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Meet the WritersImage of Joseph O'Connor
Joseph O'Connor
Good to Know
In our interview, O'Connor shared some fun facts about himself:

"As a university student, I once had a summer job selling plastic refuse sacks over the telephone. Rather worryingly, I was not too bad at it."

"I was born on 20 September, 1963, the anniversary of the day on which various pieces of Robert Emmet, the great 19th century Irish patriot, were separated from one another by British uniformed persons with the aid of an axe and scaffold. As a result of this haunting coincidence, my parents very nearly named me Emmet O'Connor. Quite a good name for a novelist, actually."

"I have always wanted to write a novel called The Old One-Two, but I haven't the faintest idea what it might be about."

"I'm afraid I have little time for hobbies, other than music, which I've mentioned above. My wife and I sometimes go to the opera. We're lucky enough to get to travel a lot, often because of work -- she's a screenwriter. As the father of a lively three-year old boy, I occasionally catch Barney or Clifford, the Big Red Dog. But secretly I prefer the ,I>Bear in the Big Blue House -- better stories and more moral ambiguity."

"Other ways of unwinding include regular and deafeningly loud doses of J. S. Bach, the great Muddy Waters, or George Thorogood and the Delaware Destroyers. As for literary dislikes, I do have one big one. Despite its newfound popularity, I must confess that I simply don't get the point of Tolkien's work, that sad little circus of hobbitry and Elvish. How profound must one's weariness of the real world have become to want to burrow into the recesses of Middle Earth like a disappointed mole. Some people I love swear that The Lord of the Rings is a masterpiece, but I am firmly on the side of C. S. Lewis, who is said to have sighed, on reading an early draft: ‘Oh, for God's sake, Tolkien. Not another elf story.'"

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In the summer of 2003, Joseph O'Connor took some time out to talk with us about his favorite books, authors, and interests.

What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer -- and why?
As a child I always enjoyed books and storytelling, but when I was seventeen my first girlfriend gave me a copy of J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, and the gift of that novel changed my life. I would give any younger person unconvinced by the joys of literature a copy of this book. I simply can't imagine anyone not being thrilled, charmed, entertained and moved by it. It is both laugh-out-loud funny and wrenchingly affecting. The book is almost completely plotless, but the longsuffering, sardonic, uneasy voice of the adolescent narrator, Holden Caulfield, is so distinctive and real as to make the story utterly unforgettable. It's the book that made me want to be a writer myself. In ways, I sometimes think that everything I've ever written is an attempt to emulate the perfection it represents. I still make a point of re-reading it every couple of years, and whenever I do, it yields up new delights. The best book ever published about being young.

What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
This is an almost impossible question to answer, but here is my attempt:

  • Anything by George Orwell -- The ultimate touchstone; he set a standard by which all writing should be judged. Last year I read his complete works in chronological order, and it was the most enriching reading experience I've had in a long time. Most writers dream of producing one book that earns a central place in the culture and changes the way its readers look at the world. With 1984 and Animal Farm, Orwell managed it twice. And even the imperfect, lesser novels -- Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Coming Up for Air -- are better than many of his successors' major works. George is not fashionable in this era of the millionaire celebrity author; but anyone who cares about literature, politics, or the English language will find enlightenment, laughter, moral purpose and sheer pleasure in his work -- all the more so, I think, if approaching it for a second or third time.

  • Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee -- An astounding work, by the greatest living novelist. A copy of it was given to me by the Irish novelist Colm Toibin, at a time when I was having doubts about writing at all. It just fills you with wonder at what words can do; the pictures they can conjure, and the small miracle that is fiction.

  • Collected Stories by John Mc Gahern -- The first writer whose work I truly loved as a teenager, and one of only a handful of contemporary Irish authors whose novels will be still be read in a century.

  • The Ballroom of Romance by William Trevor -- Perfectly balanced sentences, quietly powerful insights. A master of un-flashy but deeply haunting prose, he is also the one of the few Irish authors who can write convincingly about people from any social class.

