Aiden O’Reilly: ‘Authors play a curious role within the industry, having very little power yet being the most publicly visible part’
‘McCartney said that when the melody for Yesterday came into his head, he had the suspicion it must exist already, and that he had subconsciously plagiarised it. I felt the same about the story Self-Assembly in my collection’
Aiden O’Reilly with fellow authors Kevin Power, Nuala Ní Chonchuir, Kathleen Murray, Jennifer Brady, David Lewis, Maria O’Reilly and Roisin McDermott promoting the Stinging Fly collection These Are Our Lives. Photograph: Leon Farrell /Photocall Ireland!
What was the first book to make an impression on you?
The first book I ever read was Dr Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham. I could not make head nor tail of it, or how anyone could be called Sam-I-am, or what the hell green eggs are. Everybody in High Babies thought it was a great book, and I thought it was pure drivel.
What was your favourite book as a child?
The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis.
And what is your favourite book or books now?
Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. But that will no doubt change again.
What is your favourite quotation?
“The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction,” from William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell.
Who is your favourite fictional character?
The teenager Lou in MJ Hyland’s How the Light Gets In. She’s barely there as a character at all, just making herself up as she goes along. At the opposite end in terms of age and gender, but not in other ways, Harry Haller the Steppenwolf.
Who is the most under-rated Irish author?
Fitz James O’Brien, who died in 1862, wrote some absolutely amazing sci-fi and speculative stories. The kind of stories you want to relate in summary over a pint. Patrick O’Brian is well known for his Master and Commander novels of the sea, but his early short stories, from the time when he viewed himself as a literary writer, are excellent and rarely mentioned. He wasn’t actually Irish, but he pretended to be. In more recent years Philip Ó Ceallaigh is very good, but there’s not much twittering about him.
Which do you prefer – ebooks or the traditional print version?
I don’t have an e-reader myself and have nothing against them, but I think print books are in no danger of dying out soon.
What is the most beautiful book you own?
I have David Wheldon’s sonnet sequence The Uncompliant Stranger, illustrated with pen and ink by Sarah Longlands. I also have a facsimile of William Blake’s Songs of Experience.
Where and how do you write?
In longhand first, often in scattered notes, sometimes when pacing. I have a room in a converted sausage factory. There are bars on the windows.
What book changed the way you think about fiction?
There were many, many books that changed the way I think about the world. But the work that made me think more rigorously about how style and change of tone can all conspire to create effect was Joyce Carol Oates’ short stories, for example the collection The Assignation.
What is the most research you have done for a short story?
One time I read several books about ancient Rome, including Carcopino’s amazing Daily Life in Ancient Rome, for a particular story. None of this knowledge made it into the story.
What book influenced you the most?
Colin Wilson’s The Outsider. I was a teenager hunting through the second-hand bookshops in Temple Bar. It’s a fascinating book. It seduces the reader, then taunts him/her into dismissing the ideas. I unexpectedly came across fans of The Outsider many years later in Poland.
What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday?
Maybe something by China Miéville.
What book do you wish you had read when you were young?
I wish that I’d had somebody to recommend a book or discuss books with. I used to read too many books arbitrarily from the public library shelves.
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
If by author you mean published author, then I have only silence.
What weight do you give reviews?
I was fascinated to read the reviews of my own book because I had had no holistic reaction to my work. In buying books myself, I tend to be guided by tips on blogs, writers talking about writers they admire, and word of mouth.
Where do you see the publishing industry going?
I don’t know. Authors play a curious role within the industry, having very little power yet being the most publicly visible part of the industry.
What writing trends have struck you lately?
So many historical novels. Perhaps the current age is too unreal and incoherent to approach via fiction. If you want a story that makes sense, with authentic characters and a meaning to be gained at the end, then the past is the direction to head.
What lessons have you learned about life from reading?
Too many. I wish I’d learned more from the real world.
Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Augustine, William Blake, Colin Wilson, Goethe, Will Self, JG Ballard, and Philip Ó Ceallaigh to see if anyone can get him to say a word.
What is the funniest scene you’ve read?
The various chats between Jack and Murray in White Noise by Don DeLillo. Hard to believe that book is 30 years old.
What is your favourite word?
I have a penchant for words that I keep looking up because the meaning keeps escaping me: hermeneutics, crepuscular, coruscating.
If you were to write a historical novel, which event or figure would be your subject?
Never never never a historical novel.
What sentence or passage or book are you proudest of?
McCartney said that when the melody for Yesterday came into his head, he had the suspicion it must exist already, and that he had subconsciously plagiarised it. I felt the same about the story Self-Assembly in my collection.