The Book Club »

  • The distance of time and historical characters

    June 23, 2010 @ 3:42 pm | by Rosita Boland

    As I write this, one of my colleagues has just got an email telling him who the winner of Celebrity Salon is (embargoed, in case you were wondering).

    The thing is, laugh as you may, people who have some public profile do turn up on reality shows these days. Actresses do. So do writers. And journalists. Fintan O’Toole was on The Restaurant recently. It got me thinking: Molly was an actress, and on the strength of Ghost Light, an exhibitionist. She loved her BBC radio roles in the novel, for instance.

    So, do you think if Molly was around today, and Synge, that either of them would in the equivalent public eye now? Would more public profile have given her more equality and power in the relationship? We all know now even small amounts of talent can be tapped by both the protagonist and the media to build a far larger profile. How different would Molly’s life have been if she lived even 60 years later? Is this particular story about these two people only possible from the distance of 90 years? What role does time play in this novel?

  • Molly and her drinking

    June 16, 2010 @ 11:10 am | by Rosita Boland

    A lot of the narrative of Ghost Light that tells us about Molly’s London life is infused through with the really sad consequences of her drinking. It seemed to me that this is a novel as much about alcoholism as it is a love story between two people. What do you think?

    Now, listen up! Joseph O’Connor will be reading Ghost Light all next week as the Book On One on Radio One. A great chance to hear the author reading his own book.

  • The words that seduced Molly?

    June 8, 2010 @ 3:51 pm | by Rosita Boland
    YouTube Preview Image

    this is a very short recording of Synge reading a poem, Prelude, accompanied by a slightly eerie animation of his face. At least, YouTube tells me it is a recording of Synge, although we can’t know for sure. Joseph O’Connor has been in touch to say he is pretty sure it is not Synge’s voice. If anyone can find a verified recording of Synge’s voice, please let me know.

    I still think it’s a tiny fragment that gives an impression perhaps of an era. It’s atmospheric. Listen to the way this man pronounces Synge’s words: “west” and “Wicklow” and glen”. The words just roll like waves.

    Even if you haven’t got to the end of Ghost Light yet, it’s no spoiler to reveal the fact that JM Synge and Abbey actress, Molly Allgood, were engaged, but never married.

    Do you find their love affair in Ghost Light convincing? Why? Synge was, after all, much older than Molly, lived at home with his mother, and was already ill when they met. Neither was he any way speedy at formalising their committment. What is it, do you think, about Joseph O’Connor’s writing here that convinces us of a great love between them?

  • Joe O’Connor introduces us to his novel, Ghost Light

    June 3, 2010 @ 11:49 am | by Rosita Boland

    I’d like to sincerely welcome readers to the Irish Times Book Club’s reading of my new novel Ghost Light. Perhaps I could offer a word or two about the background to the book.

    On a Saturday night, when I was a teenager in 1970s Ireland, my pals and I would go to the school-kids’ disco at the Presentation College, Glasthule. ‘Prez’, as it was known, was fairly grimy at the time, but fantastically exciting, too. Deep Purple were in vogue. The girls wore cheesecloth and denim. When Status Quo were played, the air would be filled with swirling dandruff as we head-banged and thrashed air guitars. The climax of the evening was always Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’, and if you hadn’t persuaded someone to slow-dance with you before that song sped up, the consensus was that you were going home alone. And most Saturday nights, that’s what happened to me. Tongue-tied, nervous, I faced the long road home. But still, there was a love story in Glasthule.

    My walk home would take me past the old Victorian house where the great writer John Synge and his widowed mother had endured their last years, a house that appears several times in Ghost Light. As a child, I passed it often, was faintly afraid of it, often wondered about the stories it had seen. On a wintry night it could be forbidding as the Bates Motel, or as Wuthering Heights in a rainstorm. But on a moonlit summer evening in that coast-town of seagulls and steeples, a strange beauty seemed to glitter from its windows.

