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Meet the WritersImage of Jamie O'Neill
Jamie O'Neill
Good to Know
In our interview with O'Neill, he shared some great stories about his personal appearances and readings:

"I once walked out of a public reading. It was in Australia and I'd been invited to read from At Swim, Two Boys at some Irish club or other. The usual emigré business. I arrived, to be informed that the proprietors had decided my book was "not fit stuff to be read on the premises." Instead, the restaurant across the road had been reserved, they were all going to eat there, I was welcome to join them, and could read afterwards from my table. Well, I'd come all this way, so I trooped along. And I was looking at these faces, the flushed complexions and dwindled eyes as the bottles were lavishly attacked. These people weren't here for literature at all. They really thought they'd be titillated by hearing some dirty queer words read in an Irish accent. So halfway through, I've had enough of this. I rap on the table. Ladies and gentlemen,' says I. Clash of cutlery, confused silence. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, my book is about love and courage, and the search in young hearts for nobility and pride. There's none of that here -- so I'm leaving.' And out I walked.

Generally, though, readings are great fun. And they can be genuinely enlightening. I was reading in Toronto last year, in the big library there (I should say now that At Swim, Two Boys culminates in the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916). Well, there was a big crowd, appreciative audience, curious, listening. We had a great Q & A afterwards, with intelligent, searching questions. After an hour and a half of this, I began to think we had my book nicely wrapped up. Then, just at the end, this hesitant hand pokes up at the back. "I was just wondering," says its owner, ‘what is this Rising thing anyway?' And everyone turns and says, ‘Yeah, I was wondering about that too.' And you realize how small, how insignificant is your tiny country's big history.

The first reading I ever gave was the first I had ever attended (it had never occurred to me that people would go willingly to such things). It was in some small arts centre down in County Cork. I arrived hours early, nervously wanting to check out the place, the microphones, the lights. ‘You see,' I explained to the director, ‘this is the first time I've ever read to an audience.' I was expecting some calming words, a pat on the shoulder, a ‘you'll be fine.' Instead, the director, a returned Canadian, puts his hand to his mouth and bawls down the corridor: ‘Hey, we got ourselves a virgin!'

In Philadelphia, I don't know what it was, but the audience seemed to have mistook the Free Library for a church. I had never read to such a stony silence. ‘Look,' I said, after I'd finished a passage: ‘you could at least cough.'

But my most favoured memory is of a reading at Concordia University in Montreal. I stood on the podium and looked out on the faces. Generations of Irish faces, the high complexion of the men, that particular kink of the women's hair (those are some genes, I tell you). In the front row sat a priest, suited and collared. On his left, a lesbian couple. On his right, two gay men growing old together. Students, teachers; the university GLBT society. And I thought to myself, what a privilege to have brought such unlikely people together. What a very great privilege it is."

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In the spring of 2003, Jamie O'Neill answered some of our questions.

What was the book that most influenced your life -- and why?
Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott. I come from a home that had no books. Shelves we had, wide sweeps of shelves, with capidamonte roses, holiday china, objets not so much d'art as d'artifice. But no books. And the only reading was the local evening newspaper, read out loud at tea-table, religiously, column after column of the classified ads. Even at school I never read, leastways I never finished, the books on the English syllabus. I took my exams, even, without reading them. I don't know why, but those books were chosen specifically to dampen teenage spirits. It wasn't that life was too interesting. Life was already dull enough without being further wearied by dried-up withered prose.

It came to my final exams and, the way schoolboys do, I thought to cram 13 years of idled study into the last two weeks of term. I cleared all distractions from my room -- music, games, everything. The last thing on my shelf was an old crusty copy of Ivanhoe. It had been given me by a mean-minded aunt (as I had thought) some years before, and had been gathering dust on my shelf ever since. There's no point throwing that out, I thought -- I'm never going to be reading that. Well, of course, it's all I did those two weeks, read Ivanhoe. Read it two, three times. It was a revelation to me. Books can be fun, they can be entertaining, you can learn things out of books -- a book can be interesting. Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott. Whoever would have thought?

What are your favorite books -- and why?

  • Ulysses, by James Joyce -- All the usual reasons. But Dublin, where it's set, is my home city, and it's a wonderful release for a writer from a small country to discover in his country's literature the particular made universal in the narrow winding streets he walked as a child. The book opens at the Forty-Foot swimming cove: it's where Buck Mulligan takes his morning dip in the "snotgreen," the "scrotumtightening" sea. It's also, in a humbler vein, where I used to hang out as a boy, playing truant from school. I love the language of Ulysses, or more properly, the languages. And the intricacies: Bloom's morning stroll, as he wonders the streets uncertain what to do, describes -- if you follow it on a Dublin map -- a question mark.

