Having stumbled upon Irish writer Joseph O’Connor’s novel The Star of The Sea (award-winning and translated into 26 languages) in 2003, I had the pleasure of a conversation with him regarding that tome. In 2007, O’Connor published Redemption Falls, an ambitious and variegated post Civil War novel, set in the rough and tumble Montana Territory. Eliza Dwayne Mooney, the book’s heroine, opens the novel walking barefoot across a ravaged country—the friendless pilgrim as O’Connor puts it. And from ballads, letters, songs, memoirs, and reports from spies, he shapes a mosaic that represents not only the larger-than-life characters of Redemption Falls but unnamed thousands of Irish refugees who had come to the United States and fought in the terrible War Between the States. And, of course, the multiple narrative strands are a meta-narrative on truth and subjectivity—all done to riveting effect.
In our chat below, Joseph O’Connor and I range over various and sundry subjects: Montana in the winter, Thomas Francis Meagher, writing trilogies, Roddy Doyle, a writer’s responsibilities, Laurence Sterne, Walt Whitman, an Irishman writing about American history and wars. As before it was engaging conversation, though I wonder now, given how much music is part of my life, why we have never spoken of his sister, the talented Irish chanteuse, Sinead O’Connor? Oh well.
RB: As gruesome as a story that centers around war and—for the sake of this conversation—the aftermath of war is, it strikes me that you must have had some fun writing Redemption Falls.
JO: Oh, absolutely. Well, it was a lot of fun because it’s very new territory for me, visually and linguistically and musically and every way. It was a lot harder to write The Star of the Sea because, you know, I was sort of familiar with the landscape of that book, but this book, the characters, although they’re Irish immigrants and they weren’t born here, most of them have grown up here. They speak in various American languages and southern slang and bits of blues and all that stuff. Plus I had to learn about the American Civil War. So it was a lot of fun. But it was a lot of work as well.
RB: You traveled for writing this novel?
JO: Yeah, I lived in New York for a year while I was working.
RB: You went to Montana, too. I sort of liked how you said it was nicer place than you pictured in the story.
JO: Yeah, well, I went there in December of 2005 when everybody says you should go to Montana. Then I made contact with a few people out there—and they said, you know, for god’s sake come in the spring. But, being stubborn, I went in December close to Christmas. It was astonishingly cold and just miserable, but I’m glad I did it because it’s still a very sparsely populated state and there is some sense there of what people had it like in the 1860s. But yeah, it was fun. I remember leaving the hotel one night to go for a walk, which is my practice, and the woman at desk said, “Where are you going?” So I said I was gonna walk for a while, but she said, You don’t want to do that because the temperature outside gets down to almost minus 40. So you could actually die, it freezes your lungs. But while that would have been very good publicity for my novel, it wouldn’t have been very good for me.
RB: Posthumous publication [laughs] has a certain allure.
JO: Yeah. The wildlife and the wilderness that’s still there and just the vast spaces that are still there now. I was interested in a man in real life there called Thomas Francis Meagher, who was the second governor of Montana, and I took some aspects from Meagher’s resume and gave them to my character, and through a strange quirk the house that Meagher lived in has been preserved. It’s in a place called Virginia City, which, like everywhere in America that has city in the title, is a tiny little town. And it’s one of these—it’s like a cowboy town. It’s where people go to have their photograph taken in front of a saloon. But down one of the little side streets there’s the log cabin where Meagher lived, and to be there on a very cold bitter day in December 2005 with snow up to your waist—you have a real sense of just how far it was from Ireland.
RB: You know, I have to say, one thing that struck me after I read the book—I don’t know how to characterize it, but it seemed like, given the fact that the book covered these huge distances—Ireland, Tasmania, New York, Louisiana, Northern Territories, up into Canada—it seemed like those distances were compact. I never got that sense of spaciousness, even as Eliza does this huge trek. I guess that’s just a shortcoming of a book, it can’t really give you the spatial—
I hate when authors say they expect the reader to do the work. I feel that the author should do the work.JO: It can’t really, unless it’s even bigger than it already is. I was in a constant fight with the book to make it shorter. The Star of the Sea was quite a long book, and my ambition, for whatever reason, was to have this one be shorter. But then it didn’t work out.
RB: It’s a bigger story!
JO: It’s a bigger story, but, perhaps for crude marketing reasons—
RB: [Laughing] You can’t be faulted for that.
