From the ARCHIVE: Opinion by Billy O’Callaghan (Jan/Feb 2017)


What goes down on the page

Billy O’Callaghan doesn’t think that winning the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Award made much of a difference

In 2013 the title story of my most recent collection, The Things We Lose, the Things We Leave Behind, won the Short Story of the Year at the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards. It feels like forever ago in most respects, while in other ways it might just as well have been yesterday.

I remember that my father and I had to hire tuxedos for the event, and I remember turning numb with shock when my name was called out. I’d slipped a disc a couple of weeks prior to the ceremony and had to hobble from our table, at the very back corner of the hall, without a clue as to what I was going to say by way of a speech once I’d reached the stage. Afterwards, my father took some blurred photographs, of me with John Banville, journalist Eamonn Dunphy and—for some reason—RTÉ’s David Davin-Power; the trophy was a lovely blue and clear piece of glass, teardrop-shaped to resemble a bubbling gas flame, and heavy as a brick.

The Things We Lose, the Things We Leave Behind was my third collection. At that point I had been writing for probably fifteen years, largely in obscurity. My stories had won a few prizes, made a lot of short lists and been published in magazines and journals all around the world, the best of them quite prestigious. However, the length I tended to favour—generally between 4,000 and 8,000 words—put me beyond the Pale of most home-grown magazines, and so I always felt like an outsider looking in on this country’s literary scene. The Irish Book Award felt like a vindication for all the hard work that I had put in and seemed set to at least get me noticed.

It did and it didn’t. Here at home, sales remained unspectacular and the festival circuit continued to ignore me with a passion. Little by little, though, the book started to get some attention abroad. I received invitations to read in places like Turkey, Spain and Austria; students who had stumbled across the stories began including them in Ph.D and Master’s theses; and a few translators even got in touch.

But while winning the award was a great thrill and probably the best thing, up to that point, to happen to me in my writing life, I count myself lucky to have understood, from quite early on, that what matters more than anything else, more than prizes, sales and festivals, is what goes down on the page. That’s the only thing a writer can really control.

Having never attended university, I learned to write purely by doing, by reading and writing. It takes me a long time to write a story—longer, it seems, with each passing year. Ideas and themes tend to overtake me like shadows, and need the space of weeks or even months to solidify. But there’s no hurry. Everyone finds their own way of working. My preferred way is to rewrite as I go, proceeding by instinct, letting myself be led along by the feel and rhythm of the sentences; and by the time I’ve achieved a clean first draft, the bulk of the story will already have been rewritten probably a dozen times.

And that is often just the beginning. There is a lot of trial and error, and often some wrong roads followed, but that is what it takes. For years now I have kept to a rigid schedule, five hours a day, every day. It is compulsive behaviour, but it is how I make sense of the things that concern me and lets me find out, as one of the characters in Saul Bellow’s novella The Theft put it, ‘who it is that’s at the middle of me’.

Also, nobody gets to read my work until it is published. I do not want feedback or comments, not while the ink is still wet. These are my stories, for better or worse.

Time, I have discovered, has modified my expectations. I still suffer from a chronic lack of confidence, but I have grown a little more comfortable with my insecurities. My stories over the past few years have become much more personal—autobiographical, I suppose— in essence if not always strictly in fact. So the sense of exposure becomes heightened. The stories now, more than ever before, are reflections of me. Once I have finished a story, I naturally hope that it will be published, read and appreciated, but the important thing is the work itself and getting it right. My only real ambition for the stories now, the single challenge I demand of myself, is that they seem truthful. I want people to believe that they are reading about real moments, real lives, that they are glimpsing something genuine. If I can come even close to achieving this, then that’s enough.

By Billy O’Callaghan

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ARCHIVE article from Books Ireland January/February 2017 (issue no. 371)

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The Doctor Who Sat for a Year
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ISBN: 978-0-7171-8457-6
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