Cork writer Billy O’Callaghan is probably best known as a short story writer: winner of the inaugural Short Story of the Year prize at the Irish Book Awards in 2013, runner up for the 2016 Costa Short Story Prize and the 2017 choice for Cork’s One City, One Book with his collection The Things We Lose, The Things We Leave Behind.
Today sees the release of his second novel, My Coney Island Baby, in which an adulterous couple, trapped in unhappy marriages, meet for their regular monthly rendezvous. But over the course of a bleak winter’s day in an out-of-season resort, they are forced to examine their long-term affair and make painful decisions.
I’m a fan of Billy’s work because of his subtlety and finely tuned insight into the human psyche. And in interviews, he’s extremely articulate about the writing process. So when I emailed him my questions, I was confident that the answers I received back would be enlightening – and I wasn’t disappointed.
Billy, congratulations on the release of your second novel. You’re best known as an award-winning short story writer, and (in my humble opinion) all your stories are very rich universes. How did you decide that My Coney Island Baby was a novel rather than a short story?
I actually wrote it as a short story, back in 2010. It worked well at a length of about 7,000 words. It was published in a journal in the US later that year, and that would have been that except I woke one morning some months later with the characters once again in my head. At first I just ignored it, because I was writing other stories, but when it kept happening I began to realise that there might be more that needed saying. Finally I started writing down little pieces, just to see where they’d lead.
For a long time, I wasn’t thinking of it as a novel. I hoped maybe to write another short story or two involving the same characters. Then, when it started to grow, I thought of it for a while as a novella. I was a couple of years into it before I understood that it had to be a novel, and by then I was so involved with the characters, and the story felt like such a part of me, that there was just no abandoning it.
It seems like only two minutes ago since your debut novel [Gothic ghost story The Dead House] was published. Were you working on both projects simultaneously?
The time does fly. It’s actually been nearly two years since The Dead House came out, but it doesn’t seem so long because it was only published last May in the US, and that kind of put it back on the radar, at least for a while.
I had started work on My Coney Island Baby before writing The Dead House, but I kept putting it aside to work on other things. Novels are daunting to me, and the idea of committing wholly to one, giving up two or three years of my life to it, frightens me. Also, because I’d been writing short stories for so long, I kept getting ideas for new ones.
Looking back, it sounds chaotic, but it really wasn’t. The Dead House had a very long germination, and I’d carried the basic idea of the story around in my head for maybe 20 years, but I could never quite find the way to tell it. Once I figured out whose voice needed to be heard it all just came together, and actually I wrote the book quite quickly, in about a year, all the time writing stories too (which ended up in my last collection, The Things We Lose, The Things We Leave Behind), and jumping back again and again into My Coney Island Baby.
It’s funny now, looking back on it, because all the time I was living with the novels, and even though I couldn’t stop working on them and thinking about them, I never actually believed they’d be published. I had more faith in the stories I was writing.
When looking to have your novels published, did it give you any leverage having a pedigree as a short-story writer?
I think so, yes. A decent track record counts for something. Publishers probably give your submission closer consideration and take you a bit more seriously. But it’s still the work itself that matters. If it’s good and it’s what they are looking for, they’ll take it. And this will be as true for a first-time writer as for someone who’s been around the block. The most important thing is to have taken the time to sufficiently develop your craft, and you can only do that by reading and writing. A track record indicates that you have at least put in the work, but a publisher still has to like what you’ve written to want to publish it.
I never thought of writing in terms of a career, and I never had any kind of plan or even, really, very much in the way of ambition. I wanted to see my work published, of course, and with short stories I was relentless with my submitting and stubborn in my refusal to take no for an answer. At no point, in 20 years of trying, has it been easy, but I’m not sure I’d want it to be. The fulfillment comes from the work rather than from the acceptance, from getting the story down right and shaping the sentences so that you can feel your own heart in them. If you do that then you’ll be able to keep going, and stuff will eventually break through.
You have said in the past that you write for yourself, ie. assuming no one will see what you’ve written so you’re free to experiment. But do you have trusted beta readers to turn to for feedback before sending your work out into the world?
It’s true. I write entirely for myself and have always assumed the work would never go beyond my desk. That’s the only way I can function. It’s not even about being free to experiment or to take chances, it’s just how I give myself the courage to write the story as it needs to be told. Every story I write is a draft (usually rewritten a dozen times or more), a work-in-progress, until I decide otherwise, and the notion that it’ll never be read keeps me from censoring myself. Then, once the story has been written and rewritten enough for it to have turned the corner from terrible to good, I’ll send it out. And once it’s published, of course, I hope the whole world reads it.
As regards showing my work to others for feedback, no, I’m afraid not. Everyone has an opinion, and they’re entitled to it, but the opinions even of people you trust and value can be wide of the mark. Writing is such a personal thing, at least if you’re really giving yourself to the story. The last thing I want is advice, unless it is from the editor who is buying the story.
Do you believe in plotting?
Yes, I do, and I’ve never quite understood those who say they don’t. I left school at 17 so I learned to write by instinct, and by reading and writing. Academics might take more convoluted meanings from the word, but plot to me simply means what happens in the story and the order in which it happens. In this sense, plot is story. Often they can be quiet, and in some stories very little has to happen, but there’s still plot involved.
I don’t sit down and work out my plot on a chart (though with novels I do make notes so that I have some solid sense of where I’m going), but neither will I start writing a story until it’s clear in my head. Usually it’ll be months before I’m ready to get it down on paper. I am aware that others like to do it differently, but this is simply my way of understanding the story to its fullest, and it’s what works for me. I always keep in mind the Bob Dylan line from A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall – “I’ll know my song well before I start singing.” That always struck me as sensible advice.