JO: I originally had a vision that Star of the Sea would be the first part of a trilogy, that the three would be bound together like Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown Trilogy and would sell in near hundreds of thousands. But I don’t think that’s going to happen now…
RB: So do you have these dreams often? These trilogies selling in the hundreds of thousands?
JO: [Laughing.] My Roddy Doyle dreams. Also, of course, the thing is when you’re writing about a community, all communities are small and all communities are to do with smallness and compactness and who has the power; and you know, at the mountain territories, the town itself of Redemption Falls is actually very small, and you’re sort of focused in on that. Then it’s even more intimate because on another level, it’s a story about a marriage.
RB: Yeah. What did you start out knowing in this story? Did you know the whole arc of it?
RB: So you knew who the narrator was?
JO: Yes, I did.
RB: So that surprise was not a surprise to you.
JO: It wasn’t a surprise to me, and it’s quite expected that it wasn’t because I think to try to pull off that kind of surprise, if you just decided two-thirds of the way into it, would be difficult. So there are actually enough clues there that if people went back and read it a second time I think it’d make sense.
RB: I don’t know how many times you did this, but I did catch it at least once—there’s a place where O’Keefe, something flashes, he notes something, and you say that he then remembers it when he’s dying. And I’m thinking, Jesus, how do you do that? You’re writing this instant. Did you add that late?
RB: You know when something’s happening that he’s also going to remember it later?
JO: Yes, that’s just T.S. Eliot’s thing. Time past and time present, time future.
RB: Well I know the feeling. I sort of see time as being sort of being all-imminent present—all moments in the moment.
JO: I guess that he will remember this moment on the night he dies. Yeah, sure, a narrator can know that. And I suppose it’s telling the reader something important, too, that he’s probably not going to get out of the book. I think a few of the characters have those moments. So the place is most likely beyond time, you know?
RB: I must say there were parts where I lost some direct connection to the story, but I never felt that as a criticism or a disturbance, because really the language is so wonderful, there’s so much going on, that who cares?
JO: I took the risk in that I allowed the story to ramble around a bit. The thing, with the last book—or with any book about a journey—you know, with Star of the Sea you’ve got a great big hundred-ton ship going through the water, and the captain’s writing a log, and each day he tells you there’s only so many days left, I mean it’s a fantastic narrative thing for any writer to do, it’s just brilliant as a page-turning device, and I really enjoyed doing that, you know? But so I felt like this time I would try to come at it another way and maybe allow the language just to be there almost as a character, for its own sake, and to loosen up the story. Plus it’s a story about chaos and war and people trying to reconstruct after this terrible experience, so I kind of felt that the more direct linear it is, the more it’s working against what the story is about. It’s a risky strategy.
RB: I was going to say—what’s the responsibility of the writer and the reader as the writer makes things less clear, less linear?
It’s an amazing thing that the U.S. works at all. If you put a Bostonian and a Texan and a Californian in the same room, you’d probably need an interpreter.JO: Well, you just certainly have to hope that the reader will trust you enough. It took me—in the first sort of 50 or 100 pages certainly, there’s an invitation to a deal or a contract to trust me that I know what I’m doing; and then about 100 pages in it becomes a bit more conventional, a bit more linear, and by the time Winterton arrives in the story, that whole sequence is pretty much linear as in the sense that a 19th-century novel is, so you just have to hope that people don’t give up in the first 50 pages.
RB: Well, for me that wasn’t an issue; I wasn’t going to give up. Well, I knew I was talking to you, so hell if I was give up, but that wasn’t the thing.
JO: Well I also thought—I might be wrong—I thought that it might actually be more involving in that way, in that, in order to figure out what’s going on you have to piece it together. I hate when authors say they expect the reader to do the work, because I feel that the author should do the work, but you’re handing people the pieces and then pretty soon hopefully they see how they fit together and that the process of fitting them together would draw you in and so that you are doing pretty much what the old professor we discover at the end of book is doing. You’ve been handed these documents, you’re putting them together. I hope there’s a sense that if they were put together in a different order they might tell a different story.
RB: Sure. And you were committed to this kind of hypertextual approach?
JO: Well, I didn’t actually think about that much.
RB: You’re using all sort of different narratives: songs, pictures, headlines, pamphlets—
JO: To me it goes all the way back to Laurence Sterne. I don’t think there’s anything particularly new about it. It’s a way of acknowledging that a story about war has many sides, and I think one of the problems about writing about war or writing about tragedy is often you only get one perspective, and then you’re running the risk of manipulating the facts or manipulating the tragedy in order to provide the turns and twists of the plot, so I was thinking of ways to shed all kinds of light so that some people who are actually writing in the moment—the spy’s reports, those sequences—they’re writing about stuff that happened today, and you realize that the narrator is writing many, many years after the events. So I suppose, in the way that a cubist painting—although I don’t particularly like that image either, it’s just the way this book works. It just pieces it together.
