Geoff Mulligan on Joseph O’Connor: ‘Joe has never been afraid of challenges’

Authors & Editors – Joseph O’Connor on Geoff Mulligan: ‘Geoff took a manuscript that was cripplingly long and unwieldy and helped me sculpt it into a literary novel that is also a page-turner’

Joseph O’Connor, right, on Geoff Mulligan: “Geoff is very clear and honest when he thinks the book is going wrong, losing focus, lacking clarity. He wants you to write what you mean”

Joseph O’Connor, right, on Geoff Mulligan: “Geoff is very clear and honest when he thinks the book is going wrong, losing focus, lacking clarity. He wants you to write what you mean”

 

Geoff Mulligan is publisher-at-large for Harvill Secker, where he edits a number of authors, including Louis de Bernieres, JM Coetzee, Julia Franck, David Lodge, Joseph O’Connor, Tim Parks and Per Petterson. He is also publisher of Clerkenwell Press, a new literary fiction imprint of Profile.

Joseph O’Connor is the author of eight novels: Cowboys and Indians (shortlisted 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. Last year he was appointed Frank McCourt Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Limerick.

Geoff, how long have you worked with Joe? What attracted you to his work?

GM: I’ve worked with Joe for the best part of 20 years and seven books. In 1993 I read a book of Joe’s called Desperadoes and enjoyed it a great deal. It occurred to me that I would love to publish him, but it’s not acceptable to covet your neighbour’s author so I suppressed that thought. Four years later I got lucky and ended up publishing The Salesman. We have worked together since then.

A number of things attracted me to Joe’s work, probably no different to what attracts his millions of readers – the beauty of his writing, the intelligence that informs it, the all-too-rare sense of humour, the willingness to take risks and to take on big intimidating subjects, the storyteller’s instinct, the humanity…I could go on.

Joe, what made you want to work with Geoff? You and Geoff have worked together on comic novels, and on your Star of the Sea, Redemption Falls, Ghost Light trilogy…and now on The Thrill of It All. They are all such different books. What made you want to stay with Geoff for each of these?

JO’C: What made me want to work with Geoff Mulligan was his high reputation as an editor and publisher, the breadth and depth of his knowledge of literature, and his quiet passion for the written word. Then, there’s his roster of authors, which includes Günter Grass, Louis de Bernières, JM Coetzee, Julia Franck, David Lodge, Tim Parks, Per Petterson, Kim Thuy and Russell Banks. Geoff’s read everything you’d want an assiduous editor to have read. But he is also – I don’t know else to put this – a very complete person. He loves talking about sport, travel or wine as much as literature. He’s knowledgeable about music. His degree was in languages; in addition to English, he reads in Spanish, German and Italian, and he has translated Herta Müller. And he’s a proud son of Belfast, so he has that admirable Ulster suspicion of pretension. That’s an unusual mix.

When you’re working with an editor whose authors have won Bookers, Pulitzers and a Nobel, you really can’t help but learn. Add to this that the editor in question is on intimate terms with the songs of Emmylou Harris and you realise that you’re fortunate indeed.

Geoff is a deeply gracious and self-effacing man, and I imagine that he’d find this sort of public back-slapping a bit unseemly, but I have to say that I know no one whose feeling for prose fiction is more intelligent, nuanced and informed. I value his judgments. He has taste.

If I’d ever had any doubt about his talents, which, to be honest, I didn’t, the experience of working with him on Star of the Sea would have blown them away. He took an initial manuscript that was cripplingly long and unwieldy, with multiple narrators and time frames and narrative registers, and not only refrained from tossing it out the window but helped me sculpt it into a literary novel that is also a page-turner. He and I were still working on the proofs the night before the book went to the printers. Geoff will have a special place in Heaven for what I put him through on that novel.

More even than that, he believed in the book, far more than I did myself. He was the first person who told me it would become an international bestseller. I thought he had absolutely lost his reason. But he was right.

Geoff, how do you prefer to work with writers? Do most things come in to you as complete manuscripts? Or as an idea? Or in dribs and drabs?

GM: Fiction almost always comes in as a complete manuscript. Non-fiction often comes in as an idea or a proposal. They are two different ways of working. I prefer to work with a finished manuscript.

Joe, how does it feel when you hand something over? Do you breathe a sigh of relief or go into massive fits of self-doubt? And do you have any other early readers, other than Geoff?