    My late mother, a great reader, had often told me the strangest story of all: how in the last years of Synge’s life, this reticent, broken genius, the son of a Protestant land-owning family, had fallen tempestuously in love with a Catholic girl from the inner city of Dublin, a young actress called Molly Allgood. Molly had been an apprentice dressmaker at one point in her teens. My mother, too, had trained as a dress-designer. Molly’s stage name was ‘Maire O’Neill’, my grandmother’s surname. These tiny connections, and other ones, kept the story burning long in my mind.  But the main thing that fuelled it was the memory of lonely Saturday nights, when I’d walk past that house and feel its ghosts gazing out at me, every bit as friendless as I was.

    A couple of years ago, I began writing this novel inspired by Molly Allgood and Synge. I started with the uncertainty most novelists have at the outset. You don’t know if your story is going to work at all. What tense should it be written in? Who should be the narrator? Every book needs to have a style, its own unique voice, and to find it can be gruelingly frustrating. But somehow, over time, through dozens of drafts, I came to see that this story needed to be simple, focused closely on Molly. She began to loom up at me from the phantoms of dead drafts, as funny and flirtatious as I had imagined her in my teens. I suppose I learnt to stand out of her way, to let her lead me into the story of Ghost Light. I follow her through a day in the 1950s in London, when the past comes back to an elderly Irish actress who was once the beautiful muse of a genius.

    To write fiction based on real people and those they loved is a morally ambiguous enterprise, to say the least.  Ghost Light is a work of the imagination, frequently taking immense liberties with fact. The experiences and personalities of the real Molly and Synge differed from those of my characters in numerous ways. Yeats and Lady Gregory and Sean O’Casey appear in the book too, no doubt in forms some biographers won’t like. Then again, these giants often said they had fanned their fictions from the sparks of real life, renaming the people who had inspired their stories. The practice was sometimes a camouflage, sometimes a claim of authenticity. It was an option I considered carefully but decided against in the end, and so I dare to ask the forgiveness of these noble ghosts of world literature for not changing the names of the innocent.

    To finish a book is an ambiguous feeling too. You have worked so long and hard on it, you know its every line and comma. In the final stages of editing, you dream about it. And then suddenly, the day is coming when it must go out into the world. You won’t be there to hold its hand, to reason away its deficiencies, to explain it to those who will encounter it. There is a kind of joy in finishing, but there is fear and apprehensiveness too. You want the book to find friends who will meet it halfway. Perhaps it’s similar to what a parent feels when a child leaves the house. This day was always coming; it’s what everything was building towards; but there is anxiety in the mix, a sense of encroaching realities, and if I am honest, there is even a touch of sadness. You come to know your characters so well; everything about them. Things you’ll never know about your spouse or your closest friend, you know about a person you have created. To see her walk away, into the great, wide world, is to watch a little piece of your self take its chances. But that’s what a novel is for: to offer itself to the reader. I hope you find something in it that speaks to you.

  • Joseph O’Connor’s Ghost Light

    June 2, 2010 @ 2:55 pm | by Rosita Boland

    For June, we’re going to be reading Joseph O’Connor’s new novel, Ghost Light. It came out just this week, as a paperback original, and has already been getting lots of attention, so we’re excited to be looking at it when it has literally just come from the presses and onto the shelves.

    I’ve just started reading it myself, and I guess most people are at that point at the moment, since it’s a new book. To start us off, here’s Adrian Frazier’s review from Saturday’s Irish Times. It’s accurate to say his review is a rave. This is Fiona McCann’s recent interview with Joe.

    I’m only a couple of pages in, so it’s no spoiler to say this is a novel about the imagined later life of Molly Allgood, whose first love was playwright JM Synge. Hers is a name long familiar to me, but I know little or anything about her life. Looking forward to discussing it soon.

  • Answers from Colum McCann

    May 31, 2010 @ 12:03 pm | by Rosita Boland


    Question – asked by John Braine

    I’m curious about the Philippe Petit character in the book. Apart from the actual Twin Towers walk, is his story somewhat fictionalized or strictly based on real stories from other books about Petit? Did you feel more pressure to get the character exactly right? More so than the fictional characters in the book? Did his appraisal invade your thoughts as you wrote?


    John – it’s a great question and one fraught with all sorts of implications for what is true, what is real, what is imagined.  Clifford Getz says that the real is as imagined as the imaginary.  I like this notion, and I the corollary is true also … that the imagined is real. Sometimes this reality outraces the truth.   

