SEAN O’REILLY was born in Derry in 1969. He has published a collection of short stories, Curfew and Other Stories (2000) and three novels, Love and Sleep (2002), The Swing of Things (2004) and Watermark (2005). Levitation, a new collection of stories, is due to be published by Stinging Fly Press in September 2017, and will shortly be available to pre-order.
This interview was conducted by Declan Meade in Dublin in March 2003.
The Stinging Fly: Can you tell me what you recall of your first writing experience?
Sean O’Reilly: It’s actually a moment I rediscovered not so long ago. My old primary school was celebrating twenty-five years in existence and they put out a magazine. Half of the magazine was dedicated to writing down through the years by the kids at the school. It was published a couple of years ago but it only came to me recently. On the front cover was a piece I’d written, and a piece a girl had written. The girl, I remember, was my girlfriend at the time. We were eight years old. Girlfriend, in a most innocent sense. The piece I’d written was about going to see a whale that had become stranded in the River Foyle – an incident that never really happened. I never went to see the whale. The story went on about me and my father, and my family, all going to see this whale. It never took place. And when I read that story in the magazine I remembered writing it. It was very vivid. I remember we were set the task to write about what we did at the weekend. And I remember sitting there and being bored because I hadn’t done anything. So I made something up. It was the first time I’d made something up in that way. And I remember I felt quite guilty and excited at the same time. I gave it to the teacher and I expected to get into trouble, to be found out because it wasn’t true. But the teacher loved it. I remember thinking: you can tell stories, you can make things up, you can lie.
That’s one of the germs of it. Just fantasy, discovering fantasy. When I was growing up in Derry in the seventies we were just gangs of kids running around on the streets, you were never allowed in the house. You didn’t do TV or anything like that. The fantasy would have been in the games that you played, collectively. The idea of private, individual fantasy had never occurred to me before. People sitting on their own and fantasising.
So out of those kind of feelings I started to think about fantasy and making things up. I became more interested in filmmaking than writing to begin with. As soon as I could, in my teens, I started making videos, little short films, and then I started putting my own poetry over the top of these images, things like that. So film was also quite important.
Have you given up on film? What led you into prose writing?
I tried loads and loads of different things. I did acting, I did directing, poetry, wrote for the stage, painting as well. One of the reasons I ended up with prose was because it was the cheapest thing to do. It didn’t cost anything and you didn’t need anyone to help you. I remember at one stage in a bed-sit in London wanting to paint and having to go and steal bits of chalk and things to work with. I had no money and writing .was free. That was a big factor initially. I knew I had to do something. But I took a lot of different paths to find out what was down there first, before I found something I could keep going with.
Once you were writing, what was it about it that satisfied you?
I think the writing for me would be tied up with some sense of my own exile from my home and with the process of re-inventing myself in exile. Going back to the idea of make-believe and fantasy, when you are in a new place you can invent yourself, you can invent your own past if you want. The writing has that intoxicating feeling of both inventing and rediscovering – of uncovering what went before. It somehow comes out of that space between where I’ve come from and where I’ve ended up – that gap that is there – and it’s an attempt to fill that gap maybe, or an attempt to make it wider. I veer between the two. You know, is it an act of healing? Or is it an act of violence? A further act of disruption? By trying to take command of your past experience, are you distancing yourself further? By saying that you own it completely and you can turn it into prose, or whatever, are you not ripping it up and freeing yourself from it? Or are you trying to slowly reconstruct the story of yourself that has become fractured through the experience of exile, of being outside your home, and the identity you grew up with.
I read how the experiences you had while living in Norway were very important to your writing.
