Joseph O'Neill at The Getty Center, Los Angeles, CA. February 2009.
Back in February, Joseph O'Neill passed through Los Angeles, and we had the chance to sit down over lunch at the Getty Center for a long talk about Netherland, writing, cricket, literary celebrity, Zadie Smith and other assorted topics. The Irish-born, Dutch-raised barrister-turned-novelist is the author of three novels and a memoir. We'll be running the interview in four parts this week, and we'll finish up with a giveaway on Friday of the new paperback edition of Netherland.
TEV: How do your books begin? Do they begin with a voice or with a theme?
Joseph O’Neill: This reminds me of those philosophy questions about whether existence precedes essence.
My books certainly don’t begin with a voice, though I immediately look for one. I mean the big question in the beginning is, “How do I find this voice? And what is the voice?” (thinks)
I think I start with one idea. In Netherland, it was cricket in New York. Then there is an accumulation of sentences, and often just single words. Words that interest me. And I sort of build it up like a poem. Then you see what you’ve got, what patterns have emerged, and you see what meaning has been generated by your notes. As opposed to starting off with some theory of everything and trying to cram it into a book.
TEV: So, then there is a moment that occurs where you suddenly begin to feel like you are getting your hands around it?
Joseph O’Neill: Yeah, and then you start thinking about your characters. In other words there is this pre-psychological, pre-characterological impulse, which has to do with language. In the case of Netherland, as I’ve said, I was very concerned with voice. I wanted to create this very intimate relationship between the reader and the voice of the book. Almost a romance. That’s risky, of course. Not everybody likes to be hit on. But you want to take risks.
And then there’s question of what sort of character would be amenable to serving such an obscure, murky, poetic purpose. And, meanwhile, you are thinking “Cricket” and various other things. And you are just hoping that they will fuse. And you sort of wait until they fuse. That’s partly why it takes me years to write stuff. I have to wait until sentences have life to me, and I try to make use of them.
TEV: How important is plot to you?
Joseph O’Neill: Not important at all, really.
TEV: Neither as a reader nor as a writer?
Joseph O’Neill: Certainly not as a reader. I mean, you know, if the plot is good then I am grateful for it. But I am a terrible reader of novels. I only read a few and I re-read what I read. And then I re-read them like books of poems and sort of dip into pages 12-17 and I look at words and sentences. The whole suspenseful element is not really something that particularly interests me. Possibly because I lack concentration. Possibly because my brain has turned into macaroni cheese.
TEV: Do you revise as you work?
Joseph O’Neill: Yes. Absolutely. Some writers knock out a first draft and then start polishing it. I just don’t – I mean, I can kind of see how you can do that. But for me, that’s unthinkable. I find most sentences that I originate intolerable -- and so, the only way to make them at least tolerable is to work on them as I go along. I have a very low tolerance for my own writing, unfortunately, even when it’s done.
TEV: Can you discuss your own literary influences? Authors you especially admire? You mentioned a love of voice. What literary voices particularly stand out for you?
Joseph O’Neill: Well, your preferences and your susceptibilities aren’t really fixed. It sort depends on who you are reading, and when. I mean, I recently read through Flannery O’Connor for the first time, and I was knocked out by how she does it. And I have just been reading Beckett’s letters.
TEV: I’ve seen in an interview recently that you had some Bellow sitting on your desk.
Joseph O’Neill: Yeah. See, when you actually bother to pay attention to writers – good ones, very good ones, great ones, in fact - you obviously are mesmerized by it to a certain degree, by what they are doing. And they all pull off the voice.
Other writers, I mean, apart from those I mentioned – and because he died recently – Updike, of course, I love. Particularly Selfconsciousness, his memoir, which I think may be the best thing he wrote.
What else? When I started reading properly, I loved Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. That was a very powerful voice. I didn’t really understand Bellow and Ellison when I first read them, partly because I was growing up in Europe. There were whole areas of their work that I just didn’t have access to culturally, and also because I was too young. But I was thrilled. What really impressed me were books in which this central, turbulent consciousness was at the center, and the novel arriving out of that.
TEV: You said, “when you bothered to read closely”. Do you think perhaps we tend not to read closely enough? Whether as readers or as writers?
Joseph O’Neill: I don’t know about other people. Speaking for myself, I just don’t read enough. I’m thrilled, I’m amazed that people are still reading.
TEV: It seems to be decreasing every day and then a book like Netherland finds an audience and gives lie to that idea that readers are disappearing.
Joseph O’Neill: Well, I don’t know about that but it’s certainly nice to have readers of any kind.
TEV: You’ve indirectly answered one of my next questions which is, do you read poetry? I ran an interview with Jesse Ball, who complained about the number of novelists who don’t read poetry. But, it sounds like you pay attention to poetry.
Joseph O’Neill: Oh, I love poetry. I mean, I started off writing poetry. My first published works were poems. But then I stopped. I retired very prudently at the age of about 24. It’s funny, that was when I received a letter from Andrew Motion, who at that time was the poetry editor at Chatto & Windus. You know, “I’ve read some of your poems, do you have any more?” Sadly, I didn’t.
TEV: Where were these poems published?
Joseph O’Neill: British and Irish poetry magazines. Legitimate outlets. And I just wrote back to Motion saying pathetically, “I’m sorry, but I’m not that prolific.” And I haven’t written a proper poem since. (Laughing)
TEV: The sudden glare of attention was too much?
Joseph O’Neill: I just think writing poetry is so difficult as a sustained venture. It’s extremely unforgiving and naked, like painting, making marks on canvas.
TEV: Such concentrated language all the time.
