Star of the Scene

Peter Geoghegan discovers the early creative stirrings of Joseph O'Connor

Considering that writers spend much of their formative years flogging their latest wares on endless promotion tours, the moment they are able to attract paid up punters with more than the promise of free wine and cheese must rank as a major triumph.

Having survived the travails of early 90s readings in dismal Northern English bookstores, where the staff ‘spread out to try and look like a crowd’, Joseph O’Connor spoke to a packed house at the Old Museum Arts Centre.

O’Connor, already the author of ten Irish #1 books, was in Belfast to deliver a reading from latest novel Redemption Falls, the epic tale of the Irish in the American Civil War. His burgeoning popularity can largely be attributed to two things; his continued development in style and subject matter over the past decade and his strident concern for entertaining the reader in all his work.

joseph O'Connor's 'Star of the Sea'Anxious to capture the sombre mood in his polyphonic tale of the quarter of a million Irishmen who fought on both sides of the civil war, O’Connor steadies himself on the stool in the centre of the stage.

The novel is, in part, a sequel to the acclaimed Star of the Sea, O’Connor’s first foray into historical fiction. In this reading he introduces us to the ‘5th Avenue Fenianism’ of one of Redemption Falls’ central characters, O’Keefe, in the process providing some background for a work set on an American Republic ‘edging towards a brutal divorce’.

The prose is fluid and full of rich, vivid descriptions. O’Connor is a wordy, lyrical writer who prefers working with the full palette of colloquial and vernacular English rather than the short, clipped prose of much contemporary fiction and it seems that in Redemption Falls he has found the perfect vehicle to do this.

During the short questions and answers session the writer reveals himself to be a witty and amiable raconteur with a nice line in self-depreciation. O’Connor speaks of the year spent in the New York Public Library researching the role of the Irish in the Civil War. As befits a novelist who takes history so seriously he applies an almost academic stricture to his own writing.

As a 16-year-old, he explains in response to a question about how he first began writing, he adored ‘Gold Watch’, a short story by John McGahern. Weary that he would never produce a story so simple, and so adroitly told, he began to copy the story verbatim into a school jotter. The following night he repeated the exercise, and again the next and the next. But over time he made subtle changes to the characters of McGahern's original.

The couple in the story moved on together, bought a house, changed jobs until, eventually the story was no longer McGahern’s but his own. This insightful glimpse into his early creative stirrings served as a fitting end note to a very enjoyable evening, a revealing anecdote about O’Connor’s approach to writing and a perfect encapsulation of his love of the good story well told.