Seán O’Connor on the gentle world of the book industry and a distinctly decent sub-species of the human race

This week, to mark the end of our How to Write a Book series, we have a daily Q&A with a debut author

Author Seán O’Connor. Photograph: John Searle

Author Seán O’Connor. Photograph: John Searle


Seán O’Connor was born in the Liberties of Dublin and has worked as a consulting engineer and as a barrister. He was one of the founding partners of O’Connor Sutton Cronin and retired in 2002. His first book is a memoir titled Growing up so High: A Liberties Boyhood.

What was the first book to make an impression on you? The Way of a Transgressor, by Negley Farson.

What was your favourite book as a child? The fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen. And what is your favourite book or books now? The Rattle Bag, edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes.

What is your favourite quotation? “Carpe Diem.” I had it iced on to my 70th birthday cake as, like Horace, I put very little trust in tomorrow.

Who is your favourite fictional character? Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol.

Who is the most underrated Irish author? Gerard Kelleher. I had the pleasure of launching the publication Crumlin Writes, in Crumlin College of Further Education, as part of their adult literacy service. Gerard wrote an evocative piece of his memories of Leitrim . . . It’s a lovely short story in the making.

Which do you prefer – ebooks or the traditional print version? Printed books.

What is the most beautiful book you own? A signed copy of the biography of Sean Keating (Art, Politics and Building the Irish Nation) written by my daughter, Dr Eimear O’Connor.

Where and how do you write? I write at home in my diningroom, straight on to a laptop with a large display screen backing it up. Before that, I do a preliminary sketch of each chapter by hand, in the Beanhive Coffee Shop on Dawson Street by day, or in Bewleys by evening. I do three hours’ writing per day maximum.

What book changed the way you think about fiction? Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman.

What is the most research you have done for a book? It took six months to prepare for my childhood autobiography Growing Up So High. I found that stories received by oral tradition seem always to have just a core of truth surrounded by exaggeration, and there is only one way to get the facts accurately and that is by personal research. (And by the way, for the sake of all biographers, please ask your grandparents to write the names of the people in that old black-and-white photograph on the reverse while there is still time.)

What book influenced you most? The fizzing energy of Borstal Boy by Brendan Behan

What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday? A signed first edition of the Seamus Heaney anthology Opened Ground, Poems 1966/1996 (from Ulysses Rare Books) or a year’s subscription to Brick literary magazine.

What book do you wish you had read when you were young? The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger. What advice would you give to an aspiring author? To remember that everything you write is a self-portrait. What weight do you give reviews? It depends on the critic. Literary criticism in this country is undeveloped, personal and uncertain, and the annual review of the state of the arts never includes a look at how well – or how badly – critics are doing their job. I believe that books find their own level of success in time, regardless of reviews.

Where do you see the publishing industry going? Not going away! Congratulations to Hachette on taking on Amazon on price – and much more in-fighting is needed to establish a live-and-let-live climate in the industry, which has to be the future. A comparison with the movie industry and the development of films for TV is interesting.

What writing trends have struck you lately? Everybody is writing a book and more luck to them. The prizes seem to be won by books that retain the structure of the novel but are very removed from my childhood world of stories by AJ Cronin and Walter Macken, almost like modern architecture compared to the Victorians.

What lessons have you learned about life from reading? That the people who inhabit the gentle world of the book industry in any fashion are a distinctly decent sub-species of the human race.

What has being a writer taught you? To understand that writing is like prayer or mindfulness, because at the moment of writing I am committed to thinking of nothing else except the creation of a word pattern that best says what I want to express.

Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party? The Liberties quartet of Zozimus, the poet Gerard Smyth, Dean Swift and singer-songwriter Imelda May.

What is the funniest scene you’ve read? The entry dated June 28th in An Irish World Cup Diary, being Chapter 10 of ‘The Secret Life of the Irish Male’ written by my son, Joseph O’Connor, which deals with the travails of the Irish soccer fans following the team in the World Cup in USA in 1994.

What is your favourite word? A new word of my own entitled “hubbled”, ie the noun verbalised, as in my mind’s eye hubbles back in time and lingers on my schooldays in the Liberties.

If you were to write a historical novel, what event or figure would be your subject? It would be based on the life and times of Dorothy Cole and Patrick O’Connor. They had a secret life together. She was Church of Ireland and he a Catholic, living in a love match, with two children, before they were rumbled. On April 5th, 1805, Dorothy was baptised a Catholic, in St Catherine’s church, Meath Street, and the couple were married on the same day in the same place. Her third baby, James, was born a month later. He was my direct forebear.


Take the first step to your debut novel with the Irish Times How to Write a Book series.

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