Interviews

J. P. Donleavy, The Art of Fiction No. 53

Interviewed by Molly McKaughan & Fayette Hickox

This interview took place in March 1975 in New York City in a large apartment overlooking the East River. Mr. Donleavy was in the United States to deliver the manuscript of his latest book, The Unexpurgated Code, to his publisher, Seymour Lawrence, in Boston.

We watched from the window as he strode purposefully down the center of Seventy-second Street to the fence overlooking the river and stood there for some time before he rang the bell. He told us later that he often used to come to that place on his meanderings about the city and that it figures in his second novel, A Singular Man.

Donleavy is a slight man with a long nose and sad green eyes. He sat near the window as we talked, and the light shone through his thin gray beard, making him seem somehow fragile—a quality he does not otherwise exude. He feels that of all his characters he most resembles George Smith, of A Singular Man. Though born in Brooklyn and raised in the Bronx, he speaks with a British accent and uses British slang. During both sessions he drank orange juice continually and ate only a small portion of food. He keeps trim by daily exercise—swimming and workouts at The New York Athletic Club when he is in New York or on his own farming estate in Ireland, where he has lived since 1969.

Mr. Donleavy’s first novel, The Ginger Man, was published in June 1955. His subsequent novels have been A Singular Man (1963), The Saddest Summer of Samuel S (1966), The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B (1968), The Onion Eaters (1971), and A Fairy Tale of New York (1973). His collection of short stories, Meet My Maker the Mad Molecule, was published in 1964. His plays, adapted from his novels, are The Ginger Man, Fairy Tales of New York, A Singular Man, and The Saddest Summer of Samuel S. They have all been produced in London and New York. The Unexpurgated Code: A Complete Manual of Survival and Manners, will be published this summer.


INTERVIEWER

Did you always know you would be a writer?

J. P. DONLEAVY

I wrote poetry at an early age but I didn’t get that driving desire to be a writer until I was at Trinity College in Dublin.

INTERVIEWER

How did that happen? Weren’t you a successful painter at that point?

DONLEAVY

I had had three exhibitions of my paintings in Dublin and having more or less exhausted the Irish art world, I traveled to London with some pictures and went to a gallery. One or two of the gallery’s owners were very impressed with the work, but said I wasn’t famous, and therefore, it didn’t matter that my pictures were striking and original. Not being famous, I wasn’t entitled to have anyone recognize them or me.

I realized that the only way you could ever tackle the world was to write something that no one could hold off, a book that would go everywhere, into everyone’s hands. And I decided then to write a novel that would shake the world. I shook my fist and said I would do it. “That’s what I’m going to do, and no one’s going to stop me.” I did that again and again and again. Still do it.

INTERVIEWER

So you started writing The Ginger Man while you were at Trinity?

DONLEAVY

I had just left. I’d moved to the cottage I had in Kilcoole, County Wicklow. I had built a sunporch on to it and I remember forcing myself day after day to sit at this little makeshift table on the porch. It took me seven days to get the first page and a half. I wouldn’t give up; I kept at it and at it. After about ten days, I finally managed to write about two or three pages. Then I fought and smashed and pressed on. Driving myself for several hours a day. After I’d written about thirty or forty pages, it suddenly began to ease up a lot. And then the book actually began to take on a slight personality of its own, which helped me a bit. I kept on going until I had about 140 pages.

INTERVIEWER

Did you finish the book at your cottage?

DONLEAVY

No. I wrote some on the Isle of Man and then came to America and wrote it for a year in the United States. Being out of Ireland provided a very helpful distance. My mother lives up in the Bronx and I wrote a lot of it there. I also wrote a lot of it in the West End of Boston—a little place called Poplar Street, which they’ve subsequently pulled down. It was a slum, between the back of Beacon Hill and the Charles, just to the side of the Mass. General Hospital. It’s totally gone. In those days it was a fantastic ghetto where you had the whore coming home at night, and the baker across the street. I lived there in those days for eleven dollars a week, and didn’t really want for much at all. My biggest luxury was a nickel for The New York Times. I would buy a copy and walk to the Public Gardens and read for an hour.

INTERVIEWER

How did you motivate yourself?

DONLEAVY

That was easy. It was simply money and fame. I was aware as anyone is, that in this world you can just be swept away. I’m aware of this just as much now. New York is a great place to be reminded of it. You arrive here, and Good Lord, you find out in ten seconds that nothing whatever matters, especially your own small life. So I knew I had to write a book that would be the best work in the world. It was that simple.

INTERVIEWER

What is it that makes one have that confidence? Is it just exuberance?

DONLEAVY

It could be gross stupidity.

INTERVIEWER

How did it manifest itself? Did you tell your mother?

DONLEAVY

Yes. I used to declare it openly to everybody when I was totally unpublished. The first thing anyone asks you in America is: What have you published? I’d published nothing (laughs) but I used to declare quite openly who I was, what I was. I had incredible nerve. What happens, I think, with a heavy, feverish desire is that the imagination will supply for that desire an impetus so that it can be carried out. Your imagination drives you with this burning fever. You’re looking for some one person out there somewhere who will one day hear your voice and suddenly write back. After you’re a published and accepted author, you don’t have this as an energy anymore.

INTERVIEWER

Did the success of The Ginger Man inhibit your later output?

DONLEAVY

No. I was never affected because The Ginger Man wasn’t a success. It amounted to nothing whatever! It took about eight years from its publication in 1955 to 1962 or ’63 before it ever began to make its way, to get any kind of wide recognition.

INTERVIEWER

How did you get it published, this book that was going to make you famous?

DONLEAVY

When I was still working on the manuscript in 1952, I came across John Hall Wheelock's name. He was an editor at Scribner’s, and I knew a man of this same or similar name who had taught me English at the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Maryland and who had admired my writing then and was also in publishing. I wrote a letter to Wheelock to this effect. He wasn’t in fact the same man, but he wrote me back and said, just as an editor obviously would, “If you’ve got a book, we’d love to see it.” So I took the manuscript to Scribner’s and after a few weeks Wheelock called me in. He said, “We’ve all read the manuscript here. Three of our editors think it is one of the best manuscripts ever brought to this publishing house. The fourth thinks it’s the best manuscript she’s ever come across. But I don’t think we can publish it.” This was because they had published From Here to Eternity, and it had brought them so much trouble and difficulty with its scatology that they were not eager to go through it again. And apparently the young Mr. Scribner who’d taken over the firm was less liberal than the old man. So the editors were less likely to stick their necks out to say, “You must publish this book.” Well, when I got that reaction from Scribner’s—and this was in the McCarthy era, I was aware that it was the end of the road. I realized that if I couldn’t get it published with that kind of terrific reception, then it couldn’t get published. Wheelock gave me the name of an agent who didn’t believe that Wheelock had even seen me, and when he read a sample of the book thought it was most uninteresting and “very unlikely anyone would publish it.” Random House also turned it down. Wheelock did say that I should come back if I could remove some of the objectionable parts. I did bring it back to Scribner’s later but I hadn’t removed a thing, and Wheelock sympathetically, I think, realized that obviously I wasn’t going to.

