On the morning of my interview with Joseph O’Connor to discuss his new novel, I posted on social media our two previous interviews – one from 2010, when Ghost Light was published; another from 1991, with the author looking raffish in a leather jacket and thick-framed Elvis Costello glasses.
The spectacle triggered a domestic tsunami of slagging, he says, for the writer has long since swapped black leather for linen, and now looks more like a cultured cleric, a literary canon.
His writing style and philosophy have also evolved. “That interview you sent me from ’91, this young fella saying ‘the purpose of the novel isn’t to entertain, it’s to change the world’ – there’s moments as a 56-year-old you don’t feel that any more!”
He began his career with the coming-of-age novel Cowboys & Indians but came of age as a novelist with Star of the Sea, a Famine epic which became a number one bestseller thanks to its endorsement on the first Richard & Judy Book Club by Bob Geldof – “a childhood hero” – and Bonnie Greer, “whose critical writing I love”.
O’Connor has always been an entertaining writer – from his much-loved columns collected as The Secret World of the Irish Male to his RTÉ Radio Drivetime essays – but setting a book in the 1840s had allowed an author raised on the spare style of John McGahern and Raymond Carver to play with the traditions and flourishes of the Victorian novel.
“Dennis Potter said every author should look back on their early works with affectionate contempt. I think with my first few books I was learning how to write – in public. I did my MA in creative writing by publishing novels. Star of the Sea gave me the confidence and security to approach my writing in a different way, publish less often, make every book as good as it could be.”
O’Connor has found his forte in historical fiction, often with a literary theme. The “belligerently literary” Redemption Falls was followed by the superb Ghost Light, the love story of JM Synge and the actor Molly Allgood, brought vividly to life by a generous act of the author’s imagination.
Shadowplay sees O’Connor return to the stage and a more complicated love affair, a ménage à trois featuring two of the greatest actors of the Victorian era, Henry Irving and Ellen Terry, and, in their shadow and in their thrall, Bram Stoker, whose success would sadly be posthumous, “one of the delicious and delightful ironies for the novelist”.
‘I love Dracula’
Stoker, like O’Connor more than a century later, would leave Dublin for London to pursue his dreams, lured by Irving to manage his Lyceum Theatre. The real drama, of course, takes place off-stage, as the enterprise teeters on the brink of financial collapse, Irving’s reckless genius barely restrained by level-headed Stoker. The Dubliner’s own creative ambitions are disparaged by Irving and he is also the most distant point of the love triangle. Waiting in the wings is his long-suffering wife, once betrothed to Oscar Wilde – his parting gift to her, Dracula fans, was a crucifix – and suspects that lightning may have struck twice.
This is also the London of Jack the Ripper, pea-soupers and the swirl of suspicion that surrounds Wilde. Out of this ferment we witness the first stirrings of what will become Stoker’s masterpiece, Dracula.
The story is told through diary entries, letters and the odd newspaper clipping, so Shadowplay carries thematic and structural echoes of both Star of the Sea and Ghost Light.
“There are actually very specific references to those books which not everyone will spot. Henry Irving is interviewed by American journalist Grantley Dixon. Nerds will spot that he is the central narrator of Star of the Sea. Later, Stoker is living in a nursing home on Bricksfield Terrace, the same building that Molly Allgood lives in in Ghost Light.”
Bram and Joe go way back. “Bram Stoker has been with me from [when] I was six or seven. He is the first Irish author I ever heard of, the first Irish author I loved. My maternal grandmother was a great teller of ghost stories, she loved telling us about Marsh’s Library being haunted and if you walked three times round the Peppercanister church the Devil would appear.”
His favourite story was of a relative who was a lamplighter, who met Stoker near St Michan’s Church then read that Stoker had died in London the previous day. “It’s the tallest of stories but it made me feel connected. The first fiction I tried to write was influenced by Stoker, very Gothic.”
Stoker was intensely private, says O’Connor, and less celebrated as he was not identified with cultural nationalism. “What he wanted to do, a bit like Eddie Virago in Cowboys & Indians, was to get on the boat to London and be in showbiz. He was a genuine outsider, a genuine rebel.”
How good is Dracula?
