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Drawing by Thistler Dabney, 1957.

 

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].