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'When I was young I had a bulletproof self-confidence and I thought it was worth trying to be a writer' - Joseph O'Connor

Grief never goes away, Joseph O'Connor tells Donal Lynch, but you can accommodate it, unlike the young in lockdown

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HEAD IN BOOKS: O'Connor says he is used to solitude as a writer but he feels the pain of others for whom lockdown is a trial. Photo: ERIC CABANIS/AFP/Getty Images

HEAD IN BOOKS: O'Connor says he is used to solitude as a writer but he feels the pain of others for whom lockdown is a trial. Photo: ERIC CABANIS/AFP/Getty Images

HEAD IN BOOKS: O'Connor says he is used to solitude as a writer but he feels the pain of others for whom lockdown is a trial. Photo: ERIC CABANIS/AFP/Getty Images

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."


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