  • Elephant by Raymond Carver -- The last piece in this book, about the death of Checkov, rivals Joyce's "The Dead" as the finest short story ever written.

  • The Commitments by Roddy Doyle -- A book that turned a key for the subsequent generation of Irish novelists. It conveyed a sort of permission to write about the real Ireland of the suburbs, rather than the entirely fictitious country which features in many previous Irish novels.

  • The Ultimate Good Luck by Richard Ford -- Just a wonderful, evocative and tightly focused novel that combines thriller-ish elements with extraordinarily sharp insights.

  • A Good Man is Hard to Find (or anything) by Flannery O'Connor -- Simply because nobody whose writing I know has ever achieved more. Beautiful, brave, funny and wise. The most powerful metaphors, always: they just keep deepening the more you think about them. An exactitude in the writing that is absolutely exemplary.

  • Collected Stories by Guy de Maupassant -- For their hardness, lack of sentimentality, and merciless fidelity to the truth.

  • The Mercy Seat by Rilla Askew -- The best new American novel I've read in many years. William Faulkner meets Woody Guthrie, with Biblical echoes and prophetic tones. Absolutely brilliant storytelling and densely beautiful characterization.

    What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
    Spinal Tap directed by Rob Reiner, and Withnail and I, directed by Bruce Robinson, are the two funniest movies ever made. I love them so much that I know huge chunks of the script by heart. The Big Lebowski by the Coen brothers is a close third. The Godfather trilogy, King of Comedy, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, and anything featuring the collaboration of Scorcese and Robert de Niro)

    But my all-time favorite piece of cinematic storytelling is Dekalog by Krystof Kieslowski, a collection of truly extraordinary films, each inspired by one of the ten commandments. Two of them were released as features on the art-house movie circuit (A Short Film about Love and A Short Film About Killing) but to see all ten sequentially is nothing less than stunning. Incidentally -- but perhaps not entirely so -- the budget for all ten masterpieces was less than what it costs to make one half-hour episode of Friends.

    What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
    I love all kinds of music, from Puccini to punk, from Irish folksongs to American blues, but I rarely listen to music while I'm writing. I find it too distracting. The one occasional exception is Bob Dylan's greatest work of genius "Blood on the Tracks", which I know so well that I can drift in and out of it.

    If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
    James Joyce's final novel Finnegans Wake -- because it's such a mind-numbingly difficult piece of work (though often very beautiful) that the support of a group might be helpful in getting through it. And if we didn't get through it, we could talk forever about why not. I often think of this as my desert island book. It's a beautiful, mysterious, maddening thing, more like a strange abstract symphony than a novel. Indeed, it only truly comes to life when it's read aloud. While it contains passages of extraordinary magnificence and clarity, it is often so obscure as to be almost impenetrable. In fact, I think the only place I could read it would be a desert island, but I'd need the encouragement of my fellow shipwrecked passengers to be able to face it. As to whether I would bother to take it home with me when I was rescued, I don't know.

    What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
    The books I tend to give are novels by friends or acquaintances, and most of my novelist friends are Irish. I'm thinking of authors like Dermot Bolger, Evelyn Conlon, Colm Toibin and Hugo Hamilton. I've made gifts to several people of J. M. Coetzee's novels (which are all magnificent), also those of Ian McEwan, Toni Morrison, Barbara Kingsolver and Anne Tyler.

    I don't often get given books myself. Perhaps my loved ones think I need a break from books! Or maybe they're giving me a subliminal clue about their own preferences in these matters. A few years ago, my wife gave me a copy of Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, which is just the most wonderful book in the world -- a treasure trove of fascinating (if often totally useless) facts about words, sayings, and their origins.

    Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing? What are you working on now?
    Gently researching what may turn out to be a new novel (set during the American Civil War).