RB: Well, later in the book—I don’t even know if it’s the narrator that says this—but there’s a description of the war as a shape-shifter, as a witch.
RB: I think that is sort of the summation of the way you’ve presented all these sort of episodes, and in fact you reminded me of this song that Gil Scott-Heron wrote called “The Military and the Monetary” where somewhere in the middle he says that “Peace is not the absence of war, peace is the absence of the rules of war.” Just because there’s no fighting doesn’t mean there’s not hostility bubbling around.
JO: Yeah, I thought it was interesting as well, that Walt Whitman—
RB: Oh yeah, that was a great quote.
JO: People forget the second part of the quote. He said, “The real war will never get in the books,” but then he went on to say that, “perhaps it is better than it shouldn’t.” It was his feeling that this was the only way we could deal with this awful thing is by a kind of collective act of amnesia, and I think that is how America tried to deal with it.
RB: Well, how one part of America tried to deal with it.
JO: Yeah, sure.
RB: The South didn’t.
JO: No, not the South, but there is a certain strand of military history writing about the war where it doesn’t talk about causes or politics or ideology, and the valor of everybody is celebrated. We had a civil war in Ireland in the 1920s, and according to some people it was still going on up until a couple months ago, and that’s the way—in terms of our political culture, the two conservative parties that have taken turns to run Ireland are descended from that time; they represent these factions of the Civil War, and we talk about it and sing about it all the time. We make documentaries about it. And I don’t know, sometimes the amnesia approach seems to be—
RB: It’s not amnesia. It’s indifference, or just a purposeful disregard of the realities. People don’t forget the wars, they just sort of pretty them up or fancy them or say that there are heroes. Consider how recent was Saving Private Ryan. Wasn’t that one of the first movies where in the first 20 minutes there is just this relentless carnage, almost in real time. You never see that. People don’t think of it like that. Even figures of numbers of people who died, that doesn’t—well, I suppose war wouldn’t be possible if they did. That’s another thing Gil Scott-Heron says, something about, “if everybody who said they were for peace wanted peace, we’d have peace, but you can’t make no money off of peace.”
The test is anything that makes the reader see the pictures, not just authenticity for its own sake, which is always a trap for a novel.JO: But the shape-shifting thing. Just as an outsider, looking at America, you still see the tensions between the North and the South. You see it at election time when a figure like John Kerry is so difficult a prospect. I think there’s just that suspicion in the South that he’s this kind of moral and wealthy liberal coming in here and telling us all what to do. And then vice versa, there’s so much stereotyping of people from the South, which is a far more interesting and strange and culturally fascinating place than these caricatures would leave you to believe. Or, well, I think it is.
RB: Well it is. And oddly, the literature of the South is a wonderful literature, but then so is the Midwest. I mean the only place where it’s not that great is the East Coast. It’s a little tepid, it’s little sort of predictable. I’ve come to love Southern writers.
JO: I was in Mississippi last weekend, Jackson, which is just great fun, and then I went from there to New Orleans so I had a couple days of Southern gallantry and hospitality. Very interesting.
RB: Well, by the way, that points to the other sort of thing that people don’t really want to acknowledge. In grammar schools and public schools in this country, you always sort of get this civics lesson that America is the great melting pot. But that’s bullshit, we didn’t melt anything. It’s a very big country with incredibly diverse cultures and who knows what magic prevented it from being the Balkans.
JO: Yeah. Well, it’s an amazing thing that the U.S. works at all. I mean, even how people speak—just that alone, the sheer diversity. If you put a Bostonian and a Texan and a Californian in the same room, you’d probably need an interpreter. That alone, race and ethnicity—
RB: I think that’s what people salute is the incalculable magic that this country could work. I mean, in a way, you could say that everybody hates somebody else. Either it’s the Albanians or it’s the blacks. Everybody finds someone else to dislike. And in this country—in fact I think you do point out something about how in war you have such ravages and horror but then you also have such grace and compassion. How do you put these things side by side? I guess it’s one of these mysteries that makes writing fiction wonderful.
JO: Yeah, well, writing fiction is wonderful.