JO’C: On the day you send away your manuscript, two squatters move into your soul: Self-Doubt, accompanied by his ghastly cousin, Hope. The former is a murderer who shakes his chains at the moon, the latter a gormless, grinning eejit. But you learn to live with them.

I know I’m a good writer. But I’ve learned that I will always need to be a better one than I am. With The Salesman, Star of the Sea, Redemption Falls and Ghost Light, I managed to hit the mark. I’m not capable of writing those novels, but with Geoff’s help I wrote them. And that’s the private ask. Can you do something you know you can’t do?

But that’s also the excitement of wanting to make fiction, which is another way of saying it’s the particular commitment of the creative life. And so writing becomes your way of understanding yourself and whatever impulse came to you from childhood to attempt things. So, you tell the story as you see it, or imagine it. And all you can do at that point is hope you’re making connections with the reader, or uncovering them. You’re trying to do what a great songwriter does: reveal what was already there. And that, in the end, is what a skilled editor like Geoff does: release the story into the life of itself.

As well as sending the finished draft to Geoff, I send a copy to my literary agent, Carole Blake, and to my screenwriting agent, Conrad Williams. Carole and Conrad are good, clear-eyed readers. I’ve been with them a long time and we’re all fond of each other but, like Geoff, they wouldn’t spin you a line if they think you’re going wrong. As I get into the work with him, I like to know what they have to say. Over the last 10 years or so, that central trio has become a kind of sextet, in that I’ve been truly fortunate to have acquired three more early readers, wise souls whose judgement I respect and who are incapable of telling lies. For no particular reason, I’d rather not say who they are. You need a fair bit of trust to show someone, say, an early page or chapter. I wouldn’t want to overstate it, but there’s a kind of intimacy, a self-revealing.

Beyond that small circle, I have no early readers. But I do have what I’d describe as an Imaginary Judging Panel made up of about 20 real people, some but not all of whom I know. They’re all highly smart individuals who are excellent at what they do and have a feeling, a respect, for words. How it works is that when I get into a problem while writing the book, I might stop and ask myself what would such-and-such a person do or like to see done here, or what solution would she/he expect. Answering those questions might help me to clarify issues or to recalibrate things in a particular way.

It would greatly surprise the journalist and broadcaster Olivia O’Leary to learn that she is chairperson of my Imaginary Judging Panel, but she is. The actress Kathy Rose O’Brien is on it too. So are the novelists Emma Donoghue and Christine Dwyer Hickey. I’ve an Italian friend, Mariachiara Rusca, who’s there, as is my German-language publisher and friend, Hans-Jürgen Balmes. There are others, from fellow authors and colleagues to readers I’ve met at events. Some come and go, depending on the book. Nadine O’Regan at the Sunday Business Post is a journalist whose writing and radio work I like because she’s smart, tough, fair and honest. She might materialise in my Jury Room now and again. Dickens trudges in resentfully when I get stuck with the architecture of the storytelling. He’ll show me the options, if there are any.

A novelist whose early work I like, Kingsley Amis, once wrote that his own ideal readers were his son Martin, Philip Larkin, and the journalist Christopher Hitchins. I think I’ve learned a huge amount from Geoff, but you get touchstones from other sources, too. Years ago, the Irish Times review of my debut novel, Cowboys and Indians, made me see that I could be a better and more ambitious writer than I was at the time, if I was willing to do the work, which I was. So you think about responses like that, if you’ve any sense at all. And you hope, as a writer, you’ve some sense.

When I get stuck, I’ll often come back to a favourite novel or short story, something like Raymond Carver’s Menudo or McGahern’s Sierra Leone or Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. I find the high seriousness and beauty of their prose an anchoring presence, a reminder that a story is worth your best shot. Carver used to say to his writing students that if you can’t give a novel or a short story a drop of your blood, you should find something else to do with your life.

My experience, for what it’s worth, is that women readers will usually find a way of telling you the truth, while men will often tell you that you were on the money, when you weren’t. One of Geoff’s talents is that he doesn’t fit that pattern. He’s very clear and honest when he thinks the book is going wrong, losing focus, lacking clarity. He wants you to write what you mean.

Until recently, I wrote a lot for radio, which is a very democratic medium, in that you write a piece on a Wednesday morning for broadcast on a Wednesday afternoon, and the listeners’ responses are being texted to you that evening. And you’d be celestially stupid to ignore them, because reading is listening. You’d want to be giving the reader something worth listening to.

