Back in 2000, Billy O’Callaghan visited Coney Island. He was only there for an afternoon – whilst on a two-week whistle-stop tour of Boston and New York – but he loved the island for its relative wildness and the sense of a glorious past now giving way to decay.
Later, he wrote a short story about a couple who met there every month, whilst carrying out a clandestine affair. The story was published in around 2009, and Billy moved on to write other things. But the characters wouldn’t leave him alone.
“I woke up six months later and these characters were in my head,” he says, on the phone from his house in Douglas, Cork. “At first I ignored it, then I started to make little notes, in an effort, really, to get rid of them.
“I was trying to write other things over the course of the next six months, but realised that I had collected lots of notes about the characters, and knew all these facets about their lives. I realised their story wasn’t finished, or I wasn’t finished with it, so I started writing about them again.”
Initially, Billy assumed he was writing a short story, because that was his preferred form, but the characters had a mind of their own. It grew into a novella, and finally into a novel, but Billy kept putting it aside.
Meanwhile, he wrote his debut novel, a ghost story called the Dead House, which came to him rather more easily.
“I wrote that over nine months, but had the Coney Island novel on my computer. It went through so many drafts I can’t even remember what it originally looked like, but it was such a slow process. There wasn’t a day I didn’t wake up and it was there in my life.
“I got to a point where I felt I could do no more with it, so I printed the novel out in a really small font, then I cut out each paragraph and pasted the whole thing to a wall in the attic of my parent’s house. It took up the whole length of the room. I read my way through it, every day for two of three weeks, and made notes. Only after that was I able to let it go, and say, ‘This is done! I can move on to other things now.”
He sent the book out to Irish publishers and agents on both sides of the Irish sea, but when nobody wanted the book, he wasn’t surprised. But that says more about Billy’s character – a mixture of modesty and lack of confidence, than it does about his talent as a writer. Because his work – which includes four collections of short stories has been universally praised. He’s a quiet writer, with a tendency towards darkness, but is a stylist, who produces the kind of luminous prose we equate with John Banville or John McGahern.
So, whilst an email in August 2017, from Robin Robertson, of London publishers Jonathan Cape surprised Billy, to his readers, it all makes perfect sense.
“He said he had read my short stories, The Things we lose, the things we leave behind, which came out in 2013. He had just read it, and asked if I had something new. If I had, he asked me to send it to him, so he could take a look.
“By return of mail he got My Coney Island Baby, and a new book of short stories. They’re bringing the novel out in January and the stories in 2020. They’ve done such great work on the novel. They’ve sold the rights to America with Harper Collins, and sold it in 8 languages.”
It’s a beautiful novel set during a cold winter’s afternoon. Caitlin and Michael have gained succour from each other as a relief from their stale marriages, but will new changes in their lives cause the end of their relationship? Through their conversations, and memories, we look back at the promise of their past lives and learn of their disappointments and frustrations.
Caitlin is a writer, who, struggling to find homes for her short stories, has more or less given up on her work. Did Billy draw from his own early experience?
“I have a lot of her insecurities, but I’m stubborn and extremely disciplined. There’s not a day in the past 25 years that I haven’t sat down and written, and that’s with hundreds of rejections. I never let that wear me down, or when it did, I was stubborn enough to keep going.”
Michael, who emigrated to escape the limitations of his farming childhood in Inishbofin, had a happy marriage, until the death of the couple’s first, and only child. That event – told with devastating detail – was borrowed from Billy’s childhood.
“When I was four years old I had a brother, Richard, who died after only a couple of months. He was in hospital the whole time, and even though I was four I can remember how that affected my parents. They had no car, and children were sent to Crumlin, so they had to go by train or bus to Dublin and back in the evening, and my father was at work.
“It was such a difficult time for them, but after Richard died it was never really spoken about. It wasn’t hidden, but it was almost too painful. They just had to get on with life.”
Living quietly just a few miles from where he was brought up, Billy long ago accepted that his writing would not make him rich.
“I’ve grown accustomed to poverty,” he says. “I live in a council apartment and the rent is low, but I feel blessed. You can feed yourself comfortably enough on 40 euro a week. I try and keep the bills down and I have no TV, so no license, and that has allowed me to work on the writing. And in spite of what outsiders might think, writing is work,” he says. “You have to put long hours into it. Books are read quickly, but they’re written slowly.”
Billy writes all morning, starting at seven, working through to lunchtime, going over his work in the afternoon.
“That fills my day really, and with the stories that suited me fine, but I’m at the first draft stage of a novel, and I’m finding that, starting early, I’m still at it at midnight – on and off. I’m coming back to it constantly.”
A passionate reader, Billy sticks to poetry when he’s rewriting.
“That gives me an awareness of language. It keeps me focused.”
My Coney Island Baby is a lyrically written, atmospheric book; which set in winter, gives the reader a clear sense of the chill both of the weather, and of the character’s lives.
“I’m interested in the small moments; that’s what life is made up of. An agent I sent it to said it was unremittingly bleak, but I don’t see that. It’s the intimate moments between the two characters that matters to me; if it was all darkness it wouldn’t have worked.
“Every ordinary life is extraordinary in its own way, and these are two ordinary people. There’s not much to make them stand out, but they see each other as something extraordinary and found something each other needed and to me that’s what life is about.
“It’s as truthful as I could make it. I wrote it in order for me to be able to understand life and my place in it, because most of the time I feel lost; not when I’m in my apartment, writing, but the rest of the time life is confusion.”
My Coney Island Baby. Jonathan Cape: €14.99 Kindle: €10.83.
Published in The Irish Examiner, 19th January, 2019.
© Sue Leonard. 2019