Writer’s Block with Billy O’Callaghan

Sophie Grenham speaks to author BILLY O’CALLAGHAN about growing up in Douglas, childlike wonder and Coney Island …

 

Billy O’Callaghan is decidedly one of Cork’s most gifted writers of recent times. With over a hundred stories published in literary journals and magazines all over the globe, Billy’s three collections are In Exile (2008, Mercier Press), In Too Deep (2009, Mercier Press), and The Things We Lose, The Things We Leave Behind (2013, New Island Books) which won a Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Award and was chosen as Cork’s One City, One Book for 2017. That same year, O’Callaghan caused a major splash with his bestselling debut novel, The Dead House (2017, Brandon/O’Brien Press), which received positive reviews from Publishers Weekly and major newspapers such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

Billy’s many other achievements include twice receiving the Arts Council of Ireland’s Bursary Award for Literature, while his story, The Boatman, was a finalist for the 2016 Costa Short Story Award.

O’Callaghan’s new novel, My Coney Island Baby, has already attracted widespread interest, and understandably so. Here we meet Caitlin and Michael, who have been entangled in a passionate affair for twenty-five years. Unbeknownst to their martial spouses, the pair meet once a month on Coney Island, New York, where their odds of being caught are remote. Told in the space of one day, the story is tender, sorrowful and achingly romantic all at once. With each lucid vision and carefully chosen word, you just know this book was made with love.

Billy was given the seal of approval by Man Booker Prize winner John Banville, who said, “O’Callaghan’s work is at once subtle and direct, warm and clear-eyed, and never less than beautifully written. He has a moving ability to express the hopes and fears of ‘ordinary’ people, and he knows intimately the ways of the world. He richly reserves an international reputation. This writer is the real thing.”

Billy O’Callaghan lives in Douglas, Co Cork. He is currently working on his next novel.

My Coney Island Baby (€14.99) is published by Jonathan Cape and available from all good bookshops.

On home

I live in a small first-floor one-bedroom apartment, in a quiet housing estate, about two miles up a very steep hill from the heart of Douglas. It’s less a village these days than a suburb of Cork city, but it was very different when I was a boy. I am comfortable here, mainly I suppose because of a sense of belonging.

My daily routine is simple and strict. I wake at six, and am writing by seven. I’ll keep going until around noon, drinking copious mugs of tea. Then I’ll read for a while, listen to music, maybe go for a walk. For several years now, in an effort to keep the bills down, I’ve done without a television. Around four o’clock, I’ll work for a while on what I’ve written. I like to keep my head as much as possible with the story as it is coming together, and so I’ll often put in another couple of hours before turning in at around midnight.

On roots

I was born in Douglas village, and it’s the place I feel most grounded. When I was a child it still had very much a village feel, edged as it was in countryside, with bogs, woodland and open fields. Everyone knew everyone else, and who was related to who. Until the 1970s the village had two thriving mills, so there wasn’t the need to emigrate that other places had to endure, and as a result roots got to run deep.

Twenty years of expansion has stripped away a lot of its original identity and turned it resolutely suburban, with the inevitable sprawl and traffic congestion. But it’s where my people came from. I know every sod and stone of the place, and the graveyard is full of our bones. I suppose Douglas is just in my blood. And I know its stories by heart, even the ones that maybe shouldn’t be told.

On creating

My apartment is one bedroom, a bathroom and a living room/kitchen. I write in one corner of the living room, at a desk only as wide as my shoulders, facing a blank wall. To my left is a large window with a door out onto a small balcony full of plant pots and hanging baskets. I put out bread for the birds. My most frequent visitors are magpies and crows. I’ve become very attached to them over the years. Seen up close, magpies are such beautiful creatures.

My living space is simple and untidy. Pictures of family and friends deck the walls, heaps of books, a couple of guitars, and on one wall an African tribal mask. The windowsill is crammed with trinkets: a couple of candles from Japan far too beautiful to burn; a glass Irish Book Award trophy from 2013; a brick from my old primary school that was demolished last year.

On bookshops

Independent bookshops, or even bookshops of any kind, are at a premium, these days. In Cork City, you’re largely limited to Waterstones and Easons, and I frequent both. But Vibes and Scribes, on Lavitt’s Quay in the city but formerly located on Bridge Street, is a still surviving independent. They have a great selection of stuff, and have two shops side by side, one for second-hand stock and one for new and bargain books. I must have spent thousands of hours over the decades browsing their bookshelves, and I’ll invariably leave the shop having purchased some book I’d not even been thinking about then picked up and instantly understood that I couldn’t live without. As much as anywhere, Vibes and Scribes has been responsible for keeping me impoverished, though admittedly well nourished.

