‘I started writing because as an actor you need others’ permission to work’
Ros na Rún star Domhnall O’Donoghue on the influences that fed into his new novel
Domhnall O’Donoghue: Years ago, when I battled an insatiable desire to be liked by everyone, I quipped that I’d only truly make it in life when I had a stalker! Crazy For You is how I imagine that fantasy playing out.
Tell us about your new work and how it came about – the story behind the story.
Crazy For You is a dark comedy that follows an unconventional romance between Clooney Coyle, a kind-hearted but insecure soap star, and Vonnie Gallagher, a lonely and eccentric artist.
After Clooney casually promises her that they’ll be friends for life, Vonnie quickly becomes infatuated, and this misguided crush soon develops into something much more sinister.
Years ago, when I battled an insatiable desire to be liked by everyone, I quipped that I’d only truly make it in life when I had a stalker! Crazy For You is how I imagine that fantasy playing out. It explores themes related to obsession, fame and our desperate need to be loved.
The action spans four locations: my hometown of Navan; Connemara, where the soap is filmed; as well as the Jamaica Inn in Ocho Rios and Das Central in Sölden, Austria – two stunning hotels I previously visited as a travel journalist.
What was the first book to make an impression on you?
When it’s your 12th birthday, most boys might expect a football magazine or a music album from their siblings. My brother, Darragh, gave me The Noel Coward Diaries, a collection of waspish anecdotes about the playwright’s life, on and off the stage. There are also vivid accounts of his time in Jamaica, his home from home.
From my comparatively dreary bedroom in Navan, I was transported across the world, quickly becoming fascinated by descriptions of his favourite hotel – the Jamaica Inn, a sprawling, colonial-style property overlooking the Caribbean Sea. It’s been a mecca for celebrities since it first opened in the 1950s. Here, James Bond author Ian Fleming first coined the phrase, “shaken not stirred’. Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller even celebrated their honeymoon there.
You can imagine my delight when I received an opportunity to visit the Jamaica Inn a couple of years ago on behalf of Irish Tatler Man. We checked in as former prime minister John Major was checking out!
As a travel journalist, I’ve been spoilt rotten, staying in some of the world’s most beautiful hotels but, for me, nothing compares to the Jamaica Inn – and I’ve used it as one of the central locations in Crazy For You. I suppose I’ve my brother and Noel Coward to thank for that!
What was your favourite book as a child?
I’ve always adored mysteries so, as a child, I read and re-read The Secret Seven series multiple times. To enhance the experience, I’d often convince my mother to make me orangeade – the tipple that fuelled the gang during their many adventures!
And what is your favourite book or books now?
I recently discovered Jessie Burton, an extraordinary English author who, like me, started out as an actor. I read her debut, The Miniaturist, over a rainy weekend this winter and am currently enjoying her most-recent release, The Confession.
I read in an interview that Jessie creates characters she’d love to play. I think having a background in acting really helps writers to build memorable, rounded characters – after all, actors are life-long students of human nature, continually observing people, warts and all!
What is your favourite quotation?
“Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better.” by Samuel Beckett, a man who truly knew how to write.
Who is your favourite fictional character?
I’m a massive fan of Agatha Christie – I’ve referenced her in all of my three books – so I’m going to say, Hercule Poirot. My other brother, Déaglán, lives in Brussels, so every time I visit, I strut around the magnificent Grand Place, looking for clues and challenging my little grey cells!
Which Irish author should everyone read?
Just one? Oh my days… John Banville. Or Anne Enright. Or Donal Ryan. Or Joseph O’Connor. Or Flann O’Brien. Or...
What famous book have you not read?
For my Leaving Certificate, I studied A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. Someone in the class mentioned that it was supposedly impossible to finish Ulysses, so I tasked myself with proving him wrong!
I started strongly – tickled by the fact that the first character mentioned, Buck Mulligan, was the name of the nightclub in Athboy where my friends and I used to frequent as unruly teenagers – but faltered somewhere around the middle of the second part. I’ll return to it one day! Where and how do you write?
