Tuesday 28 January 2020

'I don't hate the future but I'm happy to be the age I am' - author Joseph O'Connor

Chair of UL's creative writing programme and self-confessed 'leftie' Joseph O'Connor talks punk, Bob Geldof and millennials with our reporter

Tuning up: Author Joseph O Connor hopes to have a new novel out next year. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Tuning up: Author Joseph O Connor hopes to have a new novel out next year. Photo: Frank Mc Grath

Hilary A White

'We're 18 years into the 21st century, and we all thought nationalism was gone, radical religion would just fade away and people would be far busier just figuring out ways of getting along with one another. And - surprise, surprise - it's beginning to feel more like 1918. So I wouldn't say that I hate the future, but I will say that I am very happy to be the age I am."

Joseph O'Connor's mouth curls up at one end as it tends to, tongue closing in on cheek as he surveys the apocalypse.

"We very quickly got on to these big, deep themes," the author, laureate and general lit-wit quips aridly. "I thought I was just turning up to plug a creative writing festival. It's turning into a therapy session. May I lie down?"

A sizeable chunk of O'Connor's essence is that of the pithy ex-enunciator of grade-A ditties on RTÉ's Drivetime, who'd go on to be aped with "vicious accuracy" by any Callan or Rosenstock within earshot. You'll be pleased to hear he's a superbly good sport in the flesh, too, divulging how elder son James made a party piece out of mimicking his old man reading from Ghost Light ("a novel I poured my heart into and feel very sensitively about," he deadpans).

The rest of the O'Connor portrait is made up of something far loftier and endlessly inspired. Besides a level of literary success - in terms of overseas sales and various honours, Star of the Sea (2004) is a phenomenon - that places him in a very exclusive club in this country, you only have to listen to O'Connor riff on anything, from the nature of creativity to this island's shifting social sands, to see his is a voice that requires you to pipe down and listen.

Young people are a natural talking point with the 54-year-old, who in 2014 was unveiled as the inaugural Chair of the Frank McCourt Creative Writing programme at University of Limerick. His time is divided between his home in South Dublin with its writing shed at the end of the garden, and UL. He loves the job, not only as he gets to craft the programme while working alongside the likes of Donal Ryan ("A very amenable colleague. He does a heck of a lot at UL - and then he goes home and writes From a Low and Quiet Sea") but also because he learns so much from being around the students.

The one-time bookish UCD leftie, who took himself off to Nicaragua in 1985 to report on the fortunes of the Sandinista revolution, is back in a campus environment. Gears naturally turn.

"I'm still leftie," O'Connor begins, "but what strikes me is the remarkable confidence, not just in UL but any college or secondary school I go to. There's a whole generation of kids who've been brought up with things like self-esteem that weren't thought useful, in fact, were a bit problematic, when I was a kid. If you said you had self-esteem, you'd have just been quietly taken outside and disappeared."

All the things people accuse millennials of not being - articulate, informed, interested in politics - O'Connor sees in spades. Protest and conviction were around in his day, but this more equal society has fostered a youth voice unafraid to take on weighty social institutions such as the 8th Amendment and the US National Rifle Association. They mightn't be as interested in traditional party politics (can you blame them?) but they remain fiercely motivated, O'Connor finds.

"Well, the ones that I meet tend to be writing students," O'Connor qualifies, "so they have an imaginative and empathic disposition, as writers tend to. You have to believe in the world at some level in order to write a novel."

O'Connor is gearing up for UL/Frank McCourt Creative Writing Festival, of which he is curator. Running through the programme will be a seam of punk that O'Connor has quietly nurtured in the faculty hallways, you suspect. Ex-Toasted Heretic frontman Julian Gough will be in conversation with Kevin Barry (himself, an anarchic talent), while UL sociology professor Eoin Devereux will give a lecture subtitled 'Punk and Creativity'.

The gobby icing on the cake will be Bob Geldof, a hero of O'Connor's youth and now a Yeats scholar on top of everything else. ("If I'd known when I was 15 that Bob Geldof would ever even be aware of my pimply little existence, it would've made my youth a lot happier than it was").

He relates meeting Bob at a book launch and "turning to jelly a little bit". Geldof complimented O'Connor's scarf. O'Connor gushed back that it was never too late to be cool, he felt. "In your case, it f**kin' is," Geldof rejoindered, as only you'd wish him to. Looking on, and delighted to see his father humiliated so by his hero, was O'Connor's 14-year-old, Marcus.

"I'm interested in him as a creative individual," O'Connor says of Geldof's billing. "You can think about it, listen to loads of music, read lots of books, attend lots of lectures, and then the moment comes when you get the guitar, you plug it in and you just do it. Punk inspired a generation to have a go, learn while you're doing it, etc. That's sometimes hard for writers to do. We sometimes get caught up with the beauty of Sebastian Barry's prose, or James Joyce's prose, or Anne Enright's.

"Punk, you just throw it at the wall and sometimes you turn out to be Elvis Costello or Paul Weller. It's a useful thing for students to have a look at, how you get to that moment where you jump out of the plane and you hope what's strapped to your back is a parachute and not a grand piano."

Also on the bill and in conversation with O'Connor will be the great Marian Keyes whom he's visibly excited about, too. "I read with her once about 10 years ago," he recalls, "and fell around laughing right through it like the rest of the audience.

"I'm just interested in that tradition where a great Irish writer knows that when they make you laugh, they've got you off balance and that's when they hit you with the serious stuff. Marian is in that tradition. And I have no doubt that if she was a man, she would've been shortlisted for major literary prizes. I'm sure it doesn't bother her. I hope it doesn't."

Further down the line is a novel earmarked for next year, now in its fourth draft. He still dips into Catcher in the Rye, his first love, every couple of years for a tune-up ("It's like going on a pilgrimage to Lourdes for other people."). He still gets that buzz from the Baumes, Barrys and Barretts of today's Irish literary scene, and still chuckles at a vocation notorious for taking itself very seriously.

"You do have to recognise the absurdities of a writer's life. If you stand back and look at it, it's a really odd way for a grown-up to spend time. I spend a lot of time in a room by myself making shit up. So, it's hard to tell my kids to pay attention in school and stop drifting off - that's been my living and it's been very good to me."

As part of the UL Frank McCourt Creative Writing Festival, May 3-6, Joseph O'Connor is in conversation with Marian Keyes (May 4,) and Bob Geldof (May 5) at the University Concert Hall. Booking at uch.ie or 061 331 549. See www.frankmccourt.ulfoundation.com

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