“I’ve Always Loved Gallows Humor”: Dan Sheehan on Writing “Restless Souls”


“They told me he died around sunset, as if the word, the soft orange time of day it conjures, should have meant something even if it were true.” This is a line I wrote down and thought about for days after finishing Restless Souls, an alternatively witty and wounding novel about mental health, male friendship, and memory. It’s spoken by Karl, our protagonist, as he thinks of his foster brother Gabriel, who was lost to suicide years ago. Why does it matter to us what our beloveds saw when the light went out, Karl wonders. It left me to me meditate on our insistence to rewrite memories, even those that aren’t our own, how we alter them to be more soothing and beautiful when we’re aware that they’re plainly not true. There’s a skipping, excitable pulse in Restless Souls that’s made up of three childhood friends determined to play-fight with each other to the ends of the earth, but the beating heart is found in this struggle of truth in memory versus comfort for those left to remember.

Restless Souls is rooted in friendship: a specific and instantly recognizable breed of swaggering, teasing, intimate-with-a-front friendship of four childhood friends: Tom, Baz, Karl, and the late Gabriel. Tom is a wartime journalist recently returned from Sarajevo with deadened eyes and a mysterious box: Baz and Karl are his blundering friends who, still reeling and trying to be less clueless after Gabriel’s suicide, are determined to find a cure for Tom’s ailments, even if they don’t understand what they are. After reading up on an experimental PTSD clinic that specializes in veterans’ trauma, Karl decides he’s taking everyone to California in search of salvation. It’s important to state the obvious: that this is a book of straight male friendship. It carries the specific weight and baggage of those masculine relationships, and we see how their inability to communicate with each other is something that they have to address if they are hoping to heal. It’s rife for comedy as we watch them blunder through talk of therapy and PTSD when we know they are much more comfortable making jokes or talking football, but it’s also quite vulnerable and sad once their shadows catch up to them and we watch their attempts at intimacy.

Just before his book’s release in the US, I spoke with debut author Dan Sheehan about the culture of mental health in Ireland, writing humor in fiction, and how I think Springsteen fits into Restless Souls.

There is the moment where Karl realizes that he thought he was protecting Tom’s privacy by not inquiring directly about this mysterious box of pages Tom had been carrying around–written memories of his time in Sarajevo, something that Karl knew was a traumatic reminder of his time there–but that really, Tom might have wanted him to ask. Karl thinks he’s doing the right thing by staying silent, but if he had just asked, then perhaps Tom would have opened up. This parallels poignantly with another traumatic memory of his, when he could have confronted Gabriel about his emotional struggles, but instead walked away. A more storybook ending would have seen Tom behaving in a direct contrast to that, but I love that you let Karl still not be comfortable enough to address it.

I knew that it was going to be like pulling teeth, getting these men to the point where they could express themselves to one another in a meaningful way. They’re so well-practiced in talking around, or ignoring completely, the issues that have damaged them, that it’s almost incapacitating. Karl wants to engage on a deeper, more direct level, with what his friends are going though; he knows that every time he walks away from one of these conversations he’s failing them, and failing himself, but he just can’t do it.

What is the cultural attitude around mental health in Ireland, and how has it changed? Karl himself has had a life that would be depicted in devastating language elsewhere, but is recounted in monotone that’s-that storytelling in this book. An orphan with a dead father, an alcoholic mother, a foster brother lost to suicide: yet he feels he doesn’t have a reason to complain? Though he is searching for Tom’s cure, Karl could certainly benefit from some talk therapy as well.

By God he could. Unfortunately that wasn’t really an option in 1990s Ireland. It’s only in recent years that the silence, and the stigma, around depression and mental illness has begun to lift. I think we’re now at the point, thanks in no small part to a handful of charities and awareness groups, where the subject is being openly discussed in schools, colleges, and on national television and radio, but we still have a long way to go. Despite the high rate of suicide among young people in Ireland, it’s taken governments a long time to put in place any kind of cohesive strategy for getting a handle on the problem. There’s also a persistent, and maddening, tendency in our health service to treat alcohol and drug abuse as wholly separate from, rather than symptoms or byproducts of, mental illness, and to deny people crucial emergency treatment because of that.

