Karl Geary left school at 16 and jumped on a plane to New York. He blagged his way through immigration by inventing a fake uncle, and incredibly, he survived. He went on to build careers as an actor, screenwriter and novelist. Now based in Glasgow, Karl returned to his native city to drop by The Ryan Tubridy Show and talk about his new novel Juno Loves Legs.
The book tells the story of a tender, platonic friendship between two struggling teenagers. Ryan says it reminds him of the work of the film director Ken Loach, a comparison Karl says he's delighted with. Karl played Seán in the 2014 film Jimmy’s Hall and he’s happy to be mentioned in the same breath as Loach:
"There’s something else Ken does, and I hope I’ve included it. There’s a lot of humanity, a lot of humour and a lot of warmth. There’s this steely compassion for people. It’s not casual, you know, not in a wishy-washy way. It’s a real desire for people to have the basic things they need; to feel safe, to be educated, to get medical help when they need it, to have a home, to have a roof over your head."
Karl says Juno Loves Legs is not a story about homelessness as such, but it does feature in the book; as the character Juno is homeless at one point. Karl describes his own period of homelessness in the 1980’s. He says the place in New York where he was living became dangerous and he slept on the streets for two months. Karl says it’s crazy that we still blame people for being in a vulnerable situation:
"It’s dangerous. It’s really dangerous. It’s freezing cold. But more than that, it’s this sense of shame. We’ve now placed shame on people, almost as if it’s a moral failing to be poor now. We should remind ourselves, 90% of the world is poor. It’s not all their fault. You have to look at it from a systemic point of view."
As well as blaming people for being poor, Karl also thinks it’s a myth that people succeed by their own efforts alone. Karl says that we all need some luck and some help. He was lucky enough to know Shane Doyle, founder of New York’s legendary Sin É music venue, who got him a place to stay:
"There’s this other notion that we pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and it’s not true – we get help. I was helped. Shane was the one who kind of stepped in and I don’t think he realised what my situation was and he’s like 'I got a spot, you’re good.’ And that breath of fresh air, just for a second, to feel like, hope. And you’re safe."
How we have got to the point in Ireland where so many people are homeless is down to bad leadership, Karl says:
"We’ve had bad ‘parents’. We had colonialism, then we’d Catholicism and now we have corporatism. I am not convinced that any of them have our best interests at heart. It doesn’t seem so."
Speaking of Catholicism, Ryan raised a powerful scene from Karl’s book, in which a nun behaves with great cruelty to a young boy. Karl says his book touches on the humanity of all the characters, even the ones who abuse their power:
"It’s funny, the one thing I have is a lot of compassion for that nun, through Juno’s eyes. And she adores her and she really wants to be seen by her. But what happened to that woman? What is her story? The Sister. Rather than just throwing people under the bus and saying they are all bad people, it’s too easy to say that."
Karl says the core of the book is a deep friendship between two young people:
"Really, what I wanted to do was create a platonic love affair. A really sensitive and gentle love affair between two people that would otherwise be outcasts. There’s this scene early on, where Juno defends Legs for the first time and it’s this tiny little act of courage and it changes the trajectory of their entire lives."
Karl talks about how his dyslexia and how it was one of the reasons school didn’t work out for him and why he left. He says that now, as a writer, he feels he has some catching up to do because he’s never been to university. He’s enjoying the process and says reading is addictive:
"You are aware of these blind spots and you are always looking to fill them and you almost overcompensate in some ways. But what was great about it was, You would find a book and then that would lead you to another, and another, and then you just follow along."
And as a constant reader, Karl relishes the fact that public libraries still exist all over the world:
"It’s also the last space that you can spend time in, in any city in the world and there’s no commodity. It’s free. There’s no commerce, there’s no commodity. It’s a space you can go and learn and just take a breath."
Karl talks more about his writing, his life in the New York arts and music scene and what he loves about his adopted city of Glasgow in the full chat with Ryan here.
Juno Loves Legs by Karl Geary is published by Harvill Secker.