Joseph O’Connor Q&A: Every good writer aims for the ability to make something difficult seem effortless

O’Connor’s latest work, My Father’s House, follows a group of activists who run an escape line in Nazi-occupied Rome

Tell me about your latest work, My Father’s House.

On Christmas Eve, 1943, in Nazi-occupied Rome, a group of activists running an escape line plan a secret mission. When it goes wrong at the last minute, their leaders, Irish priest Hugh O’Flaherty and singer Delia Murphy, face a dangerous decision. Inspired by real people, it’s a tense story with gothic and noir elements, and it’s full of music ranging from Italian opera to Palestrina and the blues.

The epigraph comes from a letter quoted in Major Sam Derry’s memoir The Rome Escape Line (1960). With fiction based on a famous figure, I imagine as a writer you do a tremendous amount of research. Can you shed light on the process?

I read every available first-person testimony. For My Father’s House, I was given generous access by O’Flaherty’s family to his private papers. That said, the book is a novel first and last, taking liberties with facts, characterisations and chronologies.


I suspect there are a few details or incidents that you could not find a home for. Do any stick out?

The Department of Foreign Affairs archive includes a 1942 message from an Irish diplomat in Rome, warning that O’Flaherty must stop aiding escaped allied prisoners, otherwise be sent to a concentration camp. “A period there might develop in him a sense of proportion.” It’s a remarkable document that I couldn’t include without crowbarring it in. But I intend returning to it since My Father’s House is the first novel of a planned trilogy.

Gregory Peck played Monsignor O’Flaherty in the 1983 film The Scarlet and the Black, itself based on JP Gallagher’s book The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican (1967). How big a challenge was it to make the story your own?

Characters I write based on real figures are always my own versions, even when different people’s takes on them have appeared in other fictions or in biographies. The premise, plot, story, cast, structure, choral mode, timeline, tone, approach, essence and atmosphere of My Father’s House are unique to it.

Many writers and historians, including Hannah Arendt and Rolf Hochhuth in his play The Deputy, have questioned Pope Pius XII’s wartime record. What view did you come to?

That it deserves scrutiny. Also, that it may have altered over the course of the Roman occupation. Also, that Pius XII was not the first pope to think mutually contradictory things. Or the last. Alas. But My Father’s House is not a novel about the Catholic Church. To say so would be like saying The Sound of Music is a movie about nuns.

My Father’s House is the first of a trilogy. Where does the story go from here?

In the next novel, set in spring 1944, the protagonist will be Hugh’s friend, Giovanna Landini, a Roman countess and Escape Line agent. In the third book, narrated by John May, London-born butler at the British embassy, summer brings further refugees as the allies close in on a starving Rome.

You once said: “To some extent I think the Irish diaspora is more interesting than the Irish at home, because they’ve had to survive so much. I think people who leave the tribe are always more interesting than the people who stay. Wonderful things happen when people come out of their group, their private inheritance.” How formative for you as a writer were your years abroad?

I’m grateful to have lived in London and New York. I’m also aware that, as a privileged person, I had many more options and was at lesser risk than other people.

I’ve noticed booklovers on Twitter already enthusing over virtuoso lines from My Father’s House. Another O’Connor quote: “The first thing that I do with a novel is I try to make it beautiful. There’s enough ugliness in the world already, and part of the job of being a writer is to do your tiny little bit to counteract that.” How spontaneous is that process at this stage?

Italians have the beautiful word “sprezzatura”: the ability to make something that is difficult seem effortless. It’s a quality every good writer aims for.

What other projects are you working on?

A film script of Shadowplay. An idea for a one-man play about Micheál Mac Liammóir. I’d like to assemble a collection of my poems for publication at some point. And I lead the creative writing programme at the University of Limerick.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?

Many. The most memorable included Hemingway’s villa in Cuba, Thomas Carlyle’s house in Chelsea, and Vanessa Bell’s farmhouse in Charleston on the South Downs. I was very moved when my wife and I visited the graves of Somerville and Ross in West Cork and someone had tied a length of white ribbon between their tombstones.

What is the best writing advice you have heard? Or: what advice would you give to your younger writing self?

If you can possibly talk yourself out of it, do.

Who do you admire the most?

My wife and our sons.

You are supreme ruler for a day. Which law do you pass or abolish?

I would outlaw the presumptuous use of the word “we” by newspaper columnists. As in: “We created celebrity culture. Now we must own it.” I didn’t. I mustn’t.

What current book, film, TV show and podcast would you recommend?

I loved Milk by Alice Kinsella, out soon from Picador. The documentary Summer of Soul is enthralling, as are Stanley Tucci’s sumptuous programmes on Italian regional cooking. My favourite podcasts are Harmonia Uncut, on early music, and The Rest is History.

Which public event affected you most?

The Rolling Stones, Slane, July 24th, 1982. It still hasn’t sunk in.

The most remarkable place you have visited?

Rome’s Galleria Borghese and, in the same city, the excavations beneath St Peter’s. Also, Sun Studio, Memphis.

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

Marcus Aurelius and Dame Julian of Norwich.

The best and worst things about where you live?

We live near the sea. There’s no downside worth mentioning.

Your most treasured possession?

A photograph taken by Patti Smith. She gave it to me in New York in 2009.

What is the most beautiful book that you own?

An edition of the Child Ballads, a gift from my wife.

What is your favourite quotation?

From Atlantis by Eavan Boland. “And so, in the best traditions of/where we come from, they gave their sorrow a name/and drowned it.”

Who is your favourite fictional character?

Holden Caulfield.

A book to make me laugh?

Anything by the great Lisa McInerney.

A book that might move me to tears?

Two beautiful novels have moved me to tears and do so again every time I reread them. Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda, and Toni Morrison’s Jazz.

My Father’s House by Joseph O’Connor is published by Secker

Martin Doyle

Martin Doyle

Martin Doyle is Books Editor of The Irish Times