Author Joseph O’Connor, born in 1963, has published The Salesman, Inishowen, Desperados and the Whitbread Prize-shortlisted Cowboys and Indians. His other works include a collection of short stories, True Believers; a nonfiction travelogue,
Sweet Liberty: Travels in Irish America; and several collections
of journalism. He has also written criticism, screenplays, and has
been a columnist and feature writer for the Dublin Sunday Tribune
and for Esquire magazine, London. O’Connor is the
creator and editor of Yeats is Dead, a serial novel by
fifteen Irish writers for Amnesty International, which includes
contributions by Roddy Doyle and Frank McCourt. Joseph O’Connor
has lived in New York and London, for a short time in Nicaragua,
and now lives in Dublin, Ireland with his family.
O’Connor’s new book, Star of the Sea, is about
a ship sailing from England in 1847 to New York. This is the height
of the Irish Potato Famine and the ship's passengers include a variety
of aristocratic and bourgeois types in its habitable accommodations
and poor bedraggled Irish in steerage. And as the story progresses
the murder of an Irish lord takes place. As James Kincaid points
out in his New York Times review, "This is a brave
and artful novel disguised to appear safe and conventional. One
can read on for some time as if it were simply a ‘terror stalks
the high seas’ thriller, but one would be an uncommon fool
to do so for very long."
Robert Birnbaum: Have you something terse to say
about Charles Dickens?
Joseph O’Connor: I used to hate him.
JOC: That's a good start
JOC: When I was in college studying English Literature,
he was the epitome of everything I disliked about the Victorian
novel. I still feel that sometimes, I suppose. The treatment of
Oliver Twist, for example, is something that people have written
about. Here is this kid who has been abandoned, his mother dies
in child birth, abandoned at birth, brought up in this work house,
beaten, starved and as we would now say, abused. And he talks like
Little Lord Fauntleroy. He talks these perfect, beautiful English
sentences. And, of course, you realize at the end of the book the
reason he does is that he is secretly an aristocrat. So he is secretly
a better person than the other poor little orphans, and I hated
that. I was very socialist in those days. I still am a bit, and
in my more socialist moments I hate it. But having said that, I
have also grown to love him as well.
RB: How Irish of you.
JOC: Absolutely. We can do both. It's a kind of
JOC: No, I love him more now than I hate him.
I have days when I hate him, but I just think the sheer scope and
bravery and capaciousness of his novel is really inspiring. I started
to read them again a couple of years ago when I was researching
this book and they just seem so full of energy. The novel in the
1840's was still a very new form. We kind of think it's always been
there. But when you read the Dickens books of that era and the Brontes—it's
an exaggeration to say that it has the same of kind of energy as
punk did, but there was something about having a license to make
mistakes. They just didn't care. There was a sense that the novel
could take on anything, no subject too big to defeat the novel.
This current vogue, the slim, terse, well-made novel where the entire
plot is, the hero takes a sip of a glass of water and Spring comes
and it's 90 pages of beautiful, elegant perfect, rather kind of
deathly prose… I love Dickens for his faults as well. I just
love the bravery and the scope and the ambition of it all.
RB: There is an exchange somewhere in the first
third of Star of the Sea; the putative narrator, Grantley
Dixon, tries to sell some of his fiction, to no avail. He has a
conversation with his publisher and is talking about Dickens and
points out that Dickens writes about people in despair and the publisher
says something to the effect that there were also jokes.
JOC: "‘He puts in jokes.’ Newby
said seriously," is the line. That is what I think now. Dickens
was a very powerful advocate for the poor, and it's a mistake to
try to apply our own standards to him. He was paternalistic. He
believed absolutely in the class system. He wouldn't have liked
to change anything about it. But he believed that the role of the
aristocracy and the role of the new rich who were very powerful
in those days was to look after the poor. He would have liked a
benevolent dictatorship. That's pretty much as radical as you got
in those days, in England. He had that very powerful commitment.
