‘There’s an Ireland that rarely gets into books: the lower-middle class who play golf and bridge’

In a powerful new novel, Conor O’Callaghan follows an emigrant’s road trip with his daughter

In We Are Not in the World, Conor O’Callaghan’s compelling and profoundly moving second novel, a middle-aged Irishman journeys in a borrowed HGV from the north of England to the south of France with his damaged daughter as a stowaway in his cab and a lorry-load of regrets trailing behind him.

Together with his 2016 debut, Nothing on Earth, about a family disappearing from a ghost estate, which the late Eileen Battersby praised as an “extraordinary, low-key and pitch-perfect novel...one of the most impressive pieces of Irish fiction writing” in more than 20 years, the new novel establishes O’Callaghan as one of the most talented contemporary Irish writers.

The author teaches at Sheffield Hallam University and first made his name as a poet; he has five collections with Gallery Press, the first in 1993, the latest in 2017. Fellow poet and critic John McAuliffe says: “Iconoclastic about the more traditional subject matters of Irish poetry, Conor’s poems travel freely between American, Italian and English locations, although often returning to the unglamorous joys of his home town Dundalk. His poems are often driven by a relish for ingenious and distinctive sound effects and he likes experimenting with poetic forms, from the sonnet and villanelle to a long sequence which began as a Twitter feed with each section using a tweet’s 140 characters...”

O’Callaghan admits he first approached novel writing with “a poet’s superiority complex. I thought it would be easy.” He soon learned “the skill of the thing is the choreography of characters, getting them upright, moving forward through three-dimensional space, doing stuff, talking to people, in a way that is credible, original and recognisable. Poetry doesn’t do any of that stuff.”

Set of foxtrots

He is also in awe of the novelist’s command of time and pace. “Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx is amazing. Her timing is like a set of foxtrots, slow slow, quick quick, slow. In one passage she moved five years forward in two paragraphs, without saying the stupid stuff.”

His method is to write a first draft – not a short story; more a blueprint or a treatment – of 5,000 words, then rewrite it as 10,000 words and keep doubling. “A novel is a big beast of a thing, it’s like having a dragon by the tail. What I was doing is amplifying space, pushing out the walls, a gradual accretion. To sit down and write 70,000 words from scratch, it would be a runaway train, with no idea where it is going.

I never wanted to write that weird hybrid called 'a poet's novel'. They were always this lyrical handful of fog, literary dry ice, and no narrative momentum.

“A friend says words in relation to a novel have the same relationship as bricks to architecture. The words are the last thing you pay attention to. Coming from the world of poetry, that is anathema. But I never wanted to write that weird hybrid called ‘a poet’s novel’. They were always this lyrical handful of fog, literary dry ice, and no narrative momentum.

“I discovered that writing nicely, elegantly, has almost nothing to do with it. Any twit can write a lyrical sentence. A novel is a feat of imaginative engineering. It’s an architectural structure. Up to a point, the words are the least important bit.”

O’Callaghan and his protagonist have much in common – both Irish emigrants who have lived in the US and England; a marriage break-up; a HGV license; and a fascination with the myth of Oisín. So the fiction is underpinned by a solid foundation of personal truths.

“The best books are the ones you shouldn’t write,” he says. The novel as confessional. “Are you really going to write about this?” you ask yourself.

“All fiction starts in fact,” he goes on. “Over the process of realisation, a story migrates from fact in fiction. You describe something that really happened, and inevitably you come to the crossroads where you realise that inserting something that didn’t really happen makes for a better story. You do that once and forgive yourself for doing so. Then you do it again and again, until the story has shed its factual basis like an old husk.

“In the end, you have a story that feels true but is not remotely factual. Novels start years before they get written or published. They geminate. This one? Maybe as long ago as the mid-’70s, when I first heard the story of Oisín and Tír na nÓg.

“An elderly priest would get wheeled in once a week to tell us stories. Biblical parable and Irish myths. Fr Collins told us about Oisín: going home after three years that turn out to be 300 years, to a home changed beyond recognition and everyone gone. I was only a kid, but I remember finding the story mind-blowing. The original dystopia.”

Ironic arrogance

In 1993 O’Callaghan did a FÁS scheme in Dundalk. Obliged to do a training course, he picked truck driving “as a gesture of youthful ironic arrogance”. He drove a rigid fixed-axle truck around an industrial estate and passed with flying colours. “Ever since then I had this idea of a story about driving a truck.”

When I came back to Ireland in the late noughties, after the financial crash, I always felt like Oisín. All the shops closed down, and nobody around. So the story of the man in a truck and Oisín on his horse got sort of superimposed in my head.

After his marriage ended in 2008, he was living alone in Manchester and seriously considered going on the road. “But I didn’t go on the road, nor even close. Instead, I developed in my head a story about an Irishman based in England who goes on the road to escape his life. That’s what writers do: we write stories in lieu of experience.

