a conversation with Dermot O’Sullivan on his story In November
At The Village Square Journal, it is our practice to invite our authors to a conversation around the idea behind a story of theirs we’d published and their writing process in general.
In this third installment in our ‘Summons to the Village Square’ series – we bring to you an intriguing and interesting conversation between our Founding Editor, Obinna Udenwe and our author Dermot O’Sullivan whose story “In November” is set in Dublin and centers around a young man named Andy, coming to terms with himself, his feelings, troubles and growing up.
The first Irish writer I remember reading was Frank McCourt. I enjoyed reading Angela’s Ashes so much that I had to read all of his other works. Recently, Irish writers are conquering the literary space. Just recently, the Sunday Times Audible Short Story Prize longlist was announced and there are six Irish writers. Last year we had Irish writers too on the list. Traditionally, the Irish are believed to be good storytellers and you find humour and wit in their stories. So tell me, as an Irish, what influences you to write? What’s your motivation? Do you write to change the society or just to entertain?
I think that the fertile literary environment in Ireland probably pushes a more than average number of people towards writing. Though still very much a minority sport, I believe it’s much more “normal” to want to be a writer in Ireland due to the long tradition of literary endeavour in the country, and the high value placed on literature. That said, as in most countries, most people in Ireland are not interested in literature. As for why I write, I don’t really have an answer to that. I would say it is a habit that has taken over my life to the point that I’m not interested in doing much else. If I have to choose between changing society and entertaining as a motivation, I’d say entertainment! However, I think the personal satisfaction of writing itself is the real reason I continue to write.
Reading your story “In November” one is immersed in a tale filled with captivating description. I notice you pay a lot of attention to detail. Some writers tell their stories straight away but in your case, as seen in this story, every detail is picturesque – we get to know Andy’s rituals as he takes his bath, take a piss, dresses up, goes on a drive around town as he run his errands, everything. We picture Fionn’s room. You write “Around him, piled against all four walls, were Fionn’s cluttered belongings — books, beer cans, bundles of creased clothing and bulging plastic bags — and it seemed to Andy that he was standing in the sagging centre of some creature’s nest”.
So I would like to know if this love for detail on your characters is intentional. I want to know if by the time you sit down to write you consciously plot the story and draw out the detail before beginning to write?
I do pay a lot of interest to details and I’m glad you appreciated that! I’m very interested in my physical environment and a big fan of literature that foregrounds description and place: I love books with a solid, physical setting. This can be trap at times, and many of my favourite books do not fall into this category at all, but when I write I tend to indulge myself.
In this story, which is the case with many of my stories, I began with physical details of the suburb and I could almost say I wrote the story to string these details together. But that is not really true. The descriptions were a starting point to get the story going and in the end it is the fusion of description and story that I think works best (in this story and in most). “In November” was a quite extreme example of the tendency to start with descriptive details: I had written a story set in the Dublin suburbs at night and in this story I wanted to write a story set during the day. That was really my only goal setting out, which seems a preposterously trivial inspiration but there it is. I had a fund of imagery that I had collected over the years and was able to draw on. Whether I had a story plan before I began writing I can no longer recall, but the environment definitely came first.
As Andy sits in his car smoking a cigarette he notices a young man enter a shop and remembers he’d heard the young man runs a protection racket in town. Andy wonders how a young man like that control dozens of kids in the area. This caught my attention because it’s like what happens in Lagos, Nigeria where you have boys known as Agbero or “Area boys” who lazy about, then go into shops to collect protection money or extort car owners who drive past to protect their vehicles from theft, they say. I would like to know if this is a common occurrence in Dublin where you grew up and if there is anything in particular that made you bring it in into this story? What did you intend to achieve by that – perhaps to bring this idea of young people involved in gangs and crime back into social and political discourse? How is this different from what happens in Brazil where you now live?