    As for Petit the story is largely true, but it’s there to serve the purposes of fiction.  As you you can tell, I’m not writing a book about Petit.  I’m using the walk as a metaphor, a pull-through.  In fact I didn’t really care all that much about Petit – and I don’t mean this as callously as it sounds.  I certainly cared about the walk, the act of beauty, the act of creation, the art of it.  But Petit as a character didn’t come into it all that much for me … the tightrope walker is the only one who remains nameless in the book.  So a lot of it is based on truth – the date, the time, the details of the walk itself.  Certainly it has a textural truth.  But a lot of it is made up also and serves the purpose of the narrative.  For example, Philippe Petit never fell in the snow as far as I know, he never thought of himself as “having sex with the wind.”   

    I did worry about his appraisal, yes.  I talked with Petit on the phone and he gave me his blessing.  I sent him the book in several different versions, but I never heard back from him except for an answering machine message.  I salute his beauty, though.  I salute the act that remains, even though the towers are gone.    

    Question – asked by Emmet

    I would describe Corrigan as ‘beat’ and when the narrator arrives at the airport he is reading Howl. I was wondering how much the writings of the beat generation influenced the book ? If not them, then what writers or books had an influence on you when writing this book ?


    Back in Dublin in the 1980’s these were my bookshelves: Ferlingetti, Kerouac, Brautigan, Ginsberg, Snyder, Kesey.  The spines were broken from reading them so much.  I used to go and sit in the Stags Head and read.  That sounds torturously teenage of me, but that’s how it was.  Occasionally I would braid it in with an Irish writer.  Someone like Ben Kiely for instance who was quite radical to me, or Desmond Hogan or Neil Jordan. 

     And I recall reading Sebastian Barry’s Engine of Owl Light and seeing him in the Norseman pub one day.  The book blew my head off.  I sat and stared at him for an hour or more, trying to figure out how to compliment him on his amazing book.  And then he just lowered his drink and stepped off down along the quays and I didn’t get to meet him for another ten years.   

    The Kindle Effect – comment by JJ

    I just realised while browsing in a bookshop this weekend that my current e-read is an enormous block of a book which I would normally have hesitated to buy as it would be next to impossible to read on the Paris metro with one hand clinging to the bar! Maybe the e-book will help by-pass the big-book phobia experienced by some people?

    Colum’s response

    I suppose portability is as important as potability!   Seriously though, we’ll all be able to carry around twenty or thirty books in a little machine that weighs less than one book.  There’s got to be an advantage to that.  Things change.  In a few years kids will get romantic about the Kindle … that precious time when books weren’t e-mailed directly to the chip embedded in your wrist.  What’s most interesting though about the Kindle is how it might change the nature of narrative, how our stories get told and in what format.  Obviously language is a shifting shaped thing.  It will be influenced by technology and the way we read, our collective attention spans.   

    Question – asked by Mairead

    I think Colum is writing a sceenplay for this book. Who would he like to see play some of the lead parts, and is it difficult to decide which parts of his own book to leave out?


    Well it’s still very early in the process, Mairead.  I am writing the screenplay with JJ Abrams but we’re both a bit handcuffed by other projects at the moment.  We’re trying to reach in to out own lives and squeeze as much time out as we can.  And we’re trying to distill the story down.  To find the beats and the rhythm for the screen. 

    I will say that both of us believe that we will have to embrace the beauty of the non-linear.  JJ in particular is fascinated by the fact that we are all just an arbitrary moment away from connectedness, so I think we will make a film concerned with time and connectedness, about the human spirit and where it is heading.  For this we will have to murder and recreate  … in the end we must try to find the best possible versions of ourselves” 

    Question – asked by Rosita

    Colum, I’d be very interested to learn a little more about the way you went about researching background stories for various parts of this novel. Did you spend a lot of time with mothers who had lost sons in conflict, for instance? Does your background in journalism help you when it comes to research?

    Also, in the interview I did with you back in August, you said that you might consider working on a novel at some point that addressed 9/11 in a more direct way. Is this something you have thought more about in the meantime? Can you tell us a little about what you are working on now?