He himself had a childhood that was scarred by poverty. He understood
that the way to talk about the poor and perhaps not in long wordy
tracts but if you smuggled them in, as Newby says, in the novel
it might be more powerful, readers might acquire what you want to
say through a kind of osmosis. I guess, being honest, that's what
I was hoping for in this book. That rather than write a four-hundred
page solemn novel about the Irish potato famine, that it's a novel
about four or five people in a certain place at a certain time.
And if you do it skillfully enough hopefully the background and
the history and the politics will be picked up.
RB: But at the end you couldn't control yourself,
JOC: No I couldn't, I had to—well, it's
not me, of course. Grantley Dixon, my very ardent left-wing narrator
has a little bit of a rant at the end, all right. I think he is
entitled to one. After three hundred and ninety pages of minimalist
restraint, I think a couple of paragraphs of speechifying is a good
RB: It was eloquent and moving.
JOC: I'll pass on your best wishes to him.
RB: In some ways I see this as book of two parts.
The narrative and the mystery, the background of the characters
and the drama of the historical setting. And then there is the epilogue,
which is a whole other thing.
RB: Were you intending to have this separate wrap
up with such a somber overview?
JOC: I suppose I was. I like epilogues. That's
another thing I like about 19th century fiction—it tended
to try to answer all the questions. Which is the other absolute
fear in contemporary fiction. It's a wonderful thing to have said
about you in a review now, "The book raises more questions
than it answers."
JOC: You know the way reviewers shuffle these
cliches around. That's considered to be a good thing. Whereas I
usually think it's a bit of a failure on the part of the novelist.
I like the fact that in Victorian novels they have a kind of soap
opera element to their structure, and as we know a lot of them were
written in serial form. They are full of cliffhangers and page-turning
devices and tale-telling strategies, and at the end of the story,
you are told what happened. And usually it's that the good were
rewarded and the bad were punished, just like real life. And I just
thought, “Yeah, I am going to do that. I am going to tell
people what happened to all the characters and what happened to
Dixon, the narrator.”
RB: In addition there are such gem-like quips
as "the British Empire is a complicated work of penny dreadful
fiction." How unkind.
JOC: I know that's terrible. I am married to an
Englishwoman, so I am sleeping with the enemy. Even she managed
to laugh, in a kind of hollow, controlled English way.
RB: I hope that it didn't signal anything dire
for your relationship?
JOC: No, not so far.
RB: Please read this passage (on page 364):
JOC: "What happened is one of the reasons
they still die today. For the dead do not die in that tormented
country, that heartbroken island of incestuous hatreds; so abused
down the centuries by the powerful of the neighboring island, as
much by the powerful of its native own. And the poor of both islands
died in their multitudes while the Yahweh of retributions vomited
down his hymns. The flags flutter and the pulpits resound. At Ypres.
At Dublin. At Gallipoli. In Belfast. The trumpets spew and the poor
die. Yet they walk, the dead, and will always walk: not as ghosts
but as press-ganged soldiers, conscripted into a battle that is
not of their making: their sufferings metamorphosed, their very
existence translated, their bones stewed into the sludges of propaganda.
They do not even have names. They are simply the Dead. You can make
them mean anything you want them to mean." [pause] There you
are. It's true isn't it?
RB: Uh huh.
JOC: Good old Grantley Dixon.
RB: Star of the Sea is a wonderful tale
to read, but the Epilogue certainly fills it out. And I agree with
you that there is a lack of moral discourse in contemporary literature.
Though I am not so quick to condemn the literature of ennui and
JOC: I don't condemn it. I like writers. I like
their company. And I Iike the craft and the dedication they have.
I am a terrible person for reviewing books because I usually try
to find something that I like. And if I genuinely don't like a book,
I usually won't review it. But it is a strange thing that in Britain
over the last five years the two biggest selling novels have been
Nick Hornby's novel about Arsenal soccer team and Bridget Jones
about thirty something women trying to get dates. I am not saying
there shouldn't be novels about that. That's absolutely great and
it's great that people read anything. But if we are going to have
novels about that, just occasionally there could be a novel about
something that actually matters. And I am not even saying mine is
it, but I like novels that have ambition and that believe in the
form. I think the form has not been exhausted. I believe in it in
a kind of romantic way. The purpose of the novel is still to change
the world. But you change the world in small ways. You change somebody's
perception of it in that private space of fiction. So people need
to have their perceptions changed about the Arsenal Football Team,
maybe. But the themes of this novel are war and hunger and famine
and terrorism and people stowing away and all of those things that
we see around us everyday. Not to make it sound very heavy, it has
lighter colors too. But I think of this story of being almost a
story about now, you know.