They were indeed. I went up to the mountains in northern Norway in the footsteps of Hamsun. The first place I went to was Rondane, which is where the story of Peer Gynt comes out of. Hamsun had a hunting hut up there. I went there and I just sat and wrote, through winter. It was minus thirty outside. You lost all sense of day and night, of time. It’s very much as it’s described in some of Hamsun’s work in the latter half of his life. It was an experience of deep, deep solitude and deep questioning of myself. I wrote two novels. I always look on that period as when I emptied myself of social realism. I got any sense of obligation out of my system, by realising that a lot of the social realist structures and codes of writing were as artificial as anything else. You have to become aware of the techniques that are involved in writing. When I came down from there I had reached another end point in myself. I didn’t know what was next, I didn’t know whether I would even write any more.
Those two novels, they haven’t been published?
They haven’t seen the light of day, no. Maybe, maybe sometime down the line… I still have them.
And how do you feel about them?
Deeply flawed. The struggle to write them is just as important. They are overpowered by the sense of obligation to represent experience in a certain way.
What were they about?
One of them is – yes, I suppose, is – a kind of Catcher in the Rye set in Derry. The whole comedy of it was this young guy like Holden, teenaged, trying to write to his big brother who was in jail. The young fella’s ended up in a lot of trouble, he’s ended up in hospital, and somebody comes to see him and tells him if he wants to write to his brother, he’ll get the letter into him, but he has to keep it short. He’d never written a letter before, so he’s playing a lot with the idea of what a letter is, what you can say to your big brother and what you can’t say. He starts and he can’t stop. He keeps ending it, and then he’s off again. He’s just trying to recount the events of the last few weeks, why he ended up in this situation. That’s it really but what happened to him takes him through Derry, top to bottom. He’s still around.
And do you want to talk about the other one?
No, no. May they rest in peace.
To ask about your reading then. Had you gone to Norway because of Hamsun?
No, no. I had known nothing about Norwegian or Scandinavian literature until I went there. I first went to Norway when I was about eighteen. At eighteen I was ploughing through the books that I felt I had to read – Kafka, Joyce, Dostoyevsky – trying to find out what the stage was that I wanted to stand on, to try and do my piece on. I don’t want to call it a canon – I prefer to call it a stage. To find out who the actors – the main characters – are in the drama of world literature. I was reading a lot of Mishima. Anything that I stumbled on really, trying to get an understanding of what some of the main writers had been trying to do-trying to make sense of that. Beckett.
Was there anyone at that point who was influencing you?
Nobody. I’d dropped out of school. I finally went back to University when I was in my twenties. I met some helpful people then, but there had been no guides other than writers that I liked. Certainly James Kelman became really, really important for me. When I first read A Disaffection that was a really important book for me. Then I went and read all of Kelman – what he did with his voice, that working-class voice, and he totally changed the structure of sentences. He threw out the whole idea of the latin sentence. Why should we let this overpower us? We can make beauty and poetry in other ways. Encountering him would have been a huge watershed. Answering those questions: What am I doing here? What am I trying to write about here? Where’s the voice in me that I want to concentrate on?
When did you first find your voice then?
I wrote a short story called ‘Yes, We Have Eaten’ and I felt I had cracked open something in myself. I wasn’t imitating. It went to about fifty pages. I published some of it in a magazine in England while I was at University.
Where did you go to University?
I went to the University of East Anglia, eventually. I went to London for a month and dropped out.
Let’s move forward to the writing of your collection of short stories. They were written in Dublin, weren’t they?
I’d been out of Ireland for a long time. I came to Dublin, a place I’d only ever visited briefly. I came here solely because I got into the MPhil in Creative Writing at Trinity. It was the first year of that. I was looking for a way back into Ireland. I gave myself a year and I wanted a book of stories by the end of that year. That was simply the way I undertook it.
When I came here I looked around at the literary scene, at the magazines and things like that that were here. It would have been the time that The Stinging Fly was starting off. Everywhere I looked there was this figure of 3,000 words, and I couldn’t make head or tail of where that figure was coming from. The classic Irish short story and the classic length – I really wasn’t interested in that at all. I wrote against that in a lot of ways. There’s one story in the book that I wrote on demand. Somebody said write a story under a certain amount of words. I don’t even think I made it, but I tried. Most of the other stories I wrote entirely against that idea of classic shape and word count and delineation of character and plot. I tried to work against every principle that I came up against. That’s what I was fighting against. I was trying to uncover form from within the story itself, rather than trying to impose form on to it.
