Our Cross-Class Interview with Joseph O'ConnorBridging the Minnesota-Nebraska-Ireland Distance
4/20/2012: O'Connor was kind enough to answer our questions, so enjoy!

The Process:

Q: How many drafts of Star of the Sea did you write? How long did it take you to go from first word to the last edit?
A: I wrote up to forty drafts of some chapters and perhaps only three or four of others. The opening preface was a sequence for which I wrote only a few drafts because it presented itself to me more or less as it appears. The concluding chapter and some other sequences took a lot more work. Yeats says that all poetry comes from “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart”. I believe that’s where novels come from, too.

Q: What was the hardest part about writing the novel?
A: Finding an architecture that would work. I think the challenge of art is to make what is difficult look easy. I wanted to make Star of the Sea, which is a very complicated story, a page turner. To that end, I used some of the techniques of Victorian fiction: cliff-hangers, chapter headings, illustrations, melodrama. My hope was that it would be a book that would work by a kind of osmosis, that the reader would absorb whatever it has to say about politics and history and sexuality without even noticing. One of my most beloved novels, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (mentioned in Star of the Sea) has a structure that is in fact extremely complicated, but the reader doesn’t notice. That book was a kind of household god to me when writing Star of the Sea.

Q: Did you craft your story in order by chapter (or did you focus on one character's plot and then cut it up and piece it back together)?
A: I wrote the beginning, and then the end, and then I stopped writing and designed the shape for the whole book before I wrote very much more.

The Form:

Q: Did you write the novel with a goal of social commentary or was that aspect a natural development throughout the writing? Did you intentionally write the novel to critique laissez faire and Free Market principles?
A: I wrote the novel in the hope that it would be an involving experience for the reader, and, hopefully, that it would be beautiful, even though its subject matter is dark. I think the first duty of a novel is to be beautiful. I dislike novels that set out with social commentary as a goal. We don’t go to fiction for that, but to be touched and moved. If I feel a novelist is telling me how to think, or how to vote, I immediately switch off. That is the worst form of sentimentality: manipulation.

Q: How did the form develop? Did you start off with an idea of a book within a book, the changing POV and form, or did that evolve gradually? Or did you make a decision halfway through and go back and change it?
A: I started with the picture of Pius Mulvey that is presented in the opening preface, and then I had an image of the reader watching the action unroll from various points of view. And so, I constructed the book around that general image: that the reader is not sitting in the audience, receiving the authorial pearls, but is glimpsing the far more interesting things that happen as the kaleidoscope turns. I wanted it to be a book that would argue with itself.

The Characters:
Q: Do you trust any of your characters? How did you see the purpose and function of your characters' unreliability?
A: I think Captain Lockwood is a reliable narrator (I am very fond of him), and almost everyone else is unreliable to some degree or another.

Q: How do you know that you can add in your humor into grim situations and still have it be believable for the characters to act like that?
A: As a reader, I think a dark story needs to have humor here and there, otherwise it becomes unreadable and therefore a waste of everyone’s time. Star of the Sea would be a truly awful book without its moments of levity and lightness, for example the Dickensian buoyancy that I hope happens when Mulvey goes to London. Those moments sort of puncture the heaviness of the background, I hope.

Q: As a writer, some of the characters we love the most can be the ones who should be most hated (as a reader). I'm wondering who (if any) is/was your favorite character to develop in Star of the Sea?
A: I couldn’t distinguish between them in that way. I was fond of all the characters, to some extent. It’s important, when writing a villain, to find something to like in him or her. And it’s equally important to show the flaws of your heroes. The person in the book for whom I feel the most empathy is Mary Duane, but I have a human sympathy, for want of a better phrase, for everyone else.

Q: These characters are so fully realized: what is your best method and advice for getting to know your characters so completely?
A: A writer needs to know absolutely everything about a character. You don’t reveal everything, of course, but you do need to know it. Then, you cut. The more you cut, the more believable the character becomes. It’s one of the loveliest little miracles of fiction.

The Plot:
Q: What made you decide to reveal both the murderer and his victim immediately, in terms of creating suspense and momentum? So, if the plot is no longer "who gets killed" and "who is the murderer," what do you see as driving the plot and the story?
A: The momentum of the ship’s journey. Some of my favorite novels are stories about journeys: As I Lay Dying, The Grapes of Wrath, Ulysses, even The Catcher in the Rye. A journey always infuses a story with a kind of investment because we want to know at some fundamental level if the protagonist(s) ever make it to the destination. Think about some of the oldest and most lasting stories our culture possesses: the Greek myths, the bible stories, the Canterbury Tales, the Native American folktales. Life itself is a journey, a metaphor acknowledged by every form of storytelling from high literature to the popular song.

Q: How many of these conflicts in the characters' lives just appeared naturally as the book "wrote itself" versus ones you knew from the outset were essential to the story?
A: It’s hard to know. I would say, from memory, that it was fifty-fifty.

Q: Do you like the novel? Have you tried to reread it as if you were not the author?
A: Yes, I like the novel. I am very proud of it. I wouldn’t say that I have tried to reread it as though I were not the author, because that is obviously not possible, but I tried to write it as a reader, as I always do. The most important person in any novel is the reader, not the author. I dislike novels in which the author is too visibly present. A novel should never EVER be about the author.
Q: Pius Mulvey very much embodies music in this story. Are you yourself musically inclined, or did you seek music out to help develop his character?
A: I thought of each of the characters as having a sort of private sound track. It’s something I always do when constructing a character. I believe music is the highest art form, the only truly international language, and all prose should have musicality.