RB: Well, Eduardo Galeano, one of the great and
unharnessed writers and champions of social justice of at least
this Hemisphere, loves football. It would be interesting to compare
Hornby and Galeano's take on soccer.
It's funny the number of authors, usually men, who do love soccer.
Roddy Doyle is a huge soccer man. Dermot Bolger, the Irish novelist,
loves soccer. I went to a rugby playing school and rugby has a class
kind of element and cricket and tennis and all those games…
RB: CLR James, the eminent Caribbean socialist,
JOC: Well, it's different game in the Caribbean.
They are much better at it, actually, than the English are. But
there is a notion that soccer is a very democratic game. You don't
need any equipment to play. You get a ball and two sweaters as goal
posts and off you go. And you do see, no matter what part of the
world you go to—I went to Nicaragua in 1985 in the middle
of the Sandinista era. It was very poor and people had absolutely
nothing. The game that the kids were playing on the street was soccer.
Because that's what happens…
RB: No, it wasn't.
JOC: Oh, it was…well, it was baseball, sometimes….
RB: It's your bias, your European bias. When I
JOC: I did say a game, which obviously precludes
baseball. [both laugh] That's just a very painful long drawn out
form of torture.
RB: Tell me about your time in Nicaragua—now
a forgotten land. At one time a hotspot when Ronald Reagan was concerned
with Soviet tanks coming over the Rio Grande. Why did you go there?
JOC: I was in university at the time. I was very
left wing and so were all my friends. We used to get together in
the student bar on a Friday night, have a few beers and say that
we were going to go to Nicaragua. Meaning, of course, that we had
no intention of going to Nicaragua but I'll see you next Friday
night here at the bar and wear the T-shirt and we'll talk again.
But in February 1985 my mother died and she died suddenly in a car
accident. And it was an unhappy family, and so her sudden death
brought up a lot of things that hadn't been said and resolved. And
people react to grief, I suppose, in different ways. But mine was
that I didn't want to be around anybody. That I didn't want the
support of my family, my friends. I don't know what kind of immaturity
that was but that's just the way I felt. I just wanted to go somewhere
I knew nobody at all. So these two things came together in my mind.
She died in February 1985 and in April there I was, walking down
the street in Managua knowing nobody and speaking not a single word
of Spanish. And it's amazing the things you do when you are twenty-one.
I wouldn't do it now, but I would love to go back to Nicaragua.
I think I would want to have a credit card and a nice place to stay.
RB: The Intercontinental Hotel is still standing…Actually
there is a decent hotel near the airport.
JOC: Yeah there is. But people used to say that
the earthquake in 1972, The Intercontinental, The Bank of America
and the Cathedral had been spared, which showed you whose side God
was on. So I went there. I was doing a little part time journalism
for newspapers and magazine is Dublin. So that was my excuse for
going and, yeah, I just went and stayed for six months. It was a
learning experience as they say.
JOC: Did you get out of Managua into the countryside?
JOC: Both up to the North and the South.
JOC: Yeah and down to San Juan del Sur in the
South. I went there and I went to Bluefields.
RB: The Caribbean coast.
JOC: Fascinating place. Completely different culture.
RB: Yeah, English.
JOC: English speaking, black, not Mestizo or Indian,
kind of looked down on them a bit. A guy played me a tune one night
and said that it was a traditional Bluefields piece of music. It
was actually an English Victorian music hall song called "Doing
the Lambeth Walk." It was kind of like being in Brixton or
somewhere in South London just with palm trees. It was a memorable
place, and I am still in touch with people there. The ironic thing,
the fear of tanks rolling across the border and all that, before
I went I thought the only foreigners I am going to meet in Nicaragua
are Russians and Cubans. But the place was full of Americans.
RB: The so-called Sandalistas.