At Christmas I finished a Writer-in-Residence position with Fingal County Council. I had eight, nine months working in Fingal which is an enormous area. There again I saw how much damage those word limits were doing to the writing that was going on. So many of the stories that came into me were mangled out of any natural shape and into a word limit. I know people have space to consider and all the rest, but as a writer I don’t care about that, it’s not my problem.
The stories are not being thought about deeply enough, because the first thing people are worried about is publication and word count. No experimentation is going on. There are all these competitions with word limits – and give us your ten euro per story as well, while you’re at it. That is something that is out there that is, in my opinion, a problem. Great stories are being stripped away, stripped down, ruined – and misthought and under thought. So Curfew comes out of that battle for me.
In terms of how they came to be published, tell us about that.
That was absolutely effortless on my part. Jonathan Williams became my agent. I sent him a book of short stories one day. The next day he sent it off to Faber and the next day after that Faber came back with an acceptance. It happened in less than a week. Really fast, so that was great. It was a bit of a relief.
And then the novel came about by developing one of those stories. How did that come about?
Very simply again. Things start out of nothing sometimes. A friend of mine at the time said they thought that the story ‘Rainbows at Midnight’ would work over a bigger range. I went away and thought about that. I wanted to start immediately on something. A lot of what I do comes to me from other people – characters, stories. I just got stuck into it. Then you start to uncover what it is you want to do, and issues and themes come up in it. Again I felt I was writing against a lot of what was there.
Was it difficult to go back into the story and expand it?
What is more difficult than that for me is waiting for your character to come up and reach you. That can be quite an agonising process of trying to find a trail back for that character to come to you. Once you have the character, the character gives you – gives me – the story, or what’s most important, the form for that story, the way you’re actually going to tell it. Any story can be told in twenty different ways. It has to be the character who gives you the belief in that structure, in that form, no matter how unpleasant that character might be. If you’re going to believe in that character, you’ve got to believe in what they tell you.
I suppose you’re conceding there that Niall is an unpleasant character. How did you maintain your interest in him?
That was one of the things I was trying to write against. I knew I was going to be working in the first person. In the last ten years in publishing there’s been an enormous amount of first-person material. You’re in a situation now where there are all these first-person narratives competing for the award of authenticity. The first person is a very easy mask in order to affect authenticity. I was very wary of all that – I still am. I wanted to push the first person to the point where it was at a dead end – use a character who was at a dead end, at a limit in himself, so that the first person starts to break down. And that happens in the novel where it switches to the third person. Those are the moments of optimism in the novel, the glimpses Niall gets into another person’s life outside himself, the hope that there is something outside himself, that it is not all his own nightmare, his own fantasy.
I wanted to stand right at that line where the first person does become absolutely self-indulgent and blind. One of the big metaphors I used in the novel was from George Bataille – French writer, philosopher, everything – opposing classical realism, that the eye is not a mirror or a camera recording all, but that the eye is a sewer for the soul. The eye is a vent, it pours the inside out, that is what we do and see and think.
Trying to take that metaphor more seriously, Niall when he comes back to Derry is not wandering around making interesting sociological observations about the place. He’s trapped in his own mind. Going back to French literature was certainly one of the biggest supports for the novel. The novel for me comes out of L’ Etranger and Bataille, and surrealism. I wrote paragraphs of the book in French as well. I played with the idea of translating it, with the idea of translating it badly, trying to allow Niall to express himself badly, to annoy the rhythm, to puncture it, like in jazz or a lot of music where you hit the wrong note, and you do it deliberately, just to try and play with things like that.
There is a terrible bleakness to the novel. I wanted to ask if you were writing into that bleakness or out of it? Although, from what you’ve said, it is Niall who is writing himself out of it.