  • The Last of the Wine, by Mary Renault -- Love, courage, nobility, all set in classical Greece -- one could hardly ask for more. I will always love this book, and I cherish the memory of Mary Renault for writing it. It was the first book that came to me requiring no translation. Here were my own emotions, my own yearnings, set down in plain and serious prose -- and no heroine in my head needed re-sexing to a hero. For the first time in my reading life, boy met boy and loved. Oh, and the glorious historical exactitude.

  • Hadrian VII, by Fr. Rolfe (Frederick Baron Corvo) -- A madman's writing, but an inspired degeneracy, a demented largiloquence, a singularity on fiction's shelf.

  • The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by Edward Gibbon --Yes, there's the history, there's the scope, there's the encyclopaedic mastery. But consider the language, the elegant balanced periods, the glorious irony:

    "Of the various forms of government which have prevailed in the world, an hereditary monarchy seems to present the fairest scope for ridicule. Is it possible to relate without an indignant smile, that, on the father's decease, the property of a nation, like that of a drove of oxen, descends to his infant son, as yet unknown to mankind and to himself; and that the bravest warriors and the wisest statesmen, relinquishing their natural right to empire, approach the royal cradle with bended knees and protestations of inviolable fidelity?

    "Satire and declamation may paint these obvious topics in the most dazzling colors, but our more serious thoughts will respect a useful prejudice, that establishes a rule of succession, independent of the passions of mankind; and we shall cheerfully acquiesce in any expedient which deprives the multitude of the dangerous, and indeed the ideal, power of giving themselves a master."

  • The Leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa -- Arguably the greatest historical novel ever written. The characters breathe, the air sighs, Sicily shimmers before us. The prose -- well, it's testimony to the brilliance of Archibald Colquhoun, translator from the Italian, that the prose comes grand deep ironical and true. "Father Perrone... let his tongue click on his palate; then, annoyed at having shown his own amazement, he tried to rhyme the improvident sound by making his chair and shoes squeak."

  • The Siege of Krishnapur, by J. G. Farrell -- The tragicomedy of a bygone unremembered war. It's humour that truly portrays man's unfailing inhumanity. Farrell quietly dazzles.

  • One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez -- The last few pages of this book will always be with me. My eyes read the sentences and my brain conceives their meaning: but it's in my skin I feel the words, a goose-pimpling of my arms, a shivering within.

  • The Third Policeman, by Flann O'Brien -- At Swim-Two-Birds is generally considered his "classic." But for me, it's The Third Policeman that's by far his best book. The wittiest, most inventive reverie on the Four Last Things that you'll ever read.

  • The Swimming-Pool Library, by Alan Hollinghurst and The Lost Language of Cranes by David Leavitt. I take these books together, for although they are dissimilar in style and thrust, their importance to me as a writer is shared and equal. They blazed the trail for gay writers who came after, allowing the true investigation of gay themes and sensibilities, and establishing those themes as worthy of the widest readership.

    Favorite films?
    Nearly anything with Bette Midler in it. And nearly nothing with any violence. Though I admire The Godfather, and Gallipoli is a beautiful film.

    Favorite music?
    Sad songs. From Richard Strauss to the Cowboy Junkies. And Sinéad O'Connor, of course.

    If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
    Dancer, by Colum McCann -- a fictionalized life of Rudolf Nureyev. Why? Because my book club would be comprised of fellow writers, and we'd none of us be writing at the moment, so the brilliant, masterful, breathtaking opening passage would not dismay any of us. However, if we were currently writing, then we'd avoid Dancer like a plague. It's too well-crafted, too clever, far too sparkling -- we'd never have the courage to write another word. In my book club, while we're writing, we only choose trash to read. Trash that we fling joyously at the walls and out the windows, and are heartily reassured of our own wonderful talent.

    What are your favorite books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
    I don't think I give many books as gifts, though I'm forever lending them. But I do enjoy receiving copies of friends' and acquaintances' newly published works.

    Can you name a particular favorite writer, and what makes their writing special?
    Patrick O'Brian, author of the Aubrey-Maturin series, set in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. I must have read these twenty novels three times at least, and soon I'll be returning to them again. Language, humour, intelligence, humanity. There's everything here. "Haul the topgallant mainsail!" I still haven't a clue what it means -- but even the mystification is somehow fulfilling. And the elegance. Sometimes I'll take a chapter and just read it for the punctuation. The narrative skill is extraordinary: one paragraph can sweep you from the captain's table to the foremast look-out, dizzily up and down again, and never a false foot.

    What are you working on now?

    What else can you tell your readers about yourself? Any hobbies or favorite pastimes when you're not writing?
    My cottage in Connemara huddles in an acre of wilderness, where blackberries, raspberries, strawberries grow, all wild. And so, whenever I'm asked about the fruits of literature, I think of my home, the first I've ever owned, and smile.

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    *At Swim, Two Boys, 2002
    Photo by Roderick Field