Relationships and grief seem to be recurring themes in your work. Why do you think this is?
For me, writing is a way of making sense of the world, and my place in it (or on the edges of it), and of trying to understand myself a little more fully than I already do. I am by nature introverted, and have to make a real effort to get beyond that.
My stories tend to emerge from themes rather than plot ideas. To make sense of the things that concern me, that keep me awake late into the night, I work them out on paper, and gradually the drift into story form. I think a lot about the John Donne line, “No man is an island entire of itself,” and that interests me because a lot of the time I feel exactly the opposite of that. We know people, sometimes even at a very intimate level, and yet even those closest to us are, at their cores and at least to some degree, mysteries. And we’re each of us different with different people. Understanding the dynamics of a relationship, how much of ourselves we open up and how much we hold back, and also how much of the other person we actually see and how much we might be projecting, making a fantasy or an idealised version of them, is for me a subject worth exploring because it’s such a necessary and essential part our lives.
What interests me about grief is how people are able to bear it, and their desire and determination, the inner strength, to pick themselves up and somehow carry on. Some are more broken than others, but we’re none of us without our cracks. People probably reveal the truth of who they really are when at their most vulnerable.
Where do you like to write? And do you need routine or can you grab moments of writing anywhere?
I can grab moments, if necessary, but not for anything substantial. I write best at home. I tend to scribble rough drafts in notebooks and at the same time write on the computer. I write slowly, and like to really work each sentence until it has the rhythms I want. My computer is in a corner of the living room, with a desk barely as wide as my shoulders, and I face the wall to stop me looking out of windows.
Routine is vitally important. My usual routine is 7am to noon, with a couple of hours in the afternoon spent going back over what I’ve written. But if I’m working on a novel, and depending on where I am with it, and if there’s nothing pressing to drag me away, I’ll often work for a few hours at night, too.
I’ll also try to read for an hour or two in the day, and if I’m in a stage of intensive rewriting I’ll be reading poetry almost exclusively because I want to be as close as possible to the language.
Any advice to early-stage writers on what NOT to do?
There are lots of things to do and lots to avoid. Don’t be in too much of a hurry. Develop your writing, by reading a lot, and writing a lot. Read the greats, and try to understand what has made them so. Take classes, workshops, earn degrees or join writing groups if that’s what you want to do and if it’s what you think you need, but understand that there are no short cuts, and there shouldn’t be, and that no one can do it for you. The only way forward is to read a lot, write a lot, every day, even when you don’t feel like it.
Don’t worry about competing with others. And don’t settle too easily for what you’ve written; be hard on yourself. Set your bar so high that you’ll never be able to reach it, but never stop striving for it, just the same. Be disciplined in both your writing and your submitting, send out your work widely and often and don’t be beaten down by rejections but, equally, be skeptical, or at least cautious, of praise.
Everyone but the blessed are tormented by self-doubt. But I once got a useful piece of advice that I’ve never forgotten. I was at a festival, several years ago, and before I was due to read, and seeing that I was nervous, an older writer told me that if the story was right on the page then there was nothing to worry about. That stuck with me, and even now, when I’ve finished a new story, it’s the question I ask always myself: is it right on the page? If I feel it is then I can let it go.
What five books would you pack for a one-way trip to a deserted island?
Well, if I was stuck on a desert island I’d need five big books that I’ve always wanted to read but for one reason or another haven’t managed to yet. Bleak House, The Tale of Genji, The Sagas of the Icelanders, The Decameron and the Complete Works of Shakespeare – these would surely help to pass the time.
But if you’re asking me the five books I wouldn’t want to live without, the books I’ll happily reread until I die, I’d probably take: Hemingway’s The First Forty-Nine Stories, Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, The Early Stories by John Updike, and maybe The End of the Affair by Graham Greene. And I have an old ragged copy of Lyrics by Bob Dylan on my bedside table. I got it when I was about 12 years old, and it’s never been far from my reach.
Supplementary book question – can you think of any one book from your childhood that made you a reader/writer?
Naming one book is like trying to take salt out of soup. I was a voracious reader from a very young age, starting probably with the Brothers Grimm. From early on, it was the tales told to me by my grandmother, about things mostly drawn from her own life. That’s what caused me to fall in love with stories and gave me a sense of how they could be told.
When I turned to books in a big way, at probably about seven or eight, that’s what I was looking for, I think. Echoes of that. By the age of nine or ten, I’d also discovered the likes of Stephen King, Agatha Christie and Ray Bradbury and they just captivated me. But if I had to name one book from around that time, it might be Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. I read every word of it as gospel truth, and it really opened me up to what a story or novel could be.
What’s next for you?
Well, My Coney Island Baby is out this month from Jonathan Cape, but the year ahead will be busy as there are also some other editions on the way. The book is coming out in French in March with Grasset, and Harper are publishing it in the US in April. Dutch, I think, is after that, and it’ll be coming in some other languages in the months to come.
Beyond that, I am just putting the final touches to some edits for a new collection, which will be called The Boatman and Other Stories, and is due for publication in 2020 by Jonathan Cape on this side of the water and Harper over in the States. And I am at work on a new novel, though the end for that one is too far off yet to see.
Billy O’Callaghan lives in Cork, Ireland. He is the author of three short story collections: In Exile (2008, Mercier Press), In Too Deep (2009, Mercier Press), and The Things We Lose, The Things We Leave Behind (2013, New Island Books), which won a Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Award and was selected as Cork’s One City, One Book for 2017.
His first novel, The Dead House, was published by Brandon/O’Brien Press in 2017, with a US release by Arcade/Skyhorse USA in 2018. My Coney Island Baby is published by Jonathan Cape, and is available from January 17 in Ireland and the UK.