When one writer encounters another that blindsides them with staggering awe, the inclination is to rush out and spread the joy with those who love the written word. I feel this way about Billy O’Callaghan. I’ve been an avid fan of his work since discovering him last year, and recently had the pleasure of interviewing him for the online Irish community, The Wild Geese.Irish. It is my great joy to share the interview here.
First, a little background on Billy O’Callaghan:
Billy O’Callaghan was born in Cork in 1974, and is the author of three short story collections: In Exile, In Too Deep, and The Things We Loose, The Things we Leave Behind, which was honored with a Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Award. Almost a hundred of his stories have appeared in literary journals and magazines around the world, including Absinthe, The Kenyon Review, and the Los Angeles Review. His short piece, A Death in the Family is a current Ploughshares Solo, and his debut novel, The Dead House was published in the UK by Brandon Books in May, 2017, with a scheduled US release by Arcade, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, in April, 2018.
Questions for Billy O’Callaghan:
When you hear yourself described as an Irish writer, from your perspective, what does this imply?
The world needs boxes, I think, in order to make sense of things, and I don’t really give much thought to how I am perceived or described. I write, I suppose, to get to grips with the stuff going on in my life and in my head, and to gain some understanding of my own place in the world. Most of the time, life just confuses me, and I long ago turned to writing as a way of ordering my thoughts and to help me function.
If people want to describe me as an Irish writer then I am happy about that, because it’s what I am. And I am grateful that somebody has noticed!
Do you think being Irish flavors your way of seeing the world? If so, how?
I think so, yes. Even when I have written about other places, it is almost always through Irish eyes. We can’t change who and what we are, and everything I really know (however little that might amount to) has been shaped by my homeplace and my upbringing. The landscape, with its proximity to the sea, feels like a part of me at this point in my life. My natural state is probably one of stillness. As I get older, I find that I am most comfortable in solitude, and feeling small within my surround. It’s hard to explain, but it gives me a sense of eternity. And in rural places, especially, down around West Cork, history feels immense and very close to the surface. I can almost taste the stories of such places.
Who are the Irish authors, living and dead, that you admire?
Oh, there are many, and they are the ones everyone talks about, the touchstones. But the Irish writers I hold most dear, the ones I suppose that I’ve best been able to connect with in my life, are the likes of John McGahern, William Trevor, Liam O’Flaherty. And since childhood, I’ve had a fondness for John B. Keane’s books. The poetry of Patrick Kavanagh and Seamus Heaney, too. I like writing that sets a scene in stone and dirt, so that I can feel and taste what’s going on. These are the writers that do it for me. And as regards living writers, John Banville is the one whose work I hold in the very highest esteem. When I write a sentence, he’s the benchmark, and I think we’re all in his shadow. He has left a deep enough mark that I think people will be reading him a hundred or two hundred years from now.
In your stories, is it ever your aim to offer statements or claims on being Irish, or perhaps on the Irish experience, as it were?
No. To do that would probably be to imply that Irishness could be so distilled. My stories do probably attempt to depict authentic Irish experiences, but that happens organically.
When I sit down to write a story, I am thinking about nothing beyond the characters and their situation. That’s what matters. I always try to imbed truth within the fiction, because I am usually writing them in an attempt to explain or make sense of something to myself, and my only agenda in writing the stories is that they will seem real on the page. That’s my goal.
I’ve been writing stories a long time now, and I still work to the notion that nobody will ever read what I am putting down. It’s an insecurity, of course, a fear that I really don’t know what I’m doing. We can’t change who we are, and I think that, at this stage, the self-doubt is probably a good thing because it helps keep me from being too easily accepting of what I write. Anyway, it is an approach that has served me well enough, and can be immensely freeing because with no expectation of an audience there is no temptation towards self-censorship.
I usually carry the stories around with me for quite a while before writing them. They usually take the form of themes at first, in the vaguest way possible, and emerge and shape themselves very slowly. My novel, The Dead House, was one I had in my head for probably twenty years before I got to work on it. The missing piece was the setting, the Beara Peninsula in West Cork, which I realized while touring there with a friend in 2011. Once I had that, I knew that I could write the book. And another long short story, A Death in the Family, which has recently been published as a Ploughshares Solo (and which will appear in my next short story collection, due for publication in 2020), was one I’ve lived with since I was about four years old, a story told to me by my grandmother about an incident in her own young life.
What about Ireland inspires you?
The landscape, the countryside, the people I’ve known and seen, the stories I’ve been told. Stories were my education. They’re the first thing I remember. I was gifted a love of stories from my grandmother, who I lived with, up to the age of six or seven. For most of that time I was the only child in the house, and she was ailing, a frail creature, at sixty-two already ancient as the hills. We were company for one another, I suppose, and on many a wet winter’s morning she’d keep me home from school, under the pretext of some cough or cold, and we’d pass those long, slow hours together beside the fire on stories plucked from her own childhood, of fairy forts, the Black and Tans and the banshee. It was listening to her, and dreaming about the worlds she forged, that first lit the fire within me, the curiosity and the passion.
