WITH HIS SOFTLY spoken, spare sentences and long pauses, it's easy to see why Neil Jordan has been labelled taciturn. Mention his success as a leading director of films such as The Crying Game, Interview with the Vampire and Michael Collins, or his new novel, Shade, and the phone line goes quiet, before he replies: 'There's a large element of luck involved in writing and in filmmaking. Sometimes you get lucky. Sometimes you don't.' His answers warm to an almost conversational level (he even laughs) when asked why he returned to fiction a decade after his last novel, only to offer another of the gloomy genre-mixing stories that have typified his career. 'I don't know why I do that, but I do,' he says. 'Some day, I'll write about happiness. It's just harder because the one thing you can say about unhappiness, and tangled emotions and tangled desires is that they lead to great complexity. Simple happy and fully expressed ones just lead to simple happiness, I presume. I've never experienced quite that simple happiness.' The structure of Shade is filmic, yet it's 'a very old-fashioned novel', says Jordan. Set on an estate in Ireland's Boyne Estuary, it opens with the murder by decapitation of Nina Hardy, a famous actress. The killer, George, is named at the outset. Nina's body is dumped in a septic tank, where her ghost looks back at her childhood. Born to well-to-do Anglo-Irish parents, Nina is an intensely lonely child who invents imaginary companions - until she meets Jane and George. As family secrets come to light, Nina's half-brother Gregory becomes the fourth member of this gang, who grow up inseparable until the first world war. Shade crosses to the battle at Gallipoli and the nascent British silent film industry, as it charts its characters' painful passage to adulthood, their tragically misplaced affections and Nina's death. Jordan says he wanted to write an old-fashioned Gothic novel. 'It came from the simple idea of a woman who was murdered. As a child she'd always been haunted by a ghost, and when she was murdered she became the ghost of her old self. 'When I began to write it I thought, 'Oh, this is interesting', because you've got a subjective narrator and you've also got an omniscient one at the same time, and they're in the same person. It seemed almost like she was the perfect narrator. 'Of course, you could fall flat on your face, but you don't know,' he says. 'It's very easy to begin things, but it's very difficult to develop them, and you don't know how fruitful a beginning will be. In this case, it was kind of lucky. As I began to write, this woman's voice began to emerge as a very distinctive voice, and I found it just wonderfully pleasurable to write, to explore this refined, slightly self-conscious theatrical and kind of elegiac voice, and that led me through it.' Shade's take on childhood loneliness and suffering begs questions of his own. 'I don't think we ever fully emerge from childhood,' he says. 'I know writers don't. Definitely, I know I haven't. But when it comes down to it, I've never really remembered or examined my own childhood. I'll have to do that someday. I've always created others. But I don't think you are aware of how much you see, how much you think when you're a child. 'In this book, I was very conscious of that fact for some reason, and that for these people adulthood was almost a terrible state. I don't know why, but none of the characters had any children, and they grew up into a world that was cold, and, in different ways, they never recovered.' One of the joys in writing the novel, says Jordan, is immersing himself in memoirs and diaries from the early 1900s. 'The more I began to explore, the more stuff turned up.' His research revealed that, for many people around the Boyne at that time, Ireland's war of independence and civil war was almost a non-event, which is reflected in Shade. 'You would expect that the politics of nationalism would intrude in these characters' friendship, because both sets of siblings were from different ends of the social stratum. But when I began to read memoirs and diaries it was odd how little intrusion that made in their life. So that was quite refreshing.' Jordan grew up as Ireland was still dealing with those wars. He describes his homeland then as 'very grey and very uniform. It was definitely racially uniform. There was censorship of books. The movies they got in were generally very tame, and immigration was written into the constitution almost. Every young person had to leave.' Jordan left when he was in his early 20s, in the 1970s, and began writing his first stories in London. 'I had to set up a publishing firm at the time, called the Irish Writers Co-operative, because no Irish books were being published. So, even to make your first movie in that kind of environment was alarming. I don't even know how I did it.' When he did get his first film, Angel, on the screen, it prompted protests and the 'kind of fuss, that seems to be de rigueur in Irish life every now and then'. After two decades of filmmaking and writing books back to back - winning an Oscar for best screenplay for The Crying Game - the two art forms 'kind of go hand in hand for me. When I was making The Company of Wolves and Mona Lisa, I was writing a novel called The Dream of a Beast. Then, when I did Interview with the Vampire, I published Sunrise with Sea Monster. 'I've kind of realised that, for the films I make to be any good, they have to be informed by something else, as well,' he says. 'But I have to find a way of continuing to write as I'm making film because I don't want as long a gap [between novels] to happen again.' He's working on two new films, including a big budget Hollywood movie, and a smaller Irish adaptation of Patrick McCabe's Booker Prize short-listed novel Breakfast on Pluto. 'It will be quite a savage portrait of the 1980s in Ireland,' says Jordan, who believes Irish culture has gone off the boil in recent years amid the country's economic boom. 'I mean, what happens when you allow contemporary globalised economics to become the culture?' he asks, describing Irish cinema audiences as 'distressingly adolescent'. Not that anything can diminish the 'tremendous energy in Irish writing', he says. 'That's one thing that has never vanished from the landscape.'