(The third installment of our four-part interview.)
TEV: Your wife was your editor at FSG and she turned down your second novel. Have you gotten over that or is it still a thing?
Joseph O’Neill: I’m still punishing her for that ...
TEV: You wrote your first books, while you were working as a lawyer. What sort of law did you practice? Do you miss practicing the law at all? And how did you negotiate your writing time then?
Joseph O’Neill: I was a barrister in London, which means you are self-employed. And so you are more or less able to determine the amount of work that you do. Of course, it’s much more complicated than that, because to practice as a barrister you have to be invited to join a set of chambers. Those invitations are rare and precious, because should you accept the invitation, you are tenured, you are essentially set for life. And your chambers will have certain expectations, the main one being that you turn up for work.
So you have a professional responsibility that weighs on you, happily in my case. I concentrated mainly on business law. From time to time, I would clear four months off, and ask for and get the indulgence of my colleagues, for which I’m still very grateful
TEV: Did they know what you were going off to do?
Joseph O’Neill: Yeah.
(Photo: ADAM NADEL; the Telegraph.)
TEV: Beyond the obvious questions of the time and ability to concentrate, how do you compare the process of writing a novel post-legal career? Is it just a question of having the great liberty to work or does it bring its own set of complications?
Joseph O’Neill: I can’t really compare myself now to how I was as a lawyer. I now have children, which wasn’t the case when I was a lawyer. I’m now older. I’m a different person. So, in order to answer that question, I would have to fly to England and start practicing as a barrister and try to write novels and be a father and spouse at the same time. I think that would be really, really hard. It’s extremely demanding work, the law.
TEV: How many languages do you speak?
Joseph O’Neill: Three. English, French and Dutch.
TEV: Did you speak Turkish when you were a boy?
Joseph O’Neill: When I was four years old, or something, I went to pre-school in Turkey and I spoke Turkish like all the other boys there. And I forgot it all. And I also spoke Iranian, or Persian, when I lived in Iran, but I forgot all that, as well. I’m not sure which came first, English or French. Both, I suppose. I’m told by my parents that in Mozambique, when I was a very, very young child, I spoke Portuguese with the Portuguese-speaking nanny. So, I grew up speaking lots of languages and forgetting all of them.
TEV: As a child it’s so much easier to pick up those languages.
Joseph O’Neill: Well, you pick them up because your vocabulary is restricted to 100 words anyway.
TEV: So you need what you need, and you can express that need in any number of languages.
Joseph O’Neill: Exactly, you can be a fluent Portuguese speaker at age two and only know ten words of Portuguese.
TEV: So, you have this really extraordinary life and upbringing. I’m very interested by the internationality of it. What do you consider “home” today? Do you think about that? I would imagine you must. And what does “home” mean to you?
Joseph O’Neill: Well, that’s a really complicated question.
TEV: You spoke of being previously “exercised over nationality”; I think that’s what you said.
Joseph O’Neill: Yeah. I just don’t know ... the phrase “I’m going home” refers to where I live, which currently is New York City. But is New York City my home? I suppose it must be.
TEV: But isn’t there a resonance that accompanies this question of home?
Joseph O’Neill: I know, I know. When I was growing up, I thought Holland was my home. Then I thought London was my home. And now I think that New York is home. So eventually, you start thinking, well perhaps one is essentially homeless. If I go back to Holland – I’m going to spend seven weeks in Amsterdam this spring – I have no sense of going home anymore. And when I get back to London now, I feel somewhat alien. The only place now I feel like I go home to is New York.
TEV: I wonder if slightly advantageous as a writer, from that perspective, being able to slip in and out of all sorts of sensibilities?
Joseph O’Neill: I think traditionally it would be a disadvantage. Because so much of novel writing is concerned with shared memories of childhood and national culture, and Netherland was the first time I was able to use childhood memories. I have no deep roots in any culture, no natural allegiance to any particular culture.
TEV: Is the book available in Holland?
Joseph O’Neill: The Dutch edition is just about to come out.
TEV: I was told that that Dutch translations tend to come quickly because the Dutch are so English literate that if they don’t publish quickly in Dutch, the market is overtaken by English editions.
Joseph O’Neill: See, we are assuming that translators were interested in this book. They weren’t. Nobody was paying much attention until after the New York Times kindly intervened on my behalf.
TEV: Would that be Dwight Garner or Michiko Kakutani or both?
Joseph O’Neill: All the above. They saved my skin. James Wood, too.
TEV: What are your thoughts on the recent comments alleging an insularity of the American fiction? And along the same lines you’ve mentioned something about the American cupboard being bare, the under 65’s lacking the power of their predecessors.