Geoff, there is an oath among some editors “First, do no harm.” Do you find it easy to stick to that? Are there parts of editing that you feel you are stronger at than others? For example, are you happier to fix plot or would you rather concentrate on the sentence? (Maybe you’re happy doing both, of course!)

GM: “First, do no harm” is good advice for both surgeons and editors. It takes experience to realise that one of the options with a particular point is to do nothing, to leave well alone. All any editor is trying to do is make the book better. If you want to propose a change, be it to a word, a sentence or the plot, you need to feel sure that what you are suggesting is an improvement. And it is only a suggestion, to be discussed with the author. Sometimes a third and better solution arises out of asking the question and the discussion that follows.

The second question is hard to answer. It seems to me the level of the sentence and of the plot are both important and require the same concentration. I enjoy both.

Joe, what was the most challenging part of The Thrill of it All for you?

JO’C: Finding the correct balance for a novel about a group of people, as opposed to one single defining Jamesian protagonist, is always a challenge. Then, I wanted Fran to be a fairly enigmatic and elusive presence, so I had to experiment with the various distances from which the reader might be allowed to see him. I think the early drafts of the book were a bit cartoonish here and there, which was partly a consequence of how Robbie, the narrator, deploys humour to distance himself from painful realities and then partly because of an attractive trait in him, his sense of self-irony. But someone trying not to tell you a story is only interesting up to a point. So I had to shift that point around a bit. On the surface, The Thrill of it All is the simplest novel I’ve written in a long time, but it took quite a lot of editing and reworking.

Same question for you, Geoff…

GM: A novel about the music business, rock and roll and so forth is a tough ask, given that the real-life stories and excesses are already pretty extraordinary. A novelist who dreamed up Keith Moon would be accused by reviewers of exaggeration. So that was a challenge for the author, but Joe has never been afraid of challenges. Secondly, Joe has gone for a subtle, nuanced view of Irish lives in England and avoided the more obvious, stereotypical characters. Robbie’s people are ordinary folk living in Luton, who do not necessarily want to bring about the revolution or write poems. Subtle is always more challenging. Thirdly, Joe’s narrator is self-effacing and introverted. The extrovert with a giant ego is of course Fran, the lead singer. The problem was to create a narrator who is both self-effacing and interesting to the reader. I think he has carried it off beautifully.

Joe, you’re the Frank McCourt Chair in Creative Writing at UL now, which sounds like a big job! And you’ve always done things in addition to your fiction-writing, whether teaching, journalism, your pieces for Drivetime (all of which are brilliant, by the way). Do you think this helps your work? And can you describe your writing routine?

It’s a personal thing, and I certainly wouldn’t want to be proscriptive about it, but, ideally, I think a fiction writer should have another job, too. Writing fiction is an odd and profoundly unreal way for grown-ups to spend their time. Making stuff up all day can lead to the belief that novels are more important than they are, and from there it’s only a short stagger to the purgatorial hall of mirrors in which novels about misunderstood novelists get written.

You need ways of deepening your stake. So, I’ve always done other things. It gets you up from the desk and it keeps you honest. And I like collaborative work, which some novelists don’t. To work with actors, composers or musicians, which I’ve been hugely fortunate to have done, is really the most amazing privilege.

As for my routine, I try to write, or at least think about a project, every single day. I get a bit unbalanced if I don’t. I never switch off.

I get up at 6.45 in the morning and I’ll noodle around in my notebook. I’ll try to shape a sentence or two, or plan out a sequence. I’m a dad, so I like to be around and present when the kids are getting up for school. So, I’ll try to get a bit done before that happens.

Once they’re gone, I go running for an hour, because writing is a corrosively sedentary life. It’s grand when you’re young. But you need to not die of it.

Running keeps me sane, mainly because I find it so exhausting: it deprives me of the energy I would need to be anything more than a lower-level neurotic.

