In the last two decades, Billy O’Callaghan has never had a problem finding something to write about. And when you’ve written for several hours a day for nigh on 20 years, you are bound to have amassed a wealth of material.
Yet for much of that time, the Cork-born author admits that his writing career has been marked with struggle and austerity.
“I don’t have a car, I don’t have a TV and my rent is very low,” he says. “Everything is geared around doing what it takes to allow me to have the time to work on writing.”
Like many before him, he has struggled with rejection from publishers and fiction journals, until he decided to reframe his way of thinking.
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“God almighty, if every short story writer was honest about it, they will admit that they’ve cried a river of rejection. I’d stopped expecting anything, because you just get worn down with it,” O’Callaghan admits. “Then I set myself a goal – to get 100 rejections in a year. I felt if I got that, I’d have done my work, and you’re likely to get a few acceptances.”
He’s not wrong: his short stories have now been published in over 100 literary journals around the world. And that’s not to say there haven’t been milestone moments down the years – his first collection of short stories, In Exile, was published by Mercier Press in 2008, followed a year later by a second collection, In Too Deep. 2013 saw him win the inaugural Short Story award at the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards; a year later, another story was selected as Ireland’s representative in the UNESCO Cities of Literature project. Yet it wasn’t until 2016 that O’Callaghan experienced a significant career breakthrough. As a runner-up in the Costa Short Story Award for his story The Boatman, he soon came to wider attention, and the stage was nicely set for the release of his debut novel, The Dead House, in 2017. Since then, O’Callaghan has become more than prolific in his output. A second novel, My Coney Island Baby, was published last year by Jonathan Cape. He has started 2020 with the release of a short story collection, The Boatman & Other Stories. After being “shot down seven times in a row”, O’Callaghan secured an Arts Council bursary last year, which helped him complete the collection.
In October, he was in Belgium when he happened upon a pair of Chinese students by chance. As it happens, one of them had read My Coney Island Baby in Chinese (the book has been translated into several languages).
“I mean, I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “That’s the biggest thrill of all, the thoughts of people in Germany or Italy reading the book.”
My Coney Island Baby took seven years to write, mainly because O’Callaghan kept getting interrupted by an overwhelming impetus to write a new short story. In fact, it started life as a short story before its characters – two lovers, married to other people, who meet every month for years to enjoy illicit trysts – expanded into a longer tale. “For a long time, when I was starting out, short stories were a natural type of writing for me,” he recalls. “For a very long time, I was afraid of [writing a] novel. It kind of daunted me. So I spent 10 years writing nothing but short stories. They’re a great way of learning to put a good story together, and how to keep your sentences tight.”
O’Callaghan is nothing if not a wellspring of great story ideas, and this imagination is writ large across The Boatman & Other Stories. There is a grown man digging a grave for his young child, a writer embroiled in ill-fated romance, and a newlywed knocked sideways by tragedy via misadventure.
O’Callaghan’s sense of place is vivid and impressive, but the commonality that many of his stories also share is a character trying to work out life and forge ahead in the face of trauma.
“I found I was taking a lot from my own experience and life, and while the stories are not autobiographical obviously, I can see aspects of me and things that have happened to me or around me, within the stories,” O’Callaghan reflects. “I find, too, that quite a few children die in the things that I’ve written,” he adds. “In My Coney Island Baby, the main character’s marriage has broken down because he’s had a child that died.”
In some ways, the child significantly explains the man. When O’Callaghan was four, his younger brother Richard was born with significant medical challenges, and died as an infant in 1979. From a young age, he became aware that a child’s death asks a different response of people, and it has likely shaped his outlook and creative imagination since.
“When I was a child, death just seemed very much a part of life,” O’Callaghan explains. “My grandmother would keep me home from school to tell me stories about banshees and the like. It was a great education when I look back on it.
“We lived with my grandmother, and she died when I was seven, and she was on the bed in the front room, dying, and I was on my knees next to her. I wasn’t pushed into another room. It’s always sort of been there.”
O’Callaghan is currently editing his new novel Life Sentences, due for release in 2021.
“I’m not as prolific as I seem,” O’Callaghan insists humbly. “It’s just how it all hits.”
Yet the truth is, after putting plenty of hard yards in, now O’Callaghan is enjoying something of a creative harvest. John Banville, Edna O’Brien and John Boyne are all effusive in their praise for O’Callaghan’s muscular, quietly assured writing.
“I kind of never let myself enjoy [the achievements] because I was always waiting for the bottom to drop out, but now I’m enjoying it a bit more,” O’Callaghan admits. “I’m still a little bit hesitant though because you don’t know what’s around the corner.”
‘The Boatmen & Other Stories’ by Billy O’Callaghan is published by Jonathan Cape and is out now (priced at €16.99, hardback)
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