Joseph O’Neill is an Irish and Turkish writer who grew up in the Netherlands, practiced law in England, and now lives in New York City while teaching at Bard College. His novel Netherland won the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award and was praised by President Obama. O’Neill’s novel The Dog was nominated for the 2014 Booker Prize. He is known for sentences that are both precise and extravagant, that build on each other to undulating and dazzling effect. His work is founded on a bedrock sense of humor, and a healthy sense of the absurd is never far away. And yet his novels and stories are never merely funny; they are also rich excavations of character and observations of modern life. This keen eye, alongside evident empathy and wit are on display in his first collection of short stories, Good Trouble, which was released in 2019 and has been called “an essential book, full of unexpected bursts of meaning and beauty.” This conversation is adapted from O’Neill’s visit to Amherst College this winter.
JA: Thank you for that story. I’m glad that you read that one because I think it’s representative of the stories in the collection. We’re led to think that the journey of the story is to find the criminal, but then the father gets thwarted by his neighbor and by the rules of civility, of humanity—the humanity on the street; the simple civility of having coffee with this neighbor. And so we end up in a considerably different place—revolutionary Cuba—than where we started. Could you bring us behind the scenes of this story and say how it occurred to you to make that diversion?
JO: I usually find that my initial story idea gets me only so far. In this case, as a dad of boys, the prompt was from my own life: the impossible questions about the brutalities of history that the children would ask me—that one child in particular would ask me. And so it wasn’t very difficult to come up with a figure of the father who just wants to be left alone in peace and quiet in his chair.
But that was just the beginning. Then I waited for some other idea to come along and crash into the first idea. The figure of Eduardo is actually a figure from my life. In my hallway we have refugees from Iran, Cuba, and Nazi Germany; those are the families that live on my floor. I must add: the whole business of the father hunting down his son’s mugger was invented. I don’t own a baseball bat. If I had gone off after a mugger, it would have been with a cricket bat. But that’s what it was: two separate stories that came to be joined.
In recent years I’ve been following story ideas that somehow tap into my feeling that to live now means to live within history. That what’s going on in this country is opening dark historical avenues in ways that are no longer academic. Obviously, any moment in history is informed by the darkness of the past. But like a lot of people I’ve been agitated by everything that’s happening, and that sense of agitation permeates “The Sinking of the Houston.” It’s quite hard to get history into a short story, you know—to have that sense of time. This story about a dad and his son became a story about history, really. And violence.
JA: And once you knew you were going to end up with the final exchange about Che [Guevara] in the coffee shop, did you go back to the beginning of the story and try to see things that would resonate with the ending? Or did you feel like those two strands were enough?
JO: You know when you do a Q&A, and what you’re saying isn’t necessarily what you think, but rather just stuff that will take care of the Q&A? I was once given a “Q,” and the “A” I came up with was that I write until I feel I no longer understand my story–and that’s precisely when I feel that I’ve reached the end of the story. When I understand the story and what’s going on in it, the story is too obvious. But when it starts moving in a direction I don’t fully understand or expect, I trust my intuitions. Or I have no option but to. I’m always nervous about slightly mysterious endings, but more often than not your subconscious will produce stuff that has an obscure but more powerful logic—has kind of a more emotional or dream logic.
JA: I have another question about this collection of stories in contrast to the two novels that came before it, which were very much about foreigners in strange lands, and about looking at things through the eyes of an immigrant. In Netherland we had Hans, who was talking about America, and in The Dog, we had an American narrator who was looking at and finding their way around Dubai. This book is all about Americans in America—was there an occasion for that shift in focus?
JO: Yeah, there was. My novels investigate something that’s weird about me, which is that I don’t really have a nationality. I have a peculiar experience of what borders are, of what people are. These short stories are more American, even though I’m not strictly interested in writing about America.
