A Feast of Famine

Peter Behrens, Author of The Law of Dreams, Talks Irish History and More

by Martha Sadler

The Law of Dreams, Peter Behrens’s historical novel about the 19th century Irish potato famine, has left critics grasping for words to convey what makes it such an astonishing piece of work. Beautifully written, but more adventure story than melodrama, the tale is told from the point of view of Fergus O’Brien, a teenager who survives and emigrates to North America. Winner of the 2006 Governor General’s Literary Award in Canada, it is Behrens’s first novel. Martha Sadler caught the author at his home in Maine, shortly before he and his family boarded a plane for Santa Barbara, where Behrens lived for more than a decade of his adult life.

Despite its realism and the dystopia it describes, your writing has an almost fairytale quality. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but even the exclamation by the boy Murty, describing the ingredients in the workhouse soup, “Cheap old dust!” has that resonance. Are you influenced by fairytales? No, I’m not big on fairytales or whimsy.

%2B%2B%2B%2BPeter-Behrens-05-24-06.jpgWho are your influences? A lot of them seemed to have been absorbed when I was really young and impressionable. James Joyce — I reread him throughout my life. I really admired John McGahern, the Irish novelist and memoirist who died this year. And Alistair McLeod — the way he handled prose, he burnished it, it never looked like fancy writing at all but it had a glow to it that sort of invited you inside. And Alice Munroe, whom I don’t think I have much in common with, but I hope I learned something from because she’s such a consummate artist.

How accurate is the book? I’ve had a lifelong interest in Irish history, and I was researching and writing this book for 10 years. I’ve always thought of Fergus as my great-great grandfather, who came out of County Clare.

For example, can it possibly be true that his hair, after being shaved off, could have been “twitching with lice”? I see, the tiny details. Yes, I took that one from accounts of the workhouses.

Do you see similarities between the Irish famine and conditions in Africa today? Absolutely. A lot of what my research was telling me was the famine was more like Somalia or Eritrea now than like Ireland now. I saw a photograph of a 12-year-old boy walking down the street with an AK-47 over his shoulder, and the caption said something like, “Lawless children infest the highways.” Even though the weaponry wasn’t the same, Ireland had the Ribbonmen and the bog boys, gangs of orphans roaming the highways just trying to survive.

Does your imagination work when you sit down at the keyboard, or before? It just comes at you. Then it doesn’t and you don’t know what Fergus is going to do next and you’re running around pawing the ground. Sometimes I didn’t know what was going to happen plot-wise, I didn’t know if I could handle some of the themes, but one thing I always had with that book was the voice of it. That’s the most important thing in a book, I think.

The last book you published was a book of short stories in 1978. Why so long between books? Partly it’s because somebody gave me some bad advice early on: Don’t write a book unless you know how it’s going to end. But why bother writing if you know what’s going to happen and how it’s going to end? Also, I’ve been trying to earn a living. I’ve been working on a lot of screenplays. I invest lots of work and nothing happens, but I still derive a tremendous amount of satisfaction from it. Another fun way I make money is by writing copy for The Territory Ahead catalog.

Have you ever had what I’d call a real job? I drove a dump truck in Alberta for a long time during my twenties, and worked on Alberta construction crews. I would go back to Maine in the winter, where it was cheap to live, and write during the winter months.

What is one thing you miss about Santa Barbara? I was a regular swimmer at Los Baños pool, the adult lap swim. I miss that a lot.

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