Printed in the Irish World in September 1999. Joe O'Connor's latest play, True Believers, played the Tricycle Theatre in London, UK. L.A. Livingston spoke to the writer about his work and the loneliness of writing
Joe O'Connor says he isn't much of a football fan, but he has an opinion about the Ireland-Yugoslavia Euro 2000 qualifier, which was cancelled recently.
"I'm not a football fan. I've very mixed feelings about the game being cancelled, I must say," he says. "I think if you're going to cancel a football game with every regime you disagree with . . . Ireland played Nigeria not so long ago. It's one of the worst dictatorships in the world, with a horrendous human rights record, but we played them. Let's just make it a little more evenly consistent."
O'Connor has been very consistent. His latest play, True Believers, has finished its Dublin run and has embarked on a month-long tour of Ireland before going to the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, Northwest London, where it runs from 5th to 17th July. The play, based on a short story selection of the same name, explores the experiences of loss and growing up in an Irish family.
O'Connor says the play was well received in Dublin, but he is quite low-key about his expectations for the play in the UK.
"They laughed, they cried, it's got everything," he says of the Dublin run. "I've no ambitions at all for it, other than that it goes to the Tricycle for two weeks. If it successfully does that, then I'll be quite happy."
The playwright's first play, Red Roses and Petrol, managed a run at the Tricycle a few years ago. Not only managed it there, but the Dublin Fishamble Theatre Company production of the same play won the In Dublin Awards for best play, best director and best actress. O'Connor denies that his plays are autobiographical in any sense.
"On the couple of occasions that I've written autobiographical things as a journalist, I've made it very clear that I'm doing that, so I don't feel any need to hide behind a work of fiction to write about myself. I've never considered that my life is really interesting enough for anyone else to be interested in, or my experience, rather, so I tend to make things up," he says, adding he gets his material from "all over."
He chuckles, "Sure, it's a crazy world."
In addition to writing plays, O'Connor has written film scripts, seven Number One novels, including Cowboys and Indians, Desperadoes and The Salesman, and non-fiction books Sweet Liberty, Travels in Irish America, The Irish Male At Home and Abroad, and The Secret World of the Irish Male. The Salesman, for which O'Connor has also written a script, has been optioned for film, and his short story Alisa, directed by Paddy Brethnach, won the Euscal Media Prize at the San Sebastian Film Festival. Oh, and he's done a stint as a journalist, too, writing columns for a weekly newspaper, and has also written a biography of the poet Charles Donnelly.
"Too many things," he says of his career. "I think it's really difficult to be good at one kind of writing, and if you can be good at two or three, that's absolutely fantastic, but nobody should think they can be good at seven or eight. I've cut it down to two or three now. I write novels and I write plays and film scripts, and very occasionally do a stint in journalism."
He did an arts degree, and worked for newspapers on his summer holidays. He has been writing full time since about 1991, he says.
"It was never anything as definite as making a choice. I think I kind of drifted into it, really," O'Connor says. "I think I'm probably stuck with it. It's a great love, really. Not every writer does like writing, but I really do, I must say. I'm very rarely happier than when I get something right."
His wife, Anne Marie Casey, a Londoner whom he married last year, provides a sense of peace for him about his work, he says.
"I'm very happily married. I got married last year, having never thought that I would, and having fought very hard against it indeed," he says. "I must say, it surprised me what a sense of peace that it's brought to my life, so I guess I'd better mention the wife."
Born September 20, 1963, on the day that Robert Emmett was executed, ("I was almost called Emmett O'Connor," he says. "I think it's a quite cool name, actually"), one member in quite a large family, which also happens to include his controversial sister, Sinead. But don't ask him any questions about her; he won't answer them.
"I don't talk about her, unfortunately," he says matter-of-factly. "I'm often very tempted to say to people that it's a myth, that I'm actually Elvis Presley's love child, but it's true."
Although his sister's career tends to hit the front page more often than his, O'Connor is comfortable in his own shoes, and credits his father for opening up the world of words to him.
"He's very into writing himself, and was always very keen that we did test out the doors to that world of writing and books when we were kids. He's been a huge influence, because he's really into what I do, and for someone like him - he's an engineer, a very scientific man, very mathematical and all that - but he has a huge understanding of what I do, and has been very supportive. Ultimately writing is a very solitary thing, you know. I mean, it's you and your computer or your typewriter, and it doesn't matter in a way how much support you have; ultimately that's the central relationship of your life - you and that piece of paper," he says. "If you're at all a gregarious person, the solitude of writing is the hardest part of it to get used to, and for me, that still is difficult. There are days on end when I hardly speak to anybody, and if you're not a reclusive person by nature, that can be difficult. Most writers have their introspective sides, too, but I like human beings."
O'Connor says hard work equals inspiration for him.
"Despite being brought up as a Catholic, which I'm sort of not now, I somehow acquired the Protestant work ethic, which means that I never need to be inspired. If I'm not sitting at my desk at nine o'clock in the morning, I feel guilty, so I just get inspired every day, and stay inspired between the hours of nine and five," he says. "I don't think about it in terms of inspiration; I think it's more mathematical than that. Writing a novel is very largely like solving an engineering problem - what's the shape of it like, what's the structure of it, and those things are hugely important. I think a lot of people look at it like, if you can write a beautiful sentence, you can write a novel, or you can write a play, and, of course, it's a little bit more difficult than that," he continues. "I think it is more of an ongoing process of thinking about structures and shapes."