JOC: They all used to trudge up to the Intercontinental
Hotel for the breakfast buffet every morning and…
RB: It was an entertaining place.
JOC: Well, people used to say that it was the
only place that the CIA guys could walk around without getting shot.
It was quite a peaceful place compared to the rest of the country.
There were very nice American kids who you felt would actually like
to go into the war zone and have a couple of shots fired at them
before going back to Berkeley for the new term to begin. It reminded
me slightly of the period in English radical history the 1930's
and the Spanish Civil War. You were a fascist or a communist. And
most intellectuals and writers were communists or fellow travelers
and they used to trot out from Oxford or Cambridge and go down to
Spain and have few pot shots at the fascists and be back home in
Oxford in time for tea. It was great that there were American kids
there, but I had never been to America then. And when I came home
from Nicaragua I felt I had been to California.
RB: I think it's a damn shame what we did there.
JOC: I have to say that was a good lesson. In
a way every young kid who wears the t-shirt and believes in those
kind of politics should all go somewhere like that. You realize
just the extent of the gulf between the fashionable side of liberal
or socialist politics and the reality of life as it's lived in these
countries. Because I supported the Sandinista government. I still
l think they did absolutely amazing things. But you saw people on
the side of the road selling fruit and if they sold all of the fruit
in the basket they were going to be poor and they were going to
be poor the next day. You realize that a country in that region,
dominated by the United States, is always going to be poor. That's
the way it's going to be. There are no simple solutions, so it was
a coming of age, I guess, and a realization these kind of politics
are far more difficult than we who are lucky enough to be able to
profess them sometimes realize.
RB: To go to a poor country like Nicaragua and
then come back here and listen to people complain about their lives
here is absurd. What was amazing there was that the people were
indomitable and gracious.
tended to try and answer all the questions. Which is the other
absolute fear in contemporary fiction. It's a wonderful thing
to have said about you in a review now, "The book raises
more questions than it answers."
JOC: People went to Stalin's Russia in the '30s
and they wrote very silly things about how happy everybody was.
All I can tell you is my own experience—and that was that
people who had nothing were just exemplary, they worked together
and there was a genuine sense of commitment that almost had nothing
to do with the Sandinistas. I was staying with a family in Managua
and they had all supported the revolution in 1979, but buy the time
I got there about half of them had very mixed or disapproving feelings
about the Sandanistas. And there would be raging arguments in the
house every night about whether they had gone too far. Or too pro-Soviet,
Nicaragua is a very Catholic country and it was quite a common thing
to see religious icons on the wall of a house beside pictures of
Sandino or FSLN graffiti. They weren't fools. They were very politically
literate people and they were able to debate things like compulsory
military service and press censorship and all of that. It reminded
me of stories that my grandfather used to tell me about what Ireland
was like in the 1920's after our revolution. I guess. The first
thing we did was have a civil war where people on the same side
immediately stared killing each other.
JOC: And that's what was going on with the Contras
and all the rest. I wrote a novel about it, which hasn't been published
here yet. I hope that it will be, called Desperados (Harper
Collins, UK). It was very memorable.
RB: I remember reading either Judith Thurman in
the New Yorker or Francisco Goldman in Harper's
about the Chamorro family. Violetta eventually became president
after the Sandinistas, but the kids were on both sides of the aisle.
One was an editor of Barricada and the other was the editor
of La Prensa. They could eat dinner together.
JOC: There genuinely was, all propaganda aside,
there was a sense that this was a great adventure. This is a great
shared project, we don't know how it's going to come out but we
have to try to stick together. Whether that's political or not,
I don't know, but it is genuinely the way it was.
RB: So since the Sandinista turned over power
there have been two or three right-wing presidents and then the
Miami people started drifting back to the country.
JOC: The FSLN, the Sandinistas are still the largest
party, they have a coalition system of government. It needs to be
said that one of the Sandinistas’ greatest achievements is
to give up power when they lost the election. Latin America is not
distinguished by many examples of this. They put a political system
that seems to work, in place. When the conservatives won —there
were one of two individuals within the Sandinista movement that
were a bit more hard line, who were threatening that they wouldn't
just go away.
RB: Who was that?