People say that your standpoint as a writer is in many ways determined by your race, your gender, and all the rest of it. I tend to agree with that. My standpoints are multiple—I’m an immigrant, I’m a New Yorker, and so on—but one of them is my membership of the bourgeois class. These short stories are about the class experience I’m most familiar with, which is the bourgeois experience. The bourgeois experience means the experience of everybody here, although everyone will have their own particular experience of what it means to be bourgeois.
There is a sense in which the American bourgeoisie is a kind of revolutionary class. The revolutionary ideology is American liberalism. The liberal conversations that happen here, that are shared amongst bourgeois Americans of every race, every corner of the country, strike one as very radical if you come from Europe. The intersectional agitation and conflict and discussion we have here, and the slightly tortured worldview that is the result of that—it’s all quite interesting to me. The bourgeois here are in a constant state of… I wouldn’t say knowledge, but vigilance about certain things in a way that wasn’t the case in Europe. It’s a very American phenomenon that we take for granted.
And I think that my characters are often fruitlessly vigilant, which reflects a feature of modern bourgeois life—we’re well aware of things, maybe even hyper-aware, but that awareness doesn’t necessarily improve our agency or our moral natures. The father in “The Sinking of the Houston,” for example, is aware of the location of the person who mugged his son, but that knowledge doesn’t do him any good, or make him good.
JA: All of these stories have very particular locations and named cities, whether it be a golf course or an airplane or somewhere even more particular. At what point do the settings come to you? Are they right there in the foreground?
JO: When I’m writing a short story, I’m often like, “I need a setting; let’s make it Amherst”—purely because I happened to have been here and remembered those mountains over there. But of course, once you’ve made that apparently random and pragmatic decision, where you just think, “I’ll just put this in as a backdrop,” you start becoming interested in it, and you start to investigate it. Because what’s random is much more interesting and mysterious than what is called for by the superficial logic of your plot or your so-called themes. The story is telling you what to do with it and inviting you to follow its hidden dream logic.
JA: Once you landed on a setting, did you ever think, “Should I change it? Would this work better if it were different in some way?”
JA: So once you landed on one, the plot just sort of threaded from there.
JO: Yeah. A good setting also gives you an opportunity to have little descriptive moments.
JA: It’s something your characters bounce off of. They’re engaged with it in some way, or they’re noticing it, whether it just be on a golf course or an airplane.
JO: I’m interested in this idea that people aren’t products merely of a certain genetic or domestic situation, but also of the society in which we live. That’s a political frame. Although I may not be writing about things which are politically on the nose, placing the drama in a society, in a specific milieu, is to my mind a political way to proceed. My stories may not be read in that way, of course. But social particulars inform the political meaning of what your characters are up to, even if they’re just having a coffee: it makes a difference in whether they’re having coffee in Butte, Montana, or whether they’re having exactly the same conversation in Brooklyn. It changes how you understand and interpret that conversation.
JA: So, I wonder if this observationally political mode also ties into some of the characters’ uses of language. For instance, in your stories there might be a comment on how we name medical centers, on what the convention of that means, and a character will take the time to step back and think about that for a moment. I’m wondering what you think that says about the characters—that they are constantly taking that step back to think about how we speak or how we use language in various ways.
JO: I think it makes them bourgeois. It makes them educated. I mean, everybody here is aware of how language is constructed, how social signs work. People are very sophisticated interpreters of such things. In American culture, this sophistication exists across classes–everyone is an expert decoder of speech, attire, cultural symbols.
But I guess that my characters also think the way that they do because I’m interested in phraseology and stuff, and I’m interested in the theoretical or analytical temperament. Why not have the characters trying to verbalize or analyze what they’re experiencing? It’s worth pointing out that even so-called realistic fiction cannot, and does not even try to, faithfully duplicate or transcribe the mental activity and consciousness of a given character. A character’s interior mental process, as presented by the fiction writer in language, is just an artistically useful representation of what the character is apprehending. This is an ancient literary convention that readers understand and rely on, and it’s one of the crucial formal advantages that fiction enjoys. Even Joyce could not deconstruct the convention, though he certainly transformed it.
