Armagh-born actor and writer Michael Hughes writes for Culture about his acclaimed new novel, Country, which reimagines Homer's Iliad amidst the Northern Ireland conflict - read an extract from Country here.


Country is the second novel I’ve published, but it’s actually the fourth I’ve written. Looking back, I probably dodged a bullet with the first one, since I find plenty of it embarrassing to remember, though I did learn a lot about how to write a book. But clearly not enough to avoid another misfire, a semi-autobiographical follow-up that just never came together.

It morphed instead into this new one, my second attempt to find a way to write something about the Northern Ireland conflict, the backdrop to my whole childhood. But this time, there was one element of the process I found unexpectedly unsettling. As I wrote, I had no idea what the book would be called.

In the past, a title has presented itself to me quite early, and then I cling onto it like a kind of anchor, a frame holding the ideas together. It starts acting as a touchstone, a talisman that helps the book find its own particular quiddity. It somehow defines the feel of the whole enterprise.

And of course, I’m always aware it’s the first clue for the reader to what they’ll find inside. The title of my other published novel, The Countenance Divine, should suggest something otherworldly and ancient. Literally, it means "the face of God", a mysterious notion in itself.

And if that title sounds half-familiar, that’s because it’s a phrase from the William Blake poem best known as the words to the hymn – and rugby anthem – Jerusalem, whose lines are full of strange images of apocalyptic conflict. All that gives exactly the flavour I wanted for the book. The choice of title even influenced a couple of key story decisions.

But this time, I drew a blank. In fact, that’s not quite true. My original idea was to call the novel Fury. It’s the opening word of the first chapter, and chosen quite deliberately. The first word of the Iliad, the Trojan War epic that gives my novel its structure, is an ancient Greek equivalent, though often translated as "wrath" rather than "anger", because the word in question is normally used only of the gods.

In the past, a title has presented itself to me quite early, and then I cling onto it like a kind of anchor, a frame holding the ideas together.

But when I mentioned it to my editor, he shook his head. ‘The Brad Pitt film,’ he said, and of course he was right. Search for that title on Amazon, and the movie will always come up first. Unnecessary confusion. They’ll go off and buy something else. I probably would too. Back to square one.

My next bright idea was Ichor, the Greek word for the clear fluid that runs in the veins of the gods instead of blood. One of my unexpected discoveries as I read my way into and around the Iliad is that the Greek gods aren’t really gods in the familiar Judeo-Christian manner. What they are is immortals.

Yes, they’re enormously big, and yes, they have supernatural powers – but so do some of the mortals. The key difference between them as us is that they can’t die, a fact which quickly explains the strangely slapstick quality of any violence they get involved in. Cut them, and they bleed this pale fluid, but they soon heal. By comparison with the human characters, nothing very much is ever at stake.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is a pretty stupid name for a movie. Star Wars is cringeworthy. At the end of the day, did it really matter?

So to amuse themselves for eternity, they play out their own little rivalries and vendettas, manipulating the lives of the warriors on the ground to further their own agendas. In my novel, the gods are roughly equivalent to the politicians on both sides, choosing the fates of the soldiers whose lives they hold in the scales, but never putting themselves in the same kind of mortal danger. This was always an idea I wanted to explore, and the title seemed a good place to hint at it first.

But I knew pretty soon Ichor wasn’t right. The word itself was too obscure. It suggested something abstruse and esoteric, which I definitely hoped this book would not be. Back to the drawing board.

Lists of titles went back and forth between my editor and agent. Blood Fury. Trigger Man. The Soldier’s Song. War Song. North. Either they’d been used before, or they sounded too much like the kind of book this just wasn’t. Nothing was sticking. The book was coming together, but I still felt this peculiar blankness at its centre.

I tried to console myself. Lots of great books have terrible titles, right? What about A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man? That one should never have made it out of the pub. Films too.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is a pretty stupid name for a movie. Star Wars is cringeworthy. At the end of the day, did it really matter?

As I submitted the first draft, my latest offer was Country, but by that stage I was snowblind. It didn’t feel any more right than the others. And I was worried it might come over as too romantically nationalistic – not at all my own feelings on the subject matter, though it certainly fit how many of the characters saw themselves and their purpose in the conflict.

The decision was made for me: my agent and editor both loved it. But surely someone had used it before? I checked on Amazon, and found a Danielle Steele with the same title, not to mention a whole genre of music – but even that is in keeping with the time and place it’s set: round the border, in the mid 90s. Otherwise, it was up for grabs.

Now, it’s hard to imagine it being called anything else. I’ve long since stopped hearing the word, and it’s just become the title of my book. I hope it draws you in, and makes you wonder, and gives you a hint of what you’ll find inside. And next time, I hope I can trap a good one early, to save me going through all that again. There’s enough to worry about in writing a book, without wasting hours fretting about what to put on the title page.

Country (published by John Murray) is in bookshops now. Michael Hughes is in conversation at The Market Place & Arts Centre, Armagh on July 27th - details here.