You could put it like that. The problem is when you’re first publishing and you put out a novel, in the first person, set in Derry, people think this is autobiographical. I don’t believe for a minute in the idea of autobiography anyway. I also wonder about the differences between a poet and a prose writer. If I do a reading there’s going to be somebody asking me if this is autobiographical. If I was standing up there with a book of poems, people would assume it was autobiographical. In the sense that autobiography is the fire in which you live. It’s absolutely the entirety of your life. For me, there is a fire and you throw everything, including yourself, into that, and you see what is made from it. It’s bigger than autobiography. Autobiography is not interesting.
In the book this is Lorna’s question to Niall, but I’ll put it to you now: ‘So who are you trying to write for anyway?’
I have no idea… No idea. There are certain voices that cannot be ignored. I am interested in the voices of those who have been scattered from Northern Ireland. That’s one of the echoes that I try and echo back. But it’s not people that I feel I’m writing for. It’s a response to a note, or a disembodied voice. It’s a song back to another voice.
Is it to that stage of world literature you talked about earlier?
Yeah. It’s quite a dark stage. It’s empty. There’s the old poetic idea that poetry is the act of raiding the abyss and coming back with something. I see that the abyss is the stage, that’s how deep it is. That’s what I want to raid, that stage.
What has the reaction been in Derry to your work?
Again, I have no idea. The Derry people are so sarcastic anyway. You’d be hard put to find a person to stand and have a conversation with you about your work. It’s just a slagging match, you know. I don’t know how real, I mean geographically real, that place called Derry actually is. Derry, and the North in general, is a very existential place, where you are continually asking questions-very serious, philosophical questions-about your identity, and the nature of place and the nature of language. You do it all the time without even being aware of it. Books fit into that really easily. People aren’t that bothered, it’s not that new a thing. As to how people feel about it, what their response is, I really don’t know. I don’t talk to people very often about what I do. You keep it quiet. It’s quite a shameful wee activity in a way.
In the piece I read about your time in Norway, you said that one of the things you’d learned was that it was possible for a person to transcend his or her own history or situation. This is not perhaps something that your characters manage to do.
It’s something that they fail to do. They believe in the possibility of transcendence, of remaking yourself. It’s an active process.
This is something that seems to get more and more complicated the more I think about it and as the years go by. In the periods where you might think you’ve completely failed to change yourself, you may realise a year later that you had at that time changed something. You are continually dipping your hand in the stream. You can never be sure of the truth that you think you’ve discovered. You may wake up in the morning and see things very differently. That would be more the position I’d take now. I think that article you’re referring to is from a good number of years ago.
I do think a lot of the characters are driven to do some-thing or find something, and a lot of them fail or think they fail. They’re in some kind of search for joy, or transcendence, or rapture, using any means at all available. Some of those means may be immoral, some may be illegal.
But you’re only telling some of the story of any character. If you went back to Niall in Love and Sleep and you met him ten years down the line how would he reflect differently on what has happened? Things may have changed in his life, he may have met a nice woman and settled down and everything could be great! You don’t know. Each person is lost in their own time. I’m not interested in writing the big epic where you see someone at the different stages in their life. I tend to go for moments in time – people trying to make sense of their lives, stranded inside of time and not knowing what’s going to happen tomorrow and not really sure if the past is helpful in interpreting themselves or if it prohibits them from interpreting themselves.
There is a lot of violence in your work, with even friends and lovers using their bodies as weapons against each other.
Lovers, yes. The erotic, sex, the body is one of the paths to rapture. Unfortunately it can be a sullied path – a path that doesn’t work. One of the things I was interested in in the novel was bad sex, which I see all around me. You go out on a Saturday night and there are people meeting over piles of drink and they might do a one-night stand or get together for a couple of months and then it just fizzles out. When you actually say, tell me about that two months that you spent with that girl or that fella, you hear what went on and it’s actually quite ugly. You’re both grappling with each other to try and reach another level, let’s try and find a moment of beauty together, a moment of joy in our bodies, and failing miserably, and then getting angry, and quite often getting tied up with drink and more drugs, trying to sustain you through another bit.
