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Writing, reading, music, and “far-awayness”. David Hogan interviews Colin O’Sullivan

May 27, 2015

BetimesBooksNow

David Hogan: You’re in the long tradition of writers leaving Ireland in order to write about it.  Is there something unique about the country that pushes you away while at the same time drawing you back?

Colin O’Sullivan: The Irish have always been a migrant race as you know, for many reasons too long to get into here , and I’ve always been fascinated by those great Irish writers who left and became the geniuses we know today – I’m thinking specifically of Joyce and Beckett, two artists who loom very large in my writing life. I never understood it until I actually did it, I suppose. That is until I upped and left Ireland and spent years abroad, I never really understood the idea of exile and writing about your native country from a distance (physical and emotional). But I think it has made me a better writer. I don’t think I’d write as much or as well if I had stayed at home – I think I’d be far too busy drinking Guinness and watching football (nothing at all wrong with those pursuits, but I don’t think I’d write very much). The fact that those delights aren’t available to me here means I have to get down to work and the hard graft of writing. And following on from that, I then have, I suppose, the time and inclination to look back and contemplate my native land. That’s not to say that all my work will be set in Ireland – my new work is wildly different and has nothing at all to do with my homeland.

D.H.: What are you working on now then?

C.O’S.: I won’t go into too much detail (might jinx the whole endeavour) and even to describe it might not do it justice, but let’s for the moment say it is an: existentialist-gothic-tragi-political-satirical-absurdo-comedy…with wolves, set in Japan 2045. If that doesn’t whet the appetite I don’t know what will!! If Killarney Blues was my Blue period, then I’m just moving into my Cubist period – do you like the way I align myself with geniuses?

D.H.: Bernard in Killarney Blues loves American blues “Because it’s exotic. From far away.”  You’re an Irishman living in Japan; can this sentiment be applied to yourself in anyway? 

C.O’S.: Yes, I think that can be applied to me in many ways. Not just because I live in Japan and appreciate the “difference” in culture, but in my artistic tastes too. Growing up I didn’t like traditional Irish music at all (I’ve since changed my mind) and wanted only rock, and certainly not Irish rock music, but British or American only. The further away the better from Irish shores the more authentic, I had foolishly thought. I don’t know why this was, a form of teenage rebellion I suppose. And I went through a phase of reading loads of American literature and eschewed anything from Ireland too. Maturity in thought and a sense of balance comes with age of course and I’m not so silly and dismissive anymore. But I still have a lot of Bernard in me – been going through a jazz phase over the last few years, which has of course absolutely nothing to do with Ireland and I enjoy it’s “far-awayness”.

D.H.: Funny you should mention jazz, your writing has a jazzy, improvisational feel to it.  Are you able to get into ‘a zone’ where this flows?   Does it come in the editing?  Do you have to be careful not to over-edit?

C.O’S.: The zone. Yes, that’s a good word, I suppose I do get into it and try to go with that particular flow. It’s difficult to describe. But I do aim for that intensity of thought and concentration, whatever happens within that, whether it is jazzy or not, I don’t know. I’m looking for that voice I suppose. In Killarney Blues I was trying to get Bernard’s voice or Jack’s or whoever, yes, and improvising around them. As for editing, well, I can’t stop. I can go over pages again and again for hours, and still might miss something! There comes a stage when you have to call in another pair of eyes. Luckily I have a great editor at Betimes Books to help with that.

D.H.: Did you listen to the blues while writing “Blues?”  Something else?

C.O’S.: I did listen to a lot of blues at that time yes, while going for a walk or whatever, or just doing work around the house, not during the actual writing time though: I prefer silence. Instrumental music I can take, a little; I can’t listen to anything with lyrics when I write, I get too involved. Drone-like stuff works best. But yeah, you can’t beat silence when you’re trying to get the words down.

D.H.: There’s the great line in Killarney Blues: “The kind of person you’d release from prison on the back of songs.  As if music, and music alone was enough.”  This speaks to the redemptive power of music and, by inference, literature.  What are the respective powers of the two mediums to you?  How are they alike or different?

C.O’S.: They’ve always been there for me, that’s about as much as I know. I’ve always been fascinated by books, music, all art in fact, and have always found them to be my salvation. That sounds very pretentious, but I don’t know how else to describe it. I’ve always needed books and music around me at all times and I get antsy when they are out of reach. Music from my teenage years still gets me tremendously excited as do books that I’ve read and cherished several times. And I love that feeling of being overwhelmed and utterly excited by art. It’s thrilling, and I’ve never lost it.

D.H.: The demise of long forms (e.g. the album as opposed to singles and the novel) has long been predicted.  Are you concerned about this?  What will be lost or gained?

C.O’S.: I’m not overly concerned; I think music will always find a way. I do miss things, the long playing albums like you say, the cover art that isn’t so important anymore, sleeve notes, that kind of thing. Something like Bowie’s Low is hard to conceive as anything other than a two-sided record: listening to it straight on the iPod, it misses something; you feel like you have to turn over for the very different second “side”. But musicians are still making all kinds of great music and it’s still finding a way to get to us, so I’m happy enough about that, I guess. The novel will also endure. As an art form it’s too important not to.

D.H.: Desert island question: would you take a book or an album?  Which one?

C.O’S.: A book, something huge, like The Complete Shakespeare, or War and Peace. I already have music playing in my head 24 hours anyway. Even my dreams have a soundtrack and I wake up thinking: Wow, I haven’t heard that song in years.

D.H.: What type and color of hat are you wearing these days? 

C.O’S.: This grey one:

FullBW

D.H.: What are you reading and/or listening to? 

C.O’S.: On the current playlist: Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, PIL, The Fall, Swans and Nick Cave/Warren Ellis.

Reading: Tim Winton’s Eyrie, Witold Gombrowicz’s Diary, and Kevin Barry’s short story collection Dark Lies the Island.

D.H. What does Colin do for fun?

C.O’S.: Music and books, what else is there? Actually I do enjoy watching football (that’s soccer to you David) movies, and good TV dramas too, the usual box set stuff that everyone loves, and if there’s a good comedy out there I’m on it, like Veep or Louie – boy, do we need a laugh in the world these days… but that’s another story, eh?

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2 Comments

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  1. Vikki #
    May 27, 2015

    Looking forward to the next book!

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