At one point, Karl imagines Tom’s future and can see no options other than completely healed or dead. This is perhaps a downfall of misunderstanding certain conditions with often no complete cure, but also kind of how we imagine our lives: perfect or obliterated, until we get older and realize everything is so complex. Why do you think it takes them so long to learn this distinction?

I think we’re obsessed with that all-or-nothing duality, the idea that the decisions we make will bring us to either lasting contentment or irreparable catastrophe, despite the fact that there are very few instances in life where that’s the case. Maybe it’s easier to believe in the silver bullet if we also believe in the specter of the complete opposite—like our attempts to achieve perfection can’t be totally delusional if we’ve also considered the possibility that everything could go straight to hell. These men want so badly to be transform their lives, to fix their lives, and because they’ve been blown so far off course for so long, huge, Hail Mary gambits seem like the only way to make this happen. Ultimately, they, and Karl in particular, have to wake up to the realization that there are no easy answers, no simple solutions to the difficulties they’re facing.

Each of the female characters in this book feels really unique to me, even though they don’t have nearly as much time as the boys. They are the only people that we really get a look into besides our main foursome. We meet Dr. Saunders and his assistant Theo, but they belong to another world. I wonder if you had any reasoning for making our characters’ main bridges to their world almost entirely female: we don’t meet many other male friends of theirs from childhood and the only Sarajevo characters who seem to be important are important by proxy to Jelena.

Some of it was about balance. This is a book that focuses on the nature of a certain type of male friendship, and the way in which that can be both a comfort and a constraint in difficult times. It made sense to me that the characters jolting these men out of the patterns they had placed themselves in together would be women. Beyond that though, it was important to me that their three-dimensionality not be sacrificed just because they are supporting players in the narrative. They’re the catalysts for a lot of the action, yes, but I also wanted to give them (in particular Jelena, her mother Fadila, and Tom’s mother) a depth of characterization that would allow the reader to picture their lives before and beyond the tragic events of the book.

Hasan tells Tom at one point that he does not like politics, and he does not like to fight: before the war, he’d punched one person, and it had kept him up for weeks. But now he kills people like it’s nothing, because it’s required. It’s interesting that we as humans are so easily adaptable to these situations: what we can bear, and what we can bear to do, seems to be so elastic at times, but it can be hard for us to forgive. Is it better to be elastic, to be forgiving of the evil we have let ourselves witness?

On principle, none of us want to advocate violence, but I also believe that the idea of condemning people who resort to violence in order to protect their homes and families from a far greater force—one which has been brutalizing and subjugating them for years with relative impunity—is ludicrous. Everybody has a breaking point. People need to forgive in order for societies to rebuild, yes, but also so that their anger and grief doesn’t steal away more years from their lives on top of what has already been taken by the aggressor. I think post-conflict reconciliation is absolutely vital, but I can’t imagine how an individual who has lost what can never be brought back goes about trying to do it, and I certainly don’t blame anyone who cannot bring themselves to forgive.

What prompted you to delve into the Bosnian war for this narrative?

Even though I was very young when I first saw the news footage from the Siege of Sarajevo, I remember clearly how the images lodged in my brain. The idea that in the age of the 24-hour news cycle a city, a country, could be brutalized in that way for so long, with no reprieve and nobody coming to its aid, was just incomprehensible to me. It still is. People are, and should be, apprehensive about creating fictions out of other people’s trauma, and I was no different; but by the time I sat down to write the novel, I had been reading about the conflict for so many years, and had been so moved by my visit to Sarajevo in 2007, that I knew it was something I wanted to write about. The question then was how to do it in such a way that would be both compelling as a story, and respectful to those for whom it was a terrible reality.

Where did the name Restless Souls come to you from?

