The Power of the Past: Joseph O’Connor

Joseph O'Connor. Photo by Gerry Sanford / Imagine Photography.

By Sheila Langan, Deputy Editor
April / May 2012

Joseph O’Connor, author of Star of the Sea and Redemption Falls, talks about his new novel, Ghost Light, the Irish diaspora, and why he doesn’t write historical fiction.

The Aran Islands appeared recently on the cover of the New York Times magazine – green, quaintly barren, and lined with stone walls. The accompanying feature was by an Irish-American writer, John Jeremiah Sullivan, who had revisited Ireland and traveled to the islands for the first time. Over the course of his stay, he kept returning to John Millington Synge, the Anglo-Irish playwright who made the Aran Islands and their inhabitants famous in such provocative masterpieces as Playboy of the Western World and Riders to the Sea. “The great discovery [Synge] made in his study of the Irish character,” Sullivan explained, “is the idea of survival as an act of imagination,” he said, speaking to Ireland’s current troubles. “A century after Synge’s last works were published, he may be the writer Ireland needs,” he concluded.

It is a good point, but it’s nothing new to Joseph O’Connor, or to those who have read his latest novel, Ghost Light, which zeroes in on Synge’s final, most prolific years before his death from Hodgkins disease at age 38. “He’s so important and so influential,” O’Connor said, talking over the phone from his home in Killiney, Dublin, where he lives with his wife, Anne-Marie, and their sons James and Marcus. “There couldn’t have been Samuel Beckett without Synge, which means that there couldn’t have been David Mamet without Synge – it goes on. I think if you trace back, Synge was at the start of so many tributaries of storytelling, in ways that he didn’t even understand.

He was also greatly ahead of his time. “In an era of all sorts of separatism and sectarian hatred and very, very narrow definitions of what Irishness should be, here’s this man who is a Protestant and from the land-owning class, who thinks that the country is great. The people in the West of Ireland, who had been portrayed during the Famine like apes, he finds something in how they talk that is actually beautiful, that deserves to be treated by a dramatist with respect and with love.”

In turn, O’Connor treats Synge and Molly Allgood (stage name Marie O’Neill), the young Irish actress who was his muse and companion, with a similar love and respect. Recently released in paperback, Ghost Light was published in 2010 in Ireland and the U.K., where it spent weeks on the best seller list and was chosen as the 2011 One Book, One City title for all of Dublin to read. It came out in the U.S. in early 2011, and was recently chosen as a fiction finalist for the LA Times Book of the Year award.

O’Connor’s fascination with Synge and Molly goes back to the early 70s; to his childhood spent on a modern housing estate in Glenageary, Dublin. The house where Synge had lived and worked was nearby, and his mother would often make him stop and take note as they passed.

“My mother used to tell us ‘that was the house where the late John Synge lived.’ She would point up at the window and say ‘That’s the room where he worked, the room where he wrote Playboy of the Western World. Yeats visited that house, Lady Gregory visited that house.’ She had a great sense of those wonderful presences, and she sort of bequeathed it to me. So Synge and his secret girlfriend have been floating around in my mind for some time.”

His fascination with Molly and Synge as something to write about goes back to 2005, when he was asked to contribute to Synge: A Celebration, a collection edited by Colm Tóibín for the Druid Theatre. That story, which would be the inspiration for Ghost Light and which makes up most of the book’s third chapter, stuck fairly faithfully to what little is known about the pair. They took walks together; he wrote the role of Playboy’s Pegeen Mike for her; she would later name her daughter (not by him) Pegeen. Though they wrote each other scores of letters, Synge’s family, fearing scandal, bought his letters back from Molly after his death, and had them destroyed.

When O’Connor decided to revisit Molly and Synge, he found that the second time around he was much more interested in what isn’t known about them: “How they behaved when they were alone, and the great lengths they went to to keep this love affair secret because of the taboos it transgressed of class, politics, background, age and religion. They really spent most of their time away from prying eyes, and I began to wonder, what must that have been like? How did Synge, who was such a reserved and rather buttoned up man, behave when he was alone with her? She was obviously able to see another side of him, a great sort of sensitivity and a warmth that maybe the public man didn’t have. As often happens in real life, sometimes people become more attractive through their partner. And Synge, through Molly, seemed a more loveable man to me than the official version of him.”

