Joseph O'Connor

Author of The Star of the Sea 'has a candle burning' for Richard and Judy

The Star of The Sea, Joseph O’Connor’s best selling 2002 novel, casts a literary shadow over tonight’s talk. Despite discussing his latest book Ghost Light and his recent foray into writing for radio, all questions seem to lead back to the Richard and Judy Book Club nominee. The audience doesn’t appear to mind – doubtless it’s the success of The Star of the Sea that has the Elmwood Hall packed out on a school night. Thankfully O’Connor as is charming and enthusiastic talking about the The Star of the Sea as he is about his more recent works.

Marie-Louise Muir opens the discussion with a comment about O'Connor's Drivetime slot for RTÉ Radio, and apparently unplanned, but seemingly too stage-managed to be quite unprepared, O’Connor offers to read his poem 'Like'. Only being familiar with the darker facets of his writing, I’m pleasantly surprised – 'Like' shows great joy in wordplay and the rhythms of speech, and what’s more it’s funny too.

He goes on to describe how he tries to balance darker themes with devices such as cliff-hangers and a playfulness of style, to avoid making the reader work too hard. Writing for the radio has given him a new awareness of the musicality of language and he enjoys the challenge of writing for the voice, even reading aloud any new prose as his test of a piece of good writing.

Ghost Light is his newest work, and the last in the loose trilogy beginning with The Star of the Sea about ‘the forgotten corners of Ireland’s past’. Based on the real life love affair between the Irish playwright John Millington Synge and young Dublin actress Molly Allgood, it fills the gaps of our knowledge of them with fiction and invention.

Most of the novel is set in the 1950s as Molly, now elderly and somewhat down on her luck, reminisces about her youth. It could have done with a short reading, especially as, only having been published in June Ghost Light is presumably unfamiliar to some in audience, but Muir is more interested in pressing on with the questions.

Richard and Judy have to be mentioned, and unsurprisingly, given his increase in sales and popularity due to them, O’Connor does not have anything negative to say, joking that he has a ‘candle burning before their image’ at home. Though he’s glad the influence of the Book Club has waned since their departure from Channel 4, he has scant respect for the London literary elites who look down at populist fiction.

Muir asks him about researching historical fiction, which leads O’Connor to tell with much relish and little embarrassment of a couple of the anachronisms he’s let sneak into his books. The first edition of The Star of the Sea included a reference to the planet Pluto – discovered some 70 years after the action in the novel. It also has a wolf howling in the Connemara hills in the 1840s – this time he's only 50 odd years out.

Listening to Joseph O’Connor is an interesting way to spend an hour. It’s nice to see a successful writer who is fairly shy and not bitter about his early success. He obviously cares about writing, but it’s less common to find such a writer discuss caring about the reader as much as about his art.