RB: So, in the scheme of things, is this a hard book to write?
JO: Yeah. They’re always hard. It was very enjoyable, but difficult to plan the shape of it…
RB: It was an ambitious project.
JO: Yeah, it was, and it was pretty obvious from the start that it would be. I suppose part of me was hoping it would be simpler. You know I always have a great ambition to write a 120-page novel narrated by one person, and I really admire people who can do that, but I just can’t seem to try. I mean, as ever, the ambition for my next book is going to be that but if I see you again in three years it’ll probably be 1,000 pages. So yeah, it’s difficult. If you’re playing around with time, that’s very difficult, and if you’re playing around with point of view, with different languages, different slangs and patois…and of course you’re very aware that you’re an outsider. I can’t know how I would feel if an American came and wrote a novel about 19th century Ireland and, even if they’ve researched it very carefully, something would just be wrong. He would have gotten his dialogue from the movie The Cry of Man rather than any sort of real notion of how people speak.
RB: Have you gotten any of that, like, “Don’t you have a nerve coming here…?
JO: I have, but for the most part people have been very polite about it. But you have to be careful, you have to realize that you can’t just parrot cowboy movies. I mean there’s so many images of the wild West and so you have to be really—you’re entering a minefield, and so far I’ve gotten away with it. But I’m sure there’s some Civil War guy, you know those guys who know everything about it, who’s just waiting—
RB: Yeah, but those are the—
RB: Tom Franklin wrote a book [Hell at the Breech], and I was talking to him and there’s always that horror when a reader comes up and tells you, no, there were no armadillos east of the Mississippi in 1899 and the tobacco can that you talked about was not square, it was round, and…
JO: And that ruined the whole book for you.
JO: You know I had a bit of that actually with Star of the Sea, which is obviously historically researched as well. I had a sequence where there’s a poor man on the deck of the ship and he’s looking up at the night sky and he’s leaving Ireland and he’s very disappointed and sad, and I thought it would be nice to make him have a little warm memory to make the scene more complex, so I decided that when he was a boy he had a courtly schoolmaster who taught the little children a little mnemonic to remember the sequence of the planets by the sun and it was “Mary’s Violet Eyes Make Giants Sit Up Nights Praying.” That was my nice poem. So the book comes out, and this guy writes to me from the Irish Astrological Society—
RB: Pluto wasn’t discovered by then?
When you write a sentence, it’s a very political thing to do, and at some point you just need to jump.JO: 1920, Pluto was discovered. In fact I read this somewhere, we’re still not absolutely sure if Pluto exists. So the book was successful and lucky and was reprinted, so I took Pluto out. And then the same guy writes me again, and he could have told me this the first time, but he said, see, Sit Up Nights, Nights is for Neptune and Neptune was discovered in 1847, so this poor guy on the deck of your ship who is illiterate, what is he reading the scientific literature? So it seems every reprint of the book, the solar system is getting shorter.
RB: Does that bother you?
JO: Well I should try and get it right.
RB: Well, as you’re saying this I’m thinking about Edward Jones’s The Known World, in which, you know he intended at some point, he said that he had 20 or 25 books on a list that he was going to read as he spent 12 years thinking about this book, but he didn’t read a one. And he admits, like someone like Jim Crace, he made it up.
JO: Well, mine is made up. And I say in the acknowledgments that it is and I make no claim to textbook reliability. But, I mean, that is a self-defense.
RB: Right. But you feel like you had to read about it first.
JO: Yeah, I think you do. I think, if it’s possible, you should try and get the background right. Without going crazy.
RB: Well maybe it just makes you feel better.
JO: Yeah. I mean, I don’t think—it’s not that much more work, you know? It’s five percent more work to make the background right, and sometimes that adds a kind of texture to the book. I mean here’s a wonderful thing: I had sort of a handbill there from where [John] O’Keefe is speaking in the South, I think it’s in Macon, and it says that the ladies are not to come with hoops in their skirts and the gentlemen are not to wear swords. It’s just like, no novelist would ever think of that. So you put that in and somehow the scene—you can see it, you know? It’s suddenly so visual.
RB: It’s just so they can get more people in there?
