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April 29, 2024 16 min read

“I think of [the book] as writing in a major key, but I also wanted it to be deep and complicated and compassionate”:Oisín McKenna talks debut novel Evenings & Weekends and shares extract. 


Bathroom sex, a record-breaking heatwave, relationship turmoil and a cancer diagnosis – the Irish writer tells the story of a weekend like no other.





There’s a whale in The Thames. Transpiring on the first page of Oisín McKenna’s Evenings & Weekends, it’s an event echoing a fabled real-life 2006 incident in the capital, in which a five metre-long, 12-tonne disorientated northern bottlenose was found making its way up the aquatic avenue of central London.

Said mammal in McKenna’s fictional account is the same species and of the same body mass proportions as 2006’s affectionately-known Willy, however, McKenna’s, set in 2019, is an unmistakably modern-day retelling. For one, paradoxically, because of the presence of Diana, Princess of Wales—or at least a marine biologist bearing a strong resemblance to the late royal. Imparting insights on the incident on TV news, the unsuspecting professional, burdened with the task of returning the animal to its rightful home, finds herself at the centre of a supplementary viral maelstrom as the internet loses its mind at the fact she’s a carbon copy of Lady Di’. Catnip for conspiracy theorists—maybe the princess didn’t in fact pass away and has been living stealthily as a marine biologist all along, they pose.

Another differentiator between the two incidents is that Willy was adrift in January, but her fictional counterpart floats along in summer. And not just on any balmy day, but one of the hottest June weekends on record. The kind of climes London’s become acquainted with in recent years, a discombobulating heat that at once feels like an emergency and like winning a complementary tropical holiday on your doorstep.

Such searing heat makes the textures of life taut. Whatever sensation preexists—the mere exhilaration of the metropolis, the ecstasy of sex, the callousness of a cancer diagnosis or the precarity of an unplanned pregnancy—modulates to a sharper key. And, it’s the optimal backdrop for McKenna’s account of a transformative weekend in the capital for his core cast of characters. There’s Maggie, a skint 30-year-old art graduate, pregnant and about to swap her Dalston flat for the family-orientated, affordable pastures of Basildon. Her partner Ed, a bike courier, is devoted to her and their new life but encumbered by a secret past with her best pal, Phil. Warehouse-commune-residing Phil savours both the weekends, due to his mind-numbing 9-5, and intimacy with his housemate, for whom he’s fallen, despite the fact the man’s in a relationship. However, meteoric personal news awaits him when his mum, Irish immigrant Rosaleen, makes her way to London to inform him of her cancer diagnosis.

It’s a book five years in the making for Ireland-hailing, London-based McKenna as the award-winning spoken word artist translates his magnetic storytelling into novel dimensions for the first time. Combining the indulgence of a literary soap opera, radical reflections on community, relationships and queerness, zeitgeisty observations and the unparalleled zest and urgency of London life—Evenings & Weekends makes for a star-making moment and an electric page-turner.

The writer talks living for evenings and weekends, how his rural Irish roots informed his account of city life, his exploration of gay experience in the novel and those genius Lady Di’ references, below…




Andrew Wright:Hi Oisín! Massive congratulations on Evenings & Weekends. As your debut novel, can you describe the cocktail of emotions you’re feeling as you approach release?
Oisín McKenna: Thanks! I feel excited and happy and nervous and stressed and many other things. I started writing the book five years ago now, so my relationship to it has changed and it doesn’t speak quite so closely to the conditions of my life as it once did, but I still look on it with a lot of affection. I’m pleased that people will get to read it and hope readers are going to take some pleasure in it. In some ways, I’m trying not to think of it so much and just focus on the daily experience of writing my next book which feels like the most calming and grounding thing I can do at the moment.

