TEV: How do you develop your characters? And how often do they have real-life bases, and how much of that do you coral?
Joseph O’Neill: Well let’s just talk about Netherland. I have completely forgotten how I wrote my first two novels.
TEV: (plaintive) But I did all my homework ...
Joseph O’Neill: I know you have. Sorry about that. It was a complete waste of time to do your homework.
Let’s say we have a general idea of who the character is going to be. I need an entrepreneur, say. Who is this entrepreneur? You have the general notion and then you cast around in your mind for something from your life – the real world.
And in the case of Chuck Ramkissoon, he’s this Trinidadian cricket entrepreneur in New York. I had two specific men in mind who I thought of at the beginning. After a while, Chuck appeared.
It’s not that you trying to write about these actual people. But you feel authorized by their example to invent someone like Chuck. An imaginary voice might say, “Well this guy seems implausible, who is this guy?” And I can mentally answer, “Well actually, you know, I can give you his phone number.” Or, “I can give you the phone numbers of two people and you can take it from there.”
I mean, if I make up a character whom I know nothing about –- say a Cambodian banker-- I mean it might work on the page: “Oh here comes the Cambodian banker.” But, it will always, to me, have this tinny, hollow kind of feel. So, I am reassured by real life, by actuality.
TEV: Do you have any writing superstitions?
Joseph O’Neill: No.
TEV: Do you require any specific conditions to be able to work?
Joseph O’Neill: That sounds like I need a sort of pampering. “Yes, I need a tumbler of half sparkling, half still water. And scrambled egg whites brought to me in intervals of four hours.” There are actors who have these personal assistants who are like manservants…
TEV: I know, I know. But, I mean, there are some people that can sit and write in the airport waiting lounge, and there are others who need their chair and their view.
Joseph O’Neill: Oh! I don’t need any specific conditions to get ideas. When it comes to actually writing the sentences that ostensibly will stay in the book, then I do need to have as much isolation as possible. And also, no time pressure.
Which may be why I write most productively when I disappear into the depths of Ontario where a friend of mine has a cabin. I will write for 2 or 3 weeks. It’s a wonderful feeling to know you can warm up for 4-5 hours, not doing anything, and then still have 12 hours in which to write. Especially if you have got, you know, a thousand children, as I have.
TEV: Do you work in the morning or in the evening?
Joseph O’Neill: I probably work in the morning ... and afternoon ... and evening.
TEV: How much time do you spend at the computer? Does it distract you from writing? Do you read blogs at all?
Joseph O’Neill: Literary blogs do you mean?
TEV: Just blogs in general.
Joseph O’Neill: I sometimes read blogs. During the election, I would read Huffington Post a lot, all the various kinds of blogging that was going on there. And TPM.
TEV: Did it interfere with your ability to work?
Joseph O’Neill: Oh undoubtedly. And thankfully it does. Otherwise life wouldn’t be worth living. That’s the thing about Canada, there is no internet reception there. I am addicted to following various sports around the globe, 24 hours a day.
TEV: What else, besides cricket, do you follow? Soccer?
Joseph O’Neill: Yeah, soccer.
TEV: I should call it football, I suppose.
Joseph O’Neill: Football.
TEV: Have you been following the whole David Beckham returning to AC Milan story? And do you have a feeling one way or another on that?
Joseph O’Neill: Beckham belongs in Italy. That’s all I’m going to say about that. Sorry. I mean, I love L.A., but the guy is still a great footballer. He should be playing in Italy.
TEV: Do you think of your audience at all, when you are writing?
Joseph O’Neill: No. I’ve never had an audience. I’ve never had reason to think about that.
TEV: Do you expect that to change now?
Joseph O’Neill: In a way, and I’m certainly glad that I have actually found an audience after years of not having one. On the other hand, there is no way you can sit around for years writing a novel that nobody wants and nobody’s interested in if you are somebody whose sense of mission depends on the audience or editors or a third party reaction. So, I write for, you know, the famous bystander-self who reads one’s own work and is probably more critical than anybody.
TEV: Most of the writers that I speak to generally think it’s insidious to start worrying about the audience any way. All sorts of wrong decisions and wrong emphases creep into your work.
Joseph O’Neill: I think it can. I’m sure it does. Depends what you are writing.
TEV: If you are trying to write the next Harry Potter, then I suppose, the audience matters differently.
Joseph O’Neill: Right.
TEV: Do you keep a journal?
Joseph O’Neill: No.
TEV: Do you write letters?
Joseph O’Neill: No.
TEV: Do you read fiction while you are writing fiction?
