The Alchemy of Composition: Jamie O’Neill’s Literary Magic

“When you’re writing you’re that bird on the wing, you’re soaring and you’re plummeting but you’re not telling the wings to do anything. When you’re describing afterwards what’s happened you’re applying logic to something that really is intuitive. You’re talking about ailerons and that sort of thing, like you’re moving an airplane rather than the eagle.”

Interview published: April 2009
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In 2001 Jamie O’Neill’s novel, “At Swim, Two Boys,” was published to international acclaim. O’Neill was compared favorably with James Joyce and called the “next big thing” by critics around the globe. The story of Jim and Doyler, “At Swim, Two Boys” explores the complexity of two boys’ emerging love for each other against the backdrop of Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising.

 

“The Lancers had charged here too, it was told. There was a dead horse down the way. All about the steps, flowers were strewn and trampled, where the flower-sellers’ stalls had been toppled. Barricades blocked the side streets, erected of particular things: bicycles jumbled and piled in one, hunks of marble for another, bales of newsprint — the work of disparate guilds whimsically chosen. Trams had been overturned. There were no trams running. No juice, the tram-man told him. Even trains: the Sinn Feiners had dug up the lines. And no polis. No polis anywhere. Withdrawn to barracks. Every last pigeon-hearted lily-livered chicken-gutted sneak of them. It was pandemonium. It was Donnybrook Fair. It was all ballyhooly let loose.” (U.K. Edition, pages 563 – 564)

 

Thus begins the move toward Irish independence, a long and bloody war of subversion, disagreeable compromise, and betrayal. But “At Swim, Two Boys” is as much a book about love as it is a book about revolution. In fact, descriptions of the uprising come only in the novel’s last chapters. It is the heady confusion of the boys’ affection for each other and the complex portrait of emerging Irish nationhood that spur the reader on.

 

Pegged at 200,000 words, “At Swim, Two Boys” is also a book made rich by the possibilities of the English language: animated spoken speech, diverging, diverse accents, lyrical writing interrupted by abrupt pivots from one point of view to another. These add a magnificent texture to O’Neill’s deftly rendered history, animating his questions about Irish culture through characters that embody the myriad walks of early twentieth century Irish life:

 

“There goes Mr. Mack, cock of the town. One foot up, the other foot down. The hell of a gent. With a tip of his hat here and a top of the morn there, tip-top, everything’s dandy. He’d bare his head to a lamppost.

 

A Christian customer too. Designate the charity, any bazaar you choose, up sticks the bill in his shop. ‘One Shilling per Guinea Spent Here Will Aid the Belgian Refugees.’ ‘Comforts for the Troops in France.’ ‘Presentation Missions up the Limpopo.’ Choose me the cause, he’s a motto to milk it. See him of a Sunday. Ladies’ Mass by the sixpenny-door, stays on for the Stations for his tanner’s worth. Oh, on the up, that’s Mr. Mack, a Christian genteelery grocerly man.” (U.K. Edition, page 3)

 

In the years since its publication the critics’ compliments for “At Swim” have rippled through the culture. They inform book club picks, course syllabi, the recommendations of one friend to another. This, it seems, is true evidence of the novel’s success: these concentric circles; these expanding rings.

 

Now we have a glimpse at the sequel.

 

Our interview begins with a discussion of “At Swim, Two Boys” and ends with a preview of the story still-to-come.

 

— Carlin M. Wragg, Editor

 

Note: This transcript has been slightly modified to enhance readability.

 

Jamie O’Neill: [Reads At Swim, Two Boys, U.K. Edition, pages 67 - 68.]

 

Carlin M. Wragg: I want to start by asking you where your idea for the book came from; did it start with the two boys we just met, Jim and Doyler?

 

JO: It started as a film script, actually. I thought it would make a good film, just about the Easter Rising, and then, when I had these two boys, I said, “Wouldn’t it be nice to go the whole hog with a buddy movie?” Instead of everybody thinking, “Oh, aren’t they wonderful friends,” to actually have them loving each other. So I thought I’d have a go at the film script, at doing it that way, and after I’d been doing it for a while I realized I wanted to go into more depth and really a film script couldn’t do that, maybe a director could bring that out from a film script but then it wouldn’t be me, and I wanted to do it.

 

CMW: So you started with a film script, why did you ultimately choose prose as your medium?

