Debut Author Oisín McKenna on Goblin Parties and Gay Communes

oisin mckenna

“There are guys with soft dicks who are horny as fuck,” writes Oisín McKenna in his debut novel, “and guys with hard dicks who just want to go to sleep.” Evenings and Weekends is the book of the summer, at least according to my sightings of it in the London wild: Soho’s restaurants, Elephant and Castle’s cruisy gyms, bars in the banking district and parks all across town. McKenna was born in Drogheda, an Irish port town he left for London, where he’s partied at circuit nights like Adonis and South London’s raves. He describes himself as shy, though readers wouldn’t know from his novel about a group of young adults fucking and falling apart during one hot, summer weekend in London. “All that I learned about gay sex was through doing it,” he tells me. The book’s sex scenes alternate between poetic and matter of fact—and don’t shy away from brutality. In May, we meet at East End venue Cafe Oto to discuss partying in London, hookups, love, and how gentrification ruins it all.




JOHNATHAN: Your debut, Evenings and Weekends is out now and the last few weeks I’ve seen a lot of young guys reading it and gagging over you because you’re so hot.

MCKENNA: Thank you.

JOHNATHAN: What’s that been like?

MCKENNA: I think I haven’t been aware of the gagging over me because I’m so hot, but it feels nice to have a book that lots of people in my world are reading. I feel very visible, which makes me feel a bit on edge as a shy person, but it’s good to get attention of all kinds.

JOHNATHAN: How have you handled the in-person events you’ve had over the last few weeks, given you’re a shy person?

MCKENNA: I actually find that I can switch into a more gregarious version of myself when in front of an audience. It feels different from writing, but my approach to writing also very much has an element of entertainment. I’m interested in writing books that are pleasing and entertaining, so I can access some of that energy where I’m like, “Okay, I’m going to give you a show.” But also, at a lot of the events I tell the same anecdotes, which feels weird because I’m saying the same thing over and over again and trying to pass it off as charming and off-the-cuff.

JOHNATHAN: But you have experience as a performance artist and you’ve done a lot of theatrical work as well, right?

MCKENNA: Yeah, I used to make what you might call spoken word, but I stopped doing that. Not necessarily because I didn’t like performing. I’ve always got a kick out of performing, because in so many other parts of my life I don’t take up a lot of social space. But I found that I didn’t really like the stylistic conventions that were common across the spoken word world. That’s part of why I decided to write a novel. I’ve got more of an aesthetic and thematic relationship to the format.

JOHNATHAN: One of my favorite lines from the book is when you’re talking about living and partying in London, and it goes, “Not everyone can afford to fuck around in London forever.” Is partying still fun for you here?

MCKENNA: I’m in a sort of contentious place with partying. I haven’t really been partying that much for the past year, partly because publishing a book takes up a lot of time and emotion. And I’m also trying to write a new book, so I haven’t really been able to afford several days of comedown. I’m kind of afraid of it now, but it’s summer, so I do want to party more and work less. I might be going to a party later.

JOHNATHAN: What party?

MCKENNA: It’s this swamp-themed party. I don’t really understand how and why, but it’s in Peckham. I think it’s in somebody’s house, but you can buy tickets on Resident Advisor.

JOHNATHAN: Oh, strange.

MCKENNA: All of their branding is about swamp goblins. I don’t know who they are. I’m going to the swamp party at somebody’s house in Peckham.

JOHNATHAN: What are some of the best parties you’ve been to over the years before the book kind of took that away from you?

MCKENNA: I guess I’m approximate to a few different scenes. I go to Adonis sometimes and move in that East London gay scene, and some of those parties can be really fun, particularly the daytime ones in the summer. But I’m also around a South London art scene, and some of those parties have music that is very dissonant and experimental. There has been a really good carnival afterparty that some people I know have thrown for a couple years beneath a disused Tube underpass in West London, which is very fun.

JOHNATHAN: Any bad ones?