Joseph O’Neill: I do. And I might do a couple of quick laps, and that’s it. It depends. Obviously, I can’t go seven years without reading a book. If I’m stuck for juice, I will go back to certain writers or investigate new writers and find out what’s going on.
TEV: Will there be any risk of seepage when that happens?
Joseph O’Neill: I hope so. I mean, you want a little bit of that. You know, you’ve got be grown up about influences. I think you’ve either got it or you haven’t. By ‘it’ I mean the knack of writing something valuable that’s your own. So if you are worried about being influenced, it’s almost a pointless worry. Either you’re going to be influenced or you’re not going to be influenced—it doesn’t change anything, it’s all about whether you have the knack. Anyway, the alternative is to not read anything. And no one can be a writer without being familiar with other writers.
TEV: And yet, all too often, I find myself in conversation with people who are writing, and I ask them what they are reading and it’s followed with blank stares.
Joseph O’Neill: Is that more the younger writers who give you that?
Joseph O’Neill: Well, that I do find terrifying. I mean, I’ve only been in a creative writing class on one or two occasions, at least in a post-graduate setting ... I’m not going to say anything more.
TEV: How do you know when your novel is finished? Insofar as it’s ever finished.
Joseph O’Neill: I don’t know. I don’t know if there is a magic moment.
TEV: When did you know you were finished with Netherland?
Joseph O’Neill: I kept telling myself I’d nearly finished, to keep going. You know, when you talk to writers they all say, “Oh yeah, I’m just about finishing my book.” Then, about two years later, you go back to them and you say, “How did the book go?” They say, “Oh, I’m still just putting the finishing touches on it.” It can go on forever.
TEV: When writer friends tell me ‘they’re finishing’ I ask, “Well which finish is it?” There’s the first draft finish. The submission draft finish. There’s the copy edit finish. There’s multiple finishes before finishing. But surely there’s a moment when it feels done?
Joseph O’Neill: I supposed when you see it in print, then you know it’s finished. Too late to change it.
TEV: Moving to point of view, can you talk about your thoughts regarding the first person versus third person?
Joseph O’Neill: Yeah, I find the third person very difficult. I do it in short stories, but… I’m sometimes tempted by a baroque third person. But that’s, again, hard to do or, oddly enough, too easy to do. Nothing about writing is straightforward, but it’s not especially difficult to write a humorous, verbally tricky fantasia, because that’s a way of dodging certain big challenges. The big challenge for me, as I said earlier, is intimacy. The third person seems particularly apt if you want to write a novel that is less intimate; the satiric novel comes to mind.
TEV: It’s a different feeling kind of work. Both reading it and writing it.
Joseph O’Neill: Yeah. But it can work really well. I mean look at someone like Jonathan Coe. Great third person writer. Great panoramic view of society and town and country and all the rest of it. He’s writing in a very specific tradition and really knows what he’s doing and can really do plot. My problem with third person, from a selfish point of view, is that I find it hard to write sentences that are ungratuitously interesting and at the same time don’t intrude or lapse into formal incoherence; and I’m interested in sentences that are both ends and means, because that’s the most interesting, high-stakes stuff, the stuff I most want to read. Third person sentences, when I write them, seem to gravitate unduly towards the most efficacious, most simple, pared down. This raises the problem of reductiveness, of false transparency, of false authority.
Typically, a writer’s style matures towards simplicity and stays there. I’m attracted to the idea of arriving at simplicity and then going onward from there. There’s a part of me that believes that flat, conversational writing, which has undoubted strengths and is the most popular way of writing fiction, is playing it safe. It can be a little too well-behaved. It can reinforce established ways of seeing things. If your third person is a little frisky or frilly, people will ask, “Who is this narrator? Where does his personality come from?”
TEV: ... to whom does this sensibility belong or who is it being generated by?
Joseph O’Neill: Yeah. Yeah. Exactly. It’s extremely hard to have that. And I’m not very interested in third person narrators (or first person narrators) who are distracted by their authorial existence, since at this point that is usually just too old hat for words and, if you’re not careful, drags the novel down to the level of a Wikipedia-deep philosophical footnote. And then you have the free indirect style, which means that you slide from the third to the first person. Herzog is a superb example. Also, third person narratives lend themselves, in my hands, to plottiness, and the problem with plot is that it becomes – and again, all this is from my point of view – it becomes excessively psychological and ordinary. Whereas if you want a narrative capable of the full, flickering range of empathies, the sort of empathies that everybody has, that approximate the depth and spottiness of human apprehension, you are able to draw that out much more in the first person. At least, that’s the case with me. I suppose it means I’m as limited as a writer.
(Part three of this four-part interview will be posted tomorrow.)