A departure from the roving narration that followed complex groups of characters in Star of the Sea and Redemption Falls, Ghost Light operates from Molly’s perspective and takes place over the course of one wintry London day in 1952. No longer the Abbey Theatre leading player she once was, her star on the American stage long having set, Molly is alone but for her cat, her gin and her memories. But she is a definite survivor. In a stream of thoughts at times reminiscent of those of another famous Irish Molly, she talks to herself in both first and second person, and looks back over the years to her time with Synge.

O’Connor shifts easily and frequently between Molly’s present and past, capturing the chill of post-war London as exactingly as he portrays Irish literary revival Dublin. The fun he had conjuring W. B. Yeats and Lady Gregory, who co-founded the Abbey with Synge and were the biggest supporters of his highly controversial work, is palpable. In one particularly memorable scene, Yeats and Molly go head-to-head over artistic differences during a rehearsal. “I thought I would have a little bit of fun with Yeats,” he admits. “He’s just so respected and everybody loves him so much. I love him too, but I think that sometimes we have him up on a pedestal. I mean, his face used to be on the bank notes, and I think with any author, when your face is on a bank note, respect has gone too far. So yeah, I thought I would allow him to be a bit pompous and a bit ridiculous… I tried to reflect  myriad facets of Yeats, to take him down just a peg or two. I’m sure he’s going to get me. I’m sure in heaven, Yeats will be waiting.”

Depending on how he thinks about it, O’Connor is either the author of seven novels, or of three. If he looks back at his works to date without bias, there are indeed seven novels there. From the earliest – Cowboys and Indians (1991), about an aspiring rocker from Dublin named Eddie Virago, and Desperadoes (1994), loosely based on the time O’Connor spent in Nicaragua, reporting in the wake of the Sandinista revolution  – to his more recent works Redemption Falls (2007), which takes place in the American South in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, and Ghost Light. But if he is being particularly introspective, he counts only three, starting with Star of the Sea (2002).

A thick and engrossing tome that plays expertly with style, material and perspective, Star of the Sea takes its name from the fictional Famine ship on which its large cast of characters is making an Atlantic crossing to America. It marked a decisive turning point in O’Connor’s fiction, which until then had focused mostly on contemporary Dublin. It also marked a turning point in his career, as the novel was an international success, selling over one million copies.

What brought about the change? “It was an entirely personal thing,” he reflects. “My son James was born around the time that I began working on Star of the Sea, and a strange thing happens to you when you become a parent. Well, lots of strange things happen, but one of them is that among all the joy and happiness of your life, you also realize that this is a milestone. And just as a new life has begun, your life is not going to go on forever, and there is a finite number of novels that you’re going to write – you can’t just keep turning them out every couple of years and hoping that they’ll be okay. When James was born I started to think ‘I’d like to write a novel that I would be proud to give to him one day, something that will be there on the shelf after I am not here.’ And I don’t think that any of my early novels, fond of them though I am, are as good. I’ve come to sort of think of Star of the Sea as my first.”

Good as his earlier fiction is, the difference is immediately noticeable. “I do feel that I had to write my early four books in order to learn, and then have a go at the novel that I probably always wanted to write,” he says. “I decided that I would give it 110%, just give it absolutely everything that I had. That led me to write Star of the Sea in a much more complex way than any of my other books…And I found that that process led me into writing about the Irish past.”

It is through writing about the Irish past that O’Connor has made his name internationally. Already immensely popular in their own rights, Star of the Sea and Redemption Falls struck a particular chord with the Irish diaspora, as people identified with the experiences of immigration he portrayed. “It’s so important to Ireland on every level,” O’Connor says.

“To some extent I think the Irish diaspora is more interesting than the Irish at home, because they’ve had to survive so much, they’ve been through so much. Not just in America, but in England, Australia, everywhere. I think people who leave the tribe are always more interesting than the people who stay. They’ve met other experiences and they’ve mingled with other cultures, and new, wonderful things happen when people come out of their group, their private inheritance.”  This makes him optimistic for the many young people who are leaving Ireland today.

