Interviews

Frank O’Connor, The Art of Fiction No. 19

Interviewed by Anthony Whittier

SCENE: Frank O’Connor is of medium height and build; he has heavy silver hair, brushed back; dark, heavy eyebrows; and a mustache. His voice is bass-baritone in pitch and very resonant—what has been described as jukebox bass. His accent is Irish, but with no suggestion of the “flannel-mouth,” his intonation musical. He enjoys talk and needed no urging regarding the subject of the  interview. His clothes tend toward the tweedy and casual: desert boots, corduroy jacket, rough tweed topcoat; and a bit of California touch evident in a heavy silver ornament hung on a cord around his neck in place of a tie.

Although a friendly and approachable man, O’Connor has a way of appraising you on early meetings, which suggests the Irishman who would just as soon knock you down as look at you if he doesn’t like what he sees. His wife provides a description of an encounter with a group of loitering teenagers while the two of them were out for a walk. A remark of some sort was made, O’Connor whipped over to them and told them to get home if they knew what was good for them. The boys took him in, silvery hair and all, and moved off.

O'Connor's apartment is in Brooklyn, where he lives with his pretty young American wife. The large white-walled modern living room has a wide corner view of lower Manhattan and New York Harbor. The Brooklyn Bridge sweeps away across the river from a point close at hand. On his table, just under the window looking out on the harbor, are a typewriter, a small litter of papers, and a pair of binoculars. The binoculars are for watching liners “on their way to Ireland,” to which he returns once a year. He says he’d die if he didn’t.

 

INTERVIEWER

What determined you to become a writer?

FRANK O’CONNOR

I’ve never been anything else. From the time I was nine or ten, it was a toss-up whether I was going to be a writer or a painter, and I discovered by the time I was sixteen or seventeen that paints cost too much money, so I became a writer because you could be a writer with a pencil and a penny notebook. I did at one time get a scholarship to Paris,* but I couldn’t afford to take it up because of the family. That’s where my life changed its course; otherwise I’d have been a painter. I have a very strongly developed imitative instinct, which I notice is shared by some of my children. I always wrote down bits of music that impressed me in staff notation, though I couldn’t read staff notation—I didn’t learn to read it until I was thirty-five—but this always gave me the air of being a     musician. And in the same way, I painted. I remember a friend of mine who painted in water colors and he was rather shy. He was painting in the city, so he used to get up at six in the morning when there was nobody to observe him and go out and paint. And one day he was going in to work at nine o’clock and he saw a little girl sitting where he had sat, with a can of water and an old stick, pretending to paint a picture—she’d obviously been watching him from an upstairs window. That’s what I mean by the imitative instinct, and I’ve always had that strongly developed. So I always play at   knowing things until, in fact, I find I’ve learned them almost by accident.

INTERVIEWER

Why do you prefer the short story for your medium?

O’CONNOR

Because it’s the nearest thing I know to lyric poetry—I wrote lyric poetry for a long time, then discovered that God had not intended me to be a lyric poet, and the nearest thing to that is the short story. A novel actually requires far more logic and far more knowledge of circumstances, whereas a short story can have the sort of detachment from circumstances that lyric poetry has.

INTERVIEWER

Faulkner has said, “Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can’t, and then tries the short story, which is the most demanding form after poetry. And, failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.” What do you think about this?

O’CONNOR

I’d love to console myself, it’s that neat—it sounds absolutely perfect except that it implies, as from a short-story writer, that the novel is just an easy sort of thing that you slide gently into,    whereas, in fact, my own experience with the novel is that it was always too difficult for me to do. At least to do a novel like Pride and Prejudice requires something more than to be a failed B.A. or a failed poet or a failed short-story writer, or a failed anything else. Creating in the novel a sense of continuing life is the thing. We don’t have that problem in the short story, where you merely suggest continuing life. In the novel, you have to create it, and that explains one of my quarrels with modern novels. Even a novel like As I Lay Dying, which I admire enormously, is not a novel at all, it’s a short story. To me a novel is something that’s built around the character of time, the nature of time, and the effects that time has on events and characters. When I see a novel that’s supposed to take place in twenty-four hours, I just wonder why the man padded out the short story.