JO: Yeah, so there will be more room and they can make a bit more of money. So, sometimes in the process of research you turn up something that helps the fiction to come to life. But that should be the test—the test is anything that makes the reader see the pictures, not just authenticity for its own sake, which is always a trap for a novel. We’ve all read those historical novels where the author can’t bear to waste…you know, he’s just read a really fascinating article about the kinds of shoes that people wore back in the 1840, and suddenly this is five pages about just [footwear]—or like inadequate dentistry, there’s usually a lot of that in a historical novel. Awful, surgical, frightening techniques. So you’ve got to try and be pretty ruthless. But, ah, the armadillos, armadillos appearing in strange places, I don’t mind. I had a wolf in Star of the Sea actually. A poor man dying in the mountainside hears a wolf in the distance, and a man did write to me.
RB: Were there no wolves in Ireland or something? No, the Irish wolfhounds! There must be—
JO: No no no, there were wolves. But he said the last wolf in Ireland was shot in 1802.
JO: Here’s an account of it, here’s a drawing of the wolf—
JO: Yeah. So I wrote back at my father’s suggestion and said, Well, that must have been the second-to-last wolf, because here’s the last wolf. So you’ll always get a bit of that, and no doubt there will be a bit for this book too. But there hasn’t been so far.
RB: There were a couple of places where—I didn’t think of it as didactic—but I thought it was interesting that you had the black housekeeper, Elizabeth, early in the book talk about how being a nigger is where you stand, it’s not what your color is. It’s a nice little speech that she gives there. And in her dialect, which I thought you did fine with—
It is astonishing to read accounts where the front-line troops on both sides are Irish-born soldiers, and they’re mowing each other down in a war that they didn’t start. How did that happen?JO: Yeah, you can imagine the riskiness in that. And you certainly have to bring to that kind of writing a “putting on the full armor of the lord,” as the good book says. I mean, you’re very aware that for people who are interested in those slave narratives—which are real, you can download them on the internet—for people who study those, the question of orthography is a huge issue, because how do you actually write about a slave? Do you take out the g in the verbs? Is it racist to do that? Or is it actually a fact—as I believe myself—that blacks and poor whites spoke in exactly the same way. So you’re confronting these documents which are usually written, or transcribed, by liberal people who felt that they were conveying the beauty and color of black speech, but are they, in fact? There’s a scene somewhere else in the book where, I think it’s Lucia, asks, should an author write the dialogue of a character’s spelled phonetically, and do you not realize that your own accent carries these traits?
RB: Yeah, there’s a point where the dialect is referred to as a bizarre Creole.
JO: Oh yes, she says it to most of the world, that you think that you speak perfectly, and for you, you do, but for most of the people who are never going to read your book, you’re just an exotic. You’re just as much an exotic as your writing is meant to be. So I tried to get away from that as much as possible, but you know, you become aware that there are these huge issues. Like when you write a sentence, it’s a very political thing to do, and at some point you just need to jump.
RB: Later on, as O’Keefe is escaping Tasmania, Dugan says something about revolutions, how you think you have all these upstanding people that you make statues about, but there’s also these dark people who never get anything.
JO: The dirty workers, all revolutions have them, and they are the people who will do anything, and maybe they’re so desperate that they will break any commandment. Every revolution has them, but yeah they don’t put their faces on the currency. We had them in Ireland, you probably had them here; in most places you have revolutions they are dirty, horrible, bloody business.
RB: Later, Dugan is mentioned again—is this the same Dugan that makes a song—he’s living in Virginia.
RB: I did not figure out how he got out.
JO: Well he bombed his way out of a jail in Tasmania, and he came to live in New York and then he went down to the south. And again, he’s based on a real guy. A fellow called John Mitchel, who was really regarded as kind of one of the fathers of violent Irish nationalism. When he was in Ireland, he was a democrat, he was in favor of freedom and liberty and equality. He was very influenced by the French Revolution. As soon as he came to America and went to Virginia, he was a white supremacist. A lot of the Irish guys who fought for the South I don’t think ever thought about slavery, they didn’t own slaves. They were motivated by some of kind of loyalty to the locale. But Mitchel was a white supremacist, and he just believed that blacks should be crushed. And it’s very hard to square that.
RB: Even as an Irishman? It seems like at that time the Irish and the blacks were basically in the same social strata.
JO: Well that’s a very interesting thing.
RB: Right, as you point out, blacks were treated better because they were worth something.
JO: Well, it’s a view that you hear often in Irish America. I don’t know how much sympathy I have with it, but it’s certainly true that on certain projects, like building the canal in New Orleans, a slave was a considerable financial investment and a casual laborer cost you nothing.
RB: And there was always someone to take their place.
