In his eighth novel, Ghost Light, bestselling Irish author Joseph O'Connor reimagines the love affair between controversial playwright J.M. Synge and his leading lady, Molly Allgood.
You've said that you used to pass the Synges' house as a child, but what attracted you to Molly? Did you see her as a way of getting to the somewhat elusive Synge?
I don't think so. For me, Ghost Light isn't really about the real life Synge and Molly at all. I took the spark of their actual story and blew it into a fiction, I guess. I was interested in writing a love story for grownups. I think we all have a person in our past with whom a relationship did not work out. It's often a lover, but it could also be a parent, a sibling, or a friend. But even after that presence disappears from our life, it continues to shape us. And absence can be a sort of presence, affecting everything we do. That's the emotional territory of Ghost Light. It's about how we always carry our ghosts.
Molly's voice is so memorable. Was it difficult to find this woman's voice?
It was very hard, especially because for a long time I wasn't looking for it. The three or four earliest drafts were written either in the voice of an omniscient third-person narrator or in the voice of Synge. But I found that whenever this wonderfully irreverent, flirtatious, and fiery young woman from inner city Dublin drifted in, electricity crackled across the page.
Writers often say that once they've found the voice, everything falls into place.
I wouldn't say that everything fell into place when I found Molly's voice, but certainly, finding the language of the main character is always a hugely important challenge. Once you find it, you can spend all of your time on the book from then on. When you're going for a walk, or eating dinner, the voice can be there in your head.
Do you think your books are read differently in different countries?
To some extent, yes. Irish readers are obviously very focused on the Irish-historical aspect, where Europeans or Americans are often primarily interested in some other facet, the language or the storytelling or the credibility of the characters or the book's readability. But every reader reads differently, bringing his or her own life experience to bear on it. It's the reader I always think about, not the nationality. A novel is a sort of sheet music; it's the reader who sings the song.
What does the label "Irish writer" mean to you?
Well, it's accurate, in that my passport records the fact that I am Irish. And I am fascinated by the literary traditions of Ireland. And Ghost Light nods toward Joyce now and again, because the Dublin in which some parts of it are set is the Dublin Joyce immortalized. But the writers who have influenced me most deeply have not been Irish... novelists like Peter Carey, Richard Ford, Toni Morrison, Hemingway, Dickens, and the Brontës. There is always a lyricism in Irish writing, and that's a valuable thing, but the greatest gift from the American literary tradition is the notion that a novel has to be strong on every part of the game.