JOC: Borge, he's a fascinating man. I interviewed
him when I was there. He was a hard-line Marxist. Spent nine years
in prison and four or five of them in solitary confinement. And
had been tortured [He had] Just a terrible set of experiences under
the [Somoza] dictatorship. I interviewed him when he was Minister
of the Interior and on the wall of his office were two or three
hundred crucifixes. All different styles of art from the native
Mesquite art to European ones and classical ones. I was fascinated
by this, being an Irish Catholic boy originally. He had told me
he was an atheist. He had no religious faith at all. He didn't like
them as objects but he felt they were revolutionary symbols. You
hear these amazing stories about him. And as much as I could investigate
him they did seem to be true. The first he thing he had done when
he became Minister of the Interior was find the National Guardsman
who had tortured him and get him out of prison and apparently said
to him —and I talked to a few people who were in the room
when he said it, "My revenge on you is that I am going to forgive
you. And there is going to be no death penalty, nothing but forgiveness.
You will have to carry that around with you for the rest of your
life." There was this amazing sense of something new happening
in left-wing revolutionary circles. Teaching people to read seemed
to be more important than putting up statues of Marx. It was an
absolutely fascinating experience. The Church was fascinating there
too. In Ireland and I guess here, the Church has been such a force
for conservatism but of there….
RB: Oh yes, Ernesto Cardenal.
JOC: He was great, there is this absolutely great
imagery which crops up still from time to time in documentaries
about Nicaragua—of the Pope coming to visit Nicaragua a couple
of years after the revolution began—and he come down the steps
of the plane and all the cabinet are there to meet him. And the
three priests, one by one, trying to be obedient priests, knelt
to kiss the Pope's hand and the Pope is there wagging his finger
at Cardenal. It's a place of extraordinary contradictions and great
paradoxes and contrasts and colors and landscape and music and all
that stuff. It's the kind of thing that if you do that stuff at
the age of twenty-five, you never quite forget it.
RB: As an Irish writer… you are an Irish
JOC: That's what I happen to be, yeah.
RB: Well, there are Irish writers and there are
Well, the guy I like most is a guy called Brian Moore who died maybe
three or four years ago.
RB: Wasn't he Canadian?
JOC: A Canadian citizen, born in Belfast. Left
Ireland during the War and went to Canada and just kind of turned
his back on all that Irish stuff. He wrote some very good novels
set in Ireland but he wrote novels set in South America and set
in Europe. He wrote a novel every three years. When he died the
number was twenty-two or twenty-three and they weren't all brilliant,
but the ones that were brilliant were just marvelous. Nominated
for the Booker Prize several times and won it once. If I have a
kind of touchstone he is my man. And I was lucky enough to interview
him shortly before his death. In fact, it was one of the last interviews
he did. I asked him that question, "Did he consider himself
an Irish writer?" And he said he'd be horrified if his obituary
said Brian Moore the Irish writer had died. He wanted just "Brian
Moore the writer has died, these are his novels. He was born in
Belfast in nineteen whatever it was." And that's a great thing.
RB: So what were the obituaries of him like?
JOC: They were, "Our Brian Moore the Irish
shamrock wearing boy, has died, begorrah." That's what they
were mostly like.
RB: What I wanted to know was, you are an Irish
writer who writes a novel in the mid Nineties about Nicaragua, what
was the reaction in Britain?
JOC: It was very warm. It was a bestseller. It
was a number one best seller in Ireland. It's been published in
almost every country in Europe. But hasn't been published here yet.
RB: Why is that?
JOC: I have absolutely no idea. It's probably
my fault there are American characters in the novel, and to be fair
I could go off on a big rant about the American State has got it
in for me, I think there is space always for dissent in America.
I am always struck by it. America is a far more dissenting society
than the mainstream media in Europe would lead us to believe. We
are told always that you are all Bush fans and all in favor of the
war, the whole thing. But when you come here, you realize that the
shades of political opinion are pretty vast. It's just it's a minority
thing, but you meet people of all sorts of views here. There are
American characters in the novel, and I suspect their dialogue here
and there may be more influenced by watching American cop shows
than how Americans actually speak. If the novel has a weakness,
that might be it. There is a girl in it from Louisiana, who says
"Y'all" a lot. I'd say the dialogue is as good as if someone
from Milwaukee wrote a novel set in County Galway. So if it were
to be published here I might take another pass through at those
RB: Will it be a called the American translation?