I wanted to use that. That is the contemporary scene in which people meet one another. Niall and Lorna fall in together and they’re a disaster. But they are utterly lonely and they have nothing better to do.
In the descriptions of them together, he is nauseated by her.
Yes. And Niall is telling the story. And he does feel nausea. I believe that nausea and desire and disgust and lust and the erotic and death are all tied up together. To feel nausea during sex is probably a part of sex. You are encountering the other, you are giving yourself up to the other. You are utterly vulnerable and the nausea protects you. It’s an attempt to defend yourself – against being disappointed and against being completely obliterated. On some level it’s not personal. It’s about the sheer nakedness of the other’s body. In the same way as you can feel nausea in a certain mood at that table. It’s about the existence of other things around you. The nausea creates loneliness and isolation, it’s another failed attempt at epiphany. With Niall, I just tried to chart the various stages of his failure to transcend himself, to find something true or beautiful.
Another way the characters seem to seek release or rapture is through storytelling. They tell stories to one another.
Yes, they do. But the attempt to tell the bigger story also fails. Niall fails to tell that story. That is just one of the many, many failures in him.
What is the importance of stories as you see it?
All story is an act of interpretation, an act of trying to create some kind of order and meaning. Stories are probably inherently conservative in that sense. You are trying to control disorder and chaos, trying to make a shape out of it, make meaning out of it, asking the questions what hap-pened, who was involved and why. On some level those are all very conservative questions. You’re making enormous assumptions. The question of what happened depends on who you are, depends on your standpoint. Who was involved makes huge assumptions about personal identity, physical identity, time and place.
The act of publishing stories and selling them in book-shops, I’m not sure if that has any importance at all. That’s a very different thing to why people tell stories to each other. There’s a huge business out there in books. In Love and Sleep one of the things I wanted to address was my feeling that in a lot of books characters felt that they were morally improved by the act of telling their story, that somehow reflecting on your life and putting it down on paper made you a morally better person. In the same way at universities and schools you are taught that there is a moral quality to reading and studying literature, that it improves you as a person. I wanted Niall to run all over that idea. He’s continually talking about that: I’m no better for telling this story, I’m no better for even having experienced these events, I’m telling this story purely to get that woman out of my mind, she’s plaguing me, I do not expect to feel better at the end of it. There’s the line I lifted from Baudelaire: There’s no cure at knifepoint. There’s no cure in telling a story. It’s raiding the abyss again. Niall has gone to the underworld and come back with nothing.
If you think back to the old stories of some of the training regimes that the first poets had to go through. They would have to lie naked in a ditch under a big boulder with a guard standing there for three nights and then the court would come back and the boulder would be rolled away and the poet would have to stand and recite an epic poem, but also, to show that they’d been to the underworld, they had to pass around a piece of clothing or something. What happens if you don’t have that? Niall went there and he has nothing to show for it. He’d rather forget all about it. He’s not saved by literature. He’s not saved by telling his story either.
I have great doubts about stories improving one’s character. Terry Eagleton in his early work talks about these same issues. There’s the often-quoted image of the guards at Auschwitz reading classic German literature and then going and gassing another few thousand. What effect did reading and culture have on them? There are big problems there, I think. A lot of it is down to the schools and universities and the ideas that they promote about themselves and about books. Books can change your life, I know that, but it takes a lot more to actually rediscover yourself at a deep level.
What about the limitations on what is acceptable as story?
That’s a different issue. You’re trying to put your shoulder to those limitations all the time, trying to find different shapes and forms to do that in. Classic nineteenth-century narrative structures are not enough any more, in my opinion, to try. and tell the stories that are there to be told these days. You have to work at twisting the shapes of things, and really looking at form. And form will often help you get away with subject. Once the form and subject comes together, you’ll often get away with it. If, say, you are trying to write a very erotic book, if you find a different way of telling that erotic, you’re more likely to find a crack to get through than if you simply take a Henry James novel and try to write erotic all over it.