AW: Is living for evenings and weekends something you’ve identified with as a young creative in London?
OM: Yes, sort of! For most of the past ten years, I’ve worked full-time in many different day jobs while basically double-jobbing as a full-time writer and artist. This has usually meant working twelve-hour days and not taking weekends off. For a long time, that was my number one goal and the metric by which I thought I’d measure any success—to earn enough money from writing so that I’d actually be able to clock off at 6 pm and not work on Saturdays and Sundays. Part of what I wanted to talk about with this book is how pleasurable and exciting and juicy a weekend can be when you don’t have to work. I wanted to talk about the expanded sense of what a life can be when you don’t have to dedicate all your time to making money. Sometimes my evenings and weekends have been like that—times when a different version of myself and my life comes briefly into view before receding again on Monday. I guess I’ve always wanted a life in which those horizons recede less and less often.

AW: The book brims with dramatic tension, relatable humanity and engaging cultural references to metropolitan life. It’s been compared, in part, to a Richard Curtis film. But it’s also suffused with radical coverage of issues spanning class to the queer experience. Can you tell me more about the choice to marry those strands together in the project?
OM: I wanted to write a book that was pleasurable to read. I think of it as writing in a major key, like a big pop song. I was interested in writing something that moved people, that made them laugh, that was propulsive and gossipy and hard to put down and that was serious about giving readers a good time. In a sense, I wanted it to be a book that many different kinds of people would find easy to read, but I also wanted it to be deep and complicated and compassionate without being corny and political without being didactic. I didn’t want to compromise on intellectual and artistic integrity, emotional complexity and stylistic boldness, but I wanted to speak to large audiences and appeal to both radical and populist sensibilities. I think the fact that the book is in conversation with both subcultural and mainstream traditions is also just a reflection of my tastes and isn’t an entirely calculated move to bring radical ideas to a mass-market audience. I read a lot of experimental fiction and critical theory, I’m interested in social history and architecture, but I also love pop music and popular TV and film, and I think the book is a reflection of those varying tastes.

AW: You’ve been compared to Zadie Smith who covered life in London so deftly in NW! How does it feel to be referred to alongside her?
OM:Truly the most flattering compliment I could ask for! The two writers who have influenced me the most are Zadie Smith and Virginia Woolf, and when I started writing this book, NW was the big reference point. I admire so much the way she talks about London, class, long friendship, how the rhythms of the city converse with the rhythms of a person’s internal emotional life, and so much of what I’ve learned and tried to emulate in my own writing comes from reading her.

AW:You grew up in Drogheda, Ireland which is, of course, a very different setting to the London life depicted in Evenings & Weekends. How did your childhood surroundings inform the writer you are today?
OM:I was an extremely gay and generally gender-non-conforming child in a macho and conservative environment. I went to all-boys Catholic schools all through my education—most state schools in Ireland are single-sex and religious—and I spent a long time feeling ill at ease and very shy and quite afraid. I think this discomfort and shyness informs my writing from a thematic perspective—a lot of what I write about is the discrepancy between a person’s vividly detailed inner life and the paucity of means they have to express it out loud.

AW: The book features a particularly rich portrayal of close friendship between Maggie and Phil, a gay man and straight woman. Why was it important for you to document such a relationship in the novel?
OM:Most of my most formative friendships have been women, both straight and queer. These friendships have been gorgeous and supportive, and in many ways, are what has made my life possible and happy. But they’re not always straightforward either. They can be competitive, they can be fraught with envy and suspicion and there can be misunderstandings. I didn’t think I’d seen this kind of friendship explored in much depth or nuance before. Usually, a gay man is presented as a two-dimensional accessory to a straight woman’s story, or vice versa. I was interested in telling a story in which both parties were allowed to be equally complex and fully formed.



