- 12 Mar 21
Of The World, But Not In It: Irish man abroad Conor O’Callaghan’s second novel, We Are Not In The World, features a man on the road “running away from life circumstance”, as he tells Pat Carty. Portrait: Niall Hartnett.
Because of the times we live in, Conor O’Callaghan asks me a question first, the one everyone asks.
“Did you get it, Pat?”
I haven’t ‘got’ anything in months, but enough of my problems. O’Callaghan got it, twice, and his health wasn’t the only thing that was disrupted in 2020. The release of his second novel, We Are Not In The World, the follow up to 2016’s deservedly well-received Nothing On Earth, was originally slated for publication in the first quarter of last year. Given all that was going on, the wise people at Penguin decided to hold it back.
“Well, I couldn't pretend that was a big shock,” says O’Callaghan now. “I was over in Ireland [O’Callaghan lives and works in Sheffield] in February last year, we had a reception in the French Ambassador’s for the translation of my first book. At the time it was all a big joke, everybody was bumping elbows, we thought this would be all over in a week. What was weird was that the book was printed, I had a hardback copy on my shelf all summer. When you publish a book, it gives you a blank slate, which can be kind of psychologically terrifying. Whereas I didn't actually publish the book, it was there for a year sitting printed in boxes.”
Rather than sit staring at the box or boxes, O’Callaghan decided to keep going.
“I did move on. Eventually, I did work on something. I just had to make my peace with this. The decision was taken by Penguin for only good reasons, there was no point in just sticking this out into the world to die.”
The same thing happened with Roddy Doyle and John Connolly, to name just two. In a way, it’s a vote of confidence from the publishers.
“That's what my agent said to me,” Conor agrees. “The further they push it back, the bigger the compliment, they have some hopes for this. She said there were a lot of titles being put out into the wilderness and they got kind of lost. I did a couple of interviews like this at the time and we had to redo them because it was gonna look like we hadn’t noticed what was going on!”
Was there any temptation to go back and change things, given the unexpected extra rumination time that was granted?
“No, we worked tremendously hard on the book and I still like it very much, it’s its own thing. I definitely write weird stuff, and I’ve made my peace with that. It's never going to be sort of mainstream. And, I suppose, the beauty about not being tremendously successful as a writer is that you get to write whatever you really want to write. I greatly admire Roddy Doyle, I think he's fantastic, but part of me wouldn't like to be the guy who has a kind of book that he is ‘expected’ to write. That must be really, really stressful.”
A big bag of money probably helps.
“I love the money, and I'd love the flattery, but I wouldn't love the expectation. I just put this book away. It's done. It can't be changed, put it away completely and clear your head. I didn't actually plan to start working on something else, but then I did. And now the thing is coming out, we're still in lockdown and it's coming out in all its fathomless darkness, in a world in need of positive vibes. Don't say I said that!”
Keep on Truckin’
The plot of We Are Not In The World centres around main character Paddy, or Pat as he’s referred to, driving a truck from the North of England over to France. If he was doing it now, he might have spent the entire book stuck in Dover.
“There is loads of stuff that is sort of immediately out of date,” O’Callaghan admits. “There are people sitting at tables in cafes. But I suppose if I was to think about it more sort of speculatively, I would say that all fiction is historical fiction. Because basically, all fiction describes a moment that is always already past, it's gone.”
Except science fiction, possibly?
“Yeah, but there is something kind of nostalgic about sci-fi, it seems to be invested with something that predates the moment of composition that has been cast out into the future. Whether we like it or not, this thing that we're living through is going to change how we interact with each other, forever. Stuff that we are adapting to now will be second nature to our children and our grandchildren. And we will be the old farts in forty years time saying, ‘Well, you know, that actually changed in 2020. Before, we used to go to pubs and get pissed and throw our arms around each other’. There's going to be generations of kids who will think, ‘Wow, really?’”
We’ll never get to do that again?
“I think we're kidding ourselves to imagine that we will return to the life unaltered. One of the motifs that runs through the book is the story of Oisín. As a kid, I was always obsessed with the mutation of time idea. Oisín thinks he's in Tír na nÓg three years, but it turns out he's been there three hundred years. He also thinks his home will be intact when he goes back, but it's changed beyond recognition, and that is the experience of all exiles. I don't imagine for a second that life will be completely unrecognisable, but I do think there will be profound little shifts from the old normal. I can't imagine going back to kissing and hugging people on Grafton Street. When is that going to happen again?”