“I love Dracula, it has its moments of clunking self-parody but one of the really striking things about it is its modernity. Dracula includes telephones, sound recordings, blood transfusions, women’s magazines, you can see Stoker trying to make it as up-to-date as possible. It’s so brilliant that he sets the vampire in the world of the reader. We often think mistakenly that it is set in Transylvania but most of it is set in England, the vampire is living in an abandoned townhouse in Piccadilly, he could be walking past you. That’s where it is tempting to think the story of Jack the Ripper could come in.”
Guitar solos and silence
Then there is the novel’s epistolary style, which O’Connor has explored since The Salesman. “It’s marvellous how Stoker teaches you to vary the texture. It doesn’t have to be one authorial voice, you can have newspaper articles, ballads, songs, diaries. There’s a narrator in this book who’s a ghost and whose grammar is very far away from Bram’s meticulous diary keeping. Stoker taught me that the music of a novel is as important as the plot. It should be like a concert, some moments are guitar solos, some are silence, some should be a symphony but use them all.”
Shadowplay grew out of a BBC radio play O’Connor wrote about Stoker and Irving called The Vampire Man. “It was grand but when it came to write the novel, when Ellen arrived I felt the crackle of electricity, of possibility. All the blokish stuff could be undercut. It wouldn’t be the book it is without Ellen Terry.
“The three of them had this ardent, passionate friendship for which there is only the word love. I thought this story might say something about the nature of love and sexuality and magic and what happens backstage. Stoker wrote an unforgiveably long memoir of Irving, like a snowstorm of facts that Stoker hides in. He never tells anything about himself. All of those silences create a space that is very inviting for the storyteller.”
While O’Connor has fun exploring the possible threads from which Stoker might have woven his masterpiece, the tyrannical Irving and the Ripper’s bloodlust, he is as keen to subvert as to suggest. “I don’t think it is as simple as you see someone and they become the blueprint for one of your characters, it’s more a process of osmosis and transference.” For instance, to help him with a scene involving Terry, he asked himself how Patti Smith, his heroine, would have handled it.
O’Connor is a witty, stylish writer who has a lot of fun gently sending up Gothic tropes, as did Paraic O’Donnell’s The House on Vesper Sands. “There is something preposterous and ponderous about the Gothic. The characters almost know how ridiculous the situation is. I wanted Ellen to be funny, to take the piss out of Irving’s pomposity. Actors are witty, performative in how they talk, camp and mischievous.”
Stoker’s sexuality is ambiguous – his relationship with Terry and Irving intense but complex.
Through fiction you get to have that very radical adventure of seeing the world through someone else
“My sense of their view is that sexuality is an omnipresent current, a bit like radiowaves,” says O’Connor. “I was going to suggest it is a bit like broadband except that would suggest that sexuality in parts of rural Ireland is only intermittently available. A current of sexuality runs between people all the time, a smile could be sexual. There’s a moment where Bram says that love is a lot more than who puts what where and that is my notion of the three. Hence the title, it’s more about what’s happening in the shadows, not the limelight.”
O’Connor does his research, puts it in a drawer and gives his imagination free rein. Twelve years after Stoker’s death a German company filmed Dracula as Nosferatu, only for Stoker’s widow to pursue them successfully for royalties.
At that time, only plays could be copyrighted so a key scene is the Lyceum’s staging, unrehearsed, minus scenery, for one morning only, of Dracula, or The Un-Dead – “The Un-read”, scoffs Irving.
“I would love to have been in the Lyceum that morning,” O’Connor says, “so that was a real-life thing to discover and play with.”
Shadowplay’s epigraph, by Ellen Terry’s son, begins: “In every being who lives, there is a second self very little known to anyone.”
“I think it is the key to the book,” says the author. “What Bram is doing is discovering a second self. It is a great trope of Victorian literature – Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and The Picture of Dorian Gray – and people had great unease about it. The reason we have storytelling is we know we contain other selves. Through fiction you get to have that very radical adventure of seeing the world through someone else.”
His new project is a novel based on Hugh O’Flaherty, the Kerry priest who saved more than 6,000 lives from the Nazis in Rome. “Being a priest would not have saved him – the Gestapo murdered two priests who had been assisting the partisans so he was a man of immense courage. I just have his voice in my head, right at this moment he’s telling me to shut up. He’s now telling me he can’t wait to read Shadowplay.”