Page Turner / Edited by Peter McDermott
Oftentimes, you must take book recommendations from folks you’ve never heard of; or if you do recognize the name, you can’t place the face — in other words, kind words by people you don’t know about people you don’t know.
That’s not the case with Joseph O’Connor and his latest, “Shadowplay.” The Dublin-born writer has long been a household name. And as for the novel, well, none other than Mr. Bates from “Downton Abbey” raves about it. Under his real name, Brendan Coyle, he said in the Chicago Tribune, “It’s rich, dense and beautifully written.”
And Derek Jacobi is a big fan, too. He’s been in scores of things you’ve seen, including the iconic series “I, Claudius”; indeed, he played the Emperor Claudius himself. So when he says, “‘Shadowplay’ is wonderful. The writing is beautiful,” you surely have to listen.
Actors liking something written down is probably a good sign, but there’s a particular reason why that has particular relevance here. As O’Connor told us in his summary of the novel, “‘Shadowplay’ is a love story inspired by the real-life tale of the remarkable three-way passionate friendship between Dublin-born author Bram Stoker and the great English actors Henry Irving and Ellen Terry. It’s about art, sexuality, Victorian London, acting, friendship, loyalty. Several narrators appear in the book, among them a ghost.”
The Sunday Independent has said that O’Connor, the Frank McCourt Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Limerick, is "Ireland's greatest storyteller,” and fellow Dubliners like Bob Geldof (“A great writer performing Olympian literary storytelling”) and Ryan Tubridy (“A gorgeous, gorgeous book…A thing of great beauty”) have also gone on the record as “Shadowplay” enthusiasts.
Alice Walker is among O’Connor’s admirers on this side of the Atlantic, where he is known as the director of the UL Frank McCourt Creative Writing Summer School at Glucksman House, NYU.
Meanwhile, the New York Times reviewer described the winner of the An Post/Eason Irish Novel of the Year Award as a “vibrantly imaginative narrative of passion, intrigue and literary ambition.”
And the Wall Street Journal reviewer said,“Subtly drawn and intensely affecting, this portrayal of accidental friendship, enduring love, frustrated ambition and, dare we say it, the alchemy of acting, recalls, in its effortless grace, those 19th-century novels that made readers of us all.”
Date of birth: Sept. 20, 1963
Place of birth: Dublin
Spouse: Anne-Marie Casey
Children: James and Marcus
Published works: 18 books including the novels “Star of the Sea,” “Ghost Light” and “Shadowplay.”
What is your writing routine? Are there ideal conditions?
It depends on what stage of the book I’m at. At the start, I try to do four or five hours a day, just getting the words down. For later drafts I work in concentrated, purposeful sessions of about two hours. Near the end, it gets all-consuming and I stay up all night if I need to.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Write with fire, edit with ice.
Name three books that are memorable in terms of your reading pleasure.
“Oscar and Lucinda” by Peter Carey, “Beloved” by Toni Morrison, “Love in the Time of Cholera” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
What book are you currently reading?
“Swann’s Way” by Marcel Proust, translated by Lydia Davis. Any time I tried this classic of world literature before, I gave up pretty quickly, but this brilliant translation is so full of color, light and life that, after only a minor struggle of adjustment, it draws you in like a dream. I’d recommend it highly, an amazing pleasure for any lover of language and storytelling.
Is there a book you wish you had written?
“The Only True History of the Kelly Gang” by Peter Carey is, for me, a perfect novel. Every time I come back to it, I learn more about writing.
Name a book that you were pleasantly surprised by.
I love the novels of Nancy Mitford and Elizabeth Taylor despite never having met anyone like their characters.
If you could meet one author, living or dead, who would it be?
There are many, but if I had to choose just one, I think it would be the Irish writer Kate O’Brien, whose work I love. She was so far ahead of her time and her writing is so fascinating and nuanced, highly readable but emotionally complex.
What book changed your life?
I can still remember the strange shock and pleasure of the closing sentence of Dickens’s “Great Expectations,” which I read when I was 14, and I sometimes think every fiction I’ve ever written has tried to reach back to the power of that image. “I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so, the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her.”
What is your favorite spot in Ireland?
The University of Limerick, where I teach, has Ireland’s loveliest campus, with the broad majestic Shannon flowing through its beautifully kept fields and grounds. I’m also very fond of Killiney Dart Station, quite a brave, modernist building, steel and glass, looking out over Dublin Bay towards Howth. And we live nearby, so I associate it with coming home.
You're Irish if…
You find it hard to accept a compliment, particularly if spoken. If written, it’s not quite so painful.