Arriving to interview Joseph O’Connor, I got locked into an apartment carpark next door to the hotel; when I tell Joe this, he launches into a narrative, about what else might go wrong for me today. It’s clear that he can’t resist a good story.
Not that that comes as any surprise. With his journalism, his former radio column, plays and short stories, it’s clear that Joe can do anything he wants with words; and since his fifth novel, Star of the Sea became the best-selling literary novel of 2002 in England, and the 7th bestselling over all genres, he’s become a name to reckon with.
I last interviewed Joe after that novel was published, but before Richard and Judy helped it on its way to the masses.
“In one week that book sold 36,000 copies, and I still hear from readers five or six times a month. Every literary novelist should have one novel that goes absolutely nuts,” says Joe.
It changed his financial status at a time when it mattered – his elder son, James, had just been born.
“And it changed my confidence as a writer and gave me artistic freedom, but the thing I really learned from Star of the Sea was to always write the book that you want to write. I wrote that book as a labour of love thinking it would be well reviewed, and maybe end up on university courses about the famine, but of course I didn’t think it would be a big success, and that was a lesson.”
His three novels since then have been well received, but this new one, Shadowplay, based on Bram Stoker’s years at the Lyceum Theatre in London, seems in a league of its own. A beautiful portrayal of the writer, and his passionate, if turbulent friendship with actors Henry Irving and Ellen Terry – it brings the characters – and the cities of Dublin and London almost spookily alive. He chose The Shelbourne Hotel for the meeting between Bram and Henry Irving because he met his wife, the TV and film writer Anne-Marie Casey there.
“I think of Bram and Irving as the second-best loved story that began there.”
Joe has been fascinated by Bram Stoker since he was a child, and his grandmother talked about him.
“She was very proud that he was one of us. I always loved him – he was a big influence on Star of the Sea in terms of it being told in many different voices and registers.”
He has a lot in common with Bram. Both, suffering from sleeplessness, walk city streets at night – Joe, like Bram, knows what it’s like to publish a book that doesn’t succeed, and to walk into bookshops to be confronted with everybody else’s work.
This isn’t the first time Joe has fictionised real people – Ghost Light shone a light on the love between John Synge and the actress, Molly Allgood, but how does he set about it?
“You have to engage with the fact that it’s a morally ambiguous thing to do.” He laughs. “I’m not sure I’d like someone to write a novel about me; we’re talking about real lives that were lived and that mattered and people who had families, so you need to balance that up.
“But I think when it’s a writer it gives you one notch more permission to do it, because they might have done it themselves. There’s little doubt that Synge’s idea for The Playboy of the Western World came from a real case, and there’s a suggestion that Bram might have borrowed a bit from Irving for Dracula, and borrowed from the world around him.
“You then have to make it clear, like I have in the afterward, that this is a work of fiction, and liberties have been taken with facts and chronologies, and you then direct readers who are interested to the research works you used so that they can thread into them.”
Originally, this was to have been a book about the bromance between Bram Stoker and Henry Irving – but there seemed to be something missing.
“And on one particular Tuesday morning I was sitting in the office trying to shake a bit of light into the book and I wondered how it would be if Ellen talked to the reader rather than just appear. And as soon as I got her, this charge of electricity went across the page. And I thought, Yeah. I can write this book now.”
I simply adored the scenes between Ellen and Bram – where she talks about the art of acting, and, subtly, shows Bram the way his writing might progress. She talks of acting being all about looking.
“A big part is keeping your eyes open, and your ears of course, but you learn a lot from looking, but Ellen has sophisticated ideas. If she’s playing Lady Macbeth she puts something into the portrayal that is lovable and if she plays Juliet, something that is hard to like. She is giving a gift to Bram, turning a key for his own creativity.
“The reason for Dracula’s longevity is that a little part of us wants Dracula to succeed. He’s more sexy than the drippy men who are running after him, and Bram finally got to understand that.”
For all that, writing, Joe says, is also about problem solving.
“My dad was an engineer. I wasn’t good at maths, but sometimes I think his skill at engineering might have come down to me that way. Solving the architectural problems is as satisfying to me as writing a beautiful sentence.”
IN the five years since his last novel, The Thrill of it All, was published, Joe has been busy setting up, and running the MA in Creative Writing programme at the University of Limerick. There were no such courses when Joe started out, but publishing back then was very different.
“It was ok for a new author to be promising. You didn’t have to be about to set the world on fire. You’d have a two-book deal and they would see what the audience thought. And you’d get a bit more for your third book, so the culture allowed you to build up your readership. If one book didn’t work out that didn’t end your career. It’s tough now.”
The characters, Bram, Ellen and Irving, are still in Joe’s head, along with all the characters he has previously written about and invented.
“It sounds ridiculous to say, and is ridiculous to say, but you know more about your characters, and especially the invented ones, then than you would know about even your friends or your children and spouse, because there are always secrets between real people.
“Looking at the election coverage a week ago, at people’s manifestos and stuff, it came into my head, who would Molly Allgood have voted for? And when Donald Trump comes on the news, I wonder what my version of Synge would think of that.”
Next up, for Joe, is a novel based on Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, the priest from Kerry who, based in the Vatican during World Wat Two, saved 6,500 Jews and allied soldiers from certain death.
“What intrigues me is that, when, after the war, the Gestapo chief Herbert Kappler us imprisoned, he’s, rightly despised by everyone, but High O’Flaherty starts visiting him in his cell, plays chess, and eventually baptises him Catholic. It’s like he looked evil in the face, and wanted to save the devil himself.”
Right now, starting out on his long round of publicity Joe is waiting to see how the book will be received. And there’s one critic he fears above all others.
“If I’ve got something wrong Bram will be waiting for me,” he says with a nervous laugh. “In the end, he will get me!”
Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor. Harvill Secker: € 15.99 Kindle: €11.32.
Published in The Irish Examiner on 29th June
© Sue Leonard. 2019.