INTERVIEWER

Yeats said, “O’Connor is doing for Ireland what Chekhov did for Russia.” What do you think of Chekhov?

O’CONNOR

Oh, naturally I admire Chekhov extravagantly, I think every short-story writer does. He’s inimitable, a person to read and admire and worship—but never, never, never to imitate. He’s got all the most extraordinary technical devices, and the moment you start imitating him without those technical devices, you fall into a sort of rambling narrative, as I think even a good story writer like Katherine Mansfield did. She sees that Chekhov apparently constructs a story without episodic interest, so she decides that if she constructs a story without episodic interest it will be equally good. It isn’t. What she forgets is that Chekhov had a long career as a journalist, as a writer for comic magazines, writing squibs, writing vaudevilles, and he had learned the art very, very early of maintaining interest, of creating a bony structure. It’s only concealed in the later work. They think they can do without that bony structure, but they’re all wrong.

INTERVIEWER

What about your experiences in the Irish Republican Army?

O’CONNOR

My soldiering was rather like my efforts at being a musician; it was an imitation of the behavior of soldiers rather than soldiering. I was completely incapable of remembering anything for ten minutes. And I always got alarmed the moment people started shooting at me, so I was a wretchedly bad soldier, but that doesn’t prevent you from picking up the atmosphere of the period. I really got into it when I was about fifteen as a sort of Boy Scout, doing odd jobs, for the I.R.A., and then continued on with it until finally I was captured and interned for a year. Nearly all the writers went with the extreme Republican group. People like O’Faolain, myself, Francis Stuart, Peadar O’Donnell, all the young writers of our generation went Republican. Why we did it, the Lord knows, except that young writers are never capable of getting the facts of anything correctly.

INTERVIEWER

And after that, you were with the Abbey?

O’CONNOR

Yes, for a few years. Yeats said, “I looked around me and saw all the successful businesses were being run by ex-gunmen, so I said, ‘I must have gunmen,’ and now the theater’s on its feet again.” Again, Yeats was a romantic man who romanticized me as a gunman, whereas in fact I was very much a student—I always have been a student masquerading as a gunman. I’d been a director for a number of years and then I was managing director for a period—the only other managing director before me had been Yeats. So I said to him, “What do I do as managing director of this theater?” And he said, “Well, that’s the question I asked Lady Gregory when I was named managing director, and she said, ‘Give very few orders, but see they’re obeyed.’” It must have been about a year after I became a director of the board, when we had at last got the thing organized properly, which it hadn’t been for years, that the secretary submitted his report and read out that the balance for the year was one and sixpence—about thirty cents—and there was great applause. It was the first time in years the theater had paid its way.

INTERVIEWER

What writers do you feel have influenced you in your own work?

O’CONNOR

It’s very hard to say. The man who has influenced me most, I suppose, is really Isaac Babel, and again with that natural enthusiasm of mine for imitating everybody, “Guests of the Nation” and a couple of the other stories in that book are really imitations of Babel’s stories in The Red Cavalry [Konarmiia].

INTERVIEWER

What about working habits? How do you start a story?

O’CONNOR

“Get black on white” used to be Maupassant’s advice—that’s what I always do. I don’t give a hoot what the writing’s like, I write any sort of rubbish which will cover the main outlines of the story, then I can begin to see it. When I write, when I draft a story, I never think of writing nice sentences about, “It was a nice August evening when Elizabeth Jane Moriarty was coming down the road.” I just write roughly what happened, and then I’m able to see what the construction looks like. It’s the design of the story that to me is most important, the thing that tells you there’s a bad gap in the narrative here and you really ought to fill that up in some way or another. I’m always looking at the design of a story, not the treatment. Yesterday I was finishing off a piece about my friend A. E. Coppard, the greatest of all the English storytellers, who died about a fortnight ago. I was describing the way Coppard must have written these stories, going around with a notebook, recording what the lighting looked like, what that house looked like, and all the time using metaphor to suggest it to himself, “The road looked like a mad serpent going up the hill,” or something of the kind, and, “She said so-and-so, and the man in the pub said something else.” After he had written them all out, he must have got the outline of his story, and he’d start working in all the details. Now, I could never do that at all. I’ve got to see what these people did, first of all, and then I start thinking of whether it was a nice August evening or a spring evening. I have to wait for the theme before I can do anything.