Music is important to me, and poetry, and I strive to suggest both within my sentences. And I love the lonesome quality of the sea on a winter’s day, and old places. Isolated spots, famine-era ruins or the ancient standing stones that so beautifully litter the countryside. Standing in these places at a quiet hour, it’s hard not to feel the weight of the past all around you, and the sense of mystery.
Do you think that being Irish has inculcated you with a love of language influenced by those around you?
This is not something I think too much about, but if pressed I’d say that music and poetry are my big influences when it comes to crafting sentences. Books. Banville, I mentioned. Heaney, and Kavanagh. But Yeats, Joyce, Beckett and hordes of writers who aren’t Irish at all. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, V.S. Naipaul, John Updike, Ray Bradbury. Bob Dylan. Hemingway, for revealing to me, in stories such as ‘Hills Like White Elephants’, the value of things unsaid. The Japanese writer, Kawabata, for this, too. Endless others.
The spoken language I hear all around me has a rich and vibrant music to it, and I suppose I must have absorbed some lessons from that because I listen hard for rhythms in my own sentences. I write entirely by feel, working by instinct, and can usually hear when a sentence is wrong.
The American author, Ron Rash, has often said, “Land is destiny.” How can you apply this statement to your story settings in Ireland?
Ron Rash has it right, I think. I once had a long conversation with the late great Canadian writer, Alistair MacLeod. His short stories set in his native Cape Breton, are truly remarkable, and he said that if you are not writing with a strong sense of place then you are missing a trick.
Quite a bit of my writing deals with exile, isolation and disconnection, people who have either been torn from or who have abandoned the place in which they properly belong. I strongly believe that our surroundings shape us, especially if we are generations’ attached to a place. I try, as much as possible, to have my characters reflect their homeplace, so that when their anchor has slipped they seem thoroughly lost in the world.
Can you tell us something about your writing habits/schedule and a little something about your favorite writing space?
For years, I have kept to a rock solid routine of at least five hours writing every day. Up at six, writing by seven, through until noon or so. In the evenings I’d usually spend an hour or two going back over the morning’s work.
This year, because of a lot of distractions (the publication of The Dead House meant quite a few readings around Ireland, as well as requests for articles and interviews from newspapers), and my routine was shaken a bit. But I have started work on a new novel now, so I’ve had to get serious again. Without a strict routine, nothing gets done.
I live in a nice one-bedroom apartment in a quiet housing estate about twenty minutes’ walk from Douglas village, a suburb of Cork city. Douglas is where I grew up, and where I feel that I most belong. I have traveled a lot in my life, and that’s one of my great joys, but I wouldn’t want to live anywhere other than Douglas. My people have lived here for generations, and even though it’s changed significantly from the way it was when I was a boy, it’s still the place I feel most comfortable.
My workspace is a small corner of my living room, a desktop computer tucked into a narrow space beside my balcony. My balcony is full of flowers and hanging baskets, and birds come every day – sparrows, wrens, robins and the occasional bullfinch. My most regular visitors are two beautiful magpies. I’ve grown very attached to them. So I write, with all of that filling the corner of my eye.
Can you tell us what you’re working on now?
Things are hectic at the moment. As I mentioned, I recently had a long short story (or novella), A Death in the Family, published by Ploughshares as a stand-alone Kindle release, and my novel, The Dead House, will be published in the U.S. in May 2018, by Arcade, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, which is very exciting. And I have two more books coming out in the UK and the United States in 2019 and 2020: a novel, entitled: Goodbye, My Coney Island Baby, and a short story collection called Even On Our Longest Days.
These books are done, apart from some minor editing, so now I am onto a new novel. I don’t want to say too much about it because it’s a long way from being in any kind of shape yet, but it will be a novel set in Douglas village across a span of probably 150 years, a book about memory, identity and blood connections. Writing A Death in the Family opened a door for me, and while the structure is probably the most complex and challenging that I have yet attempted, I am excited about what lies ahead with it.
You’ve published three short story collections, your debut novel, The Dead House, is well received, you’ve won impressive awards, and I’m curious about what your friends think of your success? Do they treat you differently, or will you forever be treated as one of the lads?
Such things don’t matter. I am as ordinary a person as you will ever meet. I come from an ordinary background, I left school when I was seventeen and never went to university. So, no, nobody treats me any differently. Writing is just something I do, but it doesn’t make me in any way remarkable. And it’s such an intensely personal thing that the process, at least, isn’t something which can be shared. Most people don’t get to see how the sausage is made, and wouldn’t want to. I shut myself away and write, keeping to my routine, because the stories are what matter, and by the time one is done (and even short stories can take months to get right) then there’s always another brimming the surface.
I could talk all day about books, but writing isn’t really something to talk about. Sometimes people will read some mention of me in the newspaper, or might hear something about an award or a new book, and
if I meet them they’ll say something. But, really, everyone is caught up with their own lives. Which is as it should be. Anyway, success is relative. I am doing okay now, but I can get by largely because I live such a simple existence. The joy, for me, is in being about to do what I want to do. Which is fortunate because I’m not really much good at anything else.