Then, if it’s a writing day, I work office hours. About half of what I’d write in a session is rubbish, but it’s a discipline to get the words on the page. I’m hugely fortunate in that I get to have lunch with my wife most days. She’s a writer, too, but we have a good semi-rule, which is that we don’t talk about work too much. Towards the end of the working day, I’ll do some pretty ruthless self-editing and cutting. I’ll read what I’ve done aloud. Then I’ll read someone else, poetry or fiction. I’m knocked out by the current generation of younger Irish writers, people like Rob Doyle, Sara Baume, Paul Lynch, Lisa McInerney, Colin Barrett, Gavin Corbett. Their prose is so impressive and assured. I find them inspiring.

Like a lot of workaholics, I’m secretly a bit terrified of my capacity for sloth. If I didn’t work hard, I’d write nothing at all. I don’t believe in waiting around for The Muse. That’s fodder for the mediocre. The Muse is attracted by enthusiasm, always was, always will be. If you meet her halfway, you’ve a chance. Probably the most essential skill for any real writer to learn is the ability to get up off your arse. Read the letters of Joyce. He worked hard. It’s the same no matter the genre. Paul Howard who writes Ross O’Carroll Kelly works seven days a week. It doesn’t just happen. You need to put the hours in.

I have a dream job at the college, and I’m absolutely thrilled to have it. I love working with the students. And you learn so much from teaching.

It’s been a massive challenge to get our creative writing programme up and running but I have the best of supportive colleagues and it’s going very well. Our Arts Council Writer in Residence is one of my favourite Irish authors, Donal Ryan, and he’s made a huge contribution. And we’re lucky to also have Giles Foden, a wonderful teacher, on the team. It’s great to be at UL because it has such a powerful commitment to the arts, as evidenced by the World Academy of Irish Music and Dance, the finest such institution anywhere.

The task will be to balance the job with my writing. But a lot of writers learn to do that.

Geoff, in what way do you make your edits? Is it a series of questions? A red pen? A chat over lunch or coffee or pints?

GM: A number of points or questions will arise out of a long time spent with a pencil hunched over the manuscript. How best to discuss those points or questions varies from writer to writer. It’s a matter of finding a way of working that both writer and editor are comfortable with. Some people prefer to receive notes, others to discuss the manuscript in person, which is where the coffee comes in. Skype is also an invaluable resource for this and I use it a lot with people in different countries, even different continents. Lunch and the pints are crucial to the editorial process, but preferably after the work has been done.

Joe, do the two of you ever argue? Have you stuck to your guns about something and later regretted it (and maybe even changed your mind)? Or vice versa?

JO’C: Geoff is confident about his assessments, and he knows what’s what, but no, we don’t argue. I listen to him. He said things to me about a book of mine called Inishowen that I now wish I’d agreed with. There’s good writing in it, but it would have been a more credible novel if I had done a thing or two to it. He’s really strong on the tone, or the music, of a novel, as well as the line to line. And, to me, that’s the mark of a first-rate editor. Geoff can see the big stuff and the small.

Geoff, what’s the best thing about working with Joe?

GM: If your work is a source of pleasure then you are fortunate, and working with Joe over the last 20 years has been a huge pleasure. It may help that we share a great deal in terms of cultural references such as books and films and songs. The work is a collaborative process, which is in itself enjoyable. We are aiming for the same thing: a book that is a success in the short term, maybe even a bestseller, and which stands the test of time.

And same question for you, Joe!

JO’C: Geoff is a gentleman. He would be too modest to tell you that the French government recently appointed him a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur for his services to literature but that’s the case. It seems to me a very appropriate accolade. He’s a principled, dependable man with the highest of standards.

When I was young, hoping to become a published novelist one day, I had this idea that there were editors out there who were wise, funny, assiduous and truthful, who believed in this form called “the novel” and its ability to touch people, as I believed in it myself. And there are. But they’re rare enough. I was immensely fortunate to find one in Geoff Mulligan. I owe him a lot. He taught how to write a novel that will find readers.

The Thrill of it All is published by Vintage, £8.99

Do you have a question for the author. If so, email bookclub@irishtimes.com

Next: On Wednesday, we publish Making a ‘Singable Song’: The Fiction of Joseph O’Connor, by UCD lecturer PJ Mathews .

The series will culminate with a podcast of Joseph O’Connor in conversation with Martin Doyle and Anna Carey, which will be pre-recorded in front of a live audience in association with the Irish Writers Centre, Parnell Square, on Wednesday, September 2nd, at 7.30pm. The recording will be followed by a Q&A and there will be music. Admission €5, €3 concessions, to include a glass of wine. irishwriterscentre.ie

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