INTERVIEWER

Do you rewrite?

O’CONNOR

Endlessly, endlessly, endlessly. And keep on rewriting, and after it’s published, and then after it’s published in book form, I usually rewrite it again. I’ve rewritten versions of most of my early stories and one of these days, God help, I’ll publish these as well.

INTERVIEWER

Do you keep notes as a source of supply for future stories?

O’CONNOR

Just notes of themes. If somebody tells me a good story, I’ll write it down in my four lines; that is the secret of the theme. If you make the subject of a story twelve or fourteen lines, that’s a treatment. You’ve already committed yourself to the sort of character, the sort of surroundings, and the moment you’ve committed yourself, the story is already written. It has ceased to be fluid, you can’t design it any longer, you can’t model it. So I always confine myself to my four lines. If it won’t go into four, that means you haven’t reduced it to its ultimate simplicity, reduced it to the fable.

INTERVIEWER

I have noticed in your stories a spareness of physical description of people and places. Why this apparent rejection of sense impressions?

O’CONNOR

I thoroughly agree, it’s one of the things I know I do, and sometimes when I’m reading Coppard I feel that it’s entirely wrong. I’d love to be able to describe people as he describes them, and landscapes as he describes them, but I begin the story in the man’s head and it never gets out of the man’s head. And in fact, in real life, when you meet somebody in the street you don’t start recording that she had this sort of nose—at least a man doesn’t. I mean, if you’re the sort of person that meets a girl in the street and instantly notices the color of her eyes and of her hair and the sort of dress she’s wearing, then you’re not in the least like me. I just notice a feeling from people. I notice particularly the cadence of their voices, the sort of phrases they’ll use, and that’s what I’m all the time trying to hear in my head, how people word things—because everybody speaks an entirely different language, that’s really what it amounts to. I have terribly sensitive hearing and I’m terribly aware of voices. If I remember somebody, for instance, that I was very fond of, I don’t remember what he or she looked like, but I can absolutely take off the voice. I’m a good mimic; I’ve a bit of the actor in me, I suppose, that’s really what it amounts to. I cannot pass a story as finished unless I connect it myself, unless I know how everybody in it spoke, which, as I say, can go quite well with the fact that I couldn’t tell you in the least what they looked like. If I use the right phrase and the reader hears the phrase in his head, he sees the individual. It’s like writing for the theater, you see. A bad playwright will “pull” an actor because he’ll tell him what to do, but a really good playwright will give you a part that you can do what you like with. It’s transferring to the reader the responsibility for acting those scenes. I’ve given him all the information I have and put it into his own life.

INTERVIEWER

What about adapting your own work to another medium—say, movies?