Joseph O’Neill: Well, I have this idea about what makes poetry tough.
TEV: What would that be?
Joseph O’Neill: I think it has to do with the poet’s theory of knowledge. A poem has to know something, and find that knowledge. But how? I mean, how do you write a poem without making it recherché or a kind of pretty re-statement of that which is self-evident? It’s very, very hard.
TEV: I think novelists experience a similar sort of struggle.
Joseph O’Neill: Writing novels is challenging, too.
TEV: And one can have the sense of continually re-stating and re-stating and re-stating what has gone before you.
Joseph O’Neill: It’s really hard. You certainly want your writing to be smarter than you are. You want your text to generate ideas and feelings which you, yourself, are not capable of generating.
TEV: It’s quite a paradox.
Joseph O’Neill: Yes, it is a paradox. And you have to unleash it in some way. That’s why people like Wallace Stevens and, more recently, Paul Muldoon are really good poets. Because their poems have this almost impenetrable mystery behind them. And it’s a mystery which arises from how they allow the language, the form, to conduct an exploration which they, themselves, need not conduct on a conscious level.
TEV: I thoroughly enjoyed Muldoon’s recent collection of his essays on poetry. You’ve mentioned that as a friend of yours, he sort of nudged you in the direction of your title.
Joseph O’Neill: Well, he nudged me, though not really in the direction of this title as much as away from my old title, really. I look back on that that title and it’s a horror. But at the time, I thought it was a great title. Netherland was suggested by my wife.
TEV: My original title for my novel was Obiter Dicta. Which I thought was wonderful and my lawyer friends all liked it. But, nobody in the literary world thought much of it.
Joseph O’Neill: Well, they probably thought it had something to do with penises.
TEV: You recently published a short story in Harpers. I’m wondering what your thoughts on the form are. Are you writing more them? I didn’t know you had written any before – the only things of yours I have found were the novels and the memoir.
Joseph O’Neill: Yeah, I have a few short stories that emerged over the years. But I’m not someone who grew up and went to creative writing school and had to write short stories. And I’m not someone who likes writing exercises. I can’t bear writing exercises. And a lot of short story writing – even excellent short story writing--emerges from the tradition of exercises, short, essentially optional exercises in fiction. Like a workout. I can’t do that. So, I have only written a few short stories. They tend to be, in every sense, occasional.
TEV: Are they written upon request or because you’ve had an idea for a short story that you just recognized as a short story and not a novel?
Joseph O’Neill: Not really on request. I mean, no one ever requested me a short story from me before. Actually, that’s not true, a couple of kind Irish editors did—David Marcus, Caroline Walsh. But I just don’t really think of myself as a short story writer. I may well – hold on, I don’t want to hang myself here.
TEV: No one’s going to hold you to anything you say in an interview for my blog.
Joseph O’Neill: Good.
TEV: The New Yorker won’t turn you down because you said you aren’t a short story writer.
Joseph O’Neill: No, no, they have turned me down already. (laughs) I’m actually surprised by how people have reacted to the Harpers story. People have read it, first of all, which feels very surprising. And then, second of all, it seems that it excited some feelings and some reactions.
TEV: What sort of feelings?
Joseph O’Neill: Well, people have said, “I prefer it to your novel.”
Joseph O’Neill: Yeah. I’m doing a thing tonight with some of Mona Simpson’s students. She was telling me she got them to read it and they are all excited. And it’s divided them in some mysterious way. I can’t imagine why.
TEV: Do you read your work aloud, when writing?
Joseph O’Neill: No. I’m a real believer in the very peculiar but very real medium of the printed word and the suggestiveness of the words on the page. The visual journey of words into the reader. I mean, I’m not a font bore or anything. But, you know, Eliot used the phrase “the auditory imagination.” As distinct from the audible words, which preclude a vital imaginative interaction. I’m much more in that camp.
TEV: How much writing constitutes an average day, whether in hours or in pages. And how much planning or outlining do you do?
Joseph O’Neill: It is far too shameful to start talking about that stuff.
TEV: Keep that in the box?
Joseph O’Neill: Yeah.
TEV: Next question please?
Joseph O’Neill: Well, it’s a disgrace, really. Having said that, I’m a great believer in the essential disgraceful nature of writing. I mean it really should be as close to idling as possible. Of course, I venerate the 300-400-500 words a day sort of writers. I used to be one of them. But at the moment, I’m just too idle to do that.
TEV: Someone, I think it was Fran Leibowitz, talked about the curse of the writing life, that we always feel so felonious because we aren’t writing more often than we are. And there’s not a writer I know who isn’t sort of secretly ashamed in some way of their work habits, that they don’t write enough, or they aren’t disciplined enough.
Joseph O’Neill: I have the opposite. I am secretly ashamed about the fact that I have written so much even thought I have only written very little.
TEV: Can you elaborate?
Joseph O’Neill: Let me put this another way. I think the sort of middling kind of novel that tides you over between novels is not ideal. There’s a lot of that around: “I haven’t got a fantastic idea for my next novel, but I must write 500 words a day. Because if I don’t write 500 words a day, then I won’t have a novel of 65,000 words in the next 18 months. Therefore, I must start writing 500 words a day based on idea X, even though it’s not that brilliant.’
TEV: The system must be fed.
Joseph O’Neill: The system must be fed. Less cynically, there’s the hope that, by writing, you will come to discover that idea X is, in fact, much better than you suspect. So refraining from writing is never, for me, a source of artistic or professional guilt. Of course, to be fair, there may be pressing financial reasons to be productive.
(Part two of this four-part interview will post here tomorrow.)