How I Write – Joseph O’Connor

Joseph O’Connor is one of Ireland’s best known and critically acclaimed writers. He has written eight novels, including the award-winning Star of the Sea which sold over a million copies. He was awarded the Irish PEN Award for Outstanding Contribution to Irish Literature in 2012 and is professor of creative writing at University Limerick. He continues to produce works of journalism, short stories and stage plays.

What is your earliest memory of writing? What were your school experiences of English and ‘the essay’?
I remember writing little stories in kindergarten, as all kids did. Indeed, I recall getting into serious trouble one day when I was around five: I climbed into my parents’ wardrobe, threw all the clothes out on the floor and wrote a story on the wardrobe’s walls, illustrated, with crayons.

I adored English in school and I enjoyed writing essays. Recently, I was asked to write a new introduction to the Soundings anthology, which was the Leaving Cert English text book for people my age. It brought back to me how deeply I loved English as a teenager. I felt liking poetry was cool. I still do.

You grew up in a house of books. Do you think if your parents had not been interested in the arts that you might not have been either? In other words, how genetic is the love of reading and literature?
I wouldn’t say it’s genetic, it’s more a matter of demystification. It was normal for me to read novels and poetry because my parents did. And if you wanted a book, there were hundreds in the house. But it’s hard to know. I mightn’t have found my way to the arts without the doors being opened to me, but plenty of people do.

My own children are good readers and are creatively talented in several ways, and it’s hard to separate that from the fact that my wife and I are both writers, but again, I think it’s more a matter of literature being part of their everyday lives than anything in the DNA. My kids would have met a lot of writers and writers’ families who are pals of ours, so they don’t think that being a writer is anything unusual.

You studied literature and history at university, followed by a Masters in Anglo-Irish literature. What impact did this have on your writing?
An ambiguous one, I would say. It’s important for a writer to think like a writer, not an academic. At the same time, the degrees I did were taught by wonderful people and I got to read a lot, in a structured way. And I learnt how to do research, a skill that was important when it came time for me to write Star of the Sea, Redemption Falls and Ghost Light.

Did you always know that you would be a writer? Did you have a back-up plan if writing didn’t work out, considering you were starting out student life in 1980s Ireland?
I knew from the age of 13 that I wanted to be a writer. By the time I was 17 there was no other plan, and there’s never been one since.

What is your writing routine? Do you write every day?
I try to write or at least to think about a writing project every single day. I don’t know that I have a routine, as such: it depends on what else I’m doing, family commitments, et cetera. I’ll get up at five in or six in the spring or summer to write, or I’ll work late: whatever it takes. As a student, I worked as a journalist for The Sunday Tribune and Magill, and later I worked as a columnist for Esquire magazine and RTE’s Drivetime, so I’m able to summon the Muse when the deadline demands her. She’s never too far away.

Tell us how Cowboys and Indians, your first novel, came to be published and how it felt holding that book in your hands?
It was published by Sinclair Stevenson in London, and to hold it in my hands was a very joyful experience indeed. It always is. I’ve written a lot of books by now, but it’s still utterly thrilling to see a book with your name on the cover, or to see someone reading one of your books on the train or the bus

You have written eight novels. Do you have a favourite – one that you’re most proud of?
I do have a favourite but I’m not going to say which one.

Star of the Sea has sold over a million copies. What does a million books look like?!
Like a skyscraper made of words.

Was this commercial and critical success what you imagined when you set out to be a writer? Did you have a hunch it would turn out this way?
Certainly I hoped for commercial and critical success. Put another way, I always wanted to have readers. I’m not the sort of writer for whom it’s about expressing the self. There’s not enough for me in that, I’m not a pure enough artist to believe in that approach. To be honest, I’m just not all that interested in myself. And yes, I did have a hunch that it would turn out okay if I worked hard, and that I could make my living and support a family by writing. I think I’ve been very fortunate to have that happen. But when you’re young, there’s a sort of bulletproof confidence that’s probably just a refusal of realities. Every writer needs a certain amount of denial.

How long does it take you to write a novel? What sort of research do you do?
It varies, but on average my novels seem to take about three years from idea to publication. Research also varies, depending on when the novel is set or what it’s about. I do think it’s important to research and to get details correct. Readers can be very punishing when you get stuff wrong.

What is the editing process like now? Is your work more polished, the more experienced you are?
I hope it’s more polished, but editing isn’t just about applying the polish. It’s the process in which you discover the book. So, there might be a bit of restructuring, rewriting, rejigging, reimagining, as well as the enjoyable business of working on every sentence until it zings. But I like it. I’ve come to find this part of the work very meaningful and satisfying.

You are Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Limerick. In a recent How I Write interview we discussed how academic learning can sometimes zap the flair from a writer. Have you ever encountered this? What skills would a student take away from this course?
I wouldn’t advise any writer that a college degree is necessary. It isn’t. But if you’re looking for one, we believe the MA in Creative Writing programme we’re building at UL is strong and helpful. It’s taught by me, Donal Ryan, Giles Foden and the poet Mary O’Malley. We focus on our students’ own individual writing projects as well as giving them a thorough grounding in how to improve as a writer. We often host readings and/or teaching sessions from internationally acclaimed authors – we had Richard Ford back in September, and Anne Enright is coming this autumn. We’d hope that everyone taking our MA comes out of the experience a better editor, sub-editor, reader, literary critic, and, most of all, a better writer, more in touch with her/his own voice and supplied with the crafts needed to let that voice shine. For me, teaching is about helping people to honour their gift. We can’t teach you to be talented or to work hard. But if you have ability and are willing to put in the hours, we can help.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Once, twenty years ago, for about six months. But I made a pact with God to get me through it, and She did. My end of the deal was to never stop writing again. So I haven’t.

What projects are you working on at the moment?
I’m writing some short stories and I’ve allowing a number of ideas for novels to wrestle with each other in my head. Also, I’m working on a stage play.

What do you like to read?
The authors I come back to are Kingsley Amis, Anthony Cronin, Richard Ford, Raymond Carver, Anne Tyler and Toni Morrisson.

Where do you write?
Sometimes in my office at the University of Limerick but more usually at home in Dublin.

joseph o connor

To find out more about Joseph O’Connor visit:
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Thrill of it all

O’Connor’s latest novel The Thrill of it All is available in bookshops and on Amazon Kindle

Star of the Sea

Star of the Sea is also available in bookshops and for download on Amazon Kindle

LadyNicci comment: A skyscraper of words. Wouldn’t you like to leave that behind? Think I’m still a little bit starstruck to be featuring the author of one of my favourite novels of all time, so I just have three short comments to make. 1) The MA in creative writing. Where do we sign up? Imagine going to university every day to discuss literature and improve your own attempts at it. This course sounds particularly good. I hope my credit union thinks so too. 2) Every writer needs a certain amount of denial. I think I’m past denial. I think I’m in the write myself to death phase. 3) I’m glad Joseph sold his soul to God. Look what we got out of it.

H0w I write

How I write is a blog post series published on Sundays on The posts aim to give a voice to writers, published, unpublished and everywhere in between, to help and encourage other writers. If you would like to take part email with How I Write in the subject line.

December Girl is now available on Audio. Visit Amazon or Audible or click on the cover below to download.

December Girl audiobook

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