O’CONNOR

Well, I’ve tried it here and there and generally it’s pretty awful. First of all, I’ve never been really allowed to follow through with a movie as I’d like to do it. One of my sad experiences with the movies is with the film I did for the Lifeboat Society. I was told that my story mustn’t sink anything larger than a tiny fishing boat because that was all the money they had, so I wrote the story about the fishing boat—two brothers who wouldn’t have anything to do with each other, one commanding the lifeboat, the other, skipper of the fishing boat. When the director came down to the location, a magnificent American ship had gone on the sands, and he    decided to shift the story and bring in the American ship, so he brought it in. The producer saw the film and said, “But this isn’t the story you were told to film!” So, the producer then canned the beautiful thing about the ship, all the money was gone, and they couldn’t give me my little boat, and all the thing you had was somebody telling the story. It wasn’t the same. What I really enjoy doing is transferring stories to the air. Again, my sort of story is suitable for that. The ones I’ve seen on television, they don’t impress me. Again, they become too precise. Also, of course, there is this awful business in television, even, certainly with the cinema, of the amount of money involved, so that everything has to be  tested again, and again, and again; this thing’s got to be submitted to So-and-so, and So-and-so, and they all lay down different laws and your script is being changed all the time. Finally, what comes over is nobody’s job—it’s a sort of accident, and sometimes, by accident, you’ll get a fairly decent movie or a fairly decent television show. But you never have that feeling you have in the theater, or in the story, above all (that’s the reason I like writing short stories) that you’re your own theater. You can control every bloomin’ thing—if you say it’s going to be twilight, it’s going to be twilight and you’re not asking the advice of a lighting man who will say to you, “Well, you can’t have a second twilight, you had twilight ten minutes ago, you can’t have another one.” You can do what you please and you’re ultimately the only person responsible. To tell you the truth, I don’t think any of this mass media is a satisfactory art form. The real trouble is, the moment you get a mass audience, commercial interests become involved. They say, Oh, boy! There’s big money in this! Now we’ve got to consider what the audiences like. And then they tell you, Now you mustn’t offend the Catholics, you mustn’t offend the Jews, you mustn’t offend the Salvation Army, you mustn’t offend the mayors of cities. They make a list of taboos a mile long, and then they say, Now, inside this, you can say what you like—and it’s maniac. The moment big money’s involved and the pressures are put on, that is going to happen. And they’re the most wonderful artists in the world. I mean, it’s all damn well to talk, but Hollywood has the finest brains in the world out there. But they’re up against all these vested interests, and vested interests are the very devil for the artist. In the Abbey, the government voted to give us a hundred thousand dollars to build a new theater, and instantly the intrigues began: Who was going to be the manager of this theater? This is going to be a really worthwhile job; big money in this, boys. And as long as it was a question of who was going to lose money in accepting this job, you got service. But that is true, and that’s the really frightening thing about it. The people who want to exploit the forty million are the danger. And they don’t want to exploit ‘em too far—bless ‘em, they’re so nice, they’re so decent—I mean, between ourselves, you don’t really want to hurt the feelings of this old Jew down here—and you don’t, you don’t! All you know perfectly well is you’re not saying anything to hurt his feelings. But somebody is interpreting for him, he’s not being allowed to give his own views at all. You get the smart commercial boy who is going to tell you, Well, what they really like now is a little bit of sadism. Couldn’t you introduce just a little sadistic scene here? And he’ll introduce it, all right. Again, the forty million; left to their own decent devices, they would probably reject the sadistic thing. They’re being told, Now this is what you like. No, no, you can only do works of art with an audience that you know, with all commercial people left out of it. The great theater is a theater like the Abbey, which was really run by a few people in their spare time, and where the actors were working in their spare time. They worked in their offices until five, had a sandwich, came along to the theater, and the most any of them ever got was six pounds a week, about fifteen dollars, which was the highest salary ever paid while I was there, even for the people on contract. And then you get real works of art. But the moment Hollywood pops in on the Abbey and says, Oh, well, we can fix those up, we can give him twenty thousand dollars, then they begin screaming against one another, they begin competing.

INTERVIEWER

How do you feel about the academic approach to the novel as compared to the natural approach?

O’CONNOR

To me, the novel is so human, the only thing I’m interested in—I can’t imagine anything better in the world than people. A novel is about people, it’s written for people, and the moment it starts getting so intellectual that it gets beyond the range of people and reduces them to academic formulae, I’m not interested in it any longer. I really got into this row, big, at the novel conference at Harvard, when I had a couple of people talking about the various types of novel—analyzing them—and then we had a novelist get up and speak about the responsibilities of the novelist. I was with Anthony West on the stage, and I was gradually getting into hysterics. It’s never happened to me before in public; I was  giggling, I couldn’t stop myself. And, “All right,” I said at the end of it, “if there are any of my students here I’d like them to remember that writing is fun.” That’s the reason you do it, because you enjoy it, and you read it because you enjoy it. You don’t read it because of the serious moral responsibility to read, and you don’t write it because it’s a serious moral responsibility. You do it for exactly the same reason that you paint pictures or play with the kids. It’s a creative activity.

