Billy O'Callaghan: Digging into the past

It’s already been quite a year for Billy O’Callaghan. In January, he placed second in the Costa Short Story Awards with ‘The Boatman’. 

In May his novel The Dead House appeared in bookshops, and on June 10 the Cork City Libraries launched this year’s One City, One Book initiative encouraging everyone to read his short-story collection The Things We Lose, the Things We Leave Behind.

Talking about his most recent work, O’Callaghan warns that “the fact that The Dead House is a ghost story might surprise people who are familiar with my short stories, which tend towards staunch realism, but those who actually know me will know of my lifelong fondness for the genre”.

His writing shapes itself from situations connected to his own life or the things that dominate his thoughts. “Themes form, to do with loneliness, exile, guilt, the vagaries of love, the human heart in trauma and the instinct for survival, and the only way to make sense of these concerns is to explore them in the guise of some narrative,” says O’Callaghan.

The burdens of memory and the effects of isolation certainly run through O’Callaghan’s work to date and The Dead House gives them a space in which the haunting of the past finds its most literal expression: the ghost. Described by the writer as “a modern ghost story, and a study of isolation’s effects on a fragile, artistic mind”, it centres on the narrator’s concerns over Maggie, a woman who has come out of an abusive relationship and seeks refuge in a pre-Famine cottage on the West Cork shore, near Allihies.

O’Callaghan wanted to consider how history shapes, influences and affects us. “Both our personal pasts and the past that has left its mark in our surround. To some degree we’re all haunted,” he says.

The representations of landscape are one of the most praised aspects of O’Callaghan’s writing and, in The Dead House, the breath-taking Atlantic landscape does emerge as a character in itself.

“I’d carried the bones of this story around with me for years, but in the summer of 2011, travelling with a friend around the Beara Peninsula, the whole thing just came together for me.”

Rural areas have a power of suggestion that cities lack — he mentions how, in The Hound of the Baskervilles, Sherlock Holmes goes from scepticism in his London study, to a suspension of disbelief when he enters into the moors.

O’Callaghan found that area of West Cork overwhelming, not just because of the beauty of the landscape, but “the sense of being on the edge of the world, and the sheer weight of the past. There’s an eternal quality about the place, so that you can’t help but be aware that your moments are nearly insignificant, like one blade of grass in a field”.

Billy O'Callaghan: Digging into the past

What made the setting ideal for The Dead House was that “there were moments, such as how the light would shift in a subtle but sudden way, when the whole atmosphere would change, when the day around me would thicken, often just for a second or two, as if some other reality were pressing against the one I was living. The past is an immensity in a place like that.”

‘Do you believe?’ is the question around which the novel’s narration works. It’s a question O’Callaghan has pondered for himself. “In my life I have experienced a number of things that defied explanation. Maybe that’s part of the reason why I write. I think it’s a question of perception, and of how closely we choose to look and listen.”

The credit — or blame, he jokes — for his creativity rests with his grandmother, Nellie. Sometimes, she’d keep him home from school to tell him stories. “She filled my head with tales of fairies, the Black and Tans and the banshee, and she lit the fire within me, the curiosity and the passion. A writer’s voice shapes itself from a lifelong stew of influences, books we’ve read, people we’ve known, but when I sit down to write it is probably her voice that echoes most loudly for me.”

Sadly, his grandmother’s storytelling was soon lost to the world and the love for the written word became O’Callaghan’s attempt to reproduce those moments. “If my grandmother lit the flame, and my father and mother kept it fuelled by talking so easily to me of their lives, then books nourished me. The library brought me to every corner of the world and threw me back in time, to the Wild West and the Black Forest, to ancient Arabia and distant seas in search of white whales and buried treasures.”

However, to O’Callaghan, writers were like mythical creatures with exotic-sounding names and removed from the world he knew. He never had any notions of success.

“Writing was just something I did, without ever thinking or believing it was something that I could do. For a long time, I was just writing to fill the space beneath my bed, but at some point, when I was in my early to mid-twenties, the stories began to leak out into the world, first to the Holly Bough, then, gradually, further afield. I gritted my teeth against the rejections and kept going. And I’ve never stopped.”

To date, O’Callaghan is a prize-winning short fiction writer with over 100 stories published in different magazines and journals around the world. Some of his best have been published in three collections: In Exile (Mercier Press, 2008), In Too Deep (Mercier Press, 2009), and The Things We Lose, the Things We Leave Behind (New Island Books, 2013).

The title story of the latter won the Short Story of the Year at the Irish Book Awards 2013 and the collection is soon to be published in Chinese.

In opposition to the idea that short stories are some sort of initiation process for writers before they publish a novel, O’Callaghan says he loves the short story for the intensity of the form. “Its compact nature means that it has to rely heavily on implication in order to achieve proper weight, and that asks a lot of the reader as well as the writer. At this point it’s the ideas that dictate and each form brings its own challenges,” he believes.

In a short story, there is much more to the writing than what makes it onto the page. Most of the times it is the things that go unsaid that make the real core of his stories. Like in real life, we are not told everything, we do not have all the details about someone else’s life, and we must read between the lines.

The Dead House will be published in the US in 2018 and O’Callaghan has also completed a new novel. Despite his opinion that it’s among the best things he’s ever written, he’s not convinced it will ever be published.

“I have also just completed a new collection of short stories, and my hope is that it will be published some time next year.”

  • The West Cork Literary Festival is held in Bantry from July 14 to 21. See



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