Not long after I turned seventeen, I fell in love with writing. Smitten by Dickens’ Great Expectations, by Steinbeck’s haunting classic The Pearl, by Hemingway’s Cuban novella The Old Man and the Sea and Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel, I would lose myself in the musty aisles of the local library or among the shelves of Penguin paperbacks my parents had gathered over the years.
I loved the books as physical objects, their yellowed pages and crinkling covers, their smell, their aura of peacefulness. Words could make a tempest, a town seen by moonlight, a fog out which an escaped murderer might loom, brandishing weird futures and chains. At seventeen I was given a copy of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Nothing would ever be the same.
Holden’s sarcasm, his funniness and pitiless self-doubt, the blowsy New York he both desires and resents, the sadness of his invisibility, his crusade against phoneys: as I turned that brilliant novel’s crushing final page, I knew I wanted to be a novelist. How I wish some wise mentor had steered me towards one crucial reality. Writing is not about the writer.
Writing is about the reader. Every time. First and last. Forget the reader and you’re lost; the words turn to ashes. You may as well dig a hole in the sky. Writing is not about self-expression or what you’ve read or things you know. It must never be permitted to descend into what you’ve learnt or come to suspect. Fiction exists for the reader. As a writer, your art, your craft, your skills, must be placed in the respectful, loving service of that truth.
As a young writer, I wrote awful stories, embarrassing messes, whole books where nothing at all happened. I couldn’t understand why nobody wanted to publish them. Nothing happened in Raymond Carver or Beckett either, I’d point out (wrongly). They were being true to the reality of their personalities! A lecturer at college gave me a copy of Proust’s Swann In Love. She would have been kinder to beat me around the head with it.
The rejection letters arrived. I could have wallpapered my bedsit with them. I would trudge from my desk to the post office with that week’s crop of solipsistic short stories and existentialist haiku. By the time I’d got home, so it seemed to me, they’d have been already returned by whatever extremist literary magazine had been fortunate enough to receive them. The envelope on the welcome mat would gape up at me impassively. ‘You’ve expressed yourself beautifully’, it would say.
How hard it was to learn the simplest thing about writing: that we go to storytelling for an experience of empathy. There’s nothing we love more than recognisability in a writer’s work. When we see something complex expressed in words, some ember in us glows in a sort of homecoming. Songwriters often do it better than we novelists do. They have to. They’re on borrowed time. When Cole Porter writes, ‘How strange, the change from major to minor, every time we say goodbye’, everyone listening feels exactly and movingly what he means, because we’ve been there, in love but parting.
What the reader does is magical: bringing these little black ink-stains to vivid life and glory. The reader sings the song, if it’s going to be sung at all. It’s our job as writers to create the sheet music.
Joseph O’Connor was born in Dublin. His books include eight previous novels: Cowboys and Indians (Whitbread Prize shortlist), Desperadoes, The Salesman, Inishowen, Star of the Sea (American Library Association Award, Irish Post Award for Fiction, France’s Prix Millepages, Italy’s Premio Acerbi, Prix Madeleine Zepter for European novel of the year), Redemption Falls, Ghost Light (Dublin One City One Book Novel 2011) and The Thrill of it All. His fiction has been translated into forty languages. He received the 2012 Irish PEN Award for outstanding achievement in literature and in 2014 he was appointed Frank McCourt Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Limerick. His new novel Shadowplay, about Bram Stoker, Henry Irving and Ellen Terry, is published by Harvill Secker. // josephoconnorauthor.com
This article is part of a series of experienced writers and authors sharing what they wish they had known when they first started writing.