Take Faulkner; you mentioned him earlier. Faulkner tries to be serious, tries to use all sorts of devices, technical devices, which don’t come natural to him, which he really isn’t interested in, and gives everybody the impression that he’s pompous. Well, he’s not pompous, he’s naïve—and humorous. And what a humorist! There’s nobody else to touch him. The man really is ingenuous. Joyce was not ingenuous. Joyce was a university man. The Paris Review’s interview with Faulkner reminded me strongly of the description that Robert Greene gives of Shakespeare. All the university men of Shakespeare’s day thought he was a simpleton, a bit of an idiot. He hadn’t been educated, he just didn’t know how to write. And I can see Faulkner approaching Joyce in exactly the way that Shakespeare approached Ben Jonson. Ben Jonson had been to a university,* Ben Jonson knew Greek and Latin, and it never occurred to Faulkner that he was greater than Joyce as it never occurred to Shakespeare that he was greater than Ben Jonson. Look at the way he imitates Ben Jonson in Twelfth Night—just a typical Jonson play—doing the best he can to be like Jonson and all he succeeds in doing is to be brittle. I’m really  thinking of the time he came under Ben Jonson’s influence—that would have been about the time Julius Caesar was produced. Jonson has a crack somewhere or other about Shakespeare’s being so uneducated that he didn’t even know that Bohemia didn’t have a seacoast, and he mentions how he used to talk to the players about the horrible errors in Shakespeare’s plays. He quotes from Julius Caesar—“Caesar doth never wrong, but with just cause”—and he says, “I told the players this was an absurd line.” Shakespeare cut it out of Julius Caesar, it’s no longer there. As a natural writer, Faulkner is a fellow who’s got to accept himself for what he is, and he’s got to realize that the plain people in Mississippi know a damn sight more about the business of literature than the dons at Cambridge.

INTERVIEWER

How important an ingredient do you consider technique in writing?

O’CONNOR

I was cursed at birth with a passion for techniques, but that’s a different thing entirely. I don’t think I’m ever fool enough to imagine that a novel like Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, by Angus Wilson, is a good novel merely because it exploits every known form of technique in the modern novel. It takes advantage of the cinema; it goes off from Point Counter Point, which itself is full of technical devices, and it’s all unnecessary. If you’ve got a story to tell about people and tell it in the way in which it comes chronologically, you’ve got the best thing you can get in fiction. But, you see, one of the troubles about the modern novel is this idea that the novel has to be concentrated into twenty-four hours, forty-eight hours, a week, a month, and you must cut out everything that goes before. The classical novel realized that you begin with the conception of the hero and move on from there—you demonstrate him through all his phases. That’s where the death of the hero really appears in modern fiction, because the hero doesn’t matter any longer, the  circumstances are what matter—those twenty-four hours. It used to be twenty-four hours in my youth, but there hasn’t been a   twenty-four-hour novel for at least twenty years, as far as I can remember.

INTERVIEWER

Can’t you overcome the limits of a time frame with such things as flashbacks and recollections?

O’CONNOR

That’s what the cinema has done to the novel. Here, in Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, you get a novel which would have been a good novel if it had begun twenty years earlier. A certain crime, a fraud, had been committed on archaeology, and if you traced the people from the fraud on, you’d have had a good novel. What happens? You get the crisis—the old gentleman who suspects a fraud has been committed—what are his moral problems in the last few weeks before he decides he’s going to reveal the fraud? And that’s the cinema. This thing, the twenty-four-hour novel, began in the twenties—you get Ulysses, you get Virginia Woolf—everybody was publishing twenty-four-hour novels at the time, and the unities had at last been brought back into literature. As though the unities mattered a damn, one way or the other, as though what you wanted in the novel wasn’t the organic feeling of life, the feeling, This is the way it happens—If it happened at all, it happened this way.

INTERVIEWER

Can’t you use the unities as a convenient framework in which to carry your story, to provide structure?

O’CONNOR

No, I disagree all along the line. Not in a novel. In flashbacks you describe minor points: at this point, he did this rather than the other thing. You never frequent this man—there’s that very good French verb, fréquenter, which is the essence of a novel. You’ve got to be inside that man’s head, and you’re never inside this man’s head if at any moment he’s got to observe the unities. That’s all right in the theater, which is a craft as much as an art.