AW:The one older main character in the book is Rosaleen. How did you find stepping into the mindset of someone in a period of life you’ve not experienced yet?
OM: I didn’t plan on writing that character at all. It began as a writing exercise when developing Phil’s character and playing with his backstory, but as soon as I started writing about Rosaleen, I realised that I had so much I wanted to say about her. I suppose I’ve had close relationships with a number of people like her and have spent a lot of time thinking about them, so the character felt very vivid to me. In many ways, she’s the character whose personality is most similar to my own—she’s shy, she’s ill at ease in her body, she feels a real regret at having not said all the things she means to say. We’re both Irish migrants with a complicated relationship to both Ireland and the UK. Most of the things she thinks and feels are things that I think and feel too, and there are so many key passages about her which began life in my own journal, describing my own desires and dreams and fears. The other character whose story clearly maps onto my own is Phil, whose storyline is characterised by deep and painful misunderstandings with Rosaleen, his mother. I suppose by writing about Rosaleen’s inner life as similar to my own inner life, I was attempting to cultivate a love and tenderness between the two, showing how similar they are despite their difficulties in expressing those similarities.

AW:The depiction of life as a young gay man in London is also very vivid. What do you hope gay men reading the book might take away from it in particular?
OM:I think the element of gay experience that I was most interested in exploring in this novel was to do with relationship to bodies. Not necessarily in terms of body image (although that’s there too) but more so about feeling a sense of ease and comfort and ownership. Growing up, I certainly experienced a fair amount of violence and bullying over being gay, which over time required me to check out of my body altogether, to feel almost as if I didn’t have a body, or at least not a body I could inhabit with any sort of fluency or comfort. This hasn’t been straightforwardly bad, in the sense that having a contentious relationship with my body has pushed me further into my mind which has made me somewhat verbose, observant of detail and prone to narrating my surroundings. But it’s impacted my experience of sex, among other things, in ways which are difficult and painful. I think this is an experience which is not uncommon to gay men, and I hope the book might provide some useful insight.

AW: On a lighthearted note, I loved the Lady Di’ references. Tell us about the moment you coined the idea to add that in!
OM: Thanks! That bit was fun to write. This element of the story came fairly late in the development of the book. The marine biologist character had existed for ages, as well as the fact that she would become a viral sensation, but at a certain point, my editor suggested that it didn’t make sense that she became a viral sensation, because there wasn’t actually anything remarkable or newsworthy about her. So I started watching other famously iconic TV interviews to figure out exactly what had made them so captivating, and of course, Lady Di’s 1995 interview with Martin Bashir was a classic of the genre. After watching it, I thought maybe the marine biologist could simply resemble her, and talk like her and that that would make her sufficiently attractive to the kind of people who make memes on Instagram. I tried it out and it seemed to work.  

AW:Prior to Evenings & Weekends, you won plaudits for your spoken word. Do you feel like a novel was always something you had in you? Now you’ve ticked one off, do you think you’d like to maintain your focus on writing more books? Or is there more spoken word on the way?
OM: I always wanted to write novels but in many ways, spoken word felt like an easier and more accessible way to get work in front of an audience quickly and regularly. Writing a book takes way longer and is much more administratively complex. My main focus now is still on writing books, and I’m well into writing the second one. I do miss performing though, and there’s a certain kick I get out of engaging with an audience face to face, and I’d like to do more soon too.
AW: Finally, what is your favourite weekend you’ve ever spent in London?
OM: My favourite weekends are often those that cover big geographical expanses of the city, lots of different people and lots of different activities. One that stands out in my memory was early March 2020, just a few weeks before the first lockdown. I was living in Bermondsey at that time, and that afternoon, I travelled to a day party in Clapton, then back to Bermondsey, then to a birthday in Surbiton, then to Adonis, which at that time was in The Cause in Tottenham, then to Dalston, before back to Bermondsey again the next day. It’s not even that anything in particular happened, but I loved feeling like a part of the city, loved seeing so many friends and having so many conversations, and I remember having this strong feeling that I was smack in the middle of the best time in my life. I basically felt very vivacious. In the taxi between Tottenham and Dalston, the radio was and there was a news story about lockdowns in Italy, which would come to the UK in only a matter of weeks. So I had a feeling that I was in the best time in my life, but also, that it was on the verge of ending, which in some ways made it feel even more precious and urgent.

