Monday 14 October 2019

'I find so much crime writing repellent' - Paraic O'Donnell

For his second novel, a dark Victorian mystery, Paraic O'Donnell didn't want to glorify violence and instead gave agency to the story's dead women

Improvised: O'Donnell first came to notice for his microfiction series on Twitter. Photo: Damien Eagers
Improvised: O'Donnell first came to notice for his microfiction series on Twitter. Photo: Damien Eagers

Between 2011 and 2012, the Twitter handle @paraicodonnell ran an improvised fiction series every Friday entitled The Cocktail Hour. The tweets would begin around 4pm and continue right through to the wee hours. With an elegant, Wodehousian wit, it told of a cast of characters taking the edge off at the end of the week.

"It was all very stylised and mannered and not taking itself terribly seriously," says the very account-holder today. "It began as a humorous dramatisation of that period late on a Friday afternoon when you're watching the clock and wondering, is it too early to lurch towards the drinks tray? But it became a running thing I'd do on Friday afternoons and people came to look forward to it, which I found astonishing.

"It was like online busking. It was always done live, and the direction it could take on a given night could be as much a surprise to me as anyone else. It could sometimes go on until late at night when I might be the worse for wear myself. It could start quite dry and then go considerably off the rails towards the end, but there was always that determination to complete a narrative arc. I'd often end up hunched over the phone after midnight in an advanced state of squiffiness trying to get it finished."

An audience of thousands was subscribing to Paraic O'Donnell's Friday evening narrative acrobatics and online poems. Sometime later, one of these online strangers got in touch.

"Writing is a faculty and it will find whatever form of expression is available. I was using Twitter to write these microfictions, some of them just glorified running jokes, but some of them had narrative form and people responded to them. And some of those people were the right sort of people, and I found myself one day five or so years ago getting an email from a literary agent who wanted to talk about my work. When she asked if I had anything more marketable, I said 'not exactly but hold that thought'."

O'Donnell went off and wrote a first chapter in about three weeks. The agent liked it and asked to see more. Ably fuelled by a good old deadline, he had a novel five months later. That particular agent didn't take it on but, emboldened, he contacted another who did. That debut novel was 2016's The Maker of Swans, a neo-gothic wonder that shimmered with spectral atmospherics and nabbed an Irish Book Awards shortlisting.

It was, he happily says, "a modestly successful work of literary fiction", and while he never harboured delusions that writing might be a guarantee of anything, let alone an income, it has meant that a degree of anticipation now awaits his new novel, The House on Vesper Sands.

Already selected as one of the Guardian's '50 Biggest Books of Autumn 2018', O'Donnell's lush, shape-shifting Victorian mystery is an occasionally exquisite piece of work, full of the ghostliness, humour and chiaroscuro of his debut but with satisfying detective and romance flavours added to the batter.

"I tried to animate and subvert all those sub-genres by asking questions that are relevant now," he says. "For example, the role of 'the dead girl' in popular culture, why it is so often presented in a highly stylised and eroticised way? In this book, the victims are women and girls but I wanted to play with that. You have a duty not to glorify the violence or the aggressors, and this is why I find so much canonical crime writing repellent. The Hannibal Lecter novels are to an operatic degree glorifying grotesque acts of savagery. I tried to write the male perpetrators out of the story entirely and I wanted the women, even though some are dead, to be honoured, to be the agents of the conclusion."

In a sunlit café under the Sugar Loaf, O'Donnell strikes me as an unusual species. Between his hooded eyes, black walking stick, love of roses, and an uncannily refined and mirth-filled delivery that seems almost pre-rehearsed, he could have walked straight off the pages of one of his own homages to the Victorian novels of sensation. Add to this the fact that he can't reveal how he makes a living ("It involves travel and secrecy due to the nature of my clients, but with all of the glamour and wealth taken away") and you'd be forgiven for wondering does the 45-year-old Wicklow dweller have a taste for theatrics?

Well, he probably does, is the truth. As a young child growing up in Dublin, he was always given to "superimposing" imagined landscapes on to real ones, long before he'd ever travelled abroad. He began writing short stories as a nine-year-old, which his father filed away ("I'll be taking care to destroy those things on my passing. They can never come to light.")

After studying English and French in UCD and a Masters in Linguistics in Trinity ("which I've put to no use whatsoever beyond occasional pedantic arguments on Twitter"), he became a father himself. Suddenly, the impetus to tell stories and celebrate their telling calcified. Just as O'Donnell believes is the case for every person out there tapping a typewriter, he could see his children responding to these stories with stories of their own.

"Imagination is not a metaphorical process for children - it literally enables them to transform the world and create things. These were ideas I celebrated in the first book because they're so intoxicating. As a creative artist of any kind, if you don't find that magical and charged in a way that approaches the sacred, then I don't know what to do for you."

It is here, he argues, not in creative-writing courses, that the tools of the writer's trade are forged. "If you haven't deeply internalised those things from your earliest years as a reader then I don't believe that that void can ever be filled retrospectively."

And if, after all that, your writing career is comprised of tweets, you could do worse.

"People feel liberated to behave badly by Twitter, but also to express things online they wouldn't necessarily in person, aspects of their emotional lives, their idealised selves. There's a process of self-fashioning we're all constantly involved in, but we're all multiple, we're all plural, capable of shifting between registers and identities and it doesn't mean any of those are inauthentic. And people are freer to explore those possibilities online and in some ways become themselves, and that's to be celebrated."

The House on Vesper Sands is published on October 18 by W&N, priced at €15.99

Indo Review

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment

Back to top