JOC: Exactly and it’s a different language
RB: Three cultures separated by a common language…
JOC: Just keep going, the breadth with which English
is spoken just in this country alone. Take a Texan and a New Yorker
in the same room, is difficult enough but if you take someone from
County Kerry and Australia and someone from South Africa…
RB: And India…
JOC: It’s going to be a very noisy and mutually
RB: Your publishing career, as opposed to your
writing, seems to be something of a ramshackle matter?
JOC: The publishing scene in different counties
has its own rules and I have had novels published in the "wrong"
order" and some people are publishing Star of the Sea
this year and publishing some of the earlier ones next year. I don't
ask any questions. I am happy to be published, and I think it's
a miracle that anybody in the English-speaking world wants to read
a novel, never mind someone in the South of Italy, wants to read
a novel about the Irish Famine. But if they do I've got one.
RB: I wanted to talk a little more about the Irish
writer. There is a trendiness about nationalities in literature
or at least publishing…
JOC: Yeah, there is…
RB: There was a time for the Irish with Roddy
Doyle and Seamus Dean and Banville and few others and then the Scots
came along and…
JOC: Kicked us out. [both laugh]
RB: In general whatever the nationality of the
moment in America, perhaps less so with Irish and British writers
there is a definite lack of awareness of literature that doesn't
originate on these shores. Why do you think that is?
of political opinion are pretty vast.
JOC: I don't know either to be honest. It's certainly
not mutual. The American authors we get to hear about are the best
sellers and the Pulitzer Prize winners. There is just always an
interest in Ireland. It's one of the cliches that is actually true
that for a small country there are a lot of people who write and
that a larger percentage of them will be of some use. Whether the
authors who came to prominence during the trendy years will have
the staying power I don' t know. Dermot Bolger, who I mentioned
earlier published quite an influential book in the UK a few years
ago, The Picador Anthology of Irish Fiction. And there were forty
authors in it, all under the age of forty. Which is a great thing
to be an author and considered young until you are forty. If I were
a soccer player my career would be over now. I would be commentating.
I was looking at it again recently and I think of the forty, some
have already disappeared and I think the number of writers who will
still be read in a hundred years time is the same in any country.
But writing isn’t considered a strange or exotic thing in
Ireland. I am struck by talking with English colleagues and they
all have the terrible story of the day they went home and told mommy
and daddy they were leaving college to become a novelist. And the
sniffing salts had to be called for and the doctor and the vicar.
In Ireland, most parents would think that's a good thing to want
to do. There is a lot rubbish talk about it, but it is true even
people who don't read themselves kind of regard reading and writing
as important. If you grow up in that culture, it's just going to
be another option that you think about. Also when I was a kid in
the '60s and '70s it was before U2 and Collin Farrell and Irish
doing anything in the arts. The only Irish people who were famous
in that era were terrorists. They were famous for shooting each
other and planting bombs. One or two footballers, but the icons
or pantheon of Irish people, who had achieved anything, were all
writers. Joyce, Ocasey and Wilde and those people. I kind of felt
about them the way people feel about pop stars. I thought they were
great. They were the people whose statues you would see in the streets
and they were the people whose faces were put on the bank notes
and they were held up as something you might think of as aspiring
towards, emulating. So I think it’s a different atmosphere
to grow up and if you are a bookish kid in Ireland it is something
you think about.
RB: Has there been a burgeoning of writing programs?
JOC: Not really, there are one or two. It’s
not like it is here. We still cling to the notion that you can't
teach people how to write. I am sure it will all catch on. We import
everything American; about twenty years after Americans have rejected
it. We are due to have Reaganism any day now. I think writing courses
will come along, but there is a slightly 19th century view of the
writer in Ireland. The muse should be visiting you and you should
be like Keats with the poetry coming like the leaves to the tree,
you know. So there are one or two programs, but they are mainly
for visiting American kids who are sent by their wealthy parents
RB: You live in Dublin now; any feeling that you
might be missing something living there?
