Today we’re honoured to be joined by one of Ireland’s most celebrated authors, Joseph O’Connor, whose powerful new literary thriller My Father’s House went straight to the top of the Irish bestseller’s list. Joseph talks to us about dealing with rejection, planning his novels, and being married to the greatest reader he knows…
Where do you think your love of writing came from?
My parents were both readers and there were books in the house. Since every writer begins as a reader, I’m sure that must have something to do with it.
And I had a number of open-minded and very thoughtful (in both senses) English teachers.
In my adult life, I’ve been blessed to be married to the greatest reader I know. So, we have a shared sense of the value of the written word. It’s something we’ve tried to give our own children. They’re both readers themselves, which is great.
You moved to London in the 1980s to make it as a writer. Did you experience much rejection while trying to get your fiction published? How did you stay motivated during that time?
My friend the great writer Donal Ryan says every writer’s career is ‘pockmarked with rejection’, and that’s correct. You’ll always have naysayers and you just have to hope that the number of yaysayers is bigger.
What motivated me at the time was that I had a sort of downwardly ticking timeclock. I gave myself three years in which to get a novel accepted for publication. If it didn’t happen by then, I’d give up and do something else.
Of course, whether I would have truly given up is something I don’t know. I was kind of in love with it. It might have ended up as a kind of dysfunctional relationship in which I’d drift back towards writing again and again, despite it not wanting me. Or drunk-dial it late at night. ‘Writing, I can change, take me back!’
But I’m grateful for those years because they taught me an important lesson. Managing uncertainty is a skill that every writer needs.
You’ve written before about the fateful phone call you received from Ciaran Carty, editor of the New Irish Writing page at the Sunday Tribune, saying that he was going to publish your short story Last of the Mohicans. Can you remember how you felt when you realised your fiction was finally going to be published? Was it a pivotal moment in your writing career?
I’ve been very blessed in my career as a writer to have had number one international bestsellers, warm reviews and literary awards, and at this stage my stuff is published in more than forty languages, but nothing will ever compare to the dizzying joy I felt when Ciaran Carty published my first short story. In all the great city of London, there was no happier youngfella that night. It was and remains the most important moment in my writing career.
Can you tell us how the deal to publish your debut novel Cowboys and Indians came about?
I won the Hennessy New Irish Writer of the Year Award in 1990 for ‘Last of the Mohicans’ and soon afterwards publishers started to write to me asking if I had a novel on the go. I did, and it featured the same central character as appeared in the short story.
So, Sinclair-Stevenson offered a deal for the novel and a collection of short stories, ‘True Believers’. The advance was £6,000. Incredible to say it now but at the time you could live quite contentedly in London for a year or eighteen months on that.
Do you have a set writing routine? Do you have any rituals that help when you’re in need of inspiration?
I listen to ambient music, like Gregorian chant or Brian Eno, while I’m writing. And I try to read some poetry every day, since poetry, the highest literary artform, reminds you of what’s possible with language. I do walk a bit. We live near the sea, which is a great blessing.
How important is structure to you when writing a novel?
Hugely important. Like the Eiffel Tower, a novel not only has a structure; it IS a structure.
Do you spend much time planning your novels before you begin writing?
I spend at least as much time on the planning and shaping as I spend on the writing, and often far more. Star of the Sea took several years to plan but I wrote it in nine months.
My Father’s House, which uses a thriller shape, took a lot of planning too.
As Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Limerick, what is the most common mistake that you see aspiring/emerging novelists making?
The same mistake that very established novelists sometimes make. No matter how beautiful a writer you are, a story must be a record of the exceptional before it is anything else. Something has to happen. Or the writing won’t work.
I once invited Claire Keegan to teach a writing class at UL. She told them, ‘Make an incision in time, and lead your characters towards it’. It’s great advice.
If you hadn’t become a writer, what career path do you think you might have taken?
There wasn’t a Plan B, but I guess I would have continued working as a journalist since that involves writing, and it’s a world I like and respect.
I admire journalists very much and was lucky to work alongside them as a university student when I had summer jobs at Magill magazine and the Sunday Tribune.
Finally, is it true that you’ve received an offer for the movie rights for My Father’s House? If so, huge congratulations!
It’s indeed true. Thank you. I’m delighted!
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