On his “To Be Read” pile

At any given time, there should be avalanche warnings in effect with regard to my bedside table. Just now, the few closest to being read are Kenzabur? ?e’s Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness, a collection of four novellas that I am halfway through, but taking in slow bites, and Norman Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself, an anthology of essays and stories that has just been reissued as a Penguin Classic and Derek Walcott’s The Star-Apple Kingdom (a re-read), both of which I’ve been dipping into and out of for the past couple of weeks. Still untouched, but itching to be devoured, are: Heat and Dust, by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, The Flanders Road, by Claude Simon, and Anne Tyler’s latest novel, The Clock Dance. And that’s just the tip of a very large iceberg. I love books in translation for how they take me beyond my own world, and when I am rewriting I read a lot of poetry.

On escapes

I love to travel, and to expose myself to and try to absorb at least a flavour of other cultures. I am looking less for a sense of peace than to feel lost, or small within my surroundings. I’ve been to many interesting places in my life (I was, for example, once almost eaten by lions in Kenya…), and they have frequently seeped into stories, and this is just as true of places at home as abroad.

I read that a lot of what writers draw on came from the first seven or eight years of their lives. To children everything is new, and every new experience seems brimming with life and detail, even the small moments that adults take for granted. When we travel, especially to places that are physically and culturally very different, it may be that this childlike wonder stirs within us again. I don’t think it matters where we go as long as we can open ourselves up in this way.

On My Coney Island Baby

I started writing My Coney Island Baby in 2010, initially as a short story. But months after I’d finished I found myself still thinking about the characters. It took a while to realise that there was still more of their story to be told. That summer, I’d fallen into a long-distance romance.

I am introverted by nature, and generally lack confidence, and short stories have long been my way of making sense of the world and my place in it. So, the novel was how I came to terms with the turn my life was taking. Of course, the final result is fiction: the extra-marital aspect is added for dramatic reasons, and the setting and various other elements work as allusion or symbolically, but this is the most of myself I’ve ever put on the page. It took seven years to complete, because it’s not always comfortable to stand so close to the fire.

On lasting impressions

I only visited Coney Island once, for an afternoon, nearly twenty years ago. It was a place I’d always wanted to see, for no particular reason that I can recall now. I had a fantasy of it in my head, and if what I found wasn’t quite that then it didn’t really matter too much. I’d read Ferlinghetti’s collection of poems, A Coney Island of the Mind, (a phrase, I’d later learn, that was coined by Henry Miller) and that notion, more than the poems themselves even, of a kind of dreamscape almost, really stuck with me.

In writing about the place, I found I’d kept onto a lot of the sensory impressions, but I also didn’t want to limit myself to merely that. I wanted the associations, the faded grandeur of a vibrant golden past contrasting with a more down-at-heel present, to stand as a reflection of the lives and relationship of the novel’s main characters, Michael and Caitlin.

On everyday wonders

Every life has its stories attached, and that’s always a fascination. And everything happens on the street where we live. Love stories, family feuds, domestic violence, abuse, crime, tragedy and moments of joy and staggering beauty; all the ingredients for great stories are right there, if we only allow ourselves to properly listen and to see. These are what keep the world turning. Hollywood has nothing on the average Irish street. And it’s in the details, the minutiae, that we catch the essence of reality. I suppose, when you really think about it, there’s nothing entirely ordinary about any life. It’s a matter of context, and perspective.

On what’s next

Well, My Coney Island Baby looks set to run for a while. It’ll be published by Harper in the US in April, and there are translations in the works that will see it come out in (so far…) eight languages over the next year or so, starting with French in March (from Grasset) and Dutch in early summer (from Ambo Anthos). I published my first short story twenty years ago, and all of this has really been such a wonderful and thoroughly unexpected surprise. It’s life-changing stuff, and I don’t think the magnitude of the whole thing has fully registered with me yet.

Beyond the novel, Jonathan Cape (and Harper, in the States) will publish a new collection of my short stories in 2020, entitled The Boatman and Other Stories; and I am making good progress on a new novel, though the end of that is still a long way from sight.

@SophieGrenham

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