JOC: Yes, I am married to an English woman who
loves Dublin and all the things I hate about Dublin she really likes.
It's a great place and a wonderful place to be a kid or a teenager
or in your twenties because it's a very small city and it's unstoppably
sociable. Everybody knows each other. Even the architecture of the
city, its design, you are going to meet people that you know. The
phone never stops ringing and we all have mobiles, so they never
stop and the pagers never stop and the e-mails never stop. I find
it impossible to do any work there. Whereas my English wife thinks
it just is marvelously charming and it’s like living in a
village. And it’s nice sometimes but I miss…I liked
living in London, living in world cities. And hearing different
accents and seeing different people and different clothes and different
food. And all that I find quite energizing. So I'm sure at some
point we might go some where else for a year or two.
RB: You are touring the US for the Star of
the Sea and then what?
JOC: Then as I said I am wandering around Europe
touting myself like a common tart for the next few months and I
am hoping to get going on a new novel by the end of the summer.
I would like to start something by August. I get a bit 'kvetchy'
to use that wonderful American word, when I am not writing. If I
have a day when I don’t write at all I have bit of long suppressed
Catholic guilt that comes and gets me. I feel it's a wasted day.
I am looking forward to getting back to work, at the same time it's
pleasing that big novel about a very specific Irish subject has
found some kind of audience in other countries. So you just have
to do all that stuff and grin and bear it.
RB: And when you are working on something, do
you write every day?
JOC: I do plan a bit, and I usually have a pretty
clear architecture of it in mind and sometimes it's on paper before
I start. But once I start it’s just a kind of scattergun approach.
It’s changed for me slightly. I am the father of a three-year-old
boy, which is a wonderful thing. But before we had him I thought
nothing of starting work at ten o' clock and writing until dawn
if I felt like it. And that's not quite as possible these days.
So my working day is attuned to his body clock. So I'll probably
live ten years longer working a bit more regularly.
RB: Your fatherhood will no doubt inform your
JOC: I don't think so. Actually no. I get suspicious
when people say that. Like what Stalin said about culture, "When
he heard the word culture he reached for his gun."
RB: It thought it was Lenin.
I don't know. Maybe it was Goebbels.
RB: It's one of those sayings that can be attributed
to many rotten people. [both laugh]
JOC: It wasn't a nice guy whoever it was. In this
day and age when men are getting in touch with their feeling and
their feminine side and all that we have to read a of memoirs and
magazine articles about how I wept when I went to the scan and…
JOC: It just makes me very uneasy and being a
father is a wonderful joyful, thing but I…if you couldn't
before you were a father, if you were a novelist and you couldn't
conceive of what it was like to be a father or what it was like
to be a child then there is something wrong. Something in your imagination
is not working properly.
RB: I agree, but there is the thing imagined and
then the reality and there is a still is some difference.
JOC: Maybe. Somebody said to me that in this book
that they thought there were a lot of parent-child images in it,
and if so it's absolutely unconscious. I would say—talking
about the book about Nicaragua earlier—it's a family story.
These two middle aged parents who are estranged in an unhappy marriage
in Dublin and they have a teenage son who has run off to Nicaragua
and he has disappeared and then reported dead in the civil war.
They go to Nicaragua to collect his body and when they get to the
morgue it isn't him. What happens now? And I had to read it again
recently because there is a little but of interest in filming it
possibly. I was struck by how painful it was. Which I suppose I
didn't realize at the time. At the time all the parent's pain was
imagined on my part. And I did think that must be absolutely terrible.
So retrospectively you might see things in your work than they seemed
at the time. Anyway, I think all these guys have to stop gushing.
RB: Any idea what you are writing next?
JOC: I'd like to write another historical novel
set here at some point. I am slightly daunted by the amount of research.
It probably won't be the next thing that I do. I probably will end
up doing one of those slim novels I was complaining about at the
start of our conversation. But I need to just get back into the
room and switch on the thing and see what happens
RB: Well, okay talk to you again after all the
JOC: I hope so. Maybe nothing will happen in which
case I will be looking for a job.
© 2003 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing