Joseph O’Connor: ‘I’m uncomfortable with the idea of a novel being “about” anything’
The Book Club author on the magic of music, the Irish in England, The Thrill of it All as an entertainment, and why his lead singer Fran Mulvey is a descendant of Star of the Sea’s Pius Mulvey
Joseph O’Connor with the 2012 Irish PEN Award for lifetime achievement: “Music soothes, heals, excites, consoles, reveals our better angels and binds up the wounds. It’s a difficult thing to write about, because music is itself. It doesn’t sound like anything else.” Photograph: Alan Betson
Would you say that this novel, which, on one level, is about music and friendship, is also about English-Irishness, the lives of Irish people in England?
I’m slightly uncomfortable with the idea of a novel being “about” anything, in that sense. For me, it starts with characters and the situations they encounter, and then it moves pretty quickly to trying to shape the sentences and build an architecture that will work. So, I never really think about a book having a theme. Sometimes, after a book is published, I see what the theme is. But I never look for it. Anne Enright says that when a novel gets “about-y”, it starts to fail, and I think she’s right.
But yes, I got interested in the Irish people who live in England but who don’t live in the stereotypically Irish parts of it. So, the Irish who live in Luton or Slough or any of those towns in southern England where people tended to assimilate a bit more. The people who just quietly got on with it. I couldn’t think of a novel set anywhere like that, and so, when I was putting The Thrill of it All together, I thought it would be interesting to try. I lived in London myself for almost a decade, and my wife is a Londoner, and I’m immensely fond of the city, which has such an astounding musical and literary history. So, I guess 1980s London is sort of a character in the novel. But it roams around a good bit. There are sections set in the East Village of Manhattan, another place I adore, and in Montauk and Dublin.
I enjoyed writing the dialogue of the Irish-in-England characters, people like Jimmy Goulding, the narrator’s father. There’s a scene where Jimmy’s teenage son comes home drunk late at night, and Jimmy tears strips off him, which makes the boy laugh. That was fun to write. And I think, for people like Jimmy and his wife, Alice, it would be hugely important that the nice English neighbours approve of them.
Music is clearly of great importance in The Thrill of it All, and to you, personally. How did that start?
When I was nine or 10, I had a teacher named Jarlath Dowling. He taught music in the school I attended in suburban Dublin. He was a big man physically, ruddy-faced and cheerful, and he was big in his emotions too. Puccini could make him weep. Mozart or The Rolling Stones made him laugh out loud. I should mention that he was a Catholic priest, and, as such, his fondness for the Stones made him somewhat unusual, especially in 1970s Ireland. I see him in my memory, singing Brown Sugar in the playground, encouraging us to join in on the chorus. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, Wooooo!” A sweet-natured, jolly-eyed man.
His beloved recordings of The Dubliners, or The Sweet doing Ballroom Blitz, would have him punching the air with glee. He’d play a record to us in class and conduct the imaginary orchestra with his toothbrush. He’d mime trumpets or tubas or spangling banjos. He was passionate about music, all sorts of music. He’d get excited as he spoke about it. When he played it, his face changed. He’d say to us, “This is one of the reasons for being alive.” Bach, Bowie or Abba, Chopin or Shostakovich, Fats Waller or Louis Armstrong or Jimmy Durante, the genre made little difference. I remember him once making a remark we barely understood at the time: “There’s no sadder person in the world than the person who never loved music. Music is what makes life sweet.”
So it was an enthusiasm that chimed with me, even at that early age.
Were your parents into music?
My parents loved music, mainly classical and folk, and stuff like Frank Sinatra. If you searched their stack of records, as I often did, it seemed a collection of passports to a whole world of stories. Finding a song you loved, you didn’t just listen. You went into it and walked around for a while.
In the kingdom of Sinatra or the republic of Ella Fitzgerald, magical things seemed possible. I was a kid who loved books and the written word in all its forms, but no line ever penned by a poet could possibly compete with Cole Porter. “How strange the change from major to minor, every time we say goodbye.” I often think the reason I wanted to be a writer myself was the faintest possibility that one day in my life I would write a line as achingly truthful as that one.
There was music among your siblings too?
