Frustration, loneliness and boredom are all part of life in Philip O'Ceallaigh's short stories. 'I wasn't trying to be pleasant,' the winner of the Rooney Prize tells Sorcha Hamilton.
Philip O'Ceallaigh orders a double vodka - straight, no ice - and settles into an armchair in the Central Hotel, Dublin. The 38-year-old author is home from Bucharest, where he has been living for the past six years, to collect the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. His debut, Notes from A Turkish Whorehouse, has been described as a carefully crafted collection of short stories, which moves effortlessly from the bizarre to the tragic.
One man is thrown out by his wife, then gets his teeth kicked in. A performance artist exhibits his beating heart on stage. A young man is trapped in the heat and fumes of the "mid-day frenzy" of traffic in Bucharest, while desperately trying to see his girlfriend. In the harsh, if somewhat dark reality of O'Ceallaigh's stories - the "ugly beds", leaking pipes and grey, run-down apartment blocks - love is found or lost.
"I wasn't trying to be pleasant," says O'Ceallaigh, whose Waterford accent has a slight American tilt and the tone of someone who's been abroad for a long time. "A lot of the stories in the book are the story of how the book got written," he says. In the Neighbourhood, which has been admired as the most ambitious story in the collection, weaves together the narratives of inhabitants living in a dilapidated apartment block in Romania. One of them, a young man, is trying to write.
"I was living on the 10th floor of this block in Romania and the rain was coming in," says O'Ceallaigh. "I was a man in my 30s, my money was running out . . . I had this great sense of being an awful loser."
O'Ceallaigh did almost "everything" before settling down to write. After a degree in philosophy in UCD, he moved to the US, taught English in Spain and Romania, did stints of journalism, travelled in Russia and worked as a security guard in Dublin. He has been living outside Ireland for the past 15 years or so. "My life felt out of control, so I just started writing," he says.
Walking to the Danube was written shortly after O'Ceallaigh's arrival in Romania in 2001 and describes a young man wandering around the countryside, following hay carts and chatting to locals with gold teeth. Based on old diary notes, it's pretty much autobiographical, says O'Ceallaigh.
"But all life is material," he says, "you just don't always know when it's happening what you want to write about."
Romania, which O'Ceallaigh now calls home, is a focal point in his work. While you need to be reasonably intimate with the culture to write about it - O'Ceallaigh speaks Romanian - being an outsider has allowed him to see all the crassness of another culture, he says.
"Bucharest is an extreme environment and it did provoke me. I lived in a poor area with a lot of frustrated people going half-mad with boredom, who didn't have resources to adapt to change. I was seeing all this as a foreigner and it struck me in a way that it might not have a Romanian person."
Frustration, loneliness and boredom are all part of life in In the Neighbourhood, where two elderly men spend the good part of a day shifting a slab of concrete, a young woman lies in bed wondering if her husband will return from Israel, and a plumber does more damage than good trying to fix a broken pipe.
"Every character in that story is trying to do something to find a way to survive, to carry on from day to day. For one character it's writing, for another it's trying to move that bit of concrete, another decides he's going to read something from a book that he remembers," says O'Ceallaigh.
While ultimately O'Ceallaigh's stories aim to understand the human heart, it's hard to avoid their darker side, where prostitutes frequently wander in and out of narratives. "I was in a whore bar in Turkey a few years ago," says O'Ceallaigh, "and the waiter was a writer . . . whenever he got a moment he'd write. As far as I was concerned he was a real writer."
In Notes from a Turkish Whorehouse, from which the book takes its title, a prostitute steals the protagonist's hand-written stories when he can't afford to pay her anymore. "The inspiration [ for this story] was meeting a prostitute who looked like a girl I'd been in love with," says O'Ceallaigh. "But the story isn't about prostitution, it's about trying to write."
Nevertheless, O'Ceallaigh has strong views about prostitution. "In Romania it's seen as something a man might do from time to time. It's part of tradition there. It's not seen in judgmental terms . . . it's just seen on financial terms."
One of the recurring themes in the book is men's inability to love women. Most of the characters are caught up in their failure to have harmonious, monogamous relationships.
Another Love Story is a clever, uncanny tale where the narrator's girlfriend starts to smell. "I wanted to write about the feeling of falling out of love and not knowing the reason for it," he says. O'Ceallaigh mixes the weird with the heartbreaking in this story, so as the narrator becomes intoxicated by the smell of his girlfriend, it emerges that the only thing he can do is leave her.
"The smell is just a device - he doesn't know if it's her or him, and in the end it doesn't really matter. When you fall into love sometimes there's no reason and you can fall out of love in the same way."
There's a directness to O'Ceallaigh and his work. His characters are foul-mouthed most of the time, particularly when describing women, and rarely hold back on vulgar, offensive language.
But O'Ceallaigh doesn't care if he offends. His "subtle, strong manner" was praised by Frank McGuinness at the Rooney Prize award ceremony, who applauded the emergence of fresh talent and O'Ceallaigh's "electrifying shifts of tone, style and subject."
O'Ceallaigh says: "I wanted to write in an non-judgmental way, without softening it . . . if I'm writing about men and what they think about dealing with women, there's no cosmetics on it."
He is looking out the window and has long finished his vodka. He'll soon be heading back to Bucharest with his prize money of €10,000 and getting back to work on his next collection of short stories.
He disagrees that parts of Notes from a Turkish Whorehouse are dark or pessimistic.
"Life has very many shitty aspects to it . . . but I manage to get up every morning," he says, shrugging his shoulders.