INTERVIEWER

Why wouldn’t you?

DONLEAVY

I had a sense that the book held itself together on the basis of these scatalogical parts. That its life was in these parts. And I was quite aware that cutting them would be severely damaging to it. So, to continue, that summer when I was in Boston, Little, Brown saw it. The editor called me around there on a hot, sweaty afternoon. He sat me a good distance away from his desk, and the manuscript was in a shadowy corner of the room. He leaned back in his chair very nervously and pointed at the manuscript, with his hand trembling, and said, “There’s obscene libel in that book!” So that was the end of Little, Brown.

INTERVIEWER

Did you go back to Ireland then?

DONLEAVY

Things were terrible for me. I spent a great deal of time contemplating in Woodlawn Cemetery. It is the most peaceful place in America and figures in most of my books about this country. It was also the only place I’d meet Gainor Crist, an American at Trinity also returned to the United States in whose wake always followed gargantuan horrors. When I left the United States I literally couldn’t speak for about ten weeks. I wrote things down on pieces of paper. I was almost dead. I could barely get on the back of a ship to get out. But things got better. I had a friend in Ireland who after reading the manuscript suggested that he would support me—he had made a lot of money writing. And there was Scribner’s good opinion, and then Brendan Behan suggested I send the book to Olympia Press, which I did, and after some delay and correspondence, they agreed to publish.

INTERVIEWER

You had met Behan during your Trinity days?

DONLEAVY

He was one of the first people I met when I went to Ireland in 1946. He had just been released from prison then. He was in the IRA and was surrounded by his cronies. I met him in Davy Byrnes. As the afternoon’s joke, the two of us were introduced to each other as writers. The Irish really cut you to ribbons. New York and London are on a different level entirely. Once you’ve survived Dublin there’s not much they can do to you anywhere else to cut through your hide.

INTERVIEWER

Had Behan written anything at that point?

DONLEAVY

Not that anybody knew of. Nor had I. But everyone knew that we were interested in writing. So it was a great joke: Ha-ha, we’ll introduce these two guys as writers. Which they did. And Behan and I were outside the pub squaring off to have a fight about five minutes later.

INTERVIEWER

Over what?

DONLEAVY

Over various insults that Behan passed to me, and I may have passed back to him. I would fight anybody. But, sensibly, as soon as we stepped outside, Behan said “We’re not going to fight,” and we didn’t.

Actually, Behan had been the first person to read the manuscript of The Ginger Man. He broke into my cottage when I was away. When I got back I found all my pots and pans and blankets and so on in disarray . . . and all my shoes gone! There was a small studio where I painted. I went out there looking around and found some scattered sheets of paper and I picked them up and started to read. It said, “Borstal, and so-and-so did this when the screws came.” I said, “Christ! This is Behan. Behan’s been here!” It was the manuscript of Borstal Boy! Then I picked up my own manuscript of The Ginger Man, which was lying next to it, and I saw all these funny little marks: “Leave this in” “Take this out”, and on about page eighty it had BRENDAN BEHAN written across the top of the page. So Behan was the first one to read The Ginger Man and, as a consequence, had sat down to do editorial work on it. This was in about 1949 or ‘50.

INTERVIEWER

Did you ever take any of his suggestions?

DONLEAVY

Yes, I think one or two. But I thought it was extremely pretentious of Behan to sit down and start to do editorial work on my book. But since he thought I was a good writer, and the book marvelous, I was also pleased.

INTERVIEWER

You have described it as a great shock to you when you first encountered him. Why?

DONLEAVY

Behan always wore his shirt open to the navel; he never had shoelaces and the tongues of his shoes would always hang out. You could see his bare ankles and the heels of his shoes were always so worn away that his ankles leaned over and he waddled around. Every year or so he’d buy himself a new suit, and as soon as he walked into the pub someone said, “Behan, you’ve got a new suit!” He’d say, “Oh, you think it’s new,” and he’d immediately get off the bar stool, walk outside, and roll up and down in the gutter, then he’d come back in. If someone said, “Well, Behan, jeez, you’ve washed your hair!” he’d take his pint of Guinness and pour it over his head.

INTERVIEWER

Was he good company for all of that?

DONLEAVY

He was tremendous company on his own. And a very, very interesting and profound man. He wasn’t “a good friend.” I’ve always described him as a kind of close enemy. But when there were a lot of people present, then he was another man. He was a great raconteur and entertained everyone. Although he was shrewd about fame, most people assume that recognition changed Behan, that he became a great bubbling over, a very talkative, almost loudmouthed crazy man because of success. But he was always like that. He would walk into a village and start to sing. He was just like a pied piper. He would carry on conversations everywhere and with everybody as he walked through a street. And he had admirers of his writing in his early days who gave him money to support himself. Sometime after my return from America in such terrible condition I saw him again and we went out on a great drunk in Fleet Street and ended up in another fight.

INTERVIEWER

A real one?

DONLEAVY

Yes. He came around the next morning to ask if he could borrow my typewriter but the night before I hit him with a right hand on the nose, and he went down. I don’t think I hit him with any lefts. I used to throw a funny punch—I suppose now it’s a Muhammad Ali punch, but he wasn’t around then. In those days that is the punch I used, stepping forward as if I were throwing a stone. It works like a slingshot. (He stands up and demonstrates, his hand moving so quickly through the air that it makes a whirring sound.) Sugar Ray Robinson punches that way. The punch snaps like a whip when it hits. I distinctly remember hitting Behan right flush on the nose. But Behan couldn’t fistfight to save his life! What Behan used to do was break a bottle and stab you in the face with it. No hesitation. That’s the first thing Behan did as soon as trouble started—he broke a pint glass and held it. He did this once to himself after insulting a friend in some grievous manner. Behan was so thoroughly ashamed that he stabbed himself in the face with a broken glass to make amends.

INTERVIEWER

Is this characteristic of the Irish?

DONLEAVY

The fighting is ever present. They’re still battling in the pubs as soon as they get drunk . . . It was in the course of that crazy evening on Fleet Street that Behan said, “Mike, why don’t you send your manuscript to these guys in Paris?” and he wrote instructions in my notebook as to how to get in touch with the Olympia Press.

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us the history of all that?

DONLEAVY

Behan said they were a nice bunch of Americans in Paris. So I sent off my book. I was totally unfamiliar with the fact that Maurice Girodias ran Olympia Press, and I had no idea that Olympia Press was a dirty book company, and because it was involved with Editions Merlin I thought it had a serious literary reputation. In correspondence, but not until some months had passed, Girodias did say that the Olympia Press had a rather scandalous reputation but he did not disclose that my book was coming out in The Traveler’s Companion series, a completely pornographic series. Nor did I know that the French government was pursuing Girodias, and that therefore he put The Ginger Man on this list so that he could say: “Well, this is a very serious literary work you are prosecuting. An extract from it has been published in The Manchester Guardian, etc.” I’ve read somewhere he admitted this. After litigation started, and the Olympia Press was claiming rights in The Ginger Man, he began putting every author into the series.

