Small talk: Joseph O’Connor

Joseph O’Connor was born in Dublin in 1963 and worked as a journalist before devoting himself to novel-writing. His debut, Cowboys and Indians (1991), was shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize and he then found fame with his marine epic Star of the Sea (2002), set on a famine ship bound for New York from Liverpool. He is married with two children and lives in London and Dublin.

What book changed your life?

The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger. I read it when I was 16 and it filled me with the kind of glee certain teenagers feel when they see rock musicians smashing instruments on the stage.

What books are currently on your bedside table?

The Empty Family by Colm Tóibín, A Blessing on the Moon by Joseph Skibell and The Letters of Kingsley Amis.

What is your daily writing routine?

I try to keep office hours but it never seems to work out because writing a novel is a compulsion.

Where do you write best?

At home in my office, at the end of my garden.

How do you cure writer’s block?

I take a look at the electricity bill.

What do you snack on when you write?

I smoke the occasional cigarette while writing and for that reason I snack on self-hatred.

Who are your literary influences?

James Joyce, Peter Carey, Dickens, the Brontës, Toni Morrison, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, the Irish and English ballad tradition, the Blues.

What is the last thing you read that made you laugh out loud?

The Mysterious Secret of the Valuable Treasure, a set of remarkable short stories by the American writer Jack Pendarvis.

What are you scared of?

Having no readers.

What is your favourite word?


Who would you choose to play you in a film?

Stephen Rea.

Can you remember the first novel you read?

The Pearl by John Steinbeck.

How would you earn your living if you had to give up writing?

By a strangely lyrical and highly compelling form of begging.

Who would you like to be stuck in a lift with?

William Butler Yeats.

What book do you wish you’d written?

Murphy by Samuel Beckett.

Which literary character most resembles you?

Satan in Paradise Lost.

When did you last cry?

When a friend died last May.

What would you go back and change?

I wouldn’t have studied English literature at university.

What would you change about yourself?

I’d like to be one of those thin and nonchalant French guys in a movie.

Where is your favourite place?

Connemara, and the East Village of Lower Manhattan.

If you could own any painting what would it be?

A Paul Henry landscape of rural County Wicklow.

What are you most proud of writing?

My last three novels, Star of the Sea, Redemption Falls and Ghost Light. I feel a sort of affectionate contempt for some of my earlier books.

What does it mean to be a writer?

It means you have the challenge of providing the sheet music for the reader, who always sings the song.

Joseph O’Connor’s latest novel is ‘Ghost Light’ (Vintage)

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