Joseph oconnor

Demystifying the creative process

Joseph O’Connor will return with the Frank McCourt Creative Writing Summer School in June.

By Peter McDermott

Writer Joseph O’Connor has long been a speaker popular with New York fans of Irish literature. His readings, for example, at Glucksman Ireland House have filled its L-shaped public lecture room on a number of occasions. In more recent years, however, O’Connor has been seen at that New York University venue in his role as a University of Limerick professor leading the Frank McCourt Creative Writing Summer School.

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The Dubliner is the author of several novels, including the international number 1 best-seller “Star of the Sea,” which was listed as one of the New York Times Notable Books of the Year in 2004. O’Connor is also known for his non-fiction, such as his reports following Irish football fans at the World Cup (an excerpt of that work is collected in John Horgan’s “Great Irish Reportage: Ground-breaking Irish journalism, eyewitness accounts and dispatches since 1922”).

With the University of Limerick now enrolling for the 2019 edition, the Echo asked O’Connor some questions about the Frank McCourt Summer School and his work generally.

Tell us how the Frank McCourt Summer School idea came about?

In 2014 I was appointed Frank McCourt Chair and Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Limerick, a college that has always had important international relationships. I founded the Frank McCourt Creative Writing Summer School New York the following year, as a means of honoring Frank’s writing and teaching. We hold it at NYU’s Glucksman Ireland House and we’re very thankful to our friends there for hosting us. This year it’s June 27-30. Booking details and program information are available through our website.

Has it evolved in any particular direction or has it retained its original structure and ethos?

The Summer School is always evolving. Teaching creative writing has been and will always be a vital part of the Summer School but it has become more social, not purely educational, over the four years, and it has grown a focus on music as well as prose and poetry. This year, for example, a central event of the Summer School, in addition to the classes, lectures and workshops, will be an intimate concert by the great Pierce Turner at Swift’s Hibernian Lounge, and there’s also to be a Sunday morning literary brunch at McSorley’s bar. And the teaching line-up this year is the best we’ve had yet, featuring multiple award-winning Donal Ryan, wonderful Irish poet Martin Dyar, memoirist Kerry Neville, Young-Adult novelist Sarah Moore Fitzgerald and UL Professor Eoin Devereux who’ll be lecturing on the song lyrics and storytelling of the Cranberries.

Have you brought any experiences from other summer schools to bear on the McCourt school?

Not really. We do the Frank McCourt Summer School our own way, the way we teach creative writing at Limerick, with the emphasis on collegiality, mutual respect, storytelling, characterization, fun, and a sense of exploration. We also keep the numbers at a certain level so that everyone really does enjoy the experience and learn from it. We don’t take more than 60 participants.

What is the one thing that you believe students take away typically from the McCourt school?

A sense of creative writing as enjoyable and highly fulfilling but also that it is a craft as much as an art, which means there are things that can be learnt about it when the teaching is good. We try to demystify the creative process.

Is the New York venue important to the experience?

I consider New York City to be absolutely vital to our Summer School. Frank was a great New Yorker as well as a Limerick man, and so his life was a tale of two cities. Honoring him this way, in New York, and at NYU, seems immensely important.

You're both a University of Limerick professor and a best-selling novelist; how do you manage the two roles?

I get up early and go to bed late! More seriously, I find that one part of my life feeds into the other quite well. You learn a lot from teaching. And I’m pretty organized about time.

Tell us about your latest book. When will be available in the U.S.?

It’s entitled “Shadowplay” and it’s a work of fiction loosely based on the amazing life of Bram Stoker, the great Dublin-born novelist who wrote “Dracula” while working for many years as a theatre manager in London, in that role organizing many tours to New York and other parts of the USA. It’s published in Ireland and the UK in early June and will be published in the U.S. in early 2020.