We have to grow new forms basically, and grow them out of ourselves. In the same way that we grow technology out of ourselves. That’s what young artists bring, what good young artists bring. And hopefully that will continue. I mean books are usually quite far behind the cutting edge of a society anyway. Music is at the cutting edge for me. Books take longer. And then when you’ve finally written it, it takes another year and a half to get it out. It’s a slow process.
What has your experience of the editorial process been?
My experience so far has been minimal. With the short stories it was simply spell check. With Love and Sleep I sold that on the second draft, and then people made suggestions, but I knew I had another draft to do. I put in the third draft and that was grand. With this one that I’ve just finished I think there will be a bit more editorial involvement. I’m looking forward to that, to see what comes out of it.
I haven’t encountered anything like people trying to block me. I’ve had a really positive experience of people being starved of stuff that they really enjoy, of the publishers being very, very hungry for it, despite of all the books that are there. It’s so much about getting down to form, and of trying to understand the story that you’ve got. You may have your story but you may not be telling it the right way. Maybe you’ve got the wrong characters completely.
Do you find that happens when you’re writing a story or novel?
Absolutely. It’s archaeology. You’re digging, you’re throwing things over your shoulder, you’re digging down, down, down. The joy of writing is doing draft after draft after draft until you find that root or that corpse that is there. Yes, it’s a continual act of rewriting, trying to go deeper down, trying to understand – and taking some chances too.
Maybe you’d tell me about the novel that you’ve just finished.
It’s set in Dublin… There are a couple of characters…
Do you not want to talk about it because you feel there’s a rewrite there?
No, it’s nearly complete in that sense, it’s just wee things. I don’t think of any of the books in terms of plot or what they’re about. I find that really difficult to do. You ask me about the book, and all I see is the characters and their geography. You’ve got Mr So-and-So and he’s there and he’s in that context, at that time, and then you’ve got another Mr So-and-So over there… it’s about getting inside them… and then a couple of things happen to them (laughs).
So it’s set in contemporary Dublin?
And any idea what it’s going to be called?
It’s called The Swing of Things.
One of the reviews hailed you as ‘that rare thing, a true stylist.’ What does that mean exactly?
That was Niall Griffiths. What I think he’s getting at is what I was saying about form, and how once you find the organic form of your story, it gives you the style. So you might often find yourself changing style with different characters or moods or whatever, because they are organically linked together. So Griffiths is talking about how you sometimes have to switch style – but you only do that for good reasons, not for a display of pyrotechnics or technique, but when your character demands it. That’s my guess!
Character is the most important thing for you.
So far, yeah. The character’s voice, getting close to that. That is certainly always my starting point. There’ll be a few epiphany-style images or moments but you don’t know if you’re even going to use them. It’s just the voice.
Within the work there are beautiful flashes in the language. Do these help to sustain you in writing about such despairing situations?
Some of the best ones, the ones I enjoy most, are given to me. When you spend months trying to get inside somebody else’s head you get glimpses of things you mightn’t see otherwise, and you know they’re not quite your own. Something has happened. And when you get one of those, it is joy. That’s when you feel you’re not utterly wasting your time, that there’s some beauty to be had.
What are you most proud of, from what you’ve written so far?
I only think about the books in situations like this. My head is completely in what I am doing now. The books are done. Pride would not be a word I can use. Trying to write full time puts you in a very bizarre, yet very privileged position. You continually want to do more, and do it better. That is the dominant feeling for me. Even with the novel I’ve just finished, I already want to throw it over my shoulder and do the next one. Each book is only one thing. Maybe when you are trying to get to the end of your first book you have this feeling that it’s definitive, but that shrinks away very quickly, and then the next one is definitive, and then that bubble bursts as well. You’re driven on by a sense of failure. The only thing you can grab on to are the sparks of beauty which come out of that fire – into which you throw your entire life, trying to create. But who sees those sparks? God?
If he’s watching…
Yeah, and if he’s not been blinded by them (laughs).