My position was simply this: that I’d written a book called The Ginger Man; my name is J. P. Donleavy, the author, and that’s what was being published—The Ginger Man by J. P. Donleavy. This was not damaging to me. But when the book came out in The Traveler’s Companion series I realized I had to save the reputation of the book and my name. I went over to Paris to see Girodias. I told him there was a publisher in England who’d like to publish the book and that I would make an arrangement whereby I would have all the revenue from the English edition, and that I would give him a percentage of an American edition. He agreed to this verbally. I got nothing in writing.

So I went back to England and as the book was coming out he tried to get an injunction to stop it. He seemed to think he had rights conveyed to him in terms of contract, or letters, but it was arguable as to what rights had been assigned, so it was a contest; nothing was cut and dried.

INTERVIEWER

Did the years of litigation influence your writing?

DONLEAVY

It has influenced me more than almost anything else in my habits as an author. If you get a letter from a lawyer in the morning, it can ruin you for three days, so I had to devise a method during the long years of litigation so that I would never see mail—this was in London before I began A Singular Man. My mail was always delivered to an address which was known as my residence, but I never lived there. Mail was collected every three days at a strategic time of the day—4:15 in the afternoon, so I’d be able to calm down before I went to sleep that night and be able to write again the next morning. It worked extremely well. No one knew where I lived at all. I received no phone calls there, nothing. No one ever went there. I also had another address where I was able to live a semiprivate life, where people did occasionally visit.

INTERVIEWER

Was it all the litigious mail that inspired the letters in A Singular Man?

DONLEAVY

Yes. I figured out what was the basic legal letter written by all lawyers, no matter what the case. It is simply: “Dear Sir: Only for the moment am I saying nothing.” That is the empirical letter of intimidation.

INTERVIEWER

The English edition moved when it came out?

DONLEAVY

It got splendid reviews and sold quite successfully—nothing outrageous—but well. It became much more successful when Corgi brought out the unexpurgated edition in paperback in 1963.

INTERVIEWER

What parts were removed from the original hardbound edition?

DONLEAVY

Chapter 10 in its entirety, which is the chapter where Dangerfield inadvertently exposes himself on the tram. The other small cuts here and there were superficial. The publisher was assuming all risks of prosecution, and would only go ahead with publication if I allowed these cuts. I felt I had to do it to establish my name, and to get the book reviewed and recognized. It was an act of pure practicality. If someone wanted to read the unexpurgated edition, they could buy it in Paris. I had published it as I had written it, so it wasn’t wrong, then, to publish it to establish my reputation.

In the beginning the publisher wanted to take out a lot more than he did, but as he went through the book he found less and less could be taken out and leave the book as a whole. But I realized as an author that I simply didn’t exist. The book didn’t either. I was desperate to get myself recognized as an author. It was essential, otherwise, I would be dead. Quite literally.

INTERVIEWER

You went through another ordeal with Atlantic-Little, Brown in the case of A Singular Man. They didn’t want to publish the book after they contracted it? What did they object to?

DONLEAVY

The risk of possible prosecution for obscenity. But only one thing occurs to me. In A Singular Man, where George Smith makes his Last Will and Testicle. I knew that the latter term would invite a great deal of irritation in their part of the world because it was pointing fun at one of the ritual dignities that a man accumulates in his life to keep his social position.

INTERVIEWER

What did you do?

DONLEAVY

I was extremely angered. I can remember jumping up out of bed stark naked at three in the morning and pounding my fist and saying “I’ve just had enough of these bastards!” And I sat down and wrote this cable. I was already pretty hardened in litigation at the time, and if I said I was going to sue someone I was going to sue them! And so I sent this cable, and they rushed New York lawyers up to Boston to read the book. What intrigued or concerned them most, I heard later, was the amount in the damages that I would seek in suing was something like $365,000.65. It was the figure of $65,000 and sixty-five cents over and above the three hundred thousand that got their lawyers all excited: How does he get this figure!? What’s he driving at? They perhaps thought that I had some kind of weird legal point that I had read in the statutes somewhere entitling me to this extra sum.

Seymour Lawrence, who then disagreed with his colleagues and who is now still my publisher, was then director of the Atlantic Monthly Press and had written me a letter longhand to Europe, which he didn’t have a carbon of, and they all threw their hands up and said “Good Lord, Seymour, you’ve written that man a letter! He’s got that damn letter and we don’t know what’s in it.” I’m not sure but this may have been the reason they went ahead with A Singular Man. But it was a very unenthusiastic publication. Despite them, the book did modestly well, and as happened with all my books, it continued to sell. In fact, over the last ten years, it has become one of the biggest selling books I have in Penguin’s in Europe. But it took many years for that to happen. None of the books has ever been a quick success. Yet, when their sales are added up over the years, they all rank as best sellers.

INTERVIEWER

Do you still have the pleasure you had writing The Ginger Man, knowing it would be the best in the world?

DONLEAVY

No. I don’t think you ever have that again. When an author’s recognized, all that leaves him, because that’s what he’s needed to force himself to go through the terrible agony of being unknown and being able to face the world and the fact that it’s a giant, vast place where nearly every man is saying: Dear God, hear my tiny voice. Everyone wants to be heard. In America, it’s a pretty rare thing that anyone will listen to you. Well, my normal business is to listen to people. So I’m a favorite for anyone on a bus. They go out of their minds when they come across me; I sit there actually listening to what they’ve got to say. It’s a great premium in America for anyone to be able to get up and talk, because time is so precious to everyone here desperate to avail of the rumored opportunity and no one wants to waste a second.

INTERVIEWER

You think the primary goal for all writers is this need to be heard?

DONLEAVY

No. I don’t say that in terms of being a writer. I say that in terms of being a human being. I think that a garbage collector is as sensitive as any author.

INTERVIEWER

Do you believe that?

DONLEAVY

Yes, I do. Novelists are at best highbrow reporters who do their own copyediting. I would never think I was superior to a journalist. Never dream of such an outrageous thing! I’m astonished, picking up the daily New York newspapers to find the splendor of the writing and the marvelous stories. It’s amazing. Being a good novelist really comes down to being a good newspaper reporter; you’re trying to get what you’ve written on your page into a reader’s mind as quickly as possible, and to keep them seeing it. That is why I use the short, truncated, telegraphic sentences. They are the most efficient use of language, and I think the brain puts words together the way I do.

INTERVIEWER

What is the difference then between a reporter and a novelist? Is it hyperbole?

DONLEAVY

I suppose a novelist, being unrestricted in his subject matter, has a greater number of places he can go wrong; step off the route. The disciplines involved in being a novelist are perhaps greater because you can do what you like. You’re not confined to reporting three-alarm fires and quoting people. What you are writing can run away. So you have to impose severe disciplines on yourself. But, perhaps I know less about it than I imagine.

INTERVIEWER

You would have no difficulty going out and describing a three-alarm fire for a paper?

