Darragh McKeon grew up in Ireland and worked as a theater director before writing All That is Solid Melts Into Air. This is his first novel.
What drew you to this subject in particular?
I’m not sure—there are many reasons why you do something… There was a charity in Ireland that brought children from Chernobyl to Ireland. When I was 12 or 13, this bunch of children came over to my very sleepy hometown, and I think they might have been some of the first foreign people I’d ever met. The girls were very beautiful, and we were all very intrigued. Then we began to hear little stories about their lives. They didn’t speak any English and we didn’t speak Russian, and we’d hear about the apartments that they lived in, in those kind of monolithic Soviet apartment blocks, on the ninth floor or the fifteenth floor. Where I am from, the countryside is very flash, and the highest buildings are maybe two or three storeys high, so I just began to be very intrigued by their lives. Then, as I began to research about Chernobyl, when you begin to read the history of it, you can almost feel the fabric of the society beginning to rip apart. I think it was Mikhail Gorbachev who said that it was the catalyst towards the end of the Soviet union. It was the beginning of the end.
When you set out to research this topic, did you encounter any obstacle or had difficulties retrieving some facts?
My main difficulty was myself! I didn’t really known how to research, I just kind of walked very blindly into the subject, and spent about a year researching chemical equations and what happens on a level of physics, in the middle of a nuclear meltdown. I tried to really understand that, for about a year and a half. I went to a lot of very obscure sites and did not really get it. I began to look at the human side of the story, and began to actually understand that. I did read a Russian physicist who quoted H.G. Wells, and I put it in the epigraph of the book. It’s about what happens on a molecular level, or on a level of matter, on an atomic level in a nuclear reaction. It replicates the breakdown of traditions in society, and that was very interesting to me.
The Chernobyl stuff was not actually difficult to research, there was a lot of material available. There was a lot of photographs, documentaries have been made, but material from the 80s was actually difficult to access. People didn’t take photographs on the street. If you took photographs, people would have suspected that you were a spy! So there was news footage, but not a lot of day-to-day material, or anything about what it was like to live in Moscow in the 1980s.
In terms of social history, did you get to talk to people whose life had been impacted by this event?
Actually, no, partly because I didn’t have access. I was writing from Dublin and then I was writing from London, and also, until you have a publishing deal, you’re just a guy with a laptop.
One distinctive element in the novel is that there is an atmosphere which plays on two levels: an atmosphere made of radioactive matter, and an atmosphere thick with silence and oppression, forcing people to hide everything. How meaningful was it for you to have this element weighing on the characters’ lives in every way?
I think that was very deliberate. Something I was interested in was the way the institutions affect an individual. I wanted to question how the morality imposed on you by institutions affects the day-to-day conversations, the way that people live their lives, on a very small level. In Ireland, the institution would have been the Catholic Church. That would affect the way people talked to each other, or the way they would be around each other, or the way they would behave.
There’s a beautiful video that I saw in Dublin a couple of years ago. A documentary photographer just put a camera outside a church, and he would spot people walking past and just blessing themselves, almost instinctively. They didn’t even realize that they were doing it. So those little ways that an institution can get into the thoughts of a person, that was very important to me. When we talk about Soviet Russia, or even the Soviet Union, we tend to think of the 1950s, but even by the 1980s, the intense fear and the intense paranoia that were around at that time, this was only thirty years later. This doesn’t dissipate very quickly or very easily.
One of the other important elements in the novel is music, and overall the book is quite intrinsically linked to the senses…
I was a theater director before I was a writer, and I think it came out of that. It’s hell when you’re going through it, but the beauty of it is that you’re overseeing lighting, or sound, or movement. You get an appreciation for how these things combine, and that stuck with me in my writing.
Actually I initially wanted to ask you if you think your background in drama had had an effect on your writing…
It was that, and then, I think, one thing that was very useful is that, as a theater director, your job is just to observe and see between two actors or a dozen actors, and you begin to identify when a scene is alive or when it is dry and has no life to it. That really helps in your writing as well. After a while, you begin to spot when you’re writing something that has a certain amount of dynamic to it, or something that is very flat and dry.
We follow Yevgeni during several decades. Would you say that it is a kind of coming-of-age story for him?
I think so. Since I’ve written the novel, I’ve come across a Nietzsche quote, which says “we have art so that we will not be destroyed by the truth”. I really like it, because I think that works in two ways. You could say that art is just a distraction, and that it’s something that occupies our time, while the world is crumbling around us. Or you could look at it and say that it’s something that endures and gives hope. I think that, in retrospect, I was looking at that, at the two sides of that phrase.