With Godwin (Pantheon, June), O’Neill tracks the fortunes of a freelancer on a quest to sign the next big soccer star.
What inspired this book?
I suppose the starting place is really my love of soccer. Also, my cousin is a soccer agent obsessed with African talent. He speaks French and lives in England, which is where the money is. And then there’s the idea of how greedy everyone is. Football is a contested avenue, the idea of play and purity and greed.
Wolfe gets caught up in the pettiness of his writing co-op and navigates the treachery of international soccer. What links these two threads?
I don’t want to be reductive, but I thought they belonged together. The co-op reflects my obsession with American politics. Politicians would lick the floor for a modicum of power. There’s the idealism of the cooperative movement: to what extent do you allow your relationships to be subservient to the profile motive? If someone is not billing enough, as is Wolfe’s situation, his value should be considered beyond what he earns for the co-op. It’s not just the bottom line alone; there are higher ideals of labor.
In the football world, a professional player can make hundreds of thousands of dollars a week. At the same time, it’s a sport. It’s supposed to operate in the realm of fair play and doing the right thing. There’s that tension between the ideal and the profit in both cases. Wolfe’s brother, who’s an aspiring soccer agent, and the French soccer scout they send to Benin are both just chasing dollars.
Your descriptions of the writing co-op’s day-to-day functions are detailed and amusing. What’s your personal experience with cooperative organizations?
I belong to a cricket club, and I love all the office stuff, elections, officers. We have these elections every year and people go bananas; someone is always drunk. Running any organization is hard work and you are only as strong as the craziest person in your midst. It requires enormous solidarity even for the smallest cooperative.
The detailed portrayal of West Africa and the importance of soccer talent there is equally illuminating. Did you do much research?
I went to Benin in 2016 for about 10 days with my partner and our daughter when she was two. We went to all the locations described in the novel, in particular the far north of the country, where you can stand on the banks of the Pendjari river and see Burkina Faso on the far side. It was an extraordinary experience—my first time back in Africa since the early days of my childhood in South Africa and Mozambique. I was fortunate because in more recent years travel to that part of the country has reportedly become more hazardous and off-limits to tourists.