 

JO: I think one of the wonderful things about prose is that you can go anywhere with it. A book is as cheap to produce which takes you to the Middle Ages and reads convincingly as one that takes you to the North Pole; it’s the same process. But if you want it to be plausible you really do have to do a lot of research. Then the real trick is to leave a lot of the research out. I could spend ages looking up Edwardian street furniture to see exactly what a gas lamp looks like, how it’s lit and all that sort of thing; I find out, I take my notes, and then I was able to leave it all out because very few people walk along the street looking at the street furniture, or thinking about it. So the trick was to convince yourself rather than the reader.

 

CMW: You have a unique way of telling the story through layers and layers of voices which are the voices of many different characters. Was there a reason you chose to use that technique?

 

JO: Often, when I’m told something in a book, I want to know, “Well, who’s telling me that? Who’s telling me that?” So I tried to avoid all that in At Swim. There’s only the inner voice of the people, or their dialog.

 

There’s an awful lot of text in the book but there’s very, very little narration. I dislike narration, the narrative voice, I dislike it very much. Dickens was famous for that. I love Dickens — Dickens was a great inspiration for me, but that’s one “Any instant in the book is usually described from somebody’s experience of it. For instance, if we find out it’s a sunny day it’s somebody saying to himself it’s a sunny day. I just really dislike narration.”point we part company. Any instant in the book is usually described from somebody’s experience of it. For instance, if we find out it’s a sunny day it’s somebody saying to himself it’s a sunny day. I just really dislike narration.

 

CMW: Well, okay, so that makes me wonder something: the voices that you created were very diverse in texture and sound, they told something about the character even as the character was learning something about himself, there were many layers to what the voices did, and I wondered how you went about creating the accents.

 

JO: Well, the accents are because I hear them in my head. Some of them I don’t, it’s never clear to me how Anthony MacMurrough speaks, and I find it very hard to read him.

 

CMW: Was it easy to write him though?

 

JO: To write him? No, he’s wonderful to write. Except for the pieces with Scrotes; they required an awful lot of research. If you read closely enough, and God knows no one should need to read this closely, you’ll see that in the first five or six chapters most of the major characters have textures. Doyler’s texture is quite wet. When he’s described, he’s shiny and wet. The priest, Father Taylor, is dry, cracked, and acidic, and Brother Polycarp is greasy. And Jim, Jim is always in between, he’s always equivocating. Whenever Jim looks at the sea the tide is neither in nor out, the breeze is never quite fresh — it’s rather a smelly fresh breeze. Everything is always wrong when Jim looks at the sea. He describes at one stage the seaweed “chaining the rocks,” which is a pleasant description but it’s wrong. He’s never sure of the sea, that’s the whole point of it.

 

CMW: The story through which we come to know these characters is oriented around a particular event in Irish history, the 1916 Easter Rising. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the Easter Rising for those who may not be as familiar with it.

 

JO: There’s a biography of Pearse — Patrick Pearse — who was one of the leaders of the uprising, and his biography is titled “The Triumph of Failure.” For one week, a small number of rebels, not much more than a thousand, if a thousand, occupied the main buildings in Dublin and defied the British Army. Eventually they were surrounded, they were bombed out, they were burnt out; they surrendered and the leaders were executed.

 

JO: It’s important to remember that Dublin and Ireland at the time were very much against the uprising. Don’t forget, there were 50,000 Irishmen fighting in the Great War in France at the time, and in Gallipoli. I mean, much more than 50,000 — 50,000 died there. Most people were solidly against it. But the British made the mistake of executing the leaders immediately afterwards, and not all on one day. There were days and days and days and days of executions. Which really drove the populace mad — they were really, really annoyed, and within a couple of months the population had turned solidly pro the uprising.

 

So that was the triumph of it. That Pearse, through this “gay and gallant deed” — one of his ways of describing it — had actually infused the Irish soul with a sense of military rebellion. It had been thought that everything would be legislative from then on, that England would grant a sort of “home rule” to Ireland and everything would be dandy, but after the rebellion things changed and there was a very nasty Anglo-Irish War for three years.

 

CMW: How did that resolve itself? How did the Republic come together?

