George O’Brien: ‘Writing has taught me to be disciplined, to be patient, to persist’

Brought to Book Q&A: Irish author and academic on how he writes and what he reads

George O’Brien is Professor Emeritus of English at Georgetown University, Washington DC. He is author of three memoirs, The Village of Longing, Dancehall Days, and Out of Our Minds.

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

The first book I remember being carried away by and giving me my initial experience of the sheer pleasure of reading is called The Epic Voyage of the Seven Little Sisters by William Willis, an American who sailed alone across the Pacific on a home-made raft, travelling quite a bit further than the Kon-Tiki Expedition. That book planted the idea of how marvelous it would be to voyage forth, stormy seas and all. Survival was possible: you could do it yourself. Filaments of desire and need floated around me, hardly grasped, "being good" requiring so much of my will and energy.

What was your favourite book as a child?


The first books I remember were by Patricia Lynch. She had a series of stories about Brogeen, and I remember delighting in them, though at this remove it’s hard to say whether it was the book itself or what was in it that pleased me most.

And what is your favourite book or books now?

There are too many. Philip Roth, American Pastoral; Nadine Gordimer, Burger's Daughter; David Ireland, The Glass Canoe; Maureen Howard, Facts of Life; Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities; Zadie Smith's novels, pretty much all of them … I read eclectically, haphazardly. But in suggesting that random list, I don't want it to seem like I'm cordoning off Irish writing from the rest of literary creation. I do like Irish writers as well.

What is your favourite quotation?

“The past isn’t dead. It’s not even past.” - William Faulkner

Who is your favourite fictional character?

Julien Sorel in Stendhal's The Red and the Black - an up-from-nothing provincial who thinks himself God's gift to his day and age, and who rises and falls accordingly.

Who is the most under-rated Irish author?

I don't know about under-rated, or about rating systems in general. But I do think Maurice Leitch is inexplicably the most under-valued Irish novelist of the past 50 years.

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

The book is such a marvelous invention that the idea of replacing it is just mindless messing. It wasn’t broken; there’s no need to fix it. Besides, e-books are much more about collecting data about the reader than encouraging him to read for reading’s sake, or for his/her own sake, or for the sake of writing.

What is the most beautiful book you own?

It’s not all that terrifically beautiful, but I have a four-volume edition of the Cabinet of Irish Literature. The print-face isn’t very attractive, but the general lay-out is generous, the binding is made to last, the embossed device on each cover is Celtic and corny but a nice piece of craftsmanship nevertheless, and the whole thing is in the nature of a little homily about how books were thought of as culturally valuable objects not only for their content but also for their design, paper stock, format and other material attractions. In general, though, I’m not a collector. I think of books as tools, not as fetish objects.

Where and how do you write?

I have a cluttered desk and I sit down at it every morning with a pad and pencil.

What book changed the way you think about fiction?

As an undergraduate I took a course called 'The European Novel' that featured all the big names - Balzac, Tolstoy, George Eliot, ending up with Thomas Mann. Later, when I was a graduate student at the same university I taught that course, and began to see novels in a totally different way, from the inside out, as it were; as things intentionally made; not quite Stendhal's "mirror in the roadway". Looking at, say, Crime and Punishment in that way - what I might call a material way - was completely eye-opening. So, it's the way the "how"' of a book conveys it's "what"' that I get the biggest kick from as a reader.

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

As I’ve written academic books, I’m no stranger to research. But for creative work, I’ve relied on memory and imagination. So far. I have nothing against researching a subject. In the end, it’s the writing that counts.

What book influenced you the most?

In a way, the whole universe of writing is an influence - a sea to swim in, with good fresh air and disturbing uproar. But one book that made me think I could do something in the memoir line is Patrick Kavanagh's The Green Fool - not because of the writing but because it was a world not too far from the one I first knew. And so I thought maybe I might make something too from that world of mine. But the way that influences are resisted, modified, criticized is as important as any affirmative imprint they leave.

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

F Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby. A fairy-tale that shows what happens if you believe in fairy-tales.

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

Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn. At the end, Huck declares that he's heading out for the new territory. That's the consummation devoutly to be wished, for me - intellectually and every other way. I would have liked to know another kid, fictional or otherwise, to give me the nod about taking off.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

Expect - and accept -- the unexpected, especially as a work develops. And stick with it. The American author Harry Matthews wrote a book called Twenty Lines a Day, and writing even that much will yield valuable discoveries. And don't forget, it really is "a day".

What weight do you give reviews?

Reviews ideally initiate a conversation between books and the wider culture, so I do take them seriously. There is a trend now for reviews to be in the nature of infomercials. And currently there’s a debate in the US as to whether adverse reviews are permissible. But I think reviews in general maintain that books are news, and more often than not good news.

Where do you see the publishing industry going?