    Many writers in the Discover program are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
    I've been writing in a serious way for about fifteen years, but Star of the Sea, my latest book, is only my second novel to be published in the United States. So I feel pretty much like a novice here, and in several ways that's no bad thing. I've been fortunate enough to have had success with my books in Ireland, and in other European countries, and that's allowed me to do what I love full-time. But I think the hype that sometimes surrounds new writers is a double-edged sword. Exaggerated praise can be a dangerous drug for a writer, almost as poisonous as its opposite. It's important always to remember this. If you're serious about writing, a certain ability to roll with the punches is required, but also the ability not to fall in love with acclaim (if it comes). You need to take the long-term view.

    I do have an old file of rejection letters somewhere -- few writers don't -- but it's important just to keep going when those come in. That's if you truly want to write, of course. Many people think they do, but really they're not cut out for it, and there's absolutely no disgrace in that. The world needs skilled readers as much as it needs writers. If not more so.

    I don't know if I have any anecdotes that are inspirational exactly; but here's a story I like: The English poet Stephen Spender, as a young undergraduate at Oxford, made a visit to the great Auden, who was by then already established. "I want to be a poet," Spender said. Auden replied: "What a strange ambition. I can understand anyone wanting to write poems; but this "being a poet" -- what does it mean?" I think it's good for all would-be writers to remember the difference.

    Writing is hard and lonely work, a craft as well as an art. I think it's important to learn your craft; to respect it, always, and to feel it's worth getting to respect even more. You need to do it the best way you can, and then be prepared to learn to do it better -- or else don't do it at all. Writing isn't really about self-expression, at least I don't think so. It's all about learning to tell a story the best way you can, with the right words, in the right order. That sounds easy, but it's the hardest thing I know. It takes a strange combination of qualities, I guess: you need a certain sensitivity to be attracted to doing it in the first place, but you sometimes require a more than usually thick skin when it's done.

    If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be -- and why? I like the short fiction (Doghouse Roses) published by the American country singer Steve Earl, which is gritty, atmospheric and strong on story. I think the brilliant Dublin writer Dermot Bolger (The Journey Home and Emily's Shoes) deserves to have a huge international audience.

    Another contemporary writer I would like to be "discovered" in America is my talented countryman Philip Casey. An exquisitely gifted poet and perceptive critic, he has also written a number of subtle but unforgettably powerful novels, chief among them The Fabulists (Picador, UK). It won the Listowel Irish Novel of the Year Award five or six years ago (I was one of the judges). The most important Irish novel of the last twenty years, to my mind, is not known as internationally as it should be. Eugene McCabe's Death and Nightingales is a 19th century tale of sexual obsession and religious hatred, but almost every paragraph sheds light on more recent sectarian conflicts, not only those of Ireland. I would argue that anyone's understanding of the evils of racism or terrorism would be deepened significantly by reading this novel.

    What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
    I'm uneasy giving advice about writing (or anything else), but, if I absolutely had to, if would be the following: Write, write, and keep on writing! Don't talk about it, just do it. Don't even think about it too much. Try to love it. Tell the story you'd like to read yourself. Flannery O'Connor once remarked: "a certain grain of stupidity is a useful thing for a writer to have." That's true, I think.

    Trust your imagination. Don't always try to grasp the point. And never, EVER, expect fast results. I think a serious commitment to writing is a bit like a marriage. You need luck, hard work, a sense of adventure, a little self-irony and a bottomless reservoir of patience. There are good days and bad ones, disappointments and joys -- the only thing certain is that it won't turn out exactly the way you planned it. Neither are there any guarantees of success, alas. When you start writing a novel (again like embarking on a relationship) you're jumping, blindfolded, out of the plane, and you don't know whether the thing you've got strapped to your back will turn out to be a parachute or a grand piano. But you're hoping for true happiness over the longer term.

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  • About the Writer
    *Joseph O'Connor Home
    * Good to Know
    * Interview
    *Cowboys and Indians, 1991
    *True Believers, 1991
    *The Secret World of the Irish Male, 1994
    *Sweet Liberty: Travels in Irish America, 1996
    *The Salesman, 1999
    *Inishowen, 2000
    *Red Roses and Petrol, 2002
    *Star of the Sea, 2003
    Photo by Joanne O'Brien