I moved to the city because the city life was the life I wanted, but if that life is no longer there, do I want to be in the city?
“That’s a really profound thing and I think over the course of this last year, there have been millions and millions of people thinking the exact same thought, I could be anywhere,” Conor reckons. “There's a line in that beautiful Derek Mahon poem [A Garage In Co. Cork] ‘We might be anywhere but are in one place only’. I keep thinking of that line in relation to COVID and the way work has changed. We could be anywhere. I've got a brother who works in the financial sector in investment banking, he's working from home and he said, ‘I'll never be back in the office again’. I think what we are adapting to now will become the normality for subsequent generations. I don't think any of us will ever forget this.”
Is this our world war?
“It kind of feels like that. I’ve actually started working on a third novel, based on Ireland during World War Two. Something up to like a thousand bodies washed ashore in Ireland, during World War Two, it's scarcely written about because there was a government policy not to report it in the national papers. It did seem like a kind of interesting parallel, between that and this. I didn’t want to write about the lockdown directly, I didn’t think you could write about something while you're experiencing it.”
Don’t Mention The War
There’s another two interviews that I could present here. One where Conor and I discussed the plot of We Are Not In The World in detail and give the game away completely, and one where two middle-aged Irish men discuss the ups and downs of the property market, reminisce about the old days hitching around the country, and bad mouth a few public figures. They were both great sport, as O’Callaghan is excellent company, but I shall leave them in the archive until some University exhumes ‘The Carty Papers’ after I’m gone. Instead, I ask Conor to describe the book to potential readers.
“Irish man drives from the north of England to the south of France. His American daughter is with him. It gradually becomes apparent that she has been through the wringer and all is not entirely as it seems. Interspersed with that is the past tense memory, told in second person, in reverse order, of a quite explicit love affair between the same Irishman and his English lover, and that explains how this Irishman has got to the point that he's effectively doing this sort of existential runner to clear his head.”
Well played. O’Callaghan has spoken of Nothing On Earth as a kind of a ghost story, and the new novel wouldn’t be miles away from that either.
“I sat down to write a ghost story without believing in ghosts. That's what I think in retrospect. I believe that everybody carries ghosts with them, if nothing else, the ghosts of our former selves and the people we used to be. Recently, out of pure loneliness and isolation, I’ve gone back on Facebook for the first time in seven years and I'm always struck by the extent to which people post up old photographs of themselves. And basically what they're posting up are the ghosts of their former selves. I don't believe in ghosts, but I do think we are... “
Haunted by memory?
“Haunted by memory and the lives we have led and the other lives that we could have led but didn't.”
And is that the Tír na nÓg that, just like Oisín, we can't get back to?
“I find Tír na nÓg an extraordinarily painful and plangent story of exile. This sense that the old life is there intact, and we can go back, but it's never going to be. I had a cousin, in Toronto for forty years, moved back to Dublin for no good reason other than she always planned to move back to show Ireland how she had done. I always felt so sorry for her, twenty minutes home in the height of the Celtic Tiger in a new build out in Lucan, from an apartment in downtown Toronto, and you could see her thinking, although she never said it, 'what have I done?'”
Five By Two
While we’re hardly talking about Melville and boats, there is a lot of insider information about trucking in the book. It turns out O’Callaghan had the knowledge.
“I did a FAS scheme in Dundalk years ago,” he explains. “You had to do a training course as well, so eeny, meeny, miny, moe, truck driving. I had class one rigid, fixed axle on my license for years until I came to England and transferred over, so I kind of always had it in my head either that I would do that, or I would write about it. When my marriage broke up and I was in Manchester, I kind of had some bullshit idea in my head that I was going to go out in the world.”
To escape, just like Paddy?
“Yeah, just to get as far away from it as possible, but I didn't do it. But I suppose this is why writers are writers, you don't ever do the thing, you write about the thing. In the absence of actually doing it, it germinated in my head, this idea of a man who goes on the road, and is running away from a life circumstance. There's a film called Cinq Fois Deux by the famous French director, Francois Ozon. That is a love story told in reverse, in five movements. They say goodbye in the first movement, and they meet for the first time in the last movement, and I thought that's a brilliant idea, I'm having that. On some level, these two things got sort of mashed on top of each other - the idea of a man traveling and the castaway narrative archetype. In other words, a person stuck in the role, not a desert island, but a truck. I wanted to send somebody with him, and I had the idea of his daughter. I like these old clichés, and in truth, there are no original stories.”