    The process or remembering how a novel came about is always an interesting one.  It changes with the time, the day, the hour, the way the book is received.   It’s all part of this shifting sense of what’s real.  Quite honestly I wrote this book quickly, much quicker than say Dancer or Zoli which involved an awful lot of research.  I did spend a good deal of time in libraries (watching films, searching out photos, reading oral histories, watching documentaries) and out with the cops on the streets.  Then again you can learn just as much by hanging out in a housing complex stairwell as you can in ten sociology books.  It’s all about feeling. You try to get the texture true. 

    For the Park Avenue mother and the other mothers, I didn’t do a lot of research about sons lost in conflict.  I did check out a lot of computer stuff and Vietnam stuff, but the grief was felt, or imagined, or created.  It comes from a strange deep place that I don’t necessarily know, or don’t necessarily want to know about.  Part of it is just the simple notion of empathy, another part of it is a deep mystery.  And then some of it is just pure craft stuff – trying to get the voice right, dropping in the right word at the night time for instance.    

    As for what I’m working on now, well, quite honestly I’m juggling two incredibly different projects.  One takes place in Ireland in 1845 another takes place in New York in 2010.  They’re so wildly different, they’re like science fiction to each other.  I’ve been bouncing these ideas off each other for quite a while.

     While travelling for Let the Great World Spin, I’ve been researching.  I feel like I’m stepping into two territories all at once.  Maybe I’m resolving my own conflict with being a person of two countries myself.  I think the Irish novel will win out however.  It feels like it these past few days.  I’ve spent about six months trying to find a voice and she arrived this week.  She will probably be a small part of the novel, but she’s a beginning voice, and I woke up this morning fired up.  That’s how I gauge a novel … how soon I run to the computer after getting out of bed.

  • May 21, 2010 @ 11:27 am | by Rosita Boland


    Here’s a short interview with Colum, where he talks about the book, and reveals who his own personal favourite characters are, and why. He likes, he says “being a ventroquilist, capturing the voices of a city.”

    YouTube Preview Image

    To me, it seems that Let the Great World Spin is about a series of different communities, and how they all fuse together on the day Petit makes his astonishing high-wire walk. The community that interests me most is the group of mothers from such diverse backgrounds, who gather together to talk about their dead sons: the need to tell and retell stories. Grief – the social assumption is – is classless. Colum McCann deliberately sets this section in Claire’s grand Park Avenue apartment. Do you think Claire’s experience of being in this group is different to the others? She seems to be paralysed by her surroundings and wondering what the others are thinking of her, to the extent that she doesn’t really seem to be comunicating with the others. If the function of the group is to articulate what you’re feeling, do you think it’s working for her? Do you think Colum McCann writes well about grief and the process of grieving – there is a lot of it in this novel.

  • Your questions for Colum McCann

    May 17, 2010 @ 12:56 pm | by Fiona McCann

    National Book Award winner Colum McCann  has agreed to answer questions from our Book Club readers about Let the Great World Spin.  With this in mind, let’s keep this thread for that purpose only. You have one week from today, Monday May 17th, to start posting questions here about Let the Great World Spin. Colum will then look at the questions posted and give some answers and responses online, which will be sometime during the final week of May. It’s an opportunity to speak to a writer with his words still fresh in your mind, so think about the ideas and thoughts that McCann’s novel has inspired and start jotting them down here. Over to you . . .

  • Man on wire

    May 11, 2010 @ 9:52 am | by Fiona McCann

    A news report from August 7, 1974 . . .

    YouTube Preview Image
  • Corrigan’s story

    May 7, 2010 @ 10:28 am | by Fiona McCann

    By now I’m hoping most of you will have reached the end of Corrigan’s story, “All respects to heaven, I like it here.” So how did this young man’s journey from a broken home in Dublin to the Projects of New York move you? Did you feel empathy for his religious conflict or frustration at his Christ complex? Some commentators have already expressed annoyance at Corrigan’s story – why? What is it about this Sandymount saviour that compels or irritates? Having read the book for the first time some six months ago, I recall an anger at his life’s decisions, and found it difficult to feel compassion for his self-inflicted wounds, yet I will admit that as a character, he has stayed with me since when some of the others have faded. What do you think?

Next Page »

Search The Book Club