Joseph O’Neill: Yeah, well I don’t think that’s a particularly controversial statement. I grew up reading new novels by the likes of Bellow and Roth and Updike. I took it for granted that the world, and America in particular, was a bottomless reservoir of literary excellence. In retrospect, I can see how lucky I was. Beckett was around for the first 25 years of my life. Bellow was around all that time. Even Ralph Ellison was around, even though he wasn’t writing anything. I think even Richard Ford is over 65 now.
So you’ll have extremely accomplished younger novelists, of course. But you have nobody with these bodies of work. If you asked any of the writers under 65, “Do you acknowledge that the over 60s, the pension brigade, represent a difference of order of achievement?” I think they would have to say ‘yes.’ I mean, how do you contradict that? And it’s not just because longevity creates a larger oeuvre. These writers were substantially accomplished from an early age.
TEV: Do you think that this question of the insular nature of contemporary American fiction afflicts the younger generation in a way that it didn’t the Mailers and the Roths and the Bellows?
Joseph O’Neill: No, I think part of the problem for the young generation may be that they’re not insular enough. I mean, Updike and Bellow and Roth achieved their finest, most resonant effects by disregarding conventions of universality. You wrote about what American Jews, or what you have you, were up to in these little towns, and the world followed you.
TEV: Very particular and very personal.
Joseph O’Neill: Yeah. There is no space between these writers and their concerns. You rarely get the sense with them that they are just trying to write a novel. I’m talking about their most successful work. And I think they were appropriately insular with regard to their raw materials. I’m not sure who the Swedish commentator was who thought that this was somehow bad form.
TEV: He was a member of the Nobel Committee.
Joseph O’Neill: Yeah, but what does that mean? We all have first-hand experiences with committees and who sits on them.
TEV: The counterpoint to his comment came when there was brief talk of opening the Booker Prize to Americans. And a British writer or judge, I can’t remember who, said she didn’t think British writers could stand up to the best Americans.
Joseph O’Neill: I do remember that. I think that would depend on the premise that the Booker is a virtuous prize that correctly sifts through contending novels of contending merits and identifies the most meritorious at the end of the day. If the Booker worked that way, then it might end up going to Philip Roth every year.
TEV: Since you’ve raised the question of the Booker, I might as well briefly discuss your thoughts around it. Have you read The White Tiger or are you curious?
Joseph O’Neill: I’ve not. Not yet.
TEV: Did you read any of the other short list titles? I’m not recalling what they are.
Joseph O’Neill: I’m not in a position to comment on the shortlist, although I have no reason to believe that these are anything other than excellent books. As I said, I don’t think literary competitions are the ultimate gold standard, but you have to wish the shortlistees well. They paid their dues.
TEV: Do you feel like you are being expected to express a disappointment that you don’t feel? In these discussions around this subject?
Joseph O’Neill: I think it’s natural for people to think that you are disappointed, because the Booker Prize is perceived to be a fantastic prize to win. And it is a fantastic prize to win because you sell hundreds of thousands of copies of your book. So, from a financial point of view, it’s wonderful. See, my problem is I’ve never won a prize. So, (a) I don’t have an instinct to validate the whole prize system since I’ve never been validated by it myself. I’ve never been shortlisted for anything. But (b), I think prizes for books are great because why not have prizes for books?
TEV: And as you say, it’s certainly beneficial for the author that wins.
Joseph O’Neill: Yeah, and if I win a prize, then I will be profoundly in favor of it.
TEV: Let’s talk about the American sense of possibility, with which Netherland is imbued. It seems to me that it’s more strongly felt by people who come here from somewhere else. Perhaps that Americans, natural born, may tend to take for granted.
Joseph O’Neill: Immigrants naturally feel enriched by new possibilities, since almost by definition these didn’t exist in their country of origin. As for the natives, America is a notoriously rigid society. I mean, my understanding is that your grandfather’s occupation is a much more reliable predictor of your occupation in the US than it would be in England, say, or in Ireland. So, the local sense of possibility is largely a phenomenon of brainwashing. People are indoctrinated.
TEV: You see that in the opposition to the estate tax, because everyone thinks that their day to become a millionaire is out in there the future somewhere.
Joseph O’Neill: I think that the idea of social and economic mobility works in America because of the promise of the jackpot. In America, there are jackpots out there, there’s no doubt about it. It’s a big market. (I know a little bit, a tiny bit about that, though the literary jackpot is relatively small in financial terms. All it means is that for a year or two your earnings resemble those of a nothing-special attorney.) If, for whatever reason, your book finds favor nationally, you can sell 80,000 copies in hardback. Whereas, in Britain – or in Ireland or in the European market--it’s very hard to sell in these quantities. There is no ‘Who wants to be a millionaire?’ ethos—or less of one.
TEV: So there isn’t an equivalent market out there.
Joseph O’Neill: I don’t think so.
(The fourth and concluding installment will be posted here tomorrow.)