It is interesting that this happens in Lagos too, I think it’s an international phenomenon in some form or another. It definitely happens in Dublin, but I really don’t know how widespread it is, or what form it takes in different districts of the city. As far I know the IRA (Irish Republican Army) and other more professional criminals are (or were) also involved in this type of activity, but it tends to be fairly under the radar and not as blatant as in some other countries I’ve visited. I brought it into the story as I wished to try to touch on many different lives in the suburb, especially those quite different from Andy’s, and this was a way of doing so.
As for Brazil, I think such operations are very common and much more likely to involve the police doing the extorting. And, also, regrettably, to involve more extreme violence up to and including kidnapping and murder.
That’s interesting. Dermort, at the laundry Andy meets Sarah, a sister to his late friend Rory and you write that he’d always had a crush on Sarah and in the past masturbated to thoughts of her. Sarah did not know this and I wonder why Andy never mentioned his feelings? Is it that she is older and he is afraid of approaching her? Is it because he didn’t want to offend his friend? Then when he collects his receipt and is leaving Sara says “Goodbye Andy” and we realise Sarah recognises him as well. But Andy does not seize the opportunity to talk to her about his feelings. Why is this so? Are you trying to show Andy as a character strong in the inside but outside he is unsure? We see this even when he meets Clara. He is unsure as well what to do around her but he masturbates in the car after meeting the two ladies who were from his past.
I really do not have any good answers to this. I don’t think people in general seize on any opportunity to talk about their feelings (in fact, probably quite the opposite). And, in any case, Andy’s a bit of a mystery to myself too.
Yea. His character is a complex one, I must agree. Readers like myself who have not visited Dublin before are made to fall in love with the city because of your powerful descriptive power and use of words. For instance you write, “Andy pulled into the car park at Viewpoint and turned the car around to face the city, his tyres crunching the loosened gravel. Planted at the centre of the facing field was a wind turbine, its furiously spinning head a dark blur, scattered sheep cropping grass at the foot of the tall metal pole. Along the roadside was a row of trees. Their bare branches streamed all in one direction, dragged back in petrified growth by the insistence of the prevailing winds. Further on, towards Cruagh, the slopes were dark with Coillte Forestry and below Dublin was a grey smudge on the plain, the vague urban shapes crouched beneath a pale cross-hatching of winter trees. In the sunshine, Dublin Bay was the same drenched blue as the sky, and dark, cragged Howth seemed to float perilously above a light-filled abyss, sustained only by the brittle finger of Sutton welding it to the mainland”
– I like it when writers draw attention to their city. Like I mentioned earlier, I first fell in love with Ireland when I read Frank McCourt’s bestseller Angela’s Ashes which I am sure you have read. So tell me, how did the experience of living in Dublin shape this story and other works of yours?
I really like it when writers do this too. I’m a sucker for vivid descriptions of cities and landscape. And I have a deep love for Dublin, both the city itself and the surrounding hills, mountains and coastline. How Dublin shaped my writing in this regard, however, is extremely difficult to say. The simplest answer I can give is that I tend to write about where I live. In Dublin, my stories were full of details about that city. In Rio de Janeiro, the stories I write are full of details about this city. If I were to move to Lagos, I think the same thing would occur. In that sense, I think that Dublin was in one sense fundamental, and in another sense almost irrelevant, to many things I have written. Could I have written “In November” living somewhere else? I don’t know. I think that growing up in Dublin deeply affected me as a writer, but in what ways exactly – other than providing imagery of the city naturally enough – is impossible for me to pinpoint or quantify.
What influence do the character and behaviour of people around you or those you have met have on your writing, especially in character development for your stories?
I think it really depends a lot. Like most writers, I draw a lot from real life, but then often change things to a point that can make their connection with their originals barely relevant. For “In November”, I didn’t really draw on real life for characters in any significant way. In other stories I have, but this is generally just as a starting point, and the more the character develops and the story progresses the less and less it reflects anything I have drawn from real life.
Most writers pay more attention to voice, for some others it’s in the plot while some it may be in character development. Rarely would you find a story that is balanced in the three. For me, when I write, I like to see the plot of my story develop and build up and the characters come to live around this plot line. What is it for you? And if an editor were to work on your story what would you like her to pay more attention to – the voice, characters or the plotline?