DONLEAVY

I often wonder if I could really do a good job of it. I have thought of that frequently, of actually being a reporter, writing a story of that sort. I do carry a notebook, and write down things I notice in it. For instance [pulling it out], “A low murmur of deals and figures.” “At the Waldorf, a little brass dust tray which swings upright as the man carries it around.” “A black convention and a lot of black people going through the Waldorf.” When I am writing a novel, at a certain stage when I know things are going at a good pace, I can sometimes open up a notebook at random and take out a sentence like one of these and put it into any part that I’m writing. Sometimes there are logistical problems. But not often. Usually, however, these notes are just building blocks.

INTERVIEWER

Are you ever out with your notebook when you think of a sentence or a scene that has to go into the novel you are working on?

DONLEAVY

Yes, ideally that happens, and this is one of the real problems I find living in the country. The country doesn’t feed me as a writer at all. I finish work and my mind’s a blank. I generally go walking in the fields, perhaps looking at cattle, and nothing goes through my mind except the numbing pleasure of watching profit collect on a beast’s hindquarters; it’s a total waste of an author’s time. And this is discouraging, because if you work in a city the moment you step out the door your mind immediately begins to gravitate to and work on the things around you. It doesn’t happen in the country. At least, I don’t find it that way.

INTERVIEWER

If the city feeds a writer, and the country doesn’t, why do you want to live in the country?

DONLEAVY

There are two aspects of writing: one is when you’re actually putting down the words, the other is when you’re germinating. Cities are better in that stage. But in the working stage the country is better. You can control your environment. Interruptions annoy me and stop my writing. Isolation is a necessity, also an acute loneliness and a sense of slight rejection. Unlike some writers, in ideal working situations I actually work. A lot of writers, if they get ideal working situations, it inhibits them.

INTERVIEWER

Do you make forays to London or go into Dublin for a drunk?

DONLEAVY

Not often. I hardly drink anymore because the effects last so long. Even a glass of wine disturbs my mental balance for the next day’s work. Dublin’s not pleasant to go into at all. I do like going to London. That’s splendid. I also like coming to New York, but I go through stages when I suddenly want to get the hell out. Like now. It can be very corrosive on the person, this town. Very corrosive.

INTERVIEWER

You have a great deal of self-control, a physical regimen that is kept up, a close scrutiny of money, yet your characters are eccentric and bizarre. Does your own self-control allow the imaginative flights that create such zaniness?

DONLEAVY

Yes, I think that’s part of it. Because if I were to live my life like some of my characters, I couldn’t be an author. An author must be very self-disciplined and have a driving, desperate control of his resources. My physical regimen and workouts are part of this discipline. The body is not made to sit for long stretches of hours. Your heart has to be stimulated and you must get the blood through the system just to clean the sides of the blood vessels. At four o’clock in the afternoon my ears will turn red from work.

INTERVIEWER

Are the hours that you spend writing pleasurable to you?

DONLEAVY

I get waves of pleasantness now and again, but I think I have finally decided they are overall unpleasant. It’s unpleasant to have to sit down and work. It’s a hurdle you have to get over in order to start the machinery of the brain working. It takes a couple of hours each morning. Then, as I reach a high point, at the midsection of the afternoon, I force myself for as long as I can. I sometimes have to make myself get up from the desk and do thirty sit-ups and thirty back exercises just to shift the blood around. If I go past four o’clock I begin to notice that my guts start to get all pressed down, and it’s time to get up and move around. And at times when I can’t indulge the luxury of stopping, by late afternoon I’m kneeling at my desk. Obviously, standing is another method of relieving this. Every writer, I think, has his.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any devices to get you going in the morning?

DONLEAVY

No, just my physical setting. I try not to force myself too much, and to take some leisure. Generally, I eat my breakfast alone about eight o’clock. From my bedroom I have to walk down a long hall to the main staircase and then downstairs walk the same length of hall back to collect my breakfast and then back again to my work room. I sit there and actually enjoy myself. It’s a great time because I overlook a southern walled orchard and flower gardens and I gaze out the window, or read the newspaper, or look at an architectural book or listen to the radio. I must say it’s momentarily very pleasant. But if I’m really driving myself, battling my way, I forbid myself to read the newspaper or turn on the radio and I just sit there alone eating my breakfast. But usually I drive myself so much all day that in the mornings I don’t make it too difficult for myself.

INTERVIEWER

What drives you to write?

DONLEAVY

Money, above all things. Fame goes, but money never does. It’s got its own beauty. It’s never gone to ashes in my mouth. I’ve always exquisitely enjoyed it. And maybe a little bit of revenge. On those somewhere who may be shouting I can’t write to save my ass.

INTERVIEWER

Has money affected your writing in any way?

DONLEAVY

One hundred percent! Totally and absolutely. In fact, I would say that money is everything in my profession. One’s mind almost becomes a vast cash register, clicking away (laughs). It will only ring if certain valves are struck. To sit at a desk and think, and write, you must have peace, and to buy peace costs a fortune. You can’t have people knocking at your door and trying to get money out of you. You have to pay your light bills . . . everything has to be paid for. And therefore, in a capitalistic system, you must become a capitalist as fast as you can.

INTERVIEWER

Has this financial security given you a wider berth in writing more of what you want to write?

DONLEAVY

No, I’ve never made any distinction that way at all. I always sat down to write what I wanted to write and how I wanted to write. I was aware of one thing in my profession: that once you made the mistake of making that distinction, you could no longer call yourself a writer. Rather than that, I was prepared to sweat and struggle and die. I went to live where other people wouldn’t dare to live—in slums, in poverty, because I knew that by doing this I could buy time to work. Things haven’t changed at all. I’m just on another level of struggle. I’m not any different now.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think of as you work?

DONLEAVY

I’m conscious first that whomever picks up the book isn’t going to sit there bored with it; that I’m telling a story; that I’m not allowed to preach; that I can’t use the medium of being an author to be pretentious or profound or smart; that I must keep my humility intact. These are important things for an author to remember.

INTERVIEWER

Has your approach to writing a novel in terms of receiving ideas and setting them down on paper and revising them changed considerably since writing The Ginger Man?

DONLEAVY

Probably not a lot. I think probably in writing that book I began to find my way into my working methods, and they’ve more or less stayed the same. Once the theme of a book is struck, then I write in terms of what I’ve already written. I remember the day when I started A Singular Man. I was sitting in the sunroom of a house out in the west of Ireland, near Clifden in County Galway, and out my window I could see the Atlantic, I was in the middle of my litigations with the Olympia Press over The Ginger Man then and I could see the mailman on his bicycle on the winding mountain road coming to me four hours before he arrived, and I’d sit and wonder what bad news he had for me.

I think it must have been the glamor of America, the glamor of New York as opposed to the isolation and poverty of Ireland that started me on the book. There was a cemetery just over a couple of fields where they were no gravestones. When anyone was buried they’d just pile some boulders on the grave. There were no markings, nothing. One was so isolated out there that I remember that day when the local farmer came rushing across the lawn, pointing up to the sky, and yelling, “There’s a dog up there.” My two children, Philip and Karen, were playing in front of the house. I remember warning my wife that the children should be pulled inside because there was a maniac wandering around. I was struck with terror. I had no contact with the outside world and no way of knowing the Russians had sent a dog up in a spaceship. In Ireland when you buy a newspaper, as often as not they put a recent cover on it, but inside will be an old, old, newspaper. They think news is news and vintage news is better than anything. Indeed, in Ireland, to read a local paper that’s fifty years old is not much different than reading today’s. In that kind of isolation A Singular Man came into being.