JA: Your stories are often somewhat dark, but there’s also a joy and lightness in them. Do you consider yourself either an optimist or a pessimist?
JO: Whenever I think about pessimism and optimism, I remember that quote from Nietzsche where he says something like—and I might have got this wrong–“Optimism is the confusion of hope with probability.” My view is that the funnier you are, as a writer, the further into the darkness you can go. Whereas if you just go dark right away and just talk about Charles Taylor, say, that may not work as well, and the reader may not be receptive. You need to have a slightly more dappled, camouflaged kind of text.
The problem posed by globalization isn’t just that there are more people moving everywhere and that people are more mixed, ethnically and culturally, than they used to be. We’ve always been mixed, and mixed up. The problem that I’ve been quite detained by is that the global information flow means that suffering all over the world is now visible to us in a way that it has never been. And the trouble with being exposed to suffering is that it means that you’ve either got to ethically respond to it and help, which is very difficult, or you must live with the fact that you are not helping–and that can turn into aggression and rejection of the other. That seems to be what’s going on in the world today. It doesn’t make you optimistic.
JA: There’s a great delight taken in some of the stories where things like letters of reference are reproduced, or certain kinds of emails; certain aspects of the way that we communicate. It always seems like that’s a lot of fun on the writer’s part to be replicating those things as a way of pointing out how we do speak. Do you take particular pleasure in those moments?
JO: Yeah, I think that if you’re a writer, you should be able to do ad copy; you should be able to write what particularly stupid emails read like. And dialogue—you should be able to have an ear for that stuff. In Netherland, for example, I have Trinidadian characters, and they all speak in that Trinidadian way, so that’s fun. I loved doing that. But it’s not easy.
JA: Do you take notes or eavesdrop out in the world? Or do you just remember it when you need to recall how Trinidadians speak?
JO: No, you have to get it right. You have to get it dead right. When I lived in England, I couldn’t write Americans, because I made them use words like “gee” and “shucks.” You know? And I was like, “That’s what Americans talk like. I’ve seen it on TV.” Then I realized that Americans don’t talk like that at all. They actually sound more English than the English do, because the English have all these slang terms that they’ve built into their language. If I hear English people speaking now, it sounds exotic. Whereas in America there’s quite a large zone of fairly neutral speech, because it’s such a big country; a neutral language, or lingua franca, is in circulation. Although there are “neutral” words that Americans use, or that the New York Times uses, that you wouldn’t hear in Ireland or England very often—like “egregious.”
JA: I read that the book that helped you finish Netherland was Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. How did that book help unlock something for you?
JO: Yeah, I got stuck—you tend to get stuck when writing books, don’t you? When I finished the first draft, the second half was worthless. I knew it was, but it took my UK agent, Gill Coleridge, to confirm my fears. Of course, Gill unfortunately couldn’t tell me how to make it worthy. She just said, in effect, “The second half doesn’t work. Start it over.” I started to give up on the book, actually. And then I read Housekeeping.
When you’re a writer, you read to enjoy the book, but you’re also hoping to get something out of it which could help you work. With Housekeeping, I saw that Robinson was just really, really slow, and how thrilling that was. I became very interested in the slowness and uneventfulness. Of course, Marilynne Robinson is a very special writer, and when I actually had the chance to meet her, I said to her, you know, “Well done. I love you,” and all the rest of it, and then I asked her about that book. She said, “I was trying to make a cube.” She just wanted a cube; she didn’t want a thing of flatness and direction. She was interested in a static, cubic, verbal… object, I think. I think that’s what she meant. Cubism.
JA: Fascinating. And did you just stand there and nod and say, “Exactly, a cube, I know just what you mean.”?
JO: Well, I’m so bad at maths and stuff that I was just thinking to myself, “What is a cube, exactly?” I’m the person who instead of saying “sphere” says “circle.”