I think the plot as that’s where I’d need the most help! Plot doesn’t interest me that much, but I have become increasingly aware that that can be a problem. All readers − including myself − want and perhaps need plot. Which I very frequently don’t provide. That said, when I write I do like to feel there is some progress, but it’s unlikely to be heavy on plot and more likely to be “snapshot” of a reality where little changes. So finally, I think I would want any editor to bring out the strength of a story, whatever that may be.
Andy’s character is a fascinating one. We know he likes women and we know that in high school he was popular and well loved. When he thinks back to his high school days, he thinks back to his first sex. Then he masturbates. Do you think that our actions are influenced largely by experiences we have had in the past, some people don’t believe this, they believe our actions are more or less spontaneous behaviours. Do you think Andy is a spontaneous guy or someone who thinks things through before acting? And is his character something that developed itself as you worked on this story?
I would say Andy is an ordered person and who takes satisfaction in this order. As such, he leads a regimented but fulfilling existence. He certainly has his spontaneous moments, but he needs to be doing things and I think that spontaneity isn’t quite enough to get him through the day in this regard. As for his character, I did not really work on it much. I think we understand Andy pretty well from the word go: “Andy felt great, for Andy loved to shower and Andy loved to piss. He loved drying and dressing himself also. In fact, Andy loved most things, most of the little actions that made up his days. He experienced life as a satisfying richness and felt in his heart that he himself was the source of this richness.” From then on it was just a question of letting him go through his day, experience more complex emotions yes, but never enough to really make us question this fundamental assertion. At least that’s where the story leads us. Whether the reader believes this or not is another question.
Thanks for that vivid response. So back to Andy’s character, recall that whenever Andy mentions Clara, his friend and his brother remember her instantly because of her “big tits”. This happens mostly when boys or men discus women. Most times, it is not about the woman’s achievement or intelligence, it is about her physical appearance. In recent years, women seem to protest this male-chauvinist behaviour. Do you think it’s same with women? That whenever they are together and discuss men that what comes to their mind is first and foremost our physical attributes rather than any other thing?
It does happen, though I would say there is a vast difference depending on the individuals or groups involved. As for how women speak about men, I’ve no idea! I will have to ask my sisters.
Going back to voice. Again I notice that whenever Andy’s mum is talking, her voice is different, her pronunciation too sound more relaxed and traditional like what we’d call pidgin in Nigeria. But for Fionn and Andy they speak in more simple, standard English. Is this what’s generally obtainable in Irish homes? Is it a way of drawing our attention to the woman’s education or status in society?
I think that this really depends on the home. Dublin has many different accents. In this story the mother has the more traditional Dublin English, while her sons have a more neutral suburban way of speaking, which is probably just as prevalent as the former in the city, if a lot less noticeable in print. I think that as elsewhere in the story I wanted to include many different voices, and this was one, but in my mind many of the different characters have slightly different forms of English, though other than the mother I don’t think these really come across on the page.
Throughout the story there is the background knowledge that Rory’s death is bugging Andy. The reader is made aware that meeting Clara – Rory’s girlfriend before his death and Sarah, his sister same day, few minutes apart makes Andy remember their childhood and what connects them together. Is the theme of death one you are comfortable writing about? Do you see the remembrance of this death as a reawakening for Andy – one that would embolden him to finally have a conversation with Fionn about his behaviour, his joint smoking habit and his sex life?
No, I think quite the contrary. I think that Andy’s awakening or revelation, insofar as he has one, is that he doesn’t need to be awakened, he’s perfectly happy as he is, and the questions of relationship with death and his family are not things that have much more than a passing importance. It’s not that they are not important, at least the way I read Andy, but that he is finally honest about how important these things are to him: which somewhere in the middle between extremely and not at all. That at least is where the story brings us. Whether that is “good” or healthy or whatever is besides the point. I don’t see Andy changing as a person any time soon. He’s happy as he is.
That’s interesting to know, Dermot and on this note, I must thank you, on behalf of all of us at The Village Square Journal, for this conversation. Do stay safe!