5 February 2012
Karen's Eng. 252 class is reading O'Connor's short story "Mothers Were All The Same" for Monday and so I sent O'Connor an email, wondering if he could give us some insight into the writing of the story. We're studying POV this week in our fiction class, so we'll be talking about that, as well as other areas of craft (dialogue, setting/place, character development, etc.) It's true, the story is fairly old (for himself), but he was willing and so here's our exchange.

Karen Babine: "I'm wondering if you could talk about the process you went through to get to the final draft we're reading. How many drafts did you go through? Any particular struggles you went through to revise?"

Joseph O'Connor: "I wrote "Mothers Were All the Same" about 25 years ago, perhaps before many of your students were born, and so you will understand that I no longer remember all the precise steps (and mis-steps) that I took during the process of that particular story. But generally, back in those days, my approach to a story was fairly instinctive. In a first draft I would simply splash the words down onto the page and not worry about anything like grammar or spelling, or even logic. I probably focussed on something like finding a 'voice', the actual sound of the person speaking. Then, when I had written perhaps four thousand words, I would start into the process of refining and shaping them. Usually, I would do maybe forty drafts of a story. Anything less than twenty drafts doesn't work for me."

Karen Babine: "We're studying POV next week, so it might be beneficial for my students to hear something about how you chose a first person narrator over a third person narrator (even a 3rd person limited narrator). (We'll talk more about POV when we get to Star of the Sea.) When you're writing, how do you decide what POV to choose? Do you ever change POV in a story when you go back to revise (like 3rd to 1st or 1st to 3rd), if you find that one works better than another?"

Joseph O'Connor: "I am not conscious of ever choosing a point a view for a story. Instead, I try to let the story choose its own point of view and then go with that. Your students will have realised that point of view changes everything in a story. 'Mothers Were All the Same' would be a very different thing were it written by the young woman he meets on the train. And it would be equally different if narrated by an all-seeing eye. It simply felt to me as though the ACTUAL subject of the story, as opposed to the plot it outlines, is the naivety of the young man narrating events he scarcely understands. For that to come across, I must have felt it would be better told from his point of view."

Karen Babine: "This week we're studying dialogue, so I'm wondering if you could speak to your use of direct vs. indirect dialogue in this story. How did you choose the way that you presented the dialogue? Was it a matter of pacing and tone, voice, or something else?"

Joseph O'Connor: "Again, you ask about my 'choices', but I am rarely conscious of making any choice, as such, when writing a piece of fiction. I mean, I do make choices, as every writer must, but I tend to go by instinct. My approach, perhaps a rather idiosyncratic one, is that I assume the story already exists 'out there' somewhere, and what I am doing is trying to see it more clearly so that I can write it down. That sounds insane, I know. But that's what I do.

I feel dialogue is truly essential to get right in a story. Nothing trips the reader up more severely than bad or unbelievable dialogue. When I wrote that story, I was myself young, and so I wrote the dialogue through a process of listening how my friends talked. Every writer needs to be a listener, and a watcher, before being anything else. That's far more important than literary 'style'. In fact, no style is possible without it. And as writers, we need to read like writers, not simply readers. So, when we encounter the work of a writer who does dialogue well (for example, James Joyce) we need to study every nuance.

You ask about the issue of 'reported' dialogue, as opposed to noting down exactly what someone said. The answer is very simple. I just don't believe any of us remember entire conversations word-for-word with total precision, so when a writer asks me to believe that he or she does, I don't believe it, and then I lose interest. Everything we do as writers needs to be focused on making readers stay with us, not driving them away."