Born in Derry in 1969, Sean O’Reilly is currently one of the most interesting writers working today, Irish or otherwise. His latest work, Watermark, may be set in contemporary Ireland but it eschews shiny portrayals of the modern city, preferring to focus on the psychological and sexual adversities of a group of characters who seem to occupy the fringes of society. This concern with people on the margins was also a concern of O’Reilly’s last novel, the fiercely praised The Swing of Things. Written in sprung prose, the novel charts the experiences of a former IRA prisoner, Noel Boyle, as he spends his days as a philosophy student and his nights coming to grips with a city in which sex and death seem equally available.
SB: In a recent Los Angeles Times article on “literary Dublin,” your editor at The Stinging Fly Press, Declan Meade, name-checked you as one of the next wave of writers chronicling the new city that’s been emerging for the past decade.
But your latest novel–or novella–Watermark seems to eschew that kind of “how-we-live-now” approach. In contrast, it seems like a highly focused, even claustrophobic work, concentrating almost on the troubled relationships between a woman, Veronica, and a number of men who seem to occupy a sliding scale of unsuitability.
Did you consciously want to get away from writing a self-consciously “contemporary” novel or was it simply a product of the fact that Veronica, who doesn’t seem to have a job or even a place to call home, is an outsider?
Sean O’Reilly: Any new city is a dream. It is made of glass so we project ourselves on to it. It does nothing but reflect. No, I don’t see Veronica as an outsider. She’s an Insider. Her truth as a character is that she is locked inside her dreams, her dream of love initially, her wait for her man to return and the sexual phantasies that sustain her in that wait. Eventually these phantasies overwhelm her. As in dreams, or states of extreme desire, the idea of place, a coherent geographical space, is left far behind.
SB: When the city does impinge on Veronica’s consciousness, it comes across as monstrous, a “big fat creature of stone and muck and glass,” driven by greed. This sentiments seem to echo the atmosphere conjured by your previous novel, The Swing of Things. Noel Boyle, a Derryman, is an outsider among other outsiders while he oversees a phone kiosk in Temple Bar that lets foreigners phone home at cheap rates.
The atmosphere created seems to echo the image some Irish emigrants used to have of London in, say, the 1980s–a place to make money, but by no means a welcoming place. Does this reflect the view of Dublin you were trying to create in both books?
Sean O’Reilly: I didn’t set out to create a view of Dublin in either book. I start with the character. Place comes through their eyes, when it appears at all. For Veronica, as I’ve said, the sense of place gradually fades. Or she rejects it, moves indoors because the city threatens her phantasy life. The house becomes her world, and even there, it is hard to know what is real. It is a dreamscape. Dreams play tricks on us. Inside is outside.
Boyle is the opposite. I found myself with a character who has recently arrived in a new city. Dublin. Who is investigating the real city around him, trying to understand it, map it, find a place for himself in it. Forget himself. And hopefully reinvent himself in the process. What he finds is a heavily commercialised racially diverse modern city. He gets lost in the reflections. His failure to find his feet there, so to speak, is his own failure, not Dublin’s. The failure of his own mythology about the place. The Free State. Dublin has moved on. It is the same for anyone arriving into anywhere they don’t know, to start again. It can seem cruel and banal. It can seem exciting and dangerous. It can make you or kill you. Whether it is London of the 80s or Barcelona of today. [O’Reilly is currently in Barcelona.]
SB: Another striking aspect of Watermark, which it also shares with The Swing of Things, is that it uses various typographical devices. For example, you avoid using quotation marks for direct speech. And some paragraphs start with lower-case letters and chapters or sections often end with a cascade of sentence fragments. Considering that such experimentation might have the cost of alienating certain readers, what are the benefits of such an approach?
Sean O’Reilly: I’ve never been afraid of alienating readers because everyone I’ve ever met who likes reading doesn’t mind at all to see the surface of the text being disrupted. However, these typographical devices were never planned; they grew out of trying to get the character down on the page. Watermark, for example, those broken lines, they happened while I was doing the second draft of the book in New York. I had no intention of writing in that way but when it happened, when the line broke, I knew it had to be, that it was true for her.
Having said that, I enjoy fragmentedness. The bones showing. Incompleteness. Indeterminacy. It has an erotic charge. I’m always wary of what is too polished and seamless. Watermark, I call, ‘a piece of work.’ Painters, visual artists have a lot more freedom in this regard. Writers need more conceptual freedom.
SB: The female-male relationships in Watermark are initiated, defined, or destroyed through sex, which is explicitly described. Whereas the prose that describes the characters’ environment is often near-lyrical–the details of the dilapidated house where much of the action unfolds, for example–physical interaction is depicted in blunt terms. Would it be fair to say that you decided to use pornographic elements in this book, or is it that’s impossible to write clearly about sex without veering into territory that’s been claimed by pornography?
Sean O’Reilly: Yes, I’m very interested in the erotic, or pornography if you prefer, because it is there that the self ruptures, and many of the ingredients of the conventional novel, character, setting, motivation, are left on the floor with the clothes. Particularly in terms of a culture like Ireland, which has only a very faint erotic tradition, in the English language anyway. Old Irish literature is bursting with it. I find it extraordinary that a culture which is setting the individual up as the site of all meaning, the promotion and satisfaction of its appetites – that same culture is still incapable of having a decent conversation about sexuality and desire.
SB: In the Swing of Things it appears as the ex-prisoner Noel Boyle is trying to find some other credo to live by than Republicanism. So as a student, he explores the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre, and his associated message that we all have to take responsibility for our actions. It seems that with their moral seriousness, your characters might be out of sync with the mainstream “morality” of the times, where irony is the often the order of the day.
Do you think this seriousness is connected with one of the more asinine criticisms of your writing, that it’s “too dark”?
Sean O’Reilly: Moral seriousness might also be called having characters who have thoughts about the world they’re living in. They’re struggling to understand. They try one idea, then another. Ireland is no place to think at the minute; in some sense, the rapid process of change demands that nobody thinks. There is very little debate about what is happening to it. But then personally, I like spending time with a character who is not afraid to scratch
his head and wonder, kick and scream.
SB: Finally, it’s not immediately clear with which other Irish novelists currently writing you have much in common. Would you, for example, recognize any common ground with the so-called “dirty realists” playwrights, such as Mark O’Rowe or Eugene O’Brien? Or is Boyle’s interest in Sartre indicative of wider influences?
Sean O’Reilly: I’ve heard the names of these playwrights but haven’t seen their work. The last thing I am is a realist. George Bataille said: The eye is not a recorder, it is the sewer of the soul. The eye pours out. Inside is outside.
I’ve moved around a lot in my life and wherever I am, I am reading and listening to music. It would be an unhealthy diet for anyone, reader or writer, to rely solely on their own native culture. So yes, of course there are important wider influences. And more to discover I hope.