Who can say? It really is a proper industry now, and not just the gentleman’s business it used to be, with editors you could make friends with and who could offer support in hard creative (and other) times - although that image of publishing is probably something of a myth as well. So, publishing is vulnerable in the ways we’ve found more familiar industries to be, and of course the old loyalties are pretty much long gone. Books are very poorly edited now, too, again the result of pressure to produce, job insecurity, and the diminished status of the author, who is now in a position somewhat like that of a farmer supplying the food industry.

But I suppose the media giants who own publishing will change in time; that’s what industries tend to do nowadays. And maybe that will mean a better climate for books. I’m afraid books may become luxury items, pricier and also fewer of them, fewer reprints, no backlists worth talking about, with every so often a blockbuster, publication that has more to do with the (manufactured) obsession with spectacle than with anything to do with writing. Books will survive, but inevitably at a cost (in every sense) to the reader.

What writing trends have struck you lately?

Apart from vampires and zombies (whose ubiquity anticipates perhaps fears about the future of books - that they’ll become dead letters), I notice an awful lot of first novels, but a much smaller number of second novels. For a good while now, the size of prizes and the size of contracts have made the marketing of books seem like the primary literary activity. That’s part of the sociology of literature, of course, and has its own interest. But often it’s a substitute for supporting writing.

As well, there’s been a lot more interest in co-opting writers, literary traditions and the like for other, often cosmetic, purposes. It used to make me cringe to sit in those Aer Lingus seats clad in material reproducing writers’ manuscripts. I mean, really cringe. It’s true that books are commodities, but what they contain can’t be so easily described or packaged.

It has come to seem, though, as if content is being collapsed into form; that it doesn’t matter what a book is trying to say so long as there’s a lot of chatter about its economic success. All this activity impinges on a book’s breathing room, and doesn’t contribute anything - to mount my high horse a minute - to fostering a thoughtful reading public, which a properly literate democracy needs. That’s not to say all prize-winning works are rubbish. It’s not the works that are the point, it’s the pomp.

On the plus side, writing has a much more cosmopolitan flavour these times, and that’s very much to the good. And there seems to be renewed interest in the short story, with many new authors’ first books being story collections. Not a lot of books published by the main houses break very new ground artistically, though. It’s a conservative time, generally. The multiple time signatures that are so common, and the tendency to tell more than one story within the one book, is to me just a sign of how domesticated some of Modernism’s innovations have become. We should be thinking of innovations of our own.

What lessons have you learned about life from reading?

This applies to fiction, but I think it could be relevant to reading in general. Reading is a choice. Not only in the obvious sense of taking up a book, or taking up one book and not another, but when reading the book at hand. It’s assessing the facts of the case (even the fictional ones) and seeing some as more relevant to a satisfying reading than others. A chance to witness others’ choices (those of characters’) is irresistible, and a various kinds of other transactions, critical and otherwise, result from being witnesses. This involvement in choosing has to do with the solitariness of reading, the privacy, the silence, the inwardness.

But by recognising and engaging in what I might call “choice acts”, reading keeps us in the world, sharpens not just our understanding of appetites and passions but of their consequences, makes us responsive, perhaps even gives us a more informed, or richer, sense of what we want, or what we can understand, or what we find acceptable. In all those various ways, reading is a good - in the moral, instead of the economic, sense. Plus, it all occurs by means of a medium (language) that can be used beautifully.

What has being a writer taught you?

To try to be disciplined, to be patient, to persist, to complete, to have a dream. Choices, again.

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

I'd go for a trio of fabulous gossips: Gore Vidal, Jessica Mitford and Alan Bennett.

What is the funniest scene you’ve read?

I remember bursting my sides when I was a youngster at Uncle Podger hanging the picture in Three Men in a Boat. And then there was the rattling child in The Pickwick Papers. But the Cyclops episode in Ulysses takes some beating, having in addition to being very funny with its lists and parodies the malice of wit, an ingredient without which funniness isn't really grown-up.

What is your favourite word?

An impossible question! I’m a language junkie, so much so that there is no such thing as a bad word to me - which is not the same as saying there’s no such thing as bad usage, of which I am as guilty as anyone, or everyone (take, for instance, what I’ve just written). There was a time when I went for words like nacreous, ineffable, lambent, - all the registers of impressionism. And since I have no journalistic training, I still have a sense of language as not the last word but as a suggestible instrument, a means of invoking, or surprising, or amusing, and that encourages the reader to enter into the meaning of the image or thought, or to supply the meaning and to take pleasure in doing so.

But I will pick one word. Remember. It’s an important word for me personally. And it’s an important word for reading. But just as a word, the way the e’s work and the m’s almost reproduce in sound what the word means. And then the “re” extends that sonar repetition into an activity, a possibility of retrieval and even rehabilitation. A word that’s a reminder of one of the extraordinary services that language provides is a word worth recollecting.

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

The period would be the McCarthyite 1950s in the US, possibly because its grotesque rhetoric, contrived fears and racial undercurrents resemble the present day. My protagonist would be a left-leaning ordinary guy trying to find some alternative to the prevailing climate to which he can be true.

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