JO: Yeah, there was. I mean, I don’t absolutely go along with it myself, in the sense that, you know, you were not a piece of property. You might have been very extremely poor but you did have some sort of options. But anyway, yes, it’s an amazing thing about Dugan and John Mitchell. And I think the war was a huge part of the assimilation of the Irish into mainstream American culture. There’s a book by a political historian Noel Ignatia called How the Irish Became White, and he says that before the war blacks and Irish people were treated equally badly, tended to live together, got intermarried, and had all sorts of relationships. You see it in the Irish ballad tradition: there’s a beautiful song called “The Lakes of Pontchartrain” about a love affair between an Irish soldier and a black woman in New Orleans. And then after the war you see the big development of anti-black racism among the Irish, and that they begin to acquire what he calls “Whiteness,” a belonging to the dominant culture by standing on the people who are below them. So it’s a very contentious book, but certainly after the war, the Irish had participated in the war in such huge numbers, that I think they felt, Well we can’t be regarded as outsiders anymore. We didn’t make this war, but hundreds of thousands of us died in it, it’s about time that we got what’s coming to us. And it is astonishing to read accounts of the Battle of Fredericksburg, where the front-line troops on both sides are Irish-born soldiers, from New York for the North, from Georgia from the South, and they’re mowing each other down in a field in Virginia in a war that they didn’t start. You just wonder, how did that happen?
RB: I think that’s not an observation that you reserve for the Civil War. Think of all these wars: World War I, how did that happen? The Great War, the war to end all wars. Some petty noble gets shot somewhere, next thing you know everybody’s marching?
JO: Yeah. Sure. Well that’s the war shape-shifting again, isn’t it? The seeds of World War II were in the peace settlement of World War I and so it goes.
RB: So tell me, Semper Robustus, was that a real company?
JO: No. No, it wasn’t. Or I hope not, because I’d probably get sued.
RB: But that was a nice little—
Fiction can do things that fact can’t do. Fiction is working in a different space.JO: I think there is a kind of hypocrisy sometimes in the sort of moral superiority of Northerners, Yankees, about slavery, when you realize that so much of the economy of the North was being held up by people—black people often but all kinds of immigrant groups—working for absolutely nothing. And the sort of posturing about the Northern liberal about slavery. There’s a line in one of the ballads where Johnny Thunders (B) is talking about Yankees poisoning his water while they’re drinking slave-grown wine, and I think there is something to that, you know?
RB: This character Lucia, who’s she based on?
JO: She’s based on nobody, really.
RB: I mean you have her as a photographer, as a novelist—
JO: Well, a poet. She’s an aspiring poet.
RB: Didn’t she write at least one—oh, maybe she didn’t publish—
JO: By the end of her life, it’s said that she wrote two competent novels.
RB: She graduates Harvard.
RB: Why did you want to assign all these outstanding, distinguishing things to her?
JO: Well, why not?
RB: Right, OK. That’s good.
JO: I suppose, in the privacy of this conversation, there’s a certain kind of 19th century archetype of the very beautiful, air-headed woman, and I just really didn’t want to do that, so I might have overloaded her with accomplishments a bit. But her name came from a woman I met in Nicaragua—we talked about Nicaragua the last time we met—she was called Lucia Cruz, “the light of the cross.”
RB: And you couldn’t manage to keep Nicaragua out of this? [Laughs]
JO: No, I couldn’t. [Laughs] I will write something one day that doesn’t have Nicaragua in it. But it’s interesting, when you read about the U.S. in the 1860s, how much Nicaragua was part of their world. If you wanted to go from the East Coast to California, the quickest way to go was to sail down the East Coast and cross places that I was in myself, San Juan Del Sur—
RB: But where’s the Darién Gap, that’s in Panama, that’s close to Colombia?
JO: I don’t know where that is.
RB: Todd Balf wrote a great true story [The Darkest Jungle: The True Story of the Darien Expedition and America’s Ill Fated Race to Connect the Seas] about the Darién Gap. On the U.S. geographical, geological expeditions to actually map that area—before they ever cut the canal. I mean, it was a 40-square-mile area, people would get lost forever.
I hung around in museums while I was researching this book, and you meet people who feel that writing is really an attempt to put the ethic of the museum into words, that it’s just collecting facts.JO: This fellow whom I mentioned to you, Thomas Francis Meagher, you know the real guy who was the governor of Montana, he was in Nicaragua also, and he wrote articles about it for magazines and journals in New York, and he was in Cuba, and he’s the first person whom I’ve found who felt that the best solution to the Cuban issue was to just invade. I have an article written by him from around 1862 where he says we should move there and take it over.