INTERVIEWER

What do you look for when you revise?

DONLEAVY

What I look for is a kind of inevitability, the words and sentences falling into an inevitable place that relates to what’s gone before and that will presage what follows. I mean by inevitability finding the right word or the right sentence. For example, the court scene in A Fairy Tale of New York where the lawyers are talking back and forth. There’s an inevitable pacing of reactions, or relationships. The summing up speech that the lawyer gives at the end of the trial seemed very awkward, and strange, yet I knew it was correct. I thought it would be fun to try to read it to college audiences, and for some time I couldn’t but I kept at it until finally I got it, as an actor finally gets a line. This is the inevitability—the words on the page, which lie there naturally, which don’t jar you, and find their own naturalness when they’re said or read.

I suppose I think of myself as a sort of scientist, working with words, relating what is going on in my consciousness to what I put on the paper. It’s like music . . . an orchestration. As in bell-ringing, when you ring, peal the bells, one echoing sound from one word will echo and sound in another. I try to make the words in a sentence fit exactly what’s happening . . . if something is extremely sad all the words will be joined and paced in the rhythm of sadness. If there’s fast action, the words will take on action. I work a long time on the sound-sense of words. Occasionally I find myself trapped trying to get the rhythms down properly and sometimes something just won’t work. There’s one spot in The Ginger Man that I’ve never been able to solve to this day. It isn’t perfect. I always treat it as a life and death matter when words go in their finality on a page. They must be right. In some ways, I was relieved to know, coming back to that passage ten years later and deliberating over it again, that it couldn’t be solved even now till this day with what one assumes is one’s accumulated masterliness.

INTERVIEWER

Some of the names of your characters are alliterative and others seem to have particular meanings . . .

DONLEAVY

It’s very tough getting names because a name conjures up a person. If you remember an old friend named, say, Sebastian, all the characteristics of that person go with his name and tend to stick to it.

INTERVIEWER

Do you look up names in phone directories?

DONLEAVY

No, I try to think them up. I’m also conscious of vicarious libel and inadvertent identifications, picking names. Sometimes the name has a relationship to the character of the person, but sometimes I just like the flavor of it, Cornelius Christian, for example. Or George Smith, which is a name more people probably have than any other in America.

INTERVIEWER

Is the main character basically what drives your book?

DONLEAVY

Yes, they always seem invariably to revolve around one major character.

INTERVIEWER

The theme doesn’t drive the character, the character drives the theme?

DONLEAVY

I’ve not ever stopped to figure that out. If you’re writing a book you don’t, I think, ever resolve that, you just work in terms of what you have.

INTERVIEWER

Is everything in your novels drawn from life or do you imagine some of it?

DONLEAVY

You think you imagine things, and sometimes hope you do, but you really don’t imagine anything completely at all. If you stop and really look into something you think you’ve imagined, you’ll find that it comes out of your life or happened somewhere, sometime. For example, you might describe the hallway of a building or a girl, and think it’s imagined, but if you cast your mind back you’ll find you saw that hallway or that girl somewhere.

INTERVIEWER

How much of a novel do you know when you start?

DONLEAVY

I have the clearest memory about Balthazar B: I was in London passing in a taxi through Knightsbridge, and we were caught in traffic and I just happened to look out of the taxi and standing in front of the Hyde Park Hotel was a man who had been with me at Trinity College, Dublin. I just saw him standing there, and he was someone I had liked immensely. He used to come to see me late in the evenings when I was painting in my rooms. He’d sit for hours talking to me. I couldn’t get out of the taxi or shout to him because we were in the middle of traffic. I only saw him for seven or eight seconds, but that was the beginning of Balthazar B—that man’s life.

INTERVIEWER

Did the whole novel come into your head as you sat in the taxi?

DONLEAVY

The period came back—its atmosphere and incidents that had affected my own life, some of which had affected his, and the stories. I’ve never been to an English public school, for instance, but, clearly, having had so many English friends over the years and listening to their tales of school life, writing about it came quite naturally to me. Anyone who has been to public school and picked up Balthazar B, God they’re back there.

INTERVIEWER

Can you give us an example?

DONLEAVY

Yes, the scene of sewing of the elephant . . . Now this came from an incident during the London production of The Ginger Man. This chap from Cambridge came into the theater one day, a young, elegant man who had inherited a shipping fortune and was in the process of spending all of it. My two producers—Philip Wiseman and Tony Walton—had just discovered they suddenly needed another thousand pounds desperately and wondered who the hell they were going to collar to get it, and of course the victim had just suddenly and opportunely presented himself, and Tony pounced. This chap stood there and looked at Walton, and a tiny little smile came on his face. He said nothing at all, just nodded yes. I thought, “What an extraordinary thing that he would drop a thousand quid he more than likely would never see again, suddenly like that, with this tiny little smile.” In showbiz everyone is always conning everyone else, trying to get money out of them to go ahead with a play—it’s a desperate blackmail on all sides. A long time later I asked him, “What went through your mind when that little glimmer of a smile came on your face?” He said, “Well, I’ll tell you. When Tony asked me for the money I was suddenly taken back in my life to when I was a little prep school boy and I was being brought by my nanny to my first school, never having been away from home before, and I had a little elephant. We drove up in this great big chauffeured car to this great awful school—I was let out and led into this school and left in a room where all these little bastards descended upon me and took my elephant and pulled it apart. It was ripped to shreds, and I was beaten up.” Later that evening in the dormitory, he said, he was there crying in bed, without this little elephant which he’d always had to hug to sleep at night. And suddenly there appeared at his bedside this little boy who was just at that moment sewing up the last of his elephant to give back to him. Tony Walton, my producer, was that little boy who did this. And that’s how I heard that story and it came to be in Balthazar B.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have abandoned projects that you got a hundred pages into and dropped?

DONLEAVY

Yes, but I seem always to have gone back to them. There are still a couple of books I still want to go back to, books I couldn’t get into because of troubles and difficulties in my life. A Fairy Tale of New York was like that. It was originally a novel. But at the time when I was going through so much litigation with the Olympia Press, I couldn’t work on it. But I could work on A Singular Man because it was in the nature of my litigation: people constantly having to threaten and intimidate other people to get things out of them, particularly money. The first thing a lawyer asks you for is money. You become his victim. I had to leave A Fairy Tale until many years later.

INTERVIEWER

Does your publisher, Seymour Lawrence, act as an editor for you?

DONLEAVY

No, but I think he may be better than an editor: He acts as a conscience but none of my work is touched by anybody except me. No changes whatever are made. Not even spelling, though as you possibly have noticed, I can’t spell and I aggravate that by being very stubborn. Someone invariably used to sit down with my manuscript and start to correct spelling and grammar. But there were certain things that I liked the look of or sound of, and I would insist they were left like that. And limousine is now spelled L-I-M-O-Z-I-N-E. I was delighted to learn just recently that Lawrence prefers it that way too.