“When I came back to Ireland in the late noughties, after the financial crash, I always felt like Oisín. All the shops closed down, and nobody around. So the story of the man in a truck and Oisín on his horse got sort of superimposed in my head.”

In fact, if the protagonist shares some DNA with his author, it’s because he is partly based on O’Callaghan’s father, previously the subject of an extended prose collage in his 2017 collection, Live Streaming.

“I come from a family of insurance brokers. My father’s family. I think on some level loss is a natural theme for me as a result, since that whole industry is predicated around the risk of loss and the assessment of loss. This character, this exile with the stage-Irish moniker of Paddy, has lost everything: his family, his home and his sense of belonging. He is adrift on the road with his broken daughter, in the wake of the banking crash and in the midst of a refugee crisis. He talks to her, and he remembers lots about his past, particularly his relationship with his mother, after whom his daughter was named.”

O’Callaghan’s father trained at Lloyds in the City and was in digs with the comedian Dave Allen. “My father was a drinker and ultimately his younger brother took over the family business. My father ended his professional life driving a truck for Fyffes, delivering bananas around the North. Their mother lived alone out on the coast, and after he left the family home my father lived with her.

“If I wanted to do anything in this book, I wanted to anatomise that side of Ireland which rarely gets into books: the moderately affluent lower-middle classes, who play golf and bridge. And I wanted to add to the landscape of Irish fiction the littoral northeast. From Baltray up to Carlingford Lough: the part of the world that means more to me imaginatively than anywhere.”

Border sensibility

Born in Newry and reared in Dundalk, O’Callaghan has a Border sensibility. As entertaining as he is erudite, he laughingly recalls a job interview at Queen’s University. All was going swimmingly until he sank himself at the end, shooting himself in the foot with an illegally held weapon. O’Callaghan was asked the softball question had he any family connections to Belfast? He said no, then remembered that, actually yes, his grandfather had served 18 months in Crumlin Road jail after a raid on Clones police station.

The past has an uncanny habit of catching up with you. O’Callaghan didn’t get the job.

Another inspiration was the work of artist Eithne Jordan. For a long time O’Callaghan’s kitchen was decorated with postcards of her beautiful marginal landscapes of the south of France, carparks, a billboard on waste ground, a flyover and underpass.

“I wanted to write about liminal spaces, car parks and supermarkets after hours. I wanted to get text messages into it as it’s so much a part of the way we live now. The single biggest challenge facing writers now is how to get virtual experience into a novel, so much of our lives are screen time. Part of the job of the novelist is to embody what it is like to be alive at a certain time, a commitment to realism.”

As the text messages that bubble through the story are a form of disembodied speech, so is much of our lives spent in our heads, processing events. For the bereaved, the present is a pale imitation and the past is more precious and real, the land where they long to dwell. But for all that you can fiddle with a lorry’s tachometer, turning back the hands of time is another Sisyphean struggle.

O’Callaghan believes his two novels are very different tonally, yet both have a susceptibility to the Gothic, the otherworldly.

Our loved ones just disappear. They were in the same room as us yesterday, and now they're gone, and we have to circumnavigate their ever-diminishing absences.

“Characters are there and then are not. I never understood why that was considered unrealistic or fantastical. It happens all the time. Our loved ones just disappear. They were in the same room as us yesterday, and now they’re gone, and we have to circumnavigate their ever-diminishing absences. We try to rationalise it with biology. We construct a grammar around it. We call it death. But truth is we have no idea what just happened, where they went to and if we’ll ever see them again.”

Absolute ambiguity

While Nothing on Earth was completed with an ambiguity that was intentional and remains absolute throughout, the new one has a resolution. “I set myself a challenge to insert a little light at the end. Hope is really hard to do well, in a way that isn’t cliched.”

Dialogue that is often caustic and always realistic is a particular strength of his.

“My father was a sort of gentleman barfly. I spent so many hours of my childhood eavesdropping on the phatic exchanges of him and his cronies. Meaningless blather I loved and found so funny. Freud supposedly once said that the Irish was the only nationality oblivious to psychoanalysis. We use language to conceal rather than reveal. Saying all these gorgeous hollow phrases to one another, we’re hiding behind language.

“The exchanges between the father and the daughter in most of the chapters of this novel are like that. They speak to each other as if blowing bubbles: lovely shiny, floating bubbles that just disappear.”

"It has to be possible to write about physical love in a way that isn't nasty or sexist. We can't pretend desire and sex don't exist, for fear of being ridiculed.

We Are Not in the World is also remarkable for his frank treatment of sex. “I have many faults,” O’Callaghan says. “Cowardice is not one of them. It is quite explicit. Nothing on Earth has a couple of sex scenes which completely went unnoticed, maybe because they’re too subtle. Be hard to miss them in this novel!

“There is this received wisdom that we shouldn’t write about sex. Most sex scenes are terrible. And now we have the tyranny of the Bad Sex Prize, which is just small-minded, reactionary prudery dreamed up by Auberon Waugh.