Evenings & Weekends, the debut novel from Oisín McKenna, releases May 9th. Read an exclusive extract from Evenings & Weekends, below, now...




Every day, Phil types ‘Hello, I hope this email finds you well’ multiple times before 10am. He opens, but doesn’t read, various tabs, Word docs, PDFs. Every day, he makes a to-do list. Every day, he meets with the team. Every day, he says: I’ll give you an update on the projects I’ve been working on. He explains: It’s a quick rundown of the actionables and measurables. We’re on track to meet our Q3 KPIs, which were devised in line with our mission, goals, aims, and objectives. As a result of our interventions, the majority of our respondents said that they felt more connected now than they did when the interventions were commenced, and six out of ten experienced a sense of wellbeing, wellness, good mental health, or contentment, on at least one additional occasion per fortnight. He pauses, sombrely, after select phrases. He gesticulates, casually, and smiles like a person smiles at their buddies.

Before work every day, Phil goes to the gym. His face contorts. His forehead dribbles with sweat. He lowers himself down for the final rep – his muscles buckling under the weight – clenches his jaw, drives back up, and places the barbell back on its rack with a crash.

He once messaged Maggie, ‘all I want is a corbyn government and a massive ass!!’
She replied, ‘ah! The two great dreams of our time!’

Every day, he browses the Instagram pages of professionally hot men, always on holidays, in Mykonos, in Sitges, in tiny speedos, with tattooed legs, heads shaved not because they are balding but because it accentuates their conventionally handsome bone structures. He understands that he is being duped by the forces of capitalist advertising but can’t help but speculate that if he looked like those men, then he too might always be on holidays, unconcerned about money, free, happy, in peak emotional and physical condition, in a state of total enjoyment for the rest of his life. He can’t afford to go to Sitges or Mykonos, but clings to the more modest dream of being pictured in his speedos at the men’s pond on Hampstead Heath. That’s the extent of the fantasy: first to be seen, then, to be envied and over the past months, he’s reduced his food intake to such a degree that he often feels dizzy.

Every day, he rushes through Liverpool Street Station to get a westbound Central Line, and glances at the weight loss ad above the escalators; a before picture of a man with a belly spilling over his lycra shorts, an after picture of the same man, now with ripped pecs and abs. According to the ad, this could be you in just six weeks. It’s been there since Phil first moved to London a decade ago, and he often gazes at the man’s bulging veins, visible from the top deck of the 149 like the Great Wall of China is visible from space.

He’s unleashed from the meeting at 6pm and is about to leave when Alan asks what he’s up to for the weekend. Phil explains that there’s a party happening in the place that he lives, and Alan, a glint in his eye, takes this as a cue to wistfully recount his early-to-mid nineties halcyon days, when he was nearly never not high at an acid house rave.

‘Best years of my life,’ he says. ‘You must be getting up to all sorts at those parties.’
Alan winks, apparently trying to draw Phil into a sort of complicity.
‘I suppose so,’ says Phil, pretending to laugh, but not sure what the joke is.
‘Hey, I know what it’s like. I know what people get up to.’

Alan taps his nose. He holds one nostril shut and snorts a line of imaginary cocaine. Phil nods and smiles, picking up on the hint – Alan is trying to let Phil know that he too has done drugs, and therefore, is cool. Phil cringes for them both, while Alan says, ‘I’m only joking. Those days are behind me. I’ve three kids now, a marriage, a divorce. Lost my hair, and the clubs from back then are shut now anyway. Enjoy it, kid. It doesn’t last long!’
Phil pretends to laugh again.

Then, he hastily wishes Alan well for the weekend, and practically skips down the stairs and out the door, relieved to be away from him, and from the work week in general.
Outside, it scorches. A flurry of party-planning texts in the house group chat, excitement stacking on top of itself. Debs decides against the Theresa May dress: she’s going to Oxfam to find something else and is leaving in fifteen minutes if anyone wants to join.

