Saturday 21 October 2017

Learning to swim with the current

After some drastic soul-searching by the Liffey, author Sean O'Reilly has rebuilt himself

Author of Levitation Sean O'Reilly. Photo: Justin Farrelly
Author of Levitation Sean O'Reilly. Photo: Justin Farrelly

Hilary A White

Sean O'Reilly was four publications into a career that was gaining traction and steadily favourable reviews beyond these shores. When he reached a roadblock after a four-year stint while working on a big magnum opus of a novel, there was nothing for it but to take a walk down to the Liffey.

"I decided to destroy it," he says matter-of-factly. "I took the computer, all the discs, all the notes, everything, and I put it in a big shoulder bag. And I threw it in the Liffey."

The act is but a shrugging incidental on O'Reilly's journey as one of most distinct voices in contemporary Irish fiction. For him, it was a cleansing action akin to a forest fire that leaves a prime nursery for green shoots.

"For me it was 'who am I writing this for?'" he says. "I felt I was starting to write for publishers rather than myself. It was a crisis moment."

The book still lies somewhere in the mud of the capital's central water feature, and calls to him occasionally like a murder victim in a shallow grave. As with many times in his restless life, the Derry-born migrant tried to jet off to who knows where after the sacrificial rite but was stopped by a friend who intervened at Dublin Airport.

"He felt that I didn't quite perhaps know what I was doing. 'Stay in Dublin, wander around Dublin instead', he told me. So that was kind of what I did. I stayed put for the first time in forever."

What followed was a period of rebuilding that has led to Levitation, a gritty, elusive, carnal short-story collection and O'Reilly's first published work in 12 years.

He laughs that it doesn't feel like a gap to him seeing as there was always "more than enough going on". O'Reilly's day job is teaching in the American College where his slurred, Ulster-Tom-Waits voice and rakish Francis Bacon frown must surely make him a hit with students.

Galway author Andrew Meehan has used the words "mysterious", "amazing" and "lovely" to describe him. The mysterious thing is there alright, especially as he calmly starts riffing about "different plains" before looking me square in the eye and asking if I believe in levitation ("I ask everyone").

But what his students, peers, readers and his devoted publishing house The Stinging Fly (for whom he conducts writing workshops) must also cherish is O'Reilly's dogged eschewal of convention. This very much accompanies him into the classroom where he speaks of "pushing" writers to look into themselves and their material more piercingly.

You could imagine this attitude stemming from his early years in school in Troubles-ridden Derry, where an essay-writing class awoke in him the realisation that notoriety and acclaim could come through lying, spoofing and fictionalising. Outside the classroom, after all, truth came at a cost.

"You had to be careful about what you said and what you didn't say," the 47-year-old recalls. "There was a lot of secrets, a lot of not saying what you'd seen, who you were talking to, who you gave your name to. Everything around the spoken word was contaminated by suspicion and paranoia.

"In the environment, there was a lot of journalists around and so you were continually seeing your own neighbourhoods represented on the TV later in a different way to how you'd seen them with your own eyes."

Up until this discovery of a fiction-loving "interior space", O'Reilly's youth consisted of being banished out from under his mother's feet into the streets to "go mad". His was not the bookish, indoor solitude of most writers' childhoods. Film, acting and painting were the first avenues with which he could respond to where he'd come from.

And then silence.

After ditching school at 16, he relocated to London where he stopped grasping at artistic immortality and instead retreated into various bedsits to read and develop his voice.

University courses in London and East Anglia were dropped out of, or half-subscribed to. Like many of his era, he got swept up in the politics of Thatcherism, the miners' strikes, rave culture. His untethered life revealed a pattern of regular and random overseas wandering. Was he running from something?

"Absolutely everything," he nods. "I'd hit the end of a certain bit of myself. When I ended up in northern Scandinavia in the wilderness, it was like the end of the world but beautiful, like Valhalla. I started rebuilding myself, writing like mad. Writing is cheap - you don't need money, you don't need a big team of people, equipment, etc."

That stint in Norway resulted in not only a couple of novels' worth of material and a new existential superstructure but also a daughter, now 21 and living in London.

"Watching her grow up reawakened me to my roots," he explains. "What was I doing when I was seven, eight, 12? It becomes terrifyingly clear what type of environment you grew up in, what you saw, what you heard. It makes you see the damage that was done to everyone - left, right, prod, catholic - in the North. You'd do anything to keep your own child away from that."

Years have passed since that night on the Quays. O'Reilly is a different writer, more concerned with "broader brushstrokes" than "the perfect sentence". As a man, the river never left him.

"I believe more in giving than I used to," he says. "What you give is more important than any other aspect of what you're thinking. Teaching has given me that sense of trying to let the river run through you and not be parcelling it out. Let it just carry you away."

'Levitation' is published by The Stinging Fly, priced €12.95

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