“It has to be possible to write about physical love in a way that isn’t nasty or sexist. We can’t just relinquish that to public-school satire. We can’t pretend desire and sex don’t exist, for fear of being ridiculed. If a Martian came down to Earth and read a fair cross-section of literary fiction to get a handle on human life, they’d have no idea how our species procreated.

“I love Eimear McBride’s fearlessness in the face of sex. Sally Rooney too. I thought the representations of sex in the TV adaptation of Normal People were great. It was so refreshing to see it thought through and made original, rather than just the usual pimply bottom between a pair of legs while the orchestra hammers away in the background!”

Emigrant novel

We Are Not in the World is also an emigrant novel. Accepting as an exile that you cannot go home is to reconcile yourself to the myth of return. The Ireland that you think of as home is in fact your childhood. It is not so much a place as a place in time. So you stay away and reconcile yourself to the dislocations of the emigrant life or go back and absorb the shock of the returnee, to discover your friends are dead and gone or turning grey, or to make a half-life on a ghost estate as O’Callaghan once did, captured memorably in Nothing on Earth.

“I’ve long been obsessed with the stage-Irish trope. The thing about being Irish in England is they assume this is you – the feckless, garrulous drinker – and it’s hard not to slip into that role. There’s a gravitational pull towards that cliche that’s almost impossible to resist.”

“The plight of Paddy in Blighty,” his protagonist calls it, “they hear the accent and guess salt of the earth… You realise how expedient it might be to let them go on thinking that.”

Last summer O’Callaghan did a one-man protest over deafening demolition work at Sheffield University his house. “It was on the BBC: daft Irish bloke brings building site to a standstill and sings You’ll Never Walk Alone for the cameras! The point is, I couldn’t have done that in Ireland. I wouldn’t have had the nerve. Being Irish in England gives you liberties, based upon supercilious prejudice on their part, but you take advantage all the same.

“Exile has changed me massively. When I moved to America in 2004 I was a fairly regular lad by Irish standards. I became this character overnight. I could see Yanks nudging one another and whispering ‘This guy’s hilarious!’ I suddenly became Billy Connolly. Then I’d go home to Ireland in the summer and realise that the character routine simply doesn’t wash at home.

“Once you leave, there’s no going back and you never really arrive on the other shore. You’re stuck indefinitely in between. You have to make your peace with that. There is a fork in the road, where you go home or you make your peace with the fact you will never live in Ireland again. I love Ireland, love the crack, the fact people speak to each other, which doesn’t happen anywhere else. Returned emigrants are among the saddest of folks. Lost souls.”

Slow learners

2020 was a tough year. O’Callaghan was in Ireland promoting this novel the week before lockdown. Slow learners, we bumped elbows when we met and thoughtlessly shook hands when we parted. A week later the book was bumped to 2021. He has tested positive twice for Covid and been quite sick.

“A bloody awful year, all told! Culminating with the fireworks for Brexit all over Sheffield at 11pm on December 31st. Every once in a while history throws its cards up in the air – wars, financial crashes, pandemics – and we’re left to see how the cards fall.

“Just to come back to the Oisín myth: we’ve all been in exile from our lives for most of the past year, in this weird timeless exile from the old normal. Like home, do we really imagine that those lives will be there intact when we are allowed to go back? I don’t think so. At least not exactly. The old normal isn’t there waiting for us, any more than home or the past are there awaiting our return.”

All 2020 I couldn't stop thinking about Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds: it was published in 1939, they sold 100 copies and then war was declared. It  was lost until the '60s

Still, O’Callaghan was relieved that his book got pulled. “But it was printed and sat on my shelf all year, which was weird. [His editor] Fiona Murphy sent me a bottle of Redbreast whiskey, which was rather classy. All 2020 I couldn’t stop thinking about Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds: it was published in 1939, they sold 100 copies and then war was declared. The book was stored in boxes in Longmans and then their offices got bombed and the book was lost until the mid-’60s. Happily, that didn’t happen here and mine now appears.”

When we spoke last year, he had no intention of starting a new novel immediately, citing approvingly the example of Richard Ford taking two years to think and makes notes before creating The Sportswriter. Then Covid intervened.

“I’ve spent all last year working on a novel. I usually work very slowly. I had no intention of starting a new big thing, but had an idea and I just blasted into it to keep the head above water. I wanted to write about the lockdown experience, but these things take processing and writing about it while it’s happening seems impossible to me.

“It’s set in Ireland in the second World War. A time of weird stagnation, when bodies from this distant conflict occasionally washed ashore. I realise that it’s about, indirectly, what we’re going through now. Sounds grim, but it’s actually very jolly! I’m writing about the border up in Cooley, and the Emergency, and bodies washing ashore.”

We Are Not in the World is published by Doubleday. Conor O'Callaghan will be appearing at Mountains to Sea dlr Book Festival on March 27th. mountainstosea.ie

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