This much I know: John Kelly

I’d be lost without music. My taste in music is wide and ever-expanding. 

I got into broadcasting accidentally. I wrote a few things for the university newspaper and was then invited onto the BBC, in Belfast, to blather about something. It sort of snowballed from there and people started asking me to do things on radio — and then on TV. Before I quite realised it, it became how I earned a living. None of it was intended or planned.

When I left school, I went to university, Queens in Belfast, to study law. I had no idea what I was doing.

If I wasn’t doing this job, I haven’t a clue what else I’d be doing. I very nearly chucked it all in and took a serious left turn a few years ago — the old law degree was dusted down — but, to be honest, I still don’t know what I’m going to be when I grow up.

One on-air moment I’ll never forget was interviewing Jeff Buckley and, accidentally, calling him Tim. There was so much ‘don’t mention Tim’ going on that it was inevitable, really. Jeff didn’t mind. The trickiest moments tend to be technical. Suddenly, nothing is working and there’s nothing you can do about it. That can be fun.

Peter O’Toole’s interview stands out in my memory. It was a public interview and so I got to watch, at very close hand, a master at work. Obviously, as a music fan, encounters with people like David Bowie or Lou Reed or Nina Simone have a definite charge. As a writer, I learn a lot from uninterrupted conversations with people like Richard Ford or Paul Auster — and that’s the very best part of my job.

My first paid job was chopping sticks for my grandmother. I was paid enough to buy a Fanta and a bag of Rancheros. Those were good days.

My earliest memory is eating chocolate in bed, in the dark, on a Christmas morning in 1968.

I write whenever I can grab the time. From Out of the City was written on days which began at 5.30am. That, plus a few lost weekends of all-nighters. Ideally, I would lock myself away — a cabin in the woods — but it’s not really on the cards, when you have to drive your kids to football matches.

I can’t say I enjoy any of the process of writing. Enjoy would be the wrong word. I find the process very difficult, at every stage. But, that said, it’s something I feel compelled to do — and I’m a happier person when I’m writing.

To have a headful of stuff demanding to be organised in prose form is not ideal, but there it is. The best part is when I manage a sentence that surprises me. Or sense that, somehow, I am putting some smacht on the disorder.

I don’t believe in fate. I am, however, a strong believer in coincidence. I’m very surprised about being nominated for ‘novel of the year’. I’m flattered to be in the frame with such great writers.

My book was published by a small US press. No publisher who saw it in Ireland or Britain wanted it — even those who said they loved it wouldn’t publish it. So, yes, a nod like this is very welcome. The book was written, and published, with little hope on my part and so the nomination is its own reward. I’m very grateful.

My saying in times of stress is: take no shit from nobody. I pretty much have a daily routine. There are certain places I have to be at certain times. I’m used to that, though. I’ve been presenting daily (or nightly) radio shows since 1987. The rest of my routine is domestic. Like most parents, I’m a chauffeur.

I eat well, where possible, and I keep myself fit. I was never a smoker, so that’s a bonus. I read. I train a few times a week. I watch sport on the telly. I don’t walk around endlessly pondering the end, but I do have a sharp sense of it.

I think that, once you lose a parent or anyone close to you, you are suddenly shifted from not having a care in the world (or the next world) to being acutely aware that the train is only running in one direction.

I think art steadies us in the face of life and death and what it all might mean. And I think that art can show us how to live while we’re here.

My biggest influence was growing up in a very wet county. It explains a lot. My worst habit is dwelling on things.

I have learned a lot from the people I have known. As for what life has taught me, I don’t know. All I seem to be sure of is that life is short and the best we can do, while we’re here, is to try to be kind to each other.

John Kelly’s novel, From Out of the City, has been shortlisted for the Eason ‘novel of the year’ in this year’s Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards


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