When I first started writing, I thought it essential to fashion beautiful spaces in order to be creative (burning candles, a vase of lavender – those silly, Instagrammable flourishes). However, in addition to being an actor and author, I work as a journalist, notably, travel – as such, I’m always on the move and rarely in the same space.
To succeed, I quickly realised that the setting wasn’t important, but the actual act of writing. Now, all I need is my laptop. I can happily write on planes, on set, in a coffee shop - anywhere!
What book influenced you the most?
The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared had a significant influence on me as an author. I adore Jonas Jonasson’s quirky style and his gift for creating larger-than-life characters navigating larger-than-life situations.
I remember one of the leading publishing companies rejecting my first book, Sister Agatha – a comedy about a 118-year-old nun who’ll stop at nothing in her quest to become the world’s oldest person. They insisted that contemporary Irish writing needed to be rooted in real life. The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared – a hugely popular story not rooted in the real world – inspired me to follow my instincts and take similar risks in my books.
Comedy can undoubtedly be a polarising genre – sometimes it lands; sometimes it doesn’t. But isn’t that what art is all about?
What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday?
How about Brideshead Revisited? Coincidentally, I’ve always been tickled by the fact that I share my own birthday with Evelyn Waugh (and Francis Bacon as it happens.)
Or if the friend’s child is busy with college and embracing their new-found independence – like I was at 18 – I might give them a novella instead such as Carson McCullers’ wonderful The Ballad of the Sad Café.
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
When I was studying for my master’s in screenwriting in 2010, one of my lecturers, Senator Eoghan Harris, said something along the lines of: “Don’t give me that nonsense about walking along Dún Laoghaire pier looking for inspiration, grab your pen and just bloody write!” That simple advice has always remained with me: “just bloody write!”
I’d also advise people not to re-read what they’ve written until they’ve finished the first draft. Otherwise, you start editing and lose both momentum and self-confidence, which can often result in your manuscript never getting completed.
Set yourself a realistic goal – say a thousand words each day for 60-75 days - and keep moving forward.
What weight do you give reviews?
My first professional engagement as an actor was Peter Sheridan’s play Finders Keepers at the Peacock Theatre. I was so excited about getting my first reviews! One of the cast members, Anne Kent, cautioned me, however.
She told a story of a play she’d once appeared in where a reviewer surprisingly described her as a ballerina, “delicately moving across the stage”. That night, she became so fascinated with her supposed balletic movements that she tripped and face-planted the ground! She vowed never to read a notice ever again!
That anecdote always stayed with me: a reminder of how easy it is for artists to be influenced by one person’s opinion of you, or how they interpret your work - even if it’s in a positive light.
Also, I’ve learned over the years, by trying to please everyone, we often end up pleasing no one – and that’s a very liberating realisation for an artist.
What writing trends have struck you lately?
I love punctuation; anyone who has studied Shakespeare will recognise its importance in creating musicality within the text. In recent years, punctuation seems to be getting sidelined. The Oxford Comma is dead! The semi-colon is an endangered species! Maybe it helps make the text less cluttered.
If you’re a grammar nerd like me, you’ll love Eat, Shoots & Leave: the Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss or My Grammar and I (Or Should That Be ‘Me’?): Old-School Ways to Sharpen Your English by Caroline Taggart and JA Wine. They are a hoot!
What has being a writer taught you?
The main reason I started writing – initially screenplays followed by journalism and now novels – was in response to being overly dependent on others when it came to my creativity.
As an actor, you often need the permission of an agent, casting agent, director, producer or a writer to work – it’s debilitating and disempowering. I love that writing has allowed me to be creative whenever I want. It’s the best decision I’ve ever made.
Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Oscar Wilde – although I’d probably embarrass myself, hanging on his every word.
What is the funniest scene you’ve read?
David Sedaris could rewrite the phone directory and find a way of making the names and numbers funny. Me Talk Pretty One Day is a riot, particularly his miserable attempts at learning French in Paris.
