READING Star of the Sea is to experience a book of textures, the novel as collage. Joseph O’Connor’s modern classic is a book about books, but also a book about journalism, log-keeping, letter-writing, and 19th-century print culture. It leaps off the page with its multiple voices, but it certainly does not suggest that it is leaping towards a stage.
Yet, stage bound it is, in the hands of Galway’s Moonfish Theatre Company, in a production for the Galway Arts Festival. “When I looked into the kind of work Moonfish did, I was intrigued,” says O’Connor, whose voice in conversation is familiar from his RTÉ radio columns, though perhaps more relaxed here.
Moonfish’s last production was a bilingual adaptation of Pinnochio. Its onstage texts, sound effects, music and puppetry were enough to breed confidence in any attempt by them to wrestle O’Connor’s 400-page sea monster onto the stage. O’Connor was happy to give the company a free hand in their adaptation.
We make our orders — tea for him, coffee for me — and settle down in this Killiney hotel lobby. He grew up not far away, and still lives in the area. When he speaks of his formative years, he describes an extremely England-focused milieu. For his generation it was all about the BBC, Top of the Pops, and UK magazines and comics. Even the older people, he says, spoke with a hint of an English accent.
He’s turned down stage adaptations of Star of the Sea before, but, he says, Moonfish brings something to the novel that he, coming from this place, could not. “I love the fact that it will be bilingual,” he says. “A big part of it is sent in Connemara in the 1840s and it alludes to people speaking in Irish and has the odd line as Gaeilge, but my own Irish isn’t good enough and I felt I couldn’t do more, but I think it is a lack in the book.”
O’Connor began with Cowboys and Indians, what he now calls a “standard issue coming of age young-fella-leaving-home story”. Then came Desperadoes, still a young man’s book, but with more sympathy for the previous generation, as it drags a Dublin couple to Nicaragua, where their son has been killed.
Yet, says O’Connor, it was a long-standing ambition to write a book about the Great Famine. “Connemara is very important to me,” he says. “We used to go there as kids. We used to stay in the house my father stayed in when he was a child. So we feel, completely, spuriously I’m sure, a lifelong connection to this particular part of the world. I was always very struck going there as a kid how people used to talk about this event, the famine, as if it happened last week. They’d be pointing out fields with famine graves, and deserted villages.
“At the time Connemara seemed completely foreign — how they talked, the things that were important to them. There was some sense that my parents had and passed on to us that, in some way, this was an authentic Ireland. That these people, who had tough lives — it was well into the 1970s before this house had running water, for example — they had a fondness for it, an affection for the people who lived there and their culture.
“It was always simmering in the back of my mind, but I knew when I was writing my earlier books that I wasn’t able. It would be too difficult a book to write.”
In the end, the skills O’Connor deployed, after copious research, made Star of the Sea a masterwork of ventriloquism, a knowing epic, drawing on the Victorian novel, the adventure story, 19th-century journalism, biography and history to create a tapestry of storytelling that is both too clever by half and warmly humane, despite its darkness. In other hands it could have been a cast of merely stock characters.
O’Connor’s book, indeed his career, would never have gone where they did but for a deus ex machina in the shape of the Richard and Judy book club. The daytime TV presenters featured it as their first book club recommendation, saving O’Connor’s career in the process.
“I really thought it was the last book I’d be allowed write,” he says. “It was so different from what I had written, but it was the third book of a deal, so I thought I might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb. I remember meeting my editor, Geoff Mulligan, in London. Normally we’d have lunch and I’d hand him a comic novel, but this time, I said here’s the book: it’s 450 pages long, it’s about the Irish Famine, and everybody dies. I remember the blood draining from his face.”
Even before publication, O’Connor felt it was a good book. “I thought it would get decent reviews in papers nobody read, like the TLS, sell seven copies, and I’d be told, ‘Right, Joe, we’ve heard what you’ve had to say, now go and do something else for the rest of your life’. And I would have been fairly happy. Because, to be fair Star of the Sea was the product of an ethic publishers had at the time, which was, you know, if you leave the author alone, he might come up with the goods.
“It’s very different now. I feel sorry for writers starting out. The latitude there was then is gone; every book has to earn back its advance or else you’re in trouble.”
Star of the Sea debuted in the high thousands on Amazon’s list. And there it stayed. Then the “bizarre Richard and Judy thing” happened.
“I remember my wife telling me, they rang the house. I said, so what? Nobody knew the effect it would have. This was the first year they’d done it. But I watched that day, Bob Geldof was one of the reviewers. Bonnie Greer, whom I love, was the other. They loved it. Then they showed a book club who’d read it and loved it. I thought, this might make a difference. I went up to the office and said, I’ll risk a look at Amazon, and it was at 200. And, sort of as I watched, it went, 90, 80... That night it went number one and stayed for six weeks.”
It’s an experience every author should have, O’Connor says, if only so it can serve as a big fuck you to all the doubters. “It was brilliant, and I’m really proud of it. I get a letter about Star of the Sea from someone somewhere in the world once a week still. I see people reading it still. it’s taught in school and on university courses.”
The success paved the way for O’Connor to complete a historical trilogy with a sequel, Redemption Falls, and Ghost Light, a shorter novel about JM Synge and Molly Allgood. His latest, The Thrill of It All, is a faux rock memoir that speaks to a time the author knows personally, rather than one he’s researched. But also, it’s vibrancy and frequent brilliance almost seem natural. It’s not careful ventriloquism here, just pithy, sharp, observant writing, a mature novelist, by turns artist and craftsman. We won’t say it’s easy, but when books like The Thrill of It All are possible, will O’Connor ever again inflict an ordeal like Star of the Sea upon himself?
“Oh, I hope so. I have lots of ideas for great, big, long books. I felt at the time I would try and write three books that would be loosely a trilogy about Irish history, and then drop them, forget about history for a while. I gave Irish history 10 years, so it’s good to be back to now.”
The ‘now’ for O’Connor is teaching. He’s just been made professor of creative writing and the University of Limerick. “I love teaching and I try to do it every four or five years. You learn so much and it brings you back to the wellspring of why you wanted to do it when you were young. I couldn’t help but go for this. So I have no plans to write a book for a while.”
Galway Arts Festival runs from Sunday until July 27. Star of the Sea is at An Taibhdhearc until July 19. See www.giaf.ie
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