RB: Didn’t Jefferson think that?
JO: Did he?
RB: I know he had his eyes on Cuba. But this is the thing that really fascinates me: I’m sure you’re aware of the fact that in the United States we suffer badly from education in our own history.
RB: And it occurs to me, and it continues to occur to me, that fictions like your book are much better histories, although made up, than the stuff that’s coming out in textbooks and, up until recently, in whatever specialized narratives the historians are putting out. Do you have any sense of that?
JO: Well, I think that certainly if you were studying any era as a historian as I was—I have a degree in history—I would feel that I hadn’t studied it properly unless I had studied the fiction that was being written at the time. But the logical thing that flows from that is that maybe—actually there’s no maybe about it: fiction can do things that fact can’t do. There’s no point in statistics and facts and dates of battles—these things should be recorded, but fiction is working in a different space.
RB: I remember someone made this very astute observation to his son about how the problem with U.S. history is that there’s just too much of it, meaning that we can’t keep telling people about all the tariffs and all the bills and the peace treaties and all that stuff, but what does that tell you about how we got where we are.
JO: Well, it’s a problem with even the great Shelby Foote, who’s a marvelous writer; and he wrote when he chose to write, with flair, I mean it’s absolutely fantastic stuff. Then it goes into a description of the battle, if you want to know what the guy had for breakfast that morning, it gets so bogged down. For a novelist, even if you’re writing in an experimental way or with an original structure, it does have to be a story at some point.
RB: I believe that’s why people like David McCullough’s work, because he seems to—however he frames all this stuff, he does seem to make it a more picturesque narrative. I think his Adams book has Adams riding back to Braintree or Quincy is how the book begins; I think 1776 opens in London, the king is doing something. So, certainly when you have people actually doing things, some of which are minor, I think it’s easier for I don’t want to say students but it’s more accessible and easily to digest. I know in this country we’ve taken the wrong path in teaching history.
RB: But maybe it’s the same problem with fiction: how could people not want to read when it comes down to stories? Everybody likes stories, right?
JO: Everybody likes stories, right. I suppose there is, on the other hand, there’s the kind of reduction of all history which is something I sometimes see with my kids, like in Ireland and Britain now, you know, here’s a seven-page book narrated by a 12-year-old boy who’s lived through the famine.
RB: History for Dummies or something?
These two books are operatic, symphonic books and I suppose that I’d like the third one to just have the purity of a song, you know?JO: Well, it’s a bit like that, and you see a bit of it here. My kid went to school for a year here while I was researching the book, he lived in New York, and certainly that was the mode of teaching, with a kind of suspicion of reading and writing almost. There’s a lot of Arapaho storytelling and not so much of the old-fashioned stuff, and I found that by the end of it that my pinko- liberal feelings about education were being turned slightly upside-down.
RB: See, for instance, when you think of biographies going on and on about specifics, for most historical figures I don’t want to read the 700-page biography. I think the recent turn toward the 200- 225-page biographical essay is perfect.
RB: If you’re really devoted to the subject, fine. But do you really want to know about the breakfast they ate or all sorts of other minutia?
JO: I guess some people do, although I’ve never met anyone who does. They must be out there somewhere.
RB: Maybe the authors feel like it’s their responsibility in some Jesuitical, scholastic way.
JO: I hung around in museums and libraries while I was researching this book, and you meet a lot of people who feel that writing is really an attempt to put the ethic of the museum into words, that it’s just collecting facts. I guess there’s a market for that, but it’s just not what I do.
RB: Yeah. So what is this, you spent five years on this, four years?
JO: It always depends how you count it; you never know when you’ve really begun. See, you’re thinking about things and you’re reading about them and you’re not sure what the point is before you’ve decided that it’s now going to be a novel. So I started thinking about it as I finished Star of the Sea. The narrator of that book actually ruminates toward the end of it on the irony that so many poor, starving people who left Ireland to come to America for the sake of peace and freedom, so many of them would be touched by the Civil War; 80,000 of them fought for the South, the slave-owning side. So I was obviously thinking about it already. That was 2002.
RB: What haven’t you been thinking about that you’ve been thinking about; that is to say: What’s next for you?
JO: Well I’m going write one more historical novel, which is going to be the short, lighthearted, funny 120-page novel told by one voice. Nobody’s going to die, there’s going be a lot of jokes, and…. Do you want me to tell you about it?