The title changed a few times throughout the writing process, but it never felt like the placeholders did much. They were just kind of boring and functional and, well, shit. Restless Souls, when it did finally come to me, seemed right for two reasons: It’s absolutely the kind of name a New Age-y clinic on the California coast would have, at least in my imagination, but more importantly it’s a title that I hope also evokes the mental and emotional state of the characters at this point in their lives.

What is the significance/resonance of U2’s song, Miss Sarajevo, that you use as an epigraph?

Well the U2 we know now has become, as I think most aging rock bands become, a little bit of a parody of itself, so it’s easy to forget sometimes just how popular and influential the band was in the early 1990s. They were coming off the back of albums like The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby (both of which I’ll defend to the death no matter how many times Bono and Apple try to dose us with corporate musical poison) and those early songs spoke to people in a very powerful way. I think that Bono, despite his then-burgeoning Messiah complex, was genuinely moved by the plight of the people of Sarajevo in those years. The band, as demonstrated by the possibly ill-advised live feeds from the Bosnian capital that they organized during their stadium shows, were actively invested in shining a light on what was happening in the city—how these tens of thousands of people had been abandoned by the rest of the world. When the war ended, U2 were the first major band to perform in Sarajevo and the concert was attended by 45,000 people who all came out to hear Miss Sarajevo ring though the recently liberated city.

How much research did you do on PTSD and the neuroscience aspects? Is Dr. Saunders’s cure something you made up?

Believe it or not, Dr. Saunders’s treatment is actually real; or, to be more accurate, it’s on its way to being real. I had been researching different treatments for PTSD—some of them well-established, some more experimental—when I came across a New Yorker profile of a neuroscientist named Dr. Daniela Schiller who is renowned for her work in the nascent field of memory reconsolidation. The idea behind memory reconsolidation, insofar as I understand it, is that long-term traumatic memories (previously thought to be fixed and unchangeable) could actually be recalled and altered in order to dampen their negative emotional impact. The goal is to be able to ease the suffering of those for whom more conventional treatment options have been exhausted and unsuccessful, not by destroying traumatic memories à la Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but by disentangling the painful emotion from the memory it’s associated with. In that way, the memories would survive, but the fear attached to them would disappear. It sounds like science fiction, but memory reconsolidation may well be the future of severe PTSD treatment.

This book is really propelling and fun, and the last part came to life so cinematically. I wonder what your influences were while you were conceiving of this book, because I think that it’s so clearly influenced by other forms of art, rather than just by literature. There is a scene in the end that involves a mad dash return that I think should obviously be set to a Springsteen song in the movie.

I’m truly delighted you mention that! A frankly ludicrous amount of my relationship to Americana comes from Springsteen songs, and has done since I was pretty young. The mythic stories of doomed romances and dying steel towns and lonesome highways that infuse his music are always in the back of my mind when I think about travelling through America. Even though the characters in the book are driving up the pacific coast, which is not really Springsteen country, I still imagine his songs playing on their car radio. Beyond the Boss, meandering California noir stories, road trip movies like Y tu Mamá También and The Motorcycle Diaries; the films of Bosnian directors Danis Tanovič and Jasmila Žbanić; the work of Irish playwrights Marina Carr, Mark O’Rowe, and Brian Friel; the essays of Aleksandar Hemon; and the journalism of Barbara Demick, Janine di Giovanni and Sheri Fink, all, to one degree or another, informed the writing of Restless Souls.

This was a book with tremendous amounts of light and humor, even and especially in its darkest parts. Does humor come naturally to you on the page? Is humor important to you in works that you read?

I’ve always loved gallows humor—whether in books, theatre, or film & TV—and the kind of rapid-fire, back and forth piss-taking that the characters in this novel engage in with one another was something I grew up around, so I suppose it was always going to play a sizeable role in whatever story I wrote. I love constructing scenes where there’s a tension between the comic and the tragic, and I think that a lot of interesting things can spring from the balancing act. Having said that, I think the danger for me, and something I struggled with in the earliest drafts, was that I would use humor as a crutch—deferring to a comic set piece or machine-gun blast of dialogue when the narrative actually called for a quieter moment of introspection. Enough is as good as a feast when it comes to humor, and it took some time for me to realize that.


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