INTERVIEWER

When do you feel finished with a book? Painters can keep painting and touching up pictures . . .

DONLEAVY

You never know exactly, but suddenly that day arrives and it just happens. It’s an instinctive thing.

INTERVIEWER

Are there any writers who have influenced your style or realm of concern?

DONLEAVY

Yes. About four—Henry Miller, obviously James Joyce, even Thomas Wolfe, and Franz Kafka especially. Kafka’s picture of the world always enthralled me, his vision of man. And his mysterious, anonymous world full of secrets. That’s always been one of the largest influences. And Joyce, his use of language, from my early, early days, though interchanging first and third person is my invention—it has been used by one or two authors since.

INTERVIEWER

Another of your specialities is the little poems at the end of chapters.

DONLEAVY

I suppose they’re small epitaphs. I wrote one in spontaneously once and then suddenly found myself using them as chapter endings. One always has it in the back of one’s head to be a poet. Novelists are often poets to begin with.

INTERVIEWER

Who do you read of your contemporaries?

DONLEAVY

No one. I don’t seem to have any contemporaneous literary interests. Literature, I must confess, doesn’t greatly attract my attention.

INTERVIEWER

Do you avoid other writers?

DONLEAVY

To some degree and I seem to be deliberate about this, but not rude. I think a writer must be a loner by the nature of the profession. In my own case, I’ve found any kind of relationship with another author extremely unsatisfactory because frequently the author wants to progress by defeating his fellow. And that’s not where the battle is at all. So, I think basically any author who has any kind of serious intention about his profession should restrict relationships with other writers right away. But in the early stages of his career, a writer does need an audience, and another writer can become your best fan because writers are sensitive to good writing. I find that any fans I’ve got are way, way above the man in the street. I am instantly able to assume they’re highly intelligent, literate people that I could feel at ease with at times and at a distance, they substitute in a way for literary company. In Europe writers tend to do what I’m talking about now: to isolate themselves and lead private lives. Whereas, in New York, everyone seems to know everyone and they get together and talk about their work. There is a point, I suppose, where going to parties is important, but that’s not being a writer, that’s being in the literary marketplace. These—people, editors, agents, reviewers with a sprinkling of authors—constitute a political force in writing; they can in their Ouija-board manner, decide whose literary stock is up. It’s just like the stock market: Is he up? Is he down? And this affects actors, writers, producers . . . everyone. So a young writer without an audience I suppose has to be out there showing himself. But when you have an audience, the only thing to concern yourself about is who reads your books. That’s all. Forget other writers; stay away from them. Sometimes you can’t avoid meeting someone else, and then you must be civil.

INTERVIEWER

How about reading their books?

DONLEAVY

Also reading their books. Stay away. It’s not your business. Not for a serious author.

INTERVIEWER

You don’t think they could be inspiring or useful?

DONLEAVY

No. Under no circumstances whatever.

INTERVIEWER

Do you read any novels at all?

DONLEAVY

No. I don’t think I’ve read a novel for years and years. I pick up an occasional biography about Fitzgerald or some other writer, but I hardly even read those now. I have read another author inadvertently. Sometimes books are sent to me, and I might open up one and read three or four lines. I know right away whether this is a great author, a bad author, whatever. And I’m usually interested to hear if my wife or someone has enjoyed it. I always like to see authors do well and make out well. The few cases where I’ve ever reviewed books is when a book has come to me and I knew the author wouldn’t get a review unless I did it . . . So I’m concerned over that aspect.

INTERVIEWER

What is the detriment in reading other authors?

DONLEAVY

I think you want to concern yourself with what makes your own books, and the only thing that makes your own books is what you see, feel, and hear. I’m not afraid of picking up things from them. I’m only concerned that what I read isn’t something that’s gone through the wheels of my own mind; it’s already gone through the wheels of somebody else’s and is there in print.

INTERVIEWER

You will read the newspaper because it is factual?

DONLEAVY

Yes. Some of the writing that you see in The New York Times is quite marvelous. And The Wall Street Journal. I pick up those papers and find many events in the world at large that strike me. I actually work with a scissors, and clip out stories about murders and homicides—that type of thing—and take them back to Ireland with me.

INTERVIEWER

Do these stories end up in your books?

DONLEAVY

Just overtones of the situation, the weather perhaps. I cut out the weather reports; they are incredible, beautiful things, so marvelously documented: the face of the moon, the tides, the shipping that’s going in and out of New York.

INTERVIEWER

How would those things find their way into a book?

DONLEAVY

When writing about New York City, for instance, it always interests me exactly what the subsoil is like, the background, the Indian history of an area . . . even though I may never use it in a book. Another great interest which works in the same way is maps and buildings. I love looking at buildings and have many books on the architecture of New York City. I spend hours looking at these. From these things the atmosphere of a place comes.

INTERVIEWER

What else do you read?

DONLEAVY

I read all sorts of crazy things. Movie magazines, Screen Gems, Screw, farming journals. I read about ecology and grasslands and farming a great deal.

INTERVIEWER

How much of the day do you spend reading? Do you read at night?

DONLEAVY

Sometimes in the evening. But I generally don’t read to relax. After my work out on the farm, if I haven’t got some of my kids and their friends at the house to play soccer with, I take a sauna, and a shower, and then I go swimming. My house is quite an astonishing place, like something, I suppose, out of Beverly Hills. I have a separate wing for my secretary and an indoor pool in a room which is as long as this room here (over sixty feet), and three times as high. This is one of the reasons why I don’t set foot off the place for months at a time. When I’m finished with the pool and sauna it’s about 7:30 P.M., and then I go to our upstairs apartment and watch some television in front of a great big blazing fire and often have dinner there. Then I go to bed and repeat that the next day. I’m tired in the evenings. My responsibilities with the farm are immense. There are things happening all the time. Although my wife, who’s excellent on a tractor, masters most of these.

INTERVIEWER

Do you let that intrude on you?

DONLEAVY

I used to take time off for the farm when I didn’t have to drive myself through the grind of delivering a manuscript. When I go back home I’ve got it all planned to return to being a gentleman author and farmer . . . stopping work at two o’clock and going out on the farm. I’m a good stonemason, and I enjoy that a lot. I enjoy doing heavy work too.

INTERVIEWER

Do you try to give advice to young writers on getting going?

DONLEAVY

I have given some. Usually to the effect that they go out on their own and fight their own battles; support themselves and accumulate the money to make them writers. I discourage things like grants. I’ve refused grants that have been offered to me. I think a man has to stand independently and say what he wants, and he’s got to pay for it himself . . . like a farmer standing on his own land can say: Get off my land, this belongs to me. It’s exactly the same principle. That you are answerable to no one. When I give talks at a college about writing, I talk about the financial aspects of writing, the technicalities of the profession of authorship. I give out advice liberally—since whether I like it or not I’ve been forced to become an authority on contract, copyright, all kinds of business that concerns writers.

INTERVIEWER

What would you say is the best intellectual training for a writer?