 

JO: Well, it resolved itself in a very sloppy way: there was a treaty. Some of the Irish soldiers wouldn’t accept the treaty and some would, so there was a civil war in Ireland, which was even more dreadful than the Anglo-Irish War. Eventually, the pro-treaty side won and we had the Irish Free State. Then, around 1947 in Ottawa, in Canada, our leader, which we call Taoiseach, which means “chief” and is equivalent to Prime Minister, declared Ireland a republic out of the blue, no one was expecting it, and that’s how we’re a republic now. But it all owes itself to 1916. And what 1916 did was it created a new governing class, the people who were out then became the governing class of the future.

 

CMW: What made you chose to use the Easter Rising as a part of At Swim, and to orient At Swim around it?

 

JO: Well, I don’t know. I liked the idea of a country fighting for freedom. I do think that freedom can’t be given; you have to seize it yourself for it to have any meaning. In the gay context, for instance, you can decriminalize homosexuality but that’s neither here nor there, it’s whether gay people use the “I do think that freedom can’t be given; you have to seize it yourself for it to have any meaning.”freedom or have striven themselves for it that makes a difference, I think. And that’s a personal fight for every gay person. It’s what coming out is about. So it was about putting the two freedoms together and finding the similarities.

 

CMW: The political fight for the freedom of Ireland is given its time in the book, but the fight for the freedom to be yourself and to love who you love is not as explicitly drawn, I wondered about that. Certainly at the time there would have been complications that came from being open about who you are, we even see MacMurrough facing the law on that. Could you talk a little about what it was like for gay people at that moment in Irish history?

 

JO: Well, it’s not really at that moment in Irish history; it’s that moment in Western history, really. A lot of it has to do with words. The official term was in Latin and it was a crime so terrible that it couldn’t be mentioned among Christians. Of course, what happened at the end of the 1890′s was that Oscar Wilde came along with his three trials. He did something very, very important: he gave a name to something and a word to something, so that MacMurrough can be accused of being an “unmentionable” of the Oscar Wilde sort.

 

JO: These names were horrible to begin with, but with words and names speech becomes possible, and only with speech can there be understanding. So it was a time when words were being used to try to explain things, which did make a difference.

 

CMW: So this idea of there not even being language to describe homosexuality, you can really see that in a scene between Jim and the priest, Father Taylor, do you think you’d read that scene for us?

 

JO: [Reads At Swim, Two Boys, U.K. Edition, pages 409 - 411]

 

CMW: Jim has had an encounter with a soldier down by the pier and he goes to confession to be forgiven, he understands what has happened is a sin, he doesn’t know what kind of sin it is but he knows he has to seek forgiveness by going to confession, and he has a terrible time explaining to the father what happened; Father Taylor just won’t hear what Jim is saying.

 

JO: Well, it’s someone who’s made his mind up already about what’s happened. And it’s symptomatic of his higher role in the book; he really is more of a symbol — we know nothing about his past. He just stands for that form of Catholic nationalism that became orthodoxy in Ireland after the separation from England. His descriptions, if you look at them, echo the leader who survived 1916, Eamon de Valera — he became our president — who himself stood quite staunchly for the public morality of Catholic nationalism, although privately he wasn’t like that at all, I don’t think.

 

CMW: In that scene where Jim does go to confession and he does speak to the priest, historically why would Jim have felt it was important to seek forgiveness? I’m curious about the power of priests in Ireland at the time.

 

JO: Well, when MacMurrough walks through Kingstown, the local township, he counts three nuns, two priests, and five monks in the space between two public houses, that’s how common the clergy were in Ireland at the time. It was extraordinary. We had the highest rate of priests per population of any country on Earth. The priest’s ability to ensure your sins were forgiven was strongly believed, and by any orthodox Catholic is still strongly believed, so it was absolutely necessary that Jim confess and be forgiven, and his whole worry there is that it was an imperfect confession!

 

You know, we so feel for Jim because he’s “…he’s trying to get it across to the priest …that he’s had sex with a man, and the priest just won’t hear it, he just keeps saying, ‘Was she married? Was she a girl? Was she a woman?’ ‘No, it was a man, it wasn’t a woman,’ and the priest says, ‘It was a girl, so?’”trying to get it across to the priest —we should say this — that he’s had sex with a man, and the priest just won’t hear it, he just keeps saying, “Was she married? Was she a girl? Was she a woman?” “No, it was a man, it wasn’t a woman,” and the priest says, “It was a girl, so?” and Jim just cannot get it through. So even to confess the sin of homosexuality was impossible. It’s one of those striking things: that for something to be truly forbidden, not to be allowed at all and therefore for it not to happen, requires a certain openness which wasn’t available then. There was no openness, so it was happening all the time and people just didn’t know this was it.