At one point, his fearsome instructor even comments: ‘Every day spent with you is like having a caesarean section.’
Do you have a favourite poem?
WB Yeats’s He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven. Short and simple but what an incredible last line that all of us can relate to: “Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”
What is your favourite word?
Malapropism, which is confusing similar sounding words. It originates from one of my favourite plays, The Rivals by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, where the glorious Mrs Malaprop’s vocabulary continuously trips her up. For instance: “...she’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of Nile.”
If you were to write a historical novel, which event or figure would you choose?
Funnily enough, I once went to a fortune-teller who asked if I’d ever experienced problems with my throat and whether I avoid wearing scarfs and ties. When I told her that she was correct (I’d even my tonsils removed earlier that year), she explained that in a previous life, I was a religious martyr during the Spanish Inquisition, hanged from a tree beside a cliff top! Maybe, one day, I’ll write something about Ferdinand II and Isabella I and allow my past incarnation to exact revenge!
Which sentence or passage or book are you proudest of?
I adored creating the character of Vonnie – the anti-hero in Crazy For You. She’s a mixture of about three women I met – with a little dash of Donald Trump for good measure! She’s a deluded narcissist and fantasist who insults everyone she encounters – whether by intentionally forgetting their names, stealing from them or slating them on account of their star sign.
Here, she warns a stranger to dump her fiance simply because he was born in early February: “Being an Aquarian means he’ll murder you,” Vonnie explained calmly, “and then get pissed off with your mother for not sending him a Christmas card the following year in prison. They’re made of ice! Kim Jong-il was an Aquarian – that’s all I’ll say on the matter. Don’t accuse me of not warning you.”
What is the most moving book or passage you have read?
I’ve been a fan of Ian McEwan for years. I read Atonement during the summer I came out as gay in 2002. The book had numerous parallels with my personal life – in particular, Cecilia and Robbie’s ill-fated romance, which really resonated with my 19-year-old self, struggling to be open and honest in matters of the heart. It’s a stunning story, beautifully told. I destroyed the pages from all the tears I shed reading it!
Who do you most admire?
Madonna. She plays a small but vital role in Crazy For You (the title is a tip of the hat to her 1985 hit). I’ve always been fascinated by pop culture and people’s obsession with fame – themes I explore in the book.
She was my saviour during all those awkward teenage years when I battled with my sexuality – my bedroom walls were a shrine to her! Back then, I constantly searched for role models who challenged the authority of the oppressive patriarchy – and few have done that more successfully than Madonna. For 40 years, she has been a trendsetter, innovator, shapeshifter and provocateur while also creating some fabulous records along the way!
I was front row at her concert in the Aviva Stadium back in 2012, and we touched hands. I didn’t wash mine for days afterwards!
Where is your favourite place in Ireland, and in the world?
My favourite place in Ireland is Connemara, where I film Ros na Rún for six months of the year. I don’t drive so, sometimes, it can be tricky negotiating the wild Atlantic weather, especially in the heart of winter but the landscape is, at once, majestic and humble.
My boyfriend, Gabriele, is from Lido, Venice – the largest of the 118 islands scattered across the lagoon. It plays host to the Venice Film Festival and provided the primary location for Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice. The island is long and narrow, and we often stay there with his family. Even though St Mark’s Square, thronged with millions of tourists, is just a short vaporetto ride away, Lido is calm and peaceful – and oozes elegance!
What is your life motto?
“A ship in harbour is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.”
From Navan, Domhnall O’Donoghue works as an actor and journalist, dividing his time between Dublin, and Galway, where he films TG4’s award-winning series Ros na Rún. He is a travel writer for Ireland of the Welcomes, the world’s largest Irish-interest magazines and has a monthly column in Woman’s Way. His previous novels include Sister Agatha: the World’s Oldest Serial Killer (Tirgearr Publishing) and Colin and the Concubine (Mercier Press). Crazy For You is out now from Mercier Press.