DONLEAVY

Get a book on the law of contracts, learn to touch type and take shorthand. All those tough practical things are the things to learn first. Then I think you just have to face up to writing terrible stuff; try to put it down and just keep at it until it loses its self-consciousness. Try to write as if you’re writing a letter to a good friend. I think it’s as simple as that. That’s thirty percent of the struggle. Seventy percent, the rest of it, is getting a good publisher. That’s essential, and you must have enough savvy that you can enforce your rights and your position with a publisher—make sure that he treats your books well.

INTERVIEWER

Publicity you mean?

DONLEAVY

Often, yes, promotion, advertising. And readable type, good paper, printing, proper covers that will last and sell to people. But you can do all these things, and the books will be on the stands and the public won’t buy them. There’s nothing an author can do about that. There’re all sorts of things which sell books—fads, fashions, well-known authors, authors who are not well known. For instance, it could be damaging to someone like me or J. D. Salinger to become famous in the famous sense of being famous. A lot of people have secret imaginings and ideals about authors and they don’t want these ideals ruined.

INTERVIEWER

Do you get fan mail about your books?

DONLEAVY

Yes. Often amazingly interesting stuff. Some of them recount experiences. Some tell me how desperately off they are. I don’t reply. I figure it’s their relationship with the book, not with me, that makes them write. It disillusions them to meet an author because they’re dealing with dreams, imaginings that are in the book. The only letters I reply to are professional business letters.

I’ve had one or two fans turn up where I live. This doesn’t often happen. My wife thought one girl was the spitting image of Abigail in The Saddest Summer of Samuel S, which I was casting for the theatre, and that I had to take a look at her. She had the girl weeding out in the rose garden and I could see her out my window. She was the spitting image of Abigail. Finally, I did meet her out of civility. She’d brought me a bottle of whiskey. And was a pleasant girl. Her first introduction to me was The Saddest Summer of Samuel S, interestingly enough.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have an ideal reader?

DONLEAVY

I suppose very isolated, lonely folk. I remember one letter from a girl in a Midwestern town who read one of my books and thought she had discovered it—that no one had ever read it or knew about it. Then one day in her local library she found cards for one or two of my other books. They were full of names—the books were borrowed all the time. She resented this a bit and then walked around the town forever after, looking in everybody’s face and wondering if they were the ones who were reading my books. That is someone I write for. The only thing which supports me are the fans who read what I write.

INTERVIEWER

Do people ever recognize you?

DONLEAVY

I was in the Metropolitan Museum of Art a couple of years ago, walking across the lobby, and a man came up and tapped me on the back. He said, “Hello, you’re Mr. Donleavy?” I said yes. He said, “Well, I’m sorry to disturb you like this, but I did want you to know that there was someone here in this building who knew who you were.” Very curious attitude to take. I’ve had a lot of funny things happen. Suddenly one day in New York numerous ladies with those blue rinses were turning around and looking at me in the streets. This puzzled me till I found The Book of the Month Club had just sent out one of its brochures for a book of mine with a big picture of me.

The most curious occurrence of all was the time I was outside a funeral parlor writing in my notebook and watching everything going on—preparing for A Fairy Tale of New York. As I crossed the street after a half-hour on that corner I felt a tap on my back. I turned around and it was a young girl. She was obviously full of trepidation accosting a strange man in New York and she whispered “Are you J. P. Donleavy?” I said yes. She went “Aghhhhhh,” and started staggering backwards. We were in the middle of the street and a great truck was coming around the corner right at her. Of course the driver had no idea that the person who was crossing the street would stop in the middle and then rear backwards. I had to jump forward and grab her by both arms and pull her out of the way to save her life.

INTERVIEWER

Does this recognition please you?

DONLEAVY

My wife thinks I’m constantly walking around thinking I’m famous and that someone’s recognized me when all they’re looking at is my possible bad taste in clothing. I try to avoid this self-conscious thought. But I have to be aware that there may be one man out of 10,000 who knows, “I know who that man is.” They always act a certain way. If I’m walking along the street and someone who is coming toward me suddenly looks down, and smiles as he walks by me, then I know they’ve recognized me. That reaction happens quite a bit, and I’ve figured out why they are smiling. They’re usually imagining the part in The Ginger Man where Dangerfield pulls on the toilet chain and all the crap comes out of the ceiling and down on the head of his wife Marion.

It’s a phenomenon that I became conscious of when I returned to the United States. Even though I am not known, not a celebrated author, I have these odd fans I come across nearly anywhere as I perambulate around the streets. After all my years of struggle, it makes me realize that in my own way I have conquered America, totally silently, totally from underground and from within and that television or being interviewed doesn’t matter.

INTERVIEWER

Do you pay attention to critics?

DONLEAVY

Only in a fairly superficial way—the size of reviews, where they appear. But I will read the well-written ones. Which some are. In America the critics have treated me overall extremely well. But I usually only read enough to have an idea of whether they’re going to be damaging, and what must be done to try to protect the book.

INTERVIEWER

How would you protect a book from a review?

DONLEAVY

I don’t suppose you can, really. There was one U.S. reviewer who wrote a review which was perhaps the worst and most damaging thing that has ever been written about me, saying that I had extracted huge advances from my publishers and had written one failure after another, and that I had just written another total failure which he was presently reviewing. It was highly, highly damaging, yet I laughed when I first saw it. Only after a while I realized that it was not amusing at all and was a deliberate and calculated attack for his own personal reasons. And this was in fact confirmed when I later heard about the background of the man.

INTERVIEWER

But your writing isn’t affected?

DONLEAVY

No. Because a writer must always be aware that he has to be a supreme critic. He’s an awfully bad writer if he isn’t. And only his judgment matters. This allows you to work in all kinds of conditions and climates of opinion. It is essential. If you’re wrong, there will be nobody around listening when you say you’re right.

INTERVIEWER

Some critics have called you a “black humorist.” Do you think of yourself that way?

DONLEAVY

Not much, no. I’ve been classified, as a lot of writers have, in a dozen different categories, starting with “the angry young man.” In fact, that’s how I first got published in America; John Osborne was interviewed and he said, “There’s a man who wrote a book over there who’s not an Englishman at all, who’s another ‘angry young man’.”

INTERVIEWER

So you think of critics only in relation to the commercial success of the book?

DONLEAVY

Well at least to its recognition. Reviews don’t necessarily sell a book. It’s a free medium in which books get attention. Yet, in England, where my books have on occasion been quite badly treated by critics, the publishers just laugh about the effect on sales. Although when I saw three of four panning reviews in the Sunday press, I did get worried, but they weren’t concerned. In paperback, particularly, nothing stops the books.

INTERVIEWER

Why do you think the critics are so rude?

DONLEAVY

A lot of it is political. All writers have a political position and naturally a critic wants to treat this position because that’s his business. That’s how he makes his living and finds his position. I did uncover what was happening in the English case of the ridicule of Balthazar B. There was one panning review of A Singular Man that got a lot of attention in England. It got sent out to all the papers and was kept in their dead files. So when a reviewer was handed my new book, he went and opened up the dead file and found this panning review of A Singular Man, so he followed up with a panning review of the next book. So ever since in certain papers I’ve had a series of panning reviews.