On a more personal note, he is a big fan of New York from his tenures in the city – as a fellow at the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center from 2005– 2006 and the Sidney Harman Writer-in-Residence at Baruch College in 2009. “I feel completely at home there, for absolutely no reason,” he laughed. “I just feel as soon as the plane touches down at JFK a kind of homecoming that I wouldn’t feel in certain parts of Ireland. And I think many Irish people feel that.”

Despite the creative, critical and commercial success writing about the past has brought him, O’Connor eschews the notion that his last three novels are historical fiction. When he says “I actually hate historical fiction,” you can sense the grimace from 3,000 miles away.

“The first thing that I do with a novel is I try to make it beautiful. There’s enough ugliness in the world already, and part of the job of being a writer is to do your tiny little bit to counteract that. If you do that, then a book will find its readership. It won’t always be the massive audience that Star of the Sea turned out to have, but it won’t be forgotten either. I don’t really think of the novels in terms of having themes or being about big political ideas, I write them to be read, to be experienced on that level. That’s what we go to fiction for. We don’t really want to be told what to think by a novel, we want to be touched and moved. On some level, whether it’s set today or whether it’s set 200 years ago, we want it to say something to us about our lives now. That’s the test.”

When he wrote Star of the Sea, at the height of the Celtic Tiger, he was thinking about how Ireland’s flow of immigration had finally reversed, how Ireland was, in miniature, the new America for many of the people finding different lives there. With Redemption Falls, his focus on the American Civil War created both resonance and dissonance with the Iraq war. His novels, he says, are more about the present than they are about the past.

The first story O’Connor ever wrote was actually by John McGahern. Around age 14 or 15, O’Connor felt the desire to write, but he had no idea what to say.

“The hardest thing always about writing is knowing what to write. I didn’t have anything, and whatever little I did have just seemed too pallid and meaningless so I just wrote out his story,” he explains, referring to McGahern’s “Sierra Leone,” which he re-wrote every few nights for close to two years. “You can see what a sad adolescence I had,” he laughs.

“He told me once that I owed him a pint, but I think he forgave me. I must say that I love his work so much. It’s come to mean even more to me now than it did when I was younger, and I was very touched recently to be asked by his widow to be a trustee of his literary estate. It was such a great honor. I never thought when I was stealing his work that I would one day end up – hopefully – helping to protect it.”

O’Connor has frequently written about his experience with “Sierra Leone,” about how, over time, he would change a word here, an emphasis there, until the story started to become his own. The characters became people he knew, and a preoccupation of his emerged.

“My parents’ marriage was falling to pieces, and what was actually happening on a more serious level was that those characters in the John McGahern story were becoming my parents. I noticed by the time I had rewritten it maybe 20 or 30 times that the man was turning into my father and the woman was turning into my mother and I think, perhaps, I was trying to reconcile them on the page – which maybe I am always doing, I don’t know. I seem to always be writing about doomed love and trying to fix it. There’s probably a bit of McGahern and ‘Sierra Leone’ in all that I’ve written.”

Maybe, for O’Connor, history functions in a similar way. Though his three most recent novels find their footing in a concrete past, they do more than just re-tell it. Perhaps this is his greatest talent: seeing a special value in something – a life or event, a McGahern story or the influence of another admired writer (he names Richard Ford, James Joyce, Kingsley Amis; contemporaries Colum McCann and Colm Tóibín) and using it as a base, a starting point, from which forms a new story, one that is totally his own.

We will have the chance to see whether this is so when his new collection of stories, Where Have You Been? is published in April. The same month, his adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel will go on stage at The Gate. In the meantime, he will be exploring the life of another Irish literary legend, Dracula author Bram Stoker, for a BBC-commissioned screenplay.

The house where Stoker lived in Dublin  still stands, and was recently listed for sale. Does he have any interest in it?

“Oh sure, if I had maybe a spare €750,000 I would have considered buying it,” he says. “Except, if there is any haunted house anywhere in the world, surely it must be Bram Stoker’s.”

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