Sean O'Reilly - Interview with Declan Meade

Part One: Finding a Voice in Fiction

The Stinging FlyThis interview first appeared in The Stinging Fly, Vol 1 Issue 15. A link to the second part of the interview is in the related items at the bottom of the page.

Sean O'Reilly was born in Derry in 1969. At the time of this interview in March 2003 he had published a collection of short stories, Curfew and Other Stories (2000) and one novel, Love and Sleep (2002). The Swing of Things was published in 2004, and in 2005 his next work, Watermark, was the debut publication from The Stinging Fly Press.

Can you tell me what you recall of your first writing experience?

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 bedsit 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 M Phil 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 3000 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.