at the end of the table or sometimes even at a table in another room."
He can clearly see the funny side of it, but if that still happens, then the literary world is very slow on the uptake, because steadily, patiently, over the course of three novels and three excellent poetry collections, Nick has earned the right to stand solidly on his own two feet.
Of Zadie, he says simply: "I'll cede the ground to her. She's really terrific." She is, he says, "very conscientious, is that the word? She reads and writes continually, puts a lot of work into it. She's obviously got a lot of natural talent, but she also has the other thing, which is, she puts the hours in."
The couple are both effective readers of each other's work, or some of it anyway. "I wouldn't take any advice from her about poetry," he says, "but I'll certainly take advice from her about fiction. She's a terrific editor."
Modern Gods would, he says, "have been twice as long and half as good if she hadn't gone through it with a pen". (Zadie is also credited with the author photo of Nick on the book cover). "Partly because our relationship began editorially in a way, we've always shown each other's stuff. She's always the first reader and will edit it. And that's not always easy. But I feel very lucky to have a first-rate editor in the house."
Some literary couples, I say, have a deliberate pact never to read each other's work. "I don't get that at all," he says. "It just seems weird to me. The couples I know who don't do that are now divorced, and the ones who do read are still together." Then he laughs: "The couple that reads together breeds together."
Normally, during the summer, Nick and Zadie would spend a month teaching in Paris, part of a New York University programme, but this year, "the kids put their foot down. They're seven and four, well able to put the foot down. All their feet, and hands".
So, instead, the family are spending the time at "a wee cottage in west Cork that we bought. We love it".
Nick's mother died just six weeks before we met. It was, he says, "to be expected", although that of course will never mitigate the heartache or the shock.
"She had ovarian cancer for five years, but she was young, she was only 67, and she was very well-loved. Her death was on the cover of the local paper and the church was packed with people."
It's a loss that can't be quantified. As Nick says: "There's not that many people in the world who wish you unmitigated good. Relationships with everybody else are kind of complicated, but your mother wants good things for you.''
His own world, he says, changed hugely when he became a father - or rather, he allows me to ask if it did, and gives a cheerfully patronising chuckle as he agrees that yes, of course, it did.
"Your time is not your own any more, it's mortgaged." He is, he says, 50-50 in terms of hands-on parenting, and later talks about wanting to "hold off that tidal wave of s*** that's coming towards my kids", meaning technology.
This is apropos of his phone, which is old and very unsmart. "My seven-year-old is outraged about it," he laughs. "She says to me almost every night when I'm putting her to bed, 'Daddy, I wish you had a smartphone'. I say, 'You would not want that. My head would be in it all day, I wouldn't be looking at you.' I know what I'm like with my laptop. I have my laptop and I carry it from room to room. If I had a smartphone..."
He was on Twitter "for about a week" until he found himself getting into a spat with someone over something he did, or didn't, say as part of a documentary about Londonderry UK City of Culture for the BBC.
"I thought, 'Hold on, what are you doing, getting into an argument?' Since then, I haven't done it at all. I haven't got time to do any of that stuff."
The only drawback, he says, is maps. "You can't even buy an A-Z any more. Before I leave the house I have to print out a map of where I'm going, then stand in the middle of London, or New York, or Dublin, with my A4 sheet."
Is he already thinking about the next novel? "No. I've just sent in the new poetry manuscript, so that will come out hopefully next year, with Faber, and I'm doing a thing for the BBC, a film documentary about people involved in the Troubles and I write a poem based on their testimony.
"I'm writing a TV show for Working Title, set in Northern Ireland, I'm adapting Swing Time with Zadie (her latest novel) and we're working on a couple of other scripts and stuff."
You're busy, I say. "I've stuff on," he agrees, with commendable northern lack of bluster.
Modern Gods by Nick Laird is published by 4th Estate, £12.99