INTERVIEWER

Of course you have the time and space limitations of the theater.

O’CONNOR

And your audience, which is the biggest limitation of all—the number of things you can do to that audience. It’s no use referring that audience to something they’ve never heard of—you take an audience of Louis XIV’s time and you refer to some mythological figure, they knew perfectly well what you were talking about, but no use doing that nowadays—nobody’d know what you were talking about.

This construct novel, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, falsifies the novel from the word go. Having been a librarian, I understand it perfectly, because your job when you’re making a catalog is to  provide all the cross-references you’re ever likely to need. So this is a book about Irish archaeology, but it’s got an awful lot about modern American history, and consequently you give a crossreference to American history and if you’re a really good cataloger, that thing is a set of cross-references so that anybody who wants to find out about modern American history can find it out in Irish archaeology. False surprise, I think, is the real basis of it.

INTERVIEWER

As Edmund Wilson said, “Who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd?”

O’CONNOR

I care, passionately. That’s a different thing entirely. I’m fascinated by detective stories. There you get a real form—you don’t get this fake form imposed. At least it’s a passionate, logical structure. Somebody killed this guy. Who killed him? And if you have a real writer on the job, you can get wonderful effects.

INTERVIEWER

But they haven’t much in the way of characterization, have they?

O’CONNOR

Gosh, some of the good ones have. And very good characterization, too. Even Erle Stanley Gardner. Perry Mason, when he began, was a real character—he’s become a prototype now—he was a real person and you could feel him striding into a room. I could see that man.

INTERVIEWER

Did you know James Joyce?

O’CONNOR

As well as one can know a man one has met a couple of times and corresponded with. He was shy in a different way from Faulkner—he was arrogant in a way that Faulkner is not arrogant.

INTERVIEWER

Joyce’s looks were sort of against him, don’t you think?

O’CONNOR

An extraordinarily handsome man! He gave the impression of being a great surgeon, but not a writer at all. And he was a surgeon, he was not a writer. He used to wear white surgeon’s coats all the time and that increased the impression, and he had this queer, axlike face with this enormous jaw, the biggest jaw I have ever seen on a human being. I once did a talk on Joyce in which I mentioned that he had the biggest chin I had ever seen on a human being, and T. S. Eliot wrote a letter saying that he had often seen chins as big as that on other Irishmen. Well, I didn’t know how to reply to that.

So now to get on back to what we were saying about the university novelists versus the natural novelists. The university novelists have been having it their own way for thirty years, and it’s about time a natural novelist got back to the job and really told stories about people. Pritchett argued (I wrote this book on the novel—I don’t know whether you’ve seen it—The Mirror in the Roadway) that this conception of character has disappeared entirely, the conception of character that I am talking about. You see, I don’t believe there’s anything else in the world except human beings, they’re the best thing you’re ever likely to discover, and he says, Well, this is all finished with. And I know what Pritchett means—the Communists and so on have got rid of it all, there aren’t individuals any longer. You get old Cardinal Mindszenty in and you give him the treatment, so he comes out and says what you want him to say. There are no individuals. What I can’t understand is why, in America, the last middle-class country, you still cannot beat this loss of faith in the individual.

I’ve had this argument out. I was reviewing for a London newspaper, and a British intelligence officer who was also a novelist wrote a book in which he defended the use of torture against prisoners. My paper was conservative, and I asked, “How far can I go?” and they said, “You can go the limit.” We asked their lawyers in and they said, “Say what you want to say”—and I did. They were magnificent about it. But that book was reviewed in the left-wing journals and they saw nothing wrong with this defense of torture. I know perfectly well you can make a human being say anything or do anything if you torture him enough, and that does not prove that the individual doesn’t exist.

INTERVIEWER

Doesn’t the unseen and unrevealed, the subconscious, have a bearing on the truth about an individual?

O’CONNOR

We were talking about the twenty-four-hour novel and I say, to me, that’s all represented by Joyce, talking about epiphanies, that, in fact, you can never know a character. At some moment he’s going to reveal himself unconsciously, and you watch and then you walk out of the room and you write it down, “So-and-so at this point revealed what his real character was.” I still maintain that living with somebody, knowing somebody, you know him as well as he can be known—that is to say, you know ninety percent of him. What happens if you’re torturing him or he’s dying of cancer is no business of mine and that is not the individual. What a man says when he’s dying and in great pain is not evidence. All right, he’ll be converted to anything that’s handy, but the substance of the character remains with me, that’s what matters, the real thing.