MCKENNA: God, yeah, many. It happens quite often where I get to something and I really, with every fiber of my being, don’t want to be there. And it’s not necessarily the party’s fault. But for me, the thing that makes or breaks it is the music. 

JOHNATHAN: Where did you grow up?

MCKENNA: I’m from just outside a town called Drogheda, which is the biggest port town in Ireland. It’s got a lot of history. There was a famous siege there during the English colonization of Ireland, during which Oliver Cromwell famously massacred a lot of the civilian population of the town. It feels like quite a haunted place in many ways. I’m from a new housing estate just outside the town. I experienced a lot of violence and homophobia there, but when I was growing up there, weirdly, there were a lot of other queer young people. Someone would have heard of a bisexual girl in the girls school, and they’d be like, “You should meet this bisexual girl.” So I would, and then she’d know other people, and then there was kind of a scene. But I was very, very keen to leave. There wasn’t quite enough to nourish me.

JOHNATHAN: You went to an all boys Catholic school, right?

MCKENNA: Yeah. I don’t think people should go to all boys schools. I think they’re bad environments in many ways. 

JOHNATHAN: It’s such a strange concept to me, because there’s no single-sex schools where I come from, and I feel like the presence of girls probably kept us in check in many ways.

MCKENNA: Totally. It’s really common in Ireland. The majority of schools are single sex. Even now, I don’t really like hanging out in groups of just men, even gay guys. I think all-male social environments are weird, and I often feel a bit ill at ease in them.

JOHNATHAN: You began writing the book in 2019. How close do you feel to the material now?

MCKENNA: The conditions of my life have changed in lots of ways. I’m living in quite different circumstances than some of the ones described in the book. One of the characters who’s somewhat like me lives in a warehouse commune situation, which is the situation that I was living in when I started to write the book. The building is still there, but the people have been evicted. It’s being refurbished for something and the social world around that building has changed quite a lot. A lot of the book has to do with the real excitement and pleasure of London in the summer, and now I’ve been here much longer. I’ve been here for seven years now, and when I started writing the book, I wasn’t even here for a year and a half. I’ve settled into a groove here. It feels less urgent to experience a lot of the city within a short space of time. 

JOHNATHAN: Would you say you have fallen out of love with London?

MCKENNA: No, not necessarily. It’s just my enjoyment of it through routine and familiarity has become less overwhelming. 

JOHNATHAN: All your characters want to live more dangerously and more freely. Is that something you saw in your peers?

MCKENNA: I think so. Something that was very common in my circles was people who were interested in living together in non-normative ways for the sake of arranging their lives to suit their needs. So people would have conversations around communal child rearing or people would acquire land or buildings as a big group and live in an extended friend network. There are definitely people who still have that dream, but I think a lot of people settled into the path of least resistance, which is the private couple. I’ve found that as my social circles age, there is this chasm that emerges between those who are in a private couple and are able to acquire property and those who can’t. Part of the book was about that impasse, because when I was younger I used to really worry about feeling reliant on my friend networks as I age.

JOHNATHAN: It’s also a book very preoccupied with sex—heterosexual, homosexual, hand jobs, blow jobs, bottoming, not bottoming, gym hookups, toilet hookups.

MCKENNA: Yes, yes, yes, the whole lot.

JOHNATHAN: Your characters are very much living for the night while trying to survive in a city that’s basically breaking them. How much of that did you live through personally?

MCKENNA: A lot of the book is some abstracted version of things that have happened in my life. The sex stories, a lot of those have some relationship to my own experience in the world, particularly with how violence or trauma can impede enjoyment of sex. There’s also two characters who live in a flat that’s so damp that it’s affected one of their breathing. My breathing wasn’t affected, but in many ways it’s sort of about me and the social world that I’m in.

JOHNATHAN: And I would say the book belongs to a new group of writers here in the UK, like Rose Cleary, for example, that’s addressing some quite serious issues of housing and gentrification and the damage it creates across communities.

