Patricia O’Reilly on the wonder of the world and the power of the word

‘Not a wasted word’ – it’s a philosophy I try to follow in my writing

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

As a child it was Grimm’s Fairy Tales, particularly the story of Hansel and Gretel and that terrifying gingerbread house, which my mother not only read with gusto but made gingerbread as a tea-time treat. When I came across Edna O’Brien’s Country Girls my life of reading was changed for ever.

What was your favourite book as a child?

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, Mole being my favourite character


And what is your favourite book or books now?

Usually it’s whatever I’m reading – currently it’s Michael Dean’s I, Hogarth. We are both on a discussion panel entitled Art & Artists in Historical Fiction as part of The Historical Novel Society Conference 2014 in London, September 5th to 7th.

What is your favourite quotation?

Hunter S Thompson’s “Not a wasted word”. It’s a philosophy I try to follow in my writing.

Who is your favourite fictional character?

Eveline in the story of the same name in Joyce’s Dubliners.

Who is the most under-rated Irish author?

I haven’t come across any. The Irish authors I’m familiar with and enjoy reading – Anne Enright, Sebastian Barry, Christine Dwyer Hickey, Jennifer Johnston, Joseph O’Connor, Donal Ryan, Belinda McKeon, Kevin Barry and Nuala Ní Chonchuir are well-rated both nationally and internationally.

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

The print version – there’s nothing like the physicality of holding a book, it touches the senses of smell, feel, sight.

What is the most beautiful book you own?

The hardback version of A Writer’s Notebook by W Somerset Maugham, published by William Heinemann Ltd in 1949. That year it was a Book Club Choice and Daily Mail book of the month. My copy was a gift from one of my students and has a wondrously crafted label stuck on the inside of the cover which reads: The Book Society, Ex Libris – W.S.S. Tully, October 1949.

Where and how do you write?

In the morning, I start in my office. But with my laptop I usually follow the sun which swings from the front of the house to the back.

What book changed the way you think about fiction?

A whole raft of them – as a child I was fascinated at the way stories were created and constantly looked at their structure. Then it was Gulliver’s Travels, Little Women, The Little Prince, the Beatrix Potter books, which I still have, particularly The Tale of Tom Kitten. More recently my life-changing books are: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, The Hare with Amber Eyes, The Goldfinch and The Fault in our Stars.

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

A Type of Beauty, the story of Kathleen Newton, had to be researched from the ground up. There was virtually nothing written about her except her relationship with French artist James Tissot. I first came across a painting of her as a child, wearing scarlet gown and covetable black lace gloves, and learned her family were from Wexford. Next time I saw that painting, it was one of many of her in a coffee table book of James Tissot’s paintings. I was intrigued and began research that had me haunting the archives in Kew, travelling to India, Paris and inveigling my way into the house in St John’s Wood, London where she lived with Tissot. All wonderful experiences!

What book influenced you the most?

As a young adult, George Orwell’s 1984 made a huge impression and influenced my thinking for a long time, perhaps because I read and discussed it with an understanding radical.

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

Roddy Doyle’s The Woman who Walked into Doors.

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

I have no regrets. All my reading life I’ve devoured all sorts of books.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

Read, write, read, write. Hold your story close to you while drafting. When you think you’ve finished your story go back and edit, re-write – do whatever it takes to make your manuscript as perfect as you can make it. You will know. Only then allow a trusted reader to comment/send out.

What weight do you give reviews?

Too much to the reviews that are less than favourable.

Where do you see the publishing industry going?

Traditional and digital running parallel over next few years; for popular fiction increasing emphasis on marketing over content.

1What writing trends have struck you lately?

The success of what I call “imaginative” writing, from authors such as Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane and Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing.

What lessons have you learned about life from reading?

Open-mindedness, the wonder of the world, the power of the word and compassion, I hope.

What has being a writer taught you?

So much about integrating with people and the world, as well as being independent (as writers, we’re on our own), resourceful (having to find and create stories; sell them for publication and promote); taking life’s knocks – the whole spectrum of living is tied into the life of a writer.

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

Oscar Wilde, Bruce Chatwin, Colette, Ian McEwan, Clare Boylan, Charles Dickens.

What is the funniest scene you’ve read?

Can’t conjure up a specific scene, but laugh out loud when reading PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves series.

What is your favourite word?

Epiphany – I love the look of it one the page, and its mellifluousness when spoken. I’ve used the word as a pivot for two of my characters in two of my books, and it worked like a dream.

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

Eileen Gray, the Irish designer and architect. I’ve written two books where she features, Time & Destiny and The Interview, and would happily write a third – though probably won’t!

What sentence or passage or book are you proudest of?

Bruce Chatwin musing about his marriage to Elizabeth in The Interview: “As well as loving her in his own way, from the beginning he’d known she would allow him personal space, social freedom and the liberty to travel, to do what he needed to do.” A very simple sentence that was written and re-written ad nauseam – I felt I’d to pack their relationship into a few non-explanatory lines.

What is the most moving book or passage you have read?

End passage from John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, where Bruno and Shmuel join the march….

If you have a child, what book did you most enjoy reading to them?

My children, grandchildren and me too were and are hooked on the magic of The Velveteen Rabbit.