Austin Duffy: ‘I wanted to immerse the reader in the terror of being on call’ | Fiction

Austin Duffy, 47, was born in Dundalk and lives in Howth, north of Dublin, where he works as an oncologist at the city’s Mater hospital. His two previous novels, This Living and Immortal Thingshortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish novel of the year, and Ten Daysabout early dementia, were both set in New York, where Duffy met his wife, the painter Naomi Taitz Duffy, after winning a research fellowship to work at the Memorial Sloan Kettering cancer center in Manhattan in 2006. His new novel, The Night Internsfollows three trainee medics on a Dublin surgical ward.

What led you to write The Night Interns?
It’s not a memoir, but I still have vivid memories of my intern year when I was doing medicine [at Trinity College Dublin in the 90s] and always knew I wanted to write about the experience at some point. You’re thrust into this world where you quickly find out the inadequacy of the theoretical knowledge you’re relying on from your studies. I wanted to immerse the reader in the terror – maybe that’s too strong a word, maybe it isn’t – of being on call and being asked to be the first person to figure things out for people who are sick. The structure, with no chapters, no real breaks, is meant to make you feel like you can’t come up for air.

Were you inspired by other hospital novels?
No. While I was working on the book I reread Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment, which has that very intense type of claustrophobic first-person narration I wanted. And this is going to sound very odd, but what really inspired me was coming across Hubert Mingarelli’s A Meal in Winter four or five years ago. I’m stunned he doesn’t get more attention; he’s a bloody genius. It’s this short novel humanising the experience of these three SS officers in a death camp in Poland, wandering around the forest at night, trying to keep warm and cook a meal, trying everything they can get out of their horrific duties. Obviously I’m not comparing – they’re working in a death camp, and as an intern you’re trying to help people, even though it doesn’t feel like that some of the time – but something just struck me about the group dynamic of these three recognisably human characters able to do nothing, really, but try to get through the night. I remember thinking, I need to set this in a hospital, I need to make these people interns [laughs].

Does knowing you’re a novelist make colleagues wary?
Not at all, but I can set their minds at ease: my characters are all fictional. People do sometimes sidle up to you saying, oh, I know who your man was [in previous novels]. I’m sure I’ll get that a lot with this, because there is a sort of villain in the book, but he’s a total construct, not anyone I ever worked with. If he reminds me of anyone, it’s a particular non-medical person, but he’s fiction.

How do you write?
I’ve a short train commute into Dublin from where I live. That’s 25 minutes’ writing. If I get to the station early, I get another 10 or 15 minutes, the same if I take a slightly earlier train at the other end. Add it all up and it’s the guts of an hour. If I’m bringing my son to soccer practice, I’ll be the oddball sat in the car with a laptop, but that’s another 45 minutes or an hour of writing. By necessity it’s very focused: you’re not staring out the window, you know?

Which came first for you, medicine or literature?
Medicine. It wasn’t that I had a passion for it, but back then [growing up in Dundalk] There didn’t seem to be a huge amount of opportunities generally and it seemed like something that would be fairly open. I only got properly emotionally invested in being a doctor when I was a few years down the track. Ironically, the intern year was a help: maybe you wouldn’t get that impression from the book, but it was good to feel part of the hospital, because as a medical student I hadn’t felt like that at all and found it difficult to engage. I didn’t really write properly until I found myself in New York in 2006. My hospital accommodation was like a box: no internet, no television, and at that point it was like, if you’re serious [about writing], do it. I joined the Writers Studio in Greenwich Village, a weekly craft class that got me into the flow of writing every day. My first book took seven years but it grew out of an exercise from that class.

What novels have you enjoyed lately?
Fernanda Melchor just blew my head off. On the jacket of Hurricane Season, Ben Lerner says she makes all other fiction seem anaemic by comparison, and when I read the book, I knew exactly what he meant. It made me feel the same way I felt when I first read Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. I remember picking that up randomly while waiting to meet someone in a bookshop, and they came up to me like: “Are you OK? What’s wrong with your face?”

Which writers made you want to write fiction?
At college I read the same things everyone else was reading – Camus, Dostoevsky – but I was too young to get them. It was in New York that I really started reading as a writer. I remember being amazed by a Roberto Bolaño story in the New Yorker. I read pretty much all his books after that. He’s brilliant, but he loses the run of himself in his bigger novels; I find him one of the funniest writers, and he’s more able to sustain that humour in his short stories. Javier Marías was another one I first read in the New Yorker. I think it was a story where someone was sunbathing and it was just their observations around the pool… brilliant. I’ve read all his books too but I had to stop because I was beginning to imitate him, and he’s not someone you can imitate; you’ll just sound like an eejit.

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