INTERVIEWER

As I recall at Harvard, some of the students thought that ignoring the psychological was old-fashioned.

O’CONNOR

And I am old-fashioned! It’s the only old-fashionedness you can come back to. You’ve got to come back eventually to humanism, and that’s humanism in the old sense of the word, what the Latins and Greeks thought about human beings, not the American sense of the word, that everybody is conditioned. The Greek and Latin thing says, No, this is a complete individual. That’s the      feeling you get from Plutarch, that people are as you see them, and no psychiatrist is going to tell you anything fundamentally different. If he does, he’s an ass, that’s all. People are as they behave. You’re working with a man for years. He's kind in the great majority of the things he does. You say, “He's kind.” The psychiatrist says, “No, no, no, he's really cruel,” and you're faced with this problem of which you are going to accept—the evidence of your own senses, of your own mind, of your own feeling of history, or this thing which says to you, “You don't understand how a human being works”?

INTERVIEWER

What about the problem of the struggling writer who must make a living?

O’CONNOR

Now, that's something I can't understand about America. It's a big, generous country, but so many students of mine seemed to think they couldn't let anyone else support them. A student of mine had this thing about you mustn't live on your father and I argued with him. I explained that a European writer would live on anybody, would live on a prostitute if he had to, it didn't matter; the great thing was to get the job done. But he didn't believe in this, so he rang up his father and told him he'd had a story refused by The New Yorker, and his father said, “I can keep you for the next forty years, don't you think you can get a story in The New Yorker in forty years?” Well, this fellow came along and told me this tragic tale. Now, I felt the father was a man I understood and sympathized with, a decent man. But the boy felt he mustn't be supported by his father, so he came down to New York and started selling office furniture.

INTERVIEWER

Why don't you teach?

O’CONNOR

I can't make a living out of it. You can only just get by on the sort of salaries that universities pay. I didn't write a line while I was at Harvard. You've nothing left over to write—I'd just get involved with the students all the way. I was far more pleased with a student's successes than I would have been with my own, and that's wrong. You've got to leave a bit of jealousy in yourself.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think of a novel as a lot of short stories or one big short story?

O’CONNOR

It ought to be one big short story, and not one big short story, but one big novel. That's the real trouble—the novel is not a short story—there's your twenty-four-hour novel, that's what's wrong with it, it's a short story, and that's what's wrong with Hemingway, wrong with most of them; the span is too small. The span of a novel ought to be big. There is this business of the long short story turned out as a novel, and I'm all the time getting them. The span is too brief; there is nothing to test these characters by. Take Ulysses, which is twenty-four hours, and I maintain it's a long short story. And it was written as a short story, don't forget that. It was originally entitled “Mr. Hunter's Day.”* And it's still “Mr. Hunter's Day” and it still is thirty pages. It's all development sideways. That's really what I was talking about: the difference between the novel which is a development, an extension into time, and this novel, which is not a novel, which is an extension sideways. It doesn't lead forward, it doesn't lead your mind forward. Anglo-Saxon Attitudes is the same: “So now boys, having finished with this brief moment of our novel, we'll go backward for a while.” And all the time they're just going out like that because they're afraid to go forward.

INTERVIEWER

O'Faolain talks about that: Hemingway trying to isolate his hero in time—trying to isolate him to one moment, when he is put to the test.

O’CONNOR

O'Faolain made a good point about Hemingway there. He's saying, “Nothing happened to him before the story begins; nothing happens to him afterward.” And I think that's true of most short stories. He's talking about a special aspect of Hemingway—that Hemingway will not allow the character to have had any past. You admit he's had a past, but you say that the whole past is illuminated by the particular event which you are now telling, also the whole future; you can predict a man's development from this. I admit that from the point of view of the short story, you ought to be able to say, “Nothing that happened before this short story is of real importance, nothing that happens after it is likely to be of great importance.” But you don't try to cut it off, which is what Hemingway does. You just say, “This is so unimportant that I'm not going to mention it at all.”