Phil rolls up his sleeves, pops open his shirt buttons, and untangles his earphones. He jams them into his ears and opens Spotify, keen for something to soundtrack his walk to the station. Something ecstatic, cathartic, romantic, blissful. Something to encapsulate his life at this precise moment in time. At this precise moment in time, he is a young person in the city, finished work for the weekend, and on his way to have sex with a man he adores. What phenomenal luck! What greater pleasure! What deeper joy can this life provide?

Annoyingly, his phone won’t connect to 4G, so his euphoric post-work strut down the street is largely soiled by having to open and close Spotify multiple times in the hope that when he next presses ‘play’ the music will stream forth into his ears, which it doesn’t.  

Well, nevermind: there are a dozen things to occupy his thoughts. Who will he see at the party? What will he wear? Maggie recently asked him to describe his personal style in two words. Action Man, he said. Wait, no: Bruce Springsteen. Masculinity feels like dress-up: he grows out his facial hair and feels like a sort of drag king. Last time he went to Keith’s allotment, Jacinta laughed, exclaiming: you look like a mountaineer! and Phil practically shuddered in pleasure. Mountaineer, he thought. That’s exactly what I’m going for.

Without music, he’ll listen to the city instead. He listens to the road rage of the drivers who impotently beep and beep again, the clatter of drills in the building sites, and in the pause between drilling, the blissful blast of a Top 40 banger that belts from a car window.
A piece of grit flies into his eye; the sweat in his armpit prickles; his work clothes really are too hot for this weather. The air is so thick that his breathing feels strained, and he’s just reached the station when he notices a message from Keith. Hello gorgeous. I’m sorry to do this but something has come up and I’m gonna need to postpone until a little later in the evening. Not sure what time yet but I’ll text when I’m free. Hope you’ve had an ok day xx
Phil sighs audibly and mumbles, ‘For fuck’s sake.’
It’s no big surprise.

Phil’s relationship to Keith could typically be described like this: housemate whose dick he occasionally sucks when they both happen to be drunk, horny, and at the same location. Until recently, these conditions arose only occasionally, and they agreed it was better that way; Phil and Keith are good friends and had no wish to spoil their friendship by introducing troublesome obligations to each other. But for the past month or so – really since the heatwave began – they have spent most nights together. They have said things like ‘you make my life better,’ and ‘I’m obsessed with you,’ and they often bail on their friends to stay in bed and show each other clips of their favourite Stevie Nicks performances on YouTube.

But still, Keith is in an open relationship with Louis, a proper boyfriend, so wouldn’t be available even if Phil did want to get serious, which, as it happens, he doesn’t. Phil insists that at twenty-eight, he’s smack in the middle of the best time in his life and has no desire to limit its horizons by getting too attached. All he wants is to roll onto his front, let Keith climb on top, and gnaw lightly on his tightly clenched fist until pain turns pleasurable. Is that too much to ask? he wonders as he descends the station escalator. Is that not a fair thing to want?

Admittedly, yes, Phil has only been fucked by Keith once – the rest of their encounters made up of drunken fumbles and oral sex – and before that, he hadn’t been fucked in years, not since one particularly bad night in Burgess Park. His body and mind are shy. They shut down on the precipice of deep and vivid feeling. When faced with something hot, unknown, frightening, desirable, his body and mind try to reject it no matter how much it would improve his life and love and happiness to have it. All of which is to say: Phil has a problematic relationship to bottoming. When anyone has tried to fuck him in the past nine years, his body has entered a state of alert, in pain before even being touched. After sex, he becomes sad and ashamed, wanting to wipe the cum from his chest hair straight away, fish around the side of the mattress for his pants, and sleep in his own bed by himself. His body acts as if it were automated, inanimate, his relationship to his own sex life that of an external narrator. But with Keith, things are different. Keith has yanked Phil’s consciousness out of his mind and placed it back in his shuddering body. Keith, in short, makes Phil feel real.
He shoves himself onto a rush hour train to make his way back east.

Interview and extract taken from Man About Town Spring/Summer 2024

Photography by David Evans


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