 

JO: It is a very, very humorous point in the book. At a time when Jim is in despair, in absolute despair, the reader starts laughing, I really liked that strange concordance, or dis-concordance.

 

CMW: Do you consciously use humor as a device when you’re writing?

 

JO: What happens is you discover the humorous side of a character, and just by writing that character with his or her particular traits and processes, comedy comes from that. Like, for instance, with Mr. Mack, who’s always thinking of items to send into a newspaper and then getting too frightened because they’re “too close to the knuckle,” or always a bit worried that someone else has said it already. That’s a very gentle comedy, really. It’s more of a situational thing. He’s always getting lost in Dublin but won’t ask directions because he’s proud of being an old Dublin Fusilier. And he’s always getting into trouble with the Dublin police by mistake. He’s actually a staunch Unionist, but he’s always being mistaken for a Feinian, a rebel, and that’s humor too. It comes from the situation. You’re not writing funny things.

 

CMW: I’m curious about MacMurrough and the voices we learn about him through: Dick, and the Chaplain, and Nanny Tremble, and Scrotes. Why did MacMurrough have these voices? What did they do, or allow you to do as a writer?

 

JO: MacMurrough was the last of the major characters to come to the book. I think I’d been writing it a couple of years before MacMurrough came in. I realized that two kids kissing on a rock is a nice story, there’s nothing wrong with it, but it wasn’t really the story I wanted to tell.

 

JO: There wasn’t sufficient depth in that story, and to go further I needed an educated, worldly personage. So came MacMurrough. Interestingly, for me anyway, he came with all the voices. I know one of the reasons he did is that I rather dislike page after page of thought, and these voices were actually a way to show a shattered mind — he’d been through an extraordinary ordeal in prison in England — but it was also a way to make thought a dialog or an argument, so it worked on a practical and, what you might call, an intuitive level. That was MacMurrough.

 

I’m very, very, very fond of MacMurrough. He starts out as not a nice character. He’s been wounded, so there’s an explanation for, what you might say, is his cruelty even. I dislike books where you get a bad character at the beginning and at the end he’s still a bad character. What’s the point? What I like about MacMurrough is that he does grow into himself in the novel. There’s a phrase from Andre Gide, of which I’m very, very fond — I think it’s the last line of Corydon — it goes something like, “The purpose of life is to be able to love and to be worthy of being loved.” I think MacMurrough’s journey should be worthy of being loved. Often you can do one but to be able to do, or be, both is what we’re after, I think.

 

CMW: It would be great to meet MacMurrough and to hear some of these voices. Maybe you could read the section where MacMurrough is thinking about Ireland and what Ireland means to him? Do you think you could read that so we can get acquainted with him?

 

JO: I’ll just say that the last couple of paragraphs from this passage are, if you like, a kind of tribute to a certain kind of Irish writing which has come down the ages: the sadness of the world, which is in many, many Irish songs. There’s one song in particular that I’m referencing there. “You play these games when you’re writing. It interests me therefore I’m going to put it into my book. That’s the wonder of writing a book. It means you can have your cake and eat it.”It’s a poem in fact, but it’s been put to music and it’s quite famous as a song, it’s called, “She Walks Through the Fair.” But of course, I couldn’t put it into the book because it hadn’t been written when the book was supposed to have taken place. You play these games when you’re writing. It interests me therefore I’m going to put it into my book. That’s the wonder of writing a book. It means you can have your cake and eat it. Otherwise you may as well just read a book.

 

JO: [Reads At Swim, Two Boys, U.K. Edition, pages 208 - 210.]

 

CMW: I’m thinking about what you said just before reading that passage, about how you were playing with a song in those last paragraphs. Were you aware of the literary or the artistic heritage of Irish writers or Irish artists as you were writing this? Did you often find yourself at play with different ideas, or different sections from other works?

 

JO: I remember in something they were saying, “He’s taken Joyce too far when he has Jim see his father shave,” or something like that, and it’s forgetting that a boy, before he’s shaving himself, when he sees his father shave, is so universal, it’s so pre-Joyce, it’s just one of those remarkable things — you know that this is going to happen to you one day, it’s a real mark of growing up.

