You’d think Elvis had come to town. OK, maybe not Elvis. Geldof, perhaps. But for the mostly-female crowd who gathered at the Headfort Arms Hotel, it was pretty clear: A minor deity had descended upon us. All that was missing was the choir of angels.
In honour of certain sporting events of which I am unaware (she said, lying shamefully), Mr O’Connor opened by reading from his World Cup diary, a hilarious account of the Irish male abroad, before launching into the topic he had come to discuss: his latest novel, The Thrill of it All, and the role music plays in our lives.
Music is like a portal into another world, says Joseph O’Connor. You learn how to look into a song as a country. Music is the purest art form; it is what all other art aspires to be. It is a form of abstract art, but is part of all our lives.
Music forms the theme of his latest book. It tells the tale about a group of young men living in suburban London who form a rock group. It is a story of friendship and ambition and, mostly, music.
O’Connor read a chapter of the novel relating how Robbie, the protagonist, encounters his father after a late and drunken evening out. Every note of the conversation rings true. The author’s flair for language sounds like a melody sung by the Pogues, all whiskey and cigarette smoke and sly humour.
Asked how he achieves such heights, O’Connor says at the end of his writing session he walks up and down, reading the work out loud. He has, it seems, developed a musician’s ear for the music of prose. Trust your ear, he says. If you falter while reading the piece you’ll know there’s something wrong with it.
In response to audience members’ questions, he tells us he has recently started to teach writing. Talent cannot be taught, he says, but you can learn craft and technique. All writers learned how to write, including himself. “I had to learn how to write The Star of the Sea,” he says, pointing out it was his fifth book and he had to work towards that degree of mastery.
While working, O’Connor says he thinks of the reader and aims to “have a dance” with the him or her. His goal is to get the reader to to have a moment of recognition every four pages. He points out that an author’s interpretation of his own work is no more valid than that of any other reader. To budding authors he suggests make a list of ten people you are writing for, whose approval you would like to win.
He concludes finally, reluctantly, to great cheers and applause. The women are thrilled; the men amused. Gwen, who sat next to me, admitted her big ambition was to give the great man a hug. She was happy to stand in line to meet ‘Joe’, though she was less certain his new book was for her.
When a man pointed out that the largest number of people in the audience were women and asked, “How do you cope?” O’Connor replied, deadpan, “Very well!”
I would have to agree with him.