MCKENNA: I didn’t really think that I was setting out to write a book about gentrification and housing. I did think deliberately about the need to earn rent creating limits on people’s capacity for pleasure, and the push and pull of trying to have a rich life in the city while also having to earn money to live in often poor conditions. I guess it’s unavoidable if you’re speaking to the conditions of the world that you’re in.

JOHNATHAN: It’s quite class conscious. Various characters have left their small towns behind to build a new life in London. For example, Phil is getting to grips with a particular brand of guilt. How do you feel about your own relationship to class, now with the book being out and all?

MCKENNA: That’s a good question. My life has changed in lots of ways. I’ve been moving in what you might call a cosmopolitan world, and there was a bumpy entry into that. Particularly when I moved to London, I felt very out of my depth culturally and intellectually. I mean, people used different references, people had master’s degrees and PhDs, and I felt very insecure. I felt very sensitive to potential judgment and appearing stupid, and that’s not really the case anymore. In some ways, I engaged in a deliberate project of transforming myself in order to become more compatible with that world. And that’s a complicated thing to do, but it was basically effective.

JOHNATHAN: That’s so interesting. Édouard Louis writes about that a lot, how he had to reinvent himself.

MCKENNA: Yeah, his work definitely resonates with me. And financially, I feel less precarious now. 

JOHNATHAN: I want to talk about one of the embarrassing scenes in the book where Steve, the dad, talks to Phil, his son, about whether he knows what a condom is. Did your parents ever give you the talk?

MCKENNA: There were probably a few versions of it. As I remember it, they explained sex from a reproductive standpoint, and it was very much based on the idea that sex is between a man and a woman. It’s something that they do when they’re in love, and it’s something that they do for reproductive purposes. Then when I was a teenager, I remember my dad asking me if I knew what a condom was. Actually, all that I learned about gay sex was through doing it. I didn’t really know anything about it before. But I was quite young. I had a boyfriend at 15, and as early sexual experiences go, it was quite a good, safe environment. I was really lucky in that sense.

JOHNATHAN: What does he have to say about this book?

MCKENNA: My ex? He actually came to an event I did in Liverpool the other week. He’s really supportive. He’s a poet. His name is Ciarán Hodgers. He’s a lovely, lovely guy. 

JOHNATHAN: And what was your parents’ response to the book?

MCKENNA: They’ve been really supportive and positive. We haven’t really spoken about the explicit stuff. I think, because some of the explicit content describes violent or scary situations, that was worrying for my mother.

JOHNATHAN: There’s some quite disturbing things in your book. The rape scene was nauseating. What was it like writing it?

MCKENNA: It actually sometimes doesn’t matter whether the scene is distressing or not if I’ve described it well. It didn’t take very long to write, and there was something pleasing about writing it, because I thought it was good even though I was recounting something distressing.

JOHNATHAN: And on the other side of the spectrum, there’s quite a lot of romance. Do you consider yourself a romantic?

MCKENNA: Yeah, I’m a Cancer. I really like being in long, nurturing relationships. I’m not quite sentimental, but I’m serious about love and care.

JOHNATHAN: Okay. So, rapid fire, fuck, marry, kill. Colin Farrell, Paul Mescal and Barry Keoghan. 

MCKENNA: Well, fuck Colin Farrell and marry Paul Mescal. I don’t want to kill Barry Keoghan, but if those are the parameters of the game, I guess I’m left with no choice.

JOHNATHAN: Throuples or threesomes?

MCKENNA: Threesomes.

JOHNATHAN: Grindr or Sniffies?

MCKENNA: What’s the second one? It’s an app?


MCKENNA: I guess Grindr, because I’ve never used the other one.

JOHNATHAN: And what are you working on now?

MCKENNA: I’m working on a new book, which is also a kind of ensemble cast set in London. It’s got some sad, dark themes, which I’m trying to explore with kindness and compassion and humor.

JOHNATHAN: Amazing. Well, I guess you have to rush up and start getting ready for the Goblin King to perform at the ball.

MCKENNA: Yes. I need to put on my best goblin cosplay.