Many years ago, in the mid-1990s, Joe O'Connor was having a drink with a psychiatrist, a friend of his, in London. The issue of whether O'Connor used his writing to come to terms with difficult events in his life came up. "He said to me 'are you working through issues in your work?' and I said 'absolutely not.' And he said, well describe to me the book (Desperadoes) you have just written. And I said, well, ok. It's about a middle-aged couple and they're unhappily married and their son runs off and he fakes his own disappearance in order to make them reunite." He pauses. "Sometimes you do allude to your own life. It's hard to take the stance that what you write is nothing to do with you."
O'Connor was, by then, a huge and relatively new literary star, but unlike Frank McCourt, whose name O'Connor's professorship at the University of Limerick bears, the Dublin-born writer never openly mined his early life for material. And yet there was surely much to draw upon. His parents split in the 1970s when he was still a child and, unusually for the era, his father, Sean, was granted custody of Joe and his three siblings. From the bleakness of this there flowered one of the most artistic households Ireland has ever known; one sister, Eimear, is a painter and an art historian at Trinity College, another is, of course, Sinead, who was inspired by Joe's copy of Bob Dylan's Slow Train Coming to become a singer. "I'm not sure if it's coincidence (that they were all artistic), or if we were unconsciously encouraging each other" he says of this time. "The truth is that I don't know."
There is a faint sense about him that he might have preferred to have become a musician himself. His earliest protagonist was a frustrated rock star and he refers to music as "the highest of all arts". He praises his fellow writers in musical terms. Joyce is "symphonic", Anne Enright is "chamber music" and he measures his own progression as a writer in terms of the "music" in his prose.
The work of JD Salinger, an early influence, was suffused with music, and O'Connor says Catcher in the Rye helped convince him to become a writer. "When I was young I had a bulletproof self-confidence and I thought it was worth trying to be a writer" he recalls. "I remember turning the final page of that book and I thought I want to write something that will last as long as this, I want to take on the world and win."
That wasn't long coming. After graduating from UCD, and doing postgrads at Oxford and Leeds, in 1991 he published his first novel, Cowboys and Indians. By then the London publishing world was casting around for the next Roddy Doyle and O'Connor's sharp wit made him seem like just that. It was really Star of the Sea, which endures as one of the great Irish epics of recent decades, that made him a star, however. He still feels that it deserved a Booker longlist nomination, but he is ambivalent about the value of awards.
"You get nominated for something and a little inner Gollum appears in your head saying 'I want that'. My last book won the Irish Novel of the Year in November and it was a horrible, cold, rainy day and I thought it had no chance because it was in a great group of novels and it won and I felt really brilliant suddenly. But it only lasts a couple of days."
He is up again on June 20 nominated for the Dalkey Literary Award, which, in lockdown, has replaced the festival. "It feels great to be on the list, I'd be sad if I weren't since I'm from not far from Dalkey and I'm in it every day. What the organisers have done is terrific. It is a great list. There is only one Edna O'Brien, who is also nominated, she is a fabulous person who has kept going through so many seasons of her work. I didn't read the New Yorker profile of her, I wouldn't be bothered reading it."
John McGahern was another of his literary heroes and he says the great Leitrim writer surprised him. "He was much warmer and funnier in real life than I thought he would be. I pictured a kind of schoolmasterly presence but he was naughty and gossipy and great mimic. Like Joyce and Kate O'Brien he tapped into subcurrents of sexuality in Irish country life. People are acting as though they are shocked by Normal People but our writers have been dealing with sex a very long time indeed."
He is currently working on a novel, My Father's House, which deals with Hugh O'Flaherty, an Irish priest, who at great personal risk helped ensure the safety of thousands of Rome's Jews during the Holocaust. O'Connor and his family spent time in Rome at the beginning of the year and he had intended to be there now. But there is a silver lining to lockdown; the time at home has meant he will likely deliver the manuscript much earlier than expected.
He says his wife, fellow writer Anne-Marie Casey, "deserves a medal"; he describes himself at home as "difficult and absent-minded". They have two boys together and fatherhood had a profound influence on O'Connor. "Being a parent deepens your stake in the world, and that very much covers what you do for a living. It changed how thought about writing."
Lockdown has been no great trial for him as a writer is used to the solitude, he says but he feels the pain of others. At the beginning of Cowboys and Indians, its protagonist recalls "the chatter of conversation he used to hear on the middle floor of the university canteen, a great full noise which, if you listened to it for long enough, would trip you out better than any drug".
O'Connor says that this experience is the thing his son will miss out on the most.
"This has been hardest on young people, I think. My son is back from college and I really feel for him. For a 20-year-old who started university in September who is now living back with his mum and dad this has been f***ing dreadful."
He is 56 now and he says this period of life has brought a qualified contentment. "I feel good but I think you'd want to be insane to be happy all of the time especially living in the world we're living in now." And for a moment he does seem to allude to his own life: "It's not that grief goes away, but you learn to accommodate it."
The Dalkey Book Festival in conjunction with Zurich Insurance takes place on June 20. www.dalkeybookfestival.org/