INTERVIEWER

What do you think about regional influences in American literature?

O’CONNOR

I attribute all good literature in America to New England—including Katherine Anne Porter.

INTERVIEWER

What about Willa Cather?

O’CONNOR

There you get this tremendous nostalgia for plains, the longing for New England, and the longing for a sense of belonging somewhere, so then she runs away to Halifax to try to get it, and when that doesn't do she goes right down to New Mexico in order to get the Catholic tradition. But she's really a New Englander who never settled down. She's a DP writer—and a great writer.

INTERVIEWER

What is the greatest essential of a story?

O’CONNOR

You have to have a theme, a story to tell. Here's a man at the other side of the table and I'm talking to him; I'm going to tell him something that will interest him. As you know perfectly well, our principal difficulty at Harvard was a number of people who'd had affairs with girls or had had another interesting experience, and wanted to come in and tell about it, straight away. That is not a theme. A theme is something that is worth something to everybody. In fact, you wouldn't, if you'd ever been involved in a thing like this, grab a man in a pub and say, “Look, I had a girl out last night, under the Charles Bridge.” That's the last thing you'd do. You grab somebody and say, “Look, an extraordinary thing happened to me yesterday—I met a man—he said this to me—”and that, to me, is a theme. The moment you grab somebody by the lapels and you've got something to tell, that's a real story. It means you want to tell him and think the story is interesting in itself. If you start describing your own personal experiences, something that's only of interest to yourself, then you can't express yourself, you cannot say, ultimately, what you think about human beings. The moment you say this, you're committed.

I'll tell you what I mean. We were down on the south coast of Ireland for a holiday and we got talkin' to this old farmer and he said his son, who was dead now, had gone to America. He'd married an American girl and she had come over for a visit, alone. Apparently her doctor had told her a trip to Ireland would do her good. And she stayed with the parents, had gone around to see his friends and other relations, and it wasn't till after she'd gone that they learned that the boy had died. Why didn't she tell them? There's your story. Dragging the reader in, making the reader a part of the story—the reader is a part of the story. You're saying all the time, “This story is about you—de te fabula.”

INTERVIEWER

Do you think the writer should be a reformer or an observer?

O’CONNOR

I think the writer's a reformer; the observer thing is very old, it goes back to Flaubert. I can't write about something I don't admire—it goes back to the old concept of the celebration: you celebrate the hero, an idea.

INTERVIEWER

Why do you use a pseudonym?

O’CONNOR

The real reason was that I was a public official, a librarian in Cork. There was a big row at the time about another writer who had published what was supposed to be a blasphemous story, and I changed my name, my second name being Francis and my mother's name being O'Connor, so that I could officially say that I didn't know who Frank O'Connor was. It satisfied my committee, it satisfied me. The curious thing now is that I'm better known as Frank O'Connor than I'll ever be as Michael O'Donovan. I'd never have interfered with my name except that it was just convenient, and I remember when I did it I intended to change back, but by that time it had become a literary property and I couldn't have changed back without too much trouble.

INTERVIEWER

Have you any particular words of encouragement for young writers?

O’CONNOR

Well, there's this: Don't take rejection slips too seriously. I don't think they ought to send them out at all. I think a very amusing anthology might be gotten up of rejection letters alone. It's largely a question of remembering, when you send something out, that So-and-so is on the other end of this one, and he has certain interests. To give an example of what I mean on this rejection business, I had a story accepted by a magazine. So I wrote it over again as I always do, and sent it back. Well, someone else got it and I got this very nice letter saying that they couldn't use it, but that they'd be very interested in seeing anything else I wrote in the future.

 

* According to O'Connor's autobiography, An Only Child, his scholarship offer was actually for London.

* Jonson actually never attended university, although he was later awarded an honorary degree from Oxford.

* Although Joyce considered writing Ulysses as a short story, based on a Jewish Dubliner named Alfred H. Hunter, it was always to be titled Ulysses, and the short-story version was never written