My sister Eimear played harp and piano, my brother John was a drummer. And my youngest sister, Sinead, of course, grew up to be the most powerful Irish singer of her generation. One summer day I went with her to enter a local talent competition in Dún Laoghaire, where I played guitar to her version of Kenny Rogers’ Lucille. That’s a song with four chords and I definitely knew three of them. She was awarded first prize, which turned out to be a jigsaw that had several pieces missing. She would later win several Grammys for Nothing Compares 2 U, but I’m sure they weren’t as thrilling as that jigsaw.
Now, in my fifties, I find, when I look back at my childhood and teens, that all the happy days involved music. There was the afternoon when the four of us dressed up as The Bay City Rollers, clambered out my bedroom window and gave an impromptu concert to the bemused neighbours. We were perhaps not quite as good as The Beatles on the roof of the Apple building in the film of Let it Be. But for kids we weren’t half bad.
There was a night when Sinead and I listened to Bob Dylan’s Slow Train Coming five times in a row, surely among the most powerful of all his masterpiece albums. We were so awestruck by his writing and singing that we couldn’t even speak and just kept putting the record back on. I remember the fierce pride of seeing Eimear play the harp at a school concert and the astonishment of hearing my kid brother bash the drums. Music is so wonderful, how it brings people together, even in a troubled time. It’s a way of conducting a conversation without having to talk. That’s why we love music as deeply as we do, because there are moments in every life where we don’t have the words.
Music soothes, heals, excites, consoles, reveals our better angels and binds up the wounds. It’s a difficult thing to write about, because music is itself. It doesn’t sound like anything else. It’s the most abstract of all the art forms, yet it has existed in every society ever formed.
Would you say it’s the most important art?
I don’t know about the most important but it’s certainly the most universal. Not everyone reads fiction or goes to art galleries or learns about sculpture. But nearly everyone loves music, of some sort. I mean, very, very occasionally you meet someone who says “I don’t know anything about music” or “I don’t like any sort of music”. When that happens, I back away, smiling nervously. That’s nearly always a person whose stock of normal human empathy is seriously low.
As for singing, when we think about it, is there anything more miraculous? The only music made by the body alone, it enters our hearts like no force on earth. Hear Aretha Franklin singing You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman or Jussi Bjorling singing an aria, and you know that our species, for all our vanity and violence, aren’t apes, that if there’s weakness and frailty, there’s also hope and beauty. Yes, the world has horrors. It also has Bessie Smith and John Lennon. Kurt Vonnegut has one of his characters say that the only plausible mission of artists is to make people feel a little more grateful for being alive. Asked to name any artist who ever pulled that off, he replies “The Beatles did”.
I grew up to be a novelist, not a musician (thankfully), but I do believe in the music of words. Shakespeare, Emily Brontë, Scott Fitzgerald, Kingsley Amis, Dickens, Flannery O’Connor, Colm Tóibín, Anne Enright, they all have their music if you listen. We all of us have a soundtrack, a way of remembering, maybe a way of holding close to those we loved through the rainstorms of youth. And I guess The Thrill of it All tries to connect with that, or recognise it.
You’ve written literary novels and historical novels and also worked in other modes such as playwriting and radio. Where does this book fit in to the body of your work?
Graham Greene used to distinguish between his novels and his lighter books, which he termed entertainments. I guess The Thrill of it All is more of an entertainment. I hope parts of it are funny and recognisable. And I hope the end is moving. It’s a far easier read than, say, my novel Redemption Falls. I think any of us who were 1980s emigrants would enjoy The Thrill of it All in a particular way, but it’s also just a book about being young and foolish and thinking you have all the answers and then realising over time that you have none of them. But neither has anyone else.
Fran Mulvey, lead singer of The Ships, your fictional band, shares a surname with the central character of Star of the Sea. Was this deliberate?
Yes. Fran, like Pius Mulvey, is a songmaker and a refugee, a guy who has to live by his wits. I think of Fran as Pius’s descendant, definitely.
The Thrill of it All is published by Vintage, at £8.99.
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The series will culminate with a podcast of Joseph O’Connor in conversation with Martin Doyle, Anna Carey and Sorcha Hamilton, which will be pre-recorded in front of a live audience in association with the Irish Writers Centre, Parnell Square, Dublin, on Wednesday, September 2nd, at 7.30pm. The recording will be followed by a Q&A and there wilbe live music. Admission €5, €3 concessions, to include a glass of wine. http://irishwriterscentre.ie/
Next: On Friday, Declan Kiberd reflects on the work of Joseph O'Connor, from brilliant student to bestselling author.