JO: Towards the end of his life, the great Irish playwright John Millington Synge, who wrote Playboy of the Western World, he had a very tempestuous but secret love affair with a much younger woman who was an actress [Molly Allgood] in the Abbey Theatre, which he’d helped found with Yeats and Lady Gregory. So Synge was Anglo-Irish, aristocratic, he came from a land-owning family who had evicted their tenants during the famine, and she was much younger: Catholic, Dublin working-class. Each of their families hated the idea of this love affair and even Yeats and Lady Gregory and his colleagues in the theatre hated it, which I think is very interesting because they quite liked plays in which very noble poor Irish take center stage; sleeping with one of them they just couldn’t handle. So they had this love affair that was done with incessant secrecy and they wrote to each other two or three times a day, amazing passionate erotic letters, and he was always promising he would marry her if only his mother would die. It was his great dream: that his mother would die, and she, with her disapproval, would be out of the way, and there would be some money, and he’d go and buy a little house in the suburbs and they’d go and live together and that would be great. So, like a lot of people who live their life waiting for Mother to die, he died. And he died when he was 34 or 36 and it was very sad, but his girlfriend, her name was Molly Allgood, lived to be a ripe old age.
RB: If he was much older, how old was she when they commenced their relationship?
JO: She was young, perhaps 18 or 19. She lived until 1959, when the world of rock ‘n’ roll and space travel is just around the corner. She had a great career here in the States as an actress playing a certain kind of Irish role often written by Synge, so she could never really escape this man who wouldn’t marry her but always held out the hope that he would. The ghost of this man really followed her around for her whole life. I want to write a novel narrated by somebody like that, and I want to keep it very simple and short just because these two books are big, operatic, symphonic books and I suppose that I’d like the third one to just have the purity of a song, you know? Also, I think it’s how America dealt with Ireland in the end: by putting it on the stage.
RB: So you want to set it in the United States?
JO: Yeah, absolutely. That way it can have everybody prancing around on stage with their green wigs drinking their green beer on St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland as part of the stereotypes, and none of the Star and the Sea stories ever happened and none of the Redemption Falls stories ever happened and the myth, the myth of the melting pot, gets put in place. So I think it’s the logical way to finish the trilogy. Then I want to come back to the 21st century, and stay here. I’ll probably never write anything historical again.
RB: Well you never know.
JO: You never know really.
RB: And you’re committed to living in Ireland even though you’ve spent so much time here?
JO: Yeah, I’m not committed to it necessarily. We really enjoyed living in New York, and it was great having two kids there, which we’d never done before, and actually having a life there and talking to people in the school and the neighbors and all of that. We spent the summer living in L.A., which was pretty interesting.
RB: You don’t teach, do you? Do you have any inclination to teach?
Writing novels is very demanding, you know? Mostly what you want to do at the end of the day is lie on the sofa in front of some really crappy TV program.JO: No, the couple of times I’ve done it I haven’t enjoyed it much. I don’t think I have the talent for it. I know most American novelists have to, and that’s how they pay their bills, but in Ireland there’s no income tax for our writers, so that’s how we pay our bills.
RB: Right, but you have to have an income.
JO: You have to have an income, yeah. Damn, yeah!
RB: It’s not problematic having to pay income tax if you don’t have an income. So do you have a grander scheme? I mean, you’re looking at one book in particular and you know that in a sense maybe that’s a stage in your life. Do you look further than that?
JO: No, I can’t look further than one book. The world must be amazing if anyone is able to do that.
RB: But there are people who have cigar boxes that they throw notes in. Or they sprinkle things on a hard drive.
JO: Yeah. Well I have a lot of notes; I have a lot of bits of paper that usually when I look at them I can’t figure out why I wrote them.
RB: Maybe it’s better that way.
JO: Maybe it is. I mean, certainly, it’s the middle of the night waking up from a dream where I often write the bones of an entire short story and you look at it the next day and you’re like…
RB: Do you write short stories?
JO: I do, yeah, sometimes. But I mean, I think of myself as someone who writes novels and then does other things.
RB: You do some journalism.
JO: I do bits and pieces; I don’t do as much as I used to.
RB: Because you’re a family man?
JO: Um, it’s partly that. I really enjoyed being a journalist when I was one. I thought it was a great experience, great discipline, but I just grew out of it, I guess. Writing novels is very demanding, you know?
JO: Mostly what you want to do at the end of the day is lie on the sofa in front of some really crappy TV program. You don’t exactly want to write a 5,000-page review of this very erudite book.