Contemporary Literature 46.2 (2005) vi, 161-175
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An Interview with Joseph O'Connor
Conducted by José Manuel Estévez-Saá
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Joseph O'Connor was born in Dublin in 1963. He received a B.A. and an M.A. in English and history from University College, Dublin, and later studied at the University of Oxford. Prior to returning to Ireland, he lived in London and wrote for magazines and newspapers from 1989 to 1996. O'Connor's literary talents were evident with the publication of his first novel, Cowboys and Indians (1991), shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize. His subsequent fiction includes a collection of short stories, True Believers (1991), and four additional novels: Desperadoes (1993), The Salesman (1998), Insihowen (2000), and Star of the Sea (2002). O'Connor has also written for stage and screen—he is the author of two plays, Red Roses and Petrol (1995) and The Weeping of Angels (1997)—and has published nonfictional works such as Sweet Liberty: Travels in Irish America (1996) and two best-selling collections of comic essays, The Secret World of the Irish Male (1994) and The Irish Male at Home and Abroad (1996).
Star of the Sea is this young and prolific writer's most ambitious novel. It deals brilliantly with one of the most traumatic and generally veiled episodes of Irish history, the Great Famine. The work has been a best seller as well as achieving broad acclaim from scholars and specialists in Irish literature and culture, including Terry Eagleton and Declan Kiberd.
This interview took place in June 2004 in the small village of Dalkey, Ireland, where Joseph O'Connor was living at the time with his wife and two small children. Near his residence stood the Martello Tower, an emblem and witness of a previous Irish literary [End Page 161] genius, James Joyce. While the interview was taking place, all Ireland was celebrating Bloomsday 100, commemorating the hundred years that had passed since the famous date Joyce had chosen for the events described in Ulysses. O'Connor, as he acknowledges in the interview, has been positively influenced by his predecessor, but he has ultimately managed to attain a voice of his own.
Q. Your consolidation as a great writer has been with your latest novel, Star of the Sea, even though you had previously published many works of fiction that critics have widely appreciated and were already popular for your brilliant and funny collections of comic essays. Star of the Sea has brought you international recognition. I was greatly impressed by the novel. It brought to mind Terry Eagleton's words in Heathcliff and the Great Hunger: Essays in Irish Culture , when he mentions the scarce literary and historical material dealing with the Irish famine and asks, "Where is the Famine in the literature of the Revival? Where is it in Joyce? There is a question here, when it comes to the Revival, of the politics of form: much of that writing is programmatically non-representational, and thus no fit medium for historical realism, if indeed any fit medium for such subject matter is conceivable. Wilde, Moore and Yeats are in full flight from Nature, towards whatever style, pose, mask or persona might seem its antithesis; and the more Joyce recuperates this naturalistic region for the ends of art, the more obtrusively artificial that redemption becomes. If the Famine stirred some to angry rhetoric, it would seem to have traumatized others into muteness". In my opinion, you have successfully overcome the trauma Eagleton is alluding to; what is more, you have handled the topic in a balanced, aesthetically brilliant way, deftly employing a combination of tragedy and humor. My first question, thus, would be what it was that encouraged you to deal with such a difficult, complex, and traumatic episode of Irish history.
A. Thank you, first of all, for your kind and supportive remarks, which I appreciate very sincerely. I've long been fascinated by the Famine; it's an...