 

I have to preface anything I’m going to say now with this thought: when you’re writing you’re that bird on the wing, you’re soaring and you’re plummeting but you’re not telling the wings to do anything. When you’re describing afterwards what’s happened you’re applying logic to something that really is intuitive. You’re talking about ailerons and that sort of thing, like you’re moving an airplane rather than the eagle.

 

Having prefaced my remarks with that “copout,” you might call it, it was important to me that the two boys come from an Irish tradition. One of them speaks Irish and the other tries to learn Irish, and they go to see Irish sports — hurling — they play Irish music on the Irish flute, and they’re Catholic, so they definitely come from an Irish tradition.

 

The book in some way had to follow that; it comes from a tradition of Irish literature. I hope that people would find that it has its own voice by chapter three, but it was important to me that it come from a place in Irish literature, that it had antecedence just as the boys did have. I didn’t want it to seem that this suddenly appeared in Ireland, you know, two boys falling in love, but that it had always been there and we hadn’t looked at it before but if we go back through the tradition we’ll find it. I suppose that was what I was aiming at.

 

CMW: Is there anything that people have said about the book that you’ve wanted to respond to and haven’t had the chance to do so?

 

JO: I can’t think of anything. There’s something people really need to understand — I think most people intuitively do understand this, but it’s often not put in words — when you’re writing, “…when you’re writing, you think you’re in control of everything, you decide the number of characters, but it’s only when it’s published that you realize that you’ve been writing another character all along and it’s a character over whom you’ve got absolutely no control…”you think you’re in control of everything, you decide the number of characters, but it’s only when it’s published that you realize that you’ve been writing another character all along and it’s a character over whom you’ve got absolutely no control, so you haven’t been writing it, it’s just there in the book, it’s the “final character,” I call it, and that’s the reader. The reader brings to the book his own expectations and experiences and biases that makes each reading of the book new, and you have no control over most of the input of that.

 

If you like, the book lies somewhere in the gaze between the reader and the page, which makes things nice. It means when you reread something it’s a different book. I like that, because you’re a different person, often.

 

JO: I don’t know if you want me to read from the manuscript for part two, I don’t know if you want to do that.

 

CMW: I would love you to. Do you have something there?

 

JO: I have a small piece, a short piece, about MacMurrough.

 

CMW: Do. That would be great.

 

JO: I have to tell you: this book, should I ever finish it, is just the last three pages of At Swim writ large. So it ends at the same point as At Swim, which is kind of interesting. But anyway, MacMurrough went afterwards and joined the British Army and fought, as he has promised to do, in the trenches in France but this is set in 1919 after the war.

 

JO: [Reads an excerpt from the unpublished manuscript for the sequel to At Swim, Two Boys.]

 

CMW: It’s fantastic! I love it. Can I ask a couple of questions about it?

 

JO: Yes, sure.

 

CMW: What made you want to write about the war?

 

JO: It’s not that I wanted to write about the war, but I wanted to write about MacMurrough, and he went to the war.

 

CMW: So MacMurrough, you said earlier that you had a fondness for him, why was it you wanted to tell his story?

 

JO: Well, it’s him and Jim, his story and Jim’s. You know, that hopeful dawn that seems to shine in Jim’s face is turned to stone and I wanted to show that stony face. I wanted to show what Jim was like as a guerilla leader, and not a nice person either, somebody who’s only concerned with beating the English. I wanted to contrast that with MacMurrough who had actually been in a real war — in a real living hell — and who wants nothing ever again to do with violence.

 

CMW: It’s really interesting to hear that idea realized. There’s still, in what you just read, so much of the texture and the sound that I loved in At Swim and what the language calls up in the reader is very visceral.

 

JO: Well, I’m quite pernickety with words. They have textures; they have rhythms, there’s rhyme in words. I think the sound of a word can as readily bring out characterization or advance a plot.

 

When people send me what they’ve written and they want some judgment on it I really want to write back and say: You’re forgetting that words have meaning, that they actually have real meanings. Not only do they have meanings, but they have histories and associations. Really, in order to know all this you just have to read and read and read. That’s the best advice you can ever give to anybody who wants to write; is to read, and when you’re done reading, read some more. It’s the only way you’ll be a good writer, I think.

 

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