Brought to Book: Joseph O’Connor on why reading is a more creative act than writing

‘If there is a Hell being prepared for me, it will be a dinner party. But I’d like to be in a bar, late at night in New York, with Colm Toibin, Patti Smith, Dickens, St John of the Cross, Toni Morrison, Keats and Emily Bronte, with her brother Branwell leading the singsong while arm-wrestling’

Joseph O’Connor: his advice  to an aspiring author? “Read Orwell. And get a job.” Photograph: Frank Miller

Joseph O’Connor: his advice to an aspiring author? “Read Orwell. And get a job.” Photograph: Frank Miller

Fri, May 16, 2014, 12:00

Joseph O’Connor is the author of eight novels: Cowboys and Indians (short-listed for the Whitbread Prize), Desperadoes, The Salesman, Inishowen, Star of the Sea, Redemption Falls, Ghost Light and The Thrill of it All, as well as two collections of short stories, True Believers and Where Have You Been?, and a number of bestselling works of non-fiction. He has also written radio diaries, film scripts and stage-plays including the multiple award-winning Red Roses and Petrol and an acclaimed adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel My Cousin Rachel. With composer Brian Byrne he wrote the songs for the dance show Heartbeat of Home. He was recently appointed Frank McCourt Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Limerick.

The Thrill of it All was published by Harvill Secker on May 15th and is reviewed by Peter Murphy in The Irish Times on Saturday, May 17th.

What was the first book to make an impression on you?

The Ladybird Book of the Great Composers.

What was your favourite book as a child?

Moonfleet, by the English novelist J Meade Falkner.

And what is your favourite book or books now?

I was impressed by Colin Barrett’s debut collection of short stories, Young Skins.

What is your favourite quotation?

“I say in speeches that a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit. I am then asked if I know of any artists who pulled that off. I reply, ‘The Beatles did’.” Kurt Vonnegut.

Who is your favourite fictional character?

I have two, and they happen to be married: Leopold and Molly Bloom.

Who is the most under-rated Irish author?

I and many others rate her work very highly, but I would love to see Deirdre Madden win the Booker Prize and gain a large international readership.

Which do you prefer - ebooks or the traditional print version?

Traditional, but the ebook is here to stay and we’d all better start loving it.

What is the most beautiful book you own?

Last year my wife gave me a gorgeous three-volume edition of the Childe Ballads, a collection I love.

Where and how do you write?

Mostly in my office. But I also scribble a lot, on backs of envelopes or any convenient scrap of paper.

What book changed the way you think about fiction?

Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey, a beautiful, ambitious and awe-inspiring novel.

What is the most research you have done for a book?

I did a rake of research for my novels Star of the Sea and Redemption Falls.

What book influenced you the most?

JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is the book that made me want to be a writer.

What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday?

Patti Smith’s Just Kids.

What book do you wish you had read when you were young?

Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

Read Orwell. And get a job.

What weight do you give reviews?

I read all of them, once, and disbelieve them whether they’re good or bad.

Where do you see the publishing industry going?

Further into crisis, alas.

What writing trends have struck you lately?

Self-publishing is back, in a big and growing way. Also, writers are tending to work in more collaborative ways, with musicians or other performers.

What lessons have you learned about life from reading?

I’ve learned that reading is a more creative act than writing. The writer provides the sheet music but it’s the reader who sings the song.

What has being a writer taught you?

How to persevere.

Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?

If there is a Hell being prepared for me, it will be a dinner party. But I’d like to be in a bar, late at night in New York, with Colm Toibin, Patti Smith, Dickens, St John of the Cross, Toni Morrison, Keats and Emily Bronte, with her brother Branwell leading the singsong while arm-wrestling.

What is the funniest scene you’ve read?

The chapter of Anthony Cronin’s comic masterpiece, Dead as Doornails, in which the young Tony and his friend Brendan Behan go to France on a skite. And the description of a hangover in Kingsley Amis’s classic, Lucky Jim.

What is your favourite word?

Comeuppance.

If you were to write a historical novel, which event or figure would be your subject?

I’ve written a few historical novels already and am not planning any more of them for a while. But there is a wonderful novel to be written about Captain Francis O’Neill, the Chicago policeman and collector of traditional Irish music.

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