We're into the Jungian archetypes here, the idea that there are only seven basic plots?
“Exactly. The only thing that we can do with these narrative archetypes is to renovate them as best we can, and give them our own personality. But I think as a writer, the sooner you make your peace with the knowledge that there's no more originality to be had in terms of stories, the freer you become, and the possibility of some kind of creativity within those narrative archetypes occurs.”
Just like the narrator in the first novel, Paddy’s lover is never named
“I like that idea of sort of anonymity,” Conor explains. “I like the idea of at least one character being a sort of blank space in the middle of the story.”
Characters in both books share names as well.
“People name their kids after their mothers all the time. I like this overlap of names, it’s Freudian and it's very dark.”
I Know It Was You
Mention of the Austrian head wrecker allows me to bring up some faintly Oedipal goings-on between Paddy and his mother, which has O’Callaghan howling with laughter before he offers some explanation.
“I'm interested in brothers,” he says, heading off on a bit of a tangent. “I grew up in a family of five boys and the character that interests me most in The Godfather who’s referenced in the book is Fredo, the flaky middle brother, who gets stepped over and the younger brother inherits the family business. Paddy is this brother in an Irish context, who has experienced the same thing in many respects. My father, who died in 2013, was in a big insurance broker family. He trained at Lloyds and was actually in digs with the comedian Dave Allen. Mad drinkers together. Because he was such a roaring alcoholic, his younger brother inherited the family business, and my father kind of got cut out of the will. On some level, that's kind of in the mix, but the one triumph that Paddy has is he gets to live at home with his mother. And at some point, he develops this degree of intimacy with his mother, that at a certain moment, is in danger of becoming physical.”
But it doesn't? O’Callaghan is laughing again.
“It doesn't,” he assures me. “The writer Danny Denton texted me at 10 o'clock at night. I said, ‘What's wrong?’ And he said, ‘I taught he was about to fuck his mother! I'm sitting here on the sofa beside me wife, Rachel, I've got me fist in my mouth!’”
While we’re spared that umconfortableness, it is pointed out that Oisín had a child by his mother, a notion that would surely have given Dr Freud a fit of the vapours. Is that accurate?
“The annals tell us that Oisín had a child with his mother Sadhbh.”
It should be noted here that the same Sadhbh spent several years as a deer, so it might not be an entirely true story, but we’ll let Conor continue.
“I kind of thought this was hilarious, that this daughter has done a bit of Googling about this story that the Father keeps telling here, and she asks him if he knew Oisín had a child with his mother?”
Paging De Selby
There’s a character in Neil Jordan’s latest book who reckons the Irish myths and legends are as good as anyone’s.
“It's true,” Conor agrees. “They're beautiful stories, and that story of Oisín is a big, big fucking story. It's not a sort of localized little thing, it’s the myth of exile.”
It predicts the effect of faster-than-light-speed travel too.
“I know. I was always obsessed with the idea of him getting on a horse, and riding from the land of eternal youth to Ireland. What would that look like? It's not like getting the ferry from Holyhead.”
When Paddy gets a phone call in the middle of the night, he leaves his mother’s old house, a house called Tír na nÓg, and his lover behind, to deal with the real world misfortunes of his daughter. The parallels with Oisín’s return from the land of youth to the land of rain and pain are there for all to see.
“Absolutely. I was trying to seed loads of echoes of the Oisín thing. The truck is his horse, and he's drifting around in this timeless thing. The tachographs [devices legally required on long distance trucks that record driver’s hours] sort of create this element of timelessness too.”
Paddy’s lover is married to a man called ‘Self’. She thinks about leaving him, but you can never get away from your… self.
“I could have called him Brendan, but that doesn't mean anything, and Self is quite a common name in England. Yes, she can't get away from her self. Paddy can't get away from himself, either. It's the simple truth. He tries. He flees from the north of England to the south of France, to try and get the hell away. But the farther south he goes, the more he’s dogged by memories of the recent and distant past.”
Wherever you go, there you are.
“There's no getting away from yourself.”
We Are Not In The World is published by Penguin.