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 Ying Yang.
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, could you?
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 thing.
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 interior.
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.
JOC: 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, loved cricket…
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 went there…
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.
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 writer?
JOC: That's what I happen to be, yeah.
RB: Well, there are Irish writers and there are Irish writers.
JOC: 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 aspects.
RB: Will it be a called the American translation?
JOC: Exactly and it’s a different language isn't it?
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 uncomprehending room.
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?
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 to Dublin.
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 writing?
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.
JOC: 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 switching.
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