INTERVIEWER

Do they like your writing in Ireland?

DONLEAVY

On a critical level not especially, no. I’m resented and hated, bitterly I would think.

INTERVIEWER

Has The Ginger Man appeared there?

DONLEAVY

No, it’s still banned. I remember A Fairy Tale of New York came out and not one review appeared in any Irish newspaper. At the same time, hardly much time goes by but that something referring to me will be in the papers. And reviews appeared in all the English periodicals. So it was most curious no critical notice of A Fairy Tale of New York appeared in Ireland. The resentment still rages. Yet, incredibly, the Irish government allows authors to live tax-free. Also composers, painters, sculptors.

INTERVIEWER

Do you consider your new book, The Unexpurgated Code, a major departure? It is your first nonfiction.

DONLEAVY

I don’t know quite how to classify it. I think it’s possibly still fiction. But I think it came from the business of changing with some frequency from the courteous society of London to the semidiscourteous one of New York.

INTERVIEWER

Does the Code reflect more of a social reality that is still current in England and Ireland than it is here? This country is sort of a classless society . . .

DONLEAVY

I don’t think so. I regard American society as the most snobbish, the most class-ridden society of all. Much more than England. All you have to do is read a social column in The Daily News, or these advice columns to find out how much importance is placed on social image. It’s immense! I may be more aware of it because of my Irish background, and this cultural background isolated me in America, although I never realized that socially by definition I was lower class. Now, superimposed on that, imagine going to Ireland and finding one’s ancestry and antecedents predate the Mayflower, the Daughters of this and that and most American family histories. So in a strange way I had feet in two different camps. A friend of mine, called A. K. Donoghue, was very conscious always of being “lower class”—in a Boston Irish sense.

INTERVIEWER

You knew him at Trinity?

DONLEAVY

Yeah. And although he denies anything to do with The Ginger Man, he is, I suppose, the prototype for Kenneth O’Keefe. He was raised in an Irish ghetto or community in Boston, and he would constantly remind me of my social position. He thought I was assuming all kinds of airs because I was a New York Irishman who hadn’t been raised in an Irish ghetto. He knew his place—he was socially beyond the pale. And we had this dialogue over all these years. “Donleavy, you know, you’re putting on airs. You’re walking around with the latest English accent in a good suit. Don’t you know what you are?” And I saying, “No, I haven’t an idea.”

When he went to Harvard, he was ostracized, couldn’t join any of the good clubs, and was one of the Boston boys who appeared with his lunch bag. Later, he changed his accent through phonetics. This amused me and became part of The Code, as a lesson on how to social climb.

INTERVIEWER

Where is Donoghue now?

DONLEAVY

He’s back in America, in California. He is presently a hospital mortuary technician in Sacramento. But he also gives lectures on medical subjects and writes journalism and poetry. I asked him how he liked his job, and he said, “I hate it; it stinks.”

INTERVIEWER

Did your move to Ireland change the path of your life?

DONLEAVY

Yes. Utterly. It also romanticized the United States for me so that it became a subject for me as a writer, very much as Dublin was to Joyce, since Joyce wrote mostly on the continent of Europe.

INTERVIEWER

You studied zoology at Trinity College. Why?

DONLEAVY

I was always interested in medicine and science. But I knew that I was going to be a writer. Donoghue was someone who used to come into my rooms at Trinity and see something in the typewriter and glance at it. I’d ask him, “What do you think of that, Donoghue?” and he’d say “It stinks!” This went on for days and days, every time he’d come in trying to get food from me. And then—he was a classicist—one night I typed out some Plato and left it in my typewriter, and I had it ready for him as he popped in. And I said, “Okay, Donoghue, there it is in the typewriter. Now let’s have your opinion on that.” “That stinks too.” “Look, Donoghue, I’ve tried awfully hard with this.” He’d say, “Doesn’t matter. You’re never going to make it.” I made him give it a second reading, but he said it still stunk. Then I revealed to him it was Plato. And that stopped him staring at my typewriter. He finally conceded, “What the hell, you work hard, maybe you’ll make it.”

INTERVIEWER

How do your friends like Donoghue and other acquaintances feel about finding themselves or incidents of their lives in your books?

DONLEAVY

I’m not quite sure. We’ve never talked about it, but I suppose it has appealed to their vanity. In Donoghue’s case I think he entirely ignores it. But I’ve often thought, Good Lord, no one’s ever put me in a book. Why the hell doesn’t someone write about me once in a while—feeling totally overlooked because no one thinks I’m worth writing about.

INTERVIEWER

Did the incident of the toilet overflowing happen?

DONLEAVY

Yes, and it was far worse than described in The Ginger Man. The thing that made it so extraordinary was that everyone was sitting in the living room on a social occasion, and Gainor Crist, who’s often thought of as Dangerfield, pulled the toilet chain and everything came pouring out of the ceiling. It took over two hours for the debris to be cleaned up. It was on a Sunday afternoon and I must have had to visit the gent’s and he walked up with me because he was talking earnestly on some temporarily major topic and I was the only man who would listen without question to everything he had to say; he was also the only man in the world who ever listened to me unquestioningly. So we were very good together. At any rate, we mounted the stair and we went to the lavatory, where we both urinated. Having already showered everybody in the place and having already been told fifty times going up the staircase not to pull the goddamn chain, he got engrossed in this story. He said, “Mike, I can tell you if there’s one thing in this world I’m going to do . . .” and he reached up and grabbed the chain again and pulled it to make his point forcefully. And then up came the screams. Everyone was immersed for the second time!

INTERVIEWER

What’s he doing now?

DONLEAVY

He’s dead, actually.

INTERVIEWER

Donoghue said about you: Where most of us become afraid of death at about age forty, you were always afraid of death. Is that so?

DONLEAVY

I was quite obsessed with it always, and fascinated by it. Still am. It has always frightened me in the United States. I’m very fearful of dying and death here. I’m tense every day until my wife gets home. You can’t walk in comfort anywhere in this city. You have to be constantly conscious of what’s going on around you. It makes it impossible for me to conduct my business as an author . . . I don’t get any chance for reverie. You build up this fear and suddenly the fear is all around you. It prevents you from enjoying anything. You’re constantly surprised as you walk out into the street to find it’s a sunny day and people are walking along unhampered in their lives.

INTERVIEWER

Do you remember growing up with fear at all?

DONLEAVY

No, I don’t. No. I keep thinking back to the period which Fairy Tale in New York concerns—the years around 1950. I don’t recall there being the kind or extent of street violence there is now.

I don’t have feelings like that in Ireland. There you die in your bed if you possibly can, and are taken to your cemetery. I did have a cemetery in the previous house I had. I’m now hoping to have another private cemetery on this place, but I’ll need county council approval.

INTERVIEWER

Is it easy to establish a private cemetery?

DONLEAVY

Yes, you just get planning permission.

INTERVIEWER

You can’t bury anybody on your front lawn?

DONLEAVY

Yes you can. There was in fact a case where a gentleman in England buried his wife in his back garden. The neighbors objected and it was taken to Court and he won. You can, in fact, bury yourself where you like.