By Stephen McKinley
Like James Joyce, Martin Roper was writing for a long time before he got published. Like Joyce, he started his writing career as a teenager, writing “really bad poetry.”
But there, Roper said, the similarities end, because few writers, himself included, could ever achieve Joyce’s “amorality.”
Perhaps not, but Roper’s achievements are worth noticing. The 36-year-old Dubliner, whose first novel, “Gone,” was published late last year by Holt, had spent years plugging away at his writing, with no success, but never giving up, either.
Roper’s own writing was finally noticed by the New Yorker magazine, which excerpted his novel in its Thanksgiving edition last November. Along with the actual publication of the book, the success ended 17 years in the writing wilderness.
“It was a Wednesday evening in Dublin,” Roper said, describing how he had heard that the Queen Mother of literary magazines, the New Yorker, had asked to excerpt his novel as an 8,000 word short story.
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“I was running out the door for a meeting,” he recalled. “My agent called to tell me that they would run the piece. I remember staring at the window and then at the chimney breast and thinking, ‘I’ll never forget this cracked chimney breast.’
“To be Irish and to be published in America, and to be able to say that your first thing published in America was in the New Yorker . . . ” He paused to sip from his pint in the Brooklyn Inn. “I’d have died happy.”
Although Roper insisted that he does not want to be pigeonholed as an “Irish” writer, “Gone” is set in Ireland and its two central characters, the surly, frightened Stephen and his wife, Ursula, are Irish, and it is infused with references to Irish society — Ursula works at an Irish newspaper; Stephen’s father told him never to “buy an end-house.”
And the action of “Gone” changes from one Irish city to another — Dublin and New York — a fact that Roper said was definitely autobiographical.
“I fell in love with New York before I left Kennedy airport,” Roper said. “I felt like I should have been born here, even though I love Dublin.”
Several reviewers have attested to the misogyny of the central character, Stephen, but Roper insisted that this was not the case.
“It’s about relationships and connecting, and the inability to connect but the ability to love,” he said. “People’s ability to love is about the only thing that interests me.”
When the character Stephen moves into his end-house with Ursula, Roper’s description of a gentrifying neighborhood is striking. In particular, the campaign of intimidation launched against Stephen and Ursula by local children — rock throwing, vandalism, name calling — is chillingly accurate for anyone who has walked through an Irish housing estate.
Settled in Brooklyn, Roper is already working on a second novel, set in America. Unlike the title of his first book, Roper is very much “here.”