Joseph O’ Neill speaks on his books, and how New York moves him

Writing is always a tricky thing to balance for anyone who wants to live in the real world and put it down, too.

‘How do you find time for it?’ is the question that is asked most, followed by ‘how do you handle when to write, and how much?’  

“I don’t really write much at all,” says Joseph O’ Neill, author of one of the most quietly sensational — and sensitive — novels of the past few years, Netherland.

The book has brought him considerable acclaim, including a Booker long list nomination and a shot at the prize itself (though this readers were disappointed to see him miss out, despite the hype in the publishing world).

That prizes are often a matter of the luck of the draw seems to be something O’Neill accepts. What this rather self-deprecating writer means is that he writes sparingly and when he wants to; his has not been a showy career, and his three books brought him to public attention only recently.

“I took seven years to write Netherland. Of course, not all of those seven years were spent writing,” says O’Neill, a heavy-browed half-Turkish Irishman.

This time included living and thinking time for the former barrister, who has also written a work of non-fiction, Blood-Dark Track: A Family History, among 2002’s notable books.

At the Jaipur Literature Festival on Sunday, O’Neill spoke on a panel discussing the memoir and the autobiographical novel with Ru Freeman, Ved Mehta and Philip Hensher.

He then spoke at length in a session on the cricket novel, moderated by journalist Samanth Subramanian.

The two compared the rhythm and steady accumulation of meaning in test cricket and, in this book, speaking to how a day accrues meaning as part of a collection of meaningful days.

Indeed, the prose’s steady, ponderous quality affords the kind of reflection long-drawn-out sports like cricket make available.

O’Neill played cricket in New York City like the protagonist of Netherland Hans, a Dutch banker struggling with his marriage, who takes up cricket to fill up a space in his life and befriends an unlikely fellow immigrant from a very different background, the eccentric and eminently shady Chuck Ramkissoon.

It’s a part of the city few have explored, and the book became a quiet favourite when it released in 2008.

Its immediate theme of unravelling and sustained atmosphere of forgotten and falling down worlds is a means to an exploration of masculinity, of course, and male ways of suffering life.

A very New York story

That it takes place post 9/11 and took on the status of ‘9/11 novel’, O’Neill explains, was not intended; it just happened to take place against this backdrop, and he had to choose between leaving it out, which didn’t seem possible, and including it, necessarily, in his very New York story.

A lot of his book is about fleeing New York, I say, and he agrees, smiling.

Yet he loves the city that remains his home.

“New York is home as soon as you decide you want it to be,” he says, when we speak of London, that tougher other mega city.

critical writing

O’Neill teaches at Bard College now, and says he enjoys it.

However, that earlier practice of critical writing — he wrote for the Atlantic Monthly, among others — he says he left, due to its poor rewards and dwindling avenues.

He finished his first novel at around 23, and dismisses it casually.

‘I was very young then, the newer books are much better,’ he says.

The earlier books are as stylish as this one and deal with the author’s favourite theme of repeated failure wonderfully, but the maturity of this sensibility finds itself in this popular novel.

His next book, The Dog, is published later this year, and deals with a man who has moved to Dubai, that futuristic city, at a time of turmoil in his relationship.

“Dubai is a wonderfully rich place,” says O’Neill. The reader waits to see what he has made of this game.

It’s a part of the city few have explored, and the book became a quiet favourite when it released in 2008.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated January 20, 2014)
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