Post your questions for Karen below!

How do you think that O'Connor specifically characterizes Pius Mulvey in the novel? Are there any techniques that you pick up on O'Connor using to create this character? Mulvey is a very in depth character, and I am interested in hearing more about what a writer may pick up about his characterization. -Marie V. CC

This is a great question. As a writer, I think what's most exciting about the way that O'Connor shapes Mulvey's character is how chameleon-like Mulvey is. He takes on and sheds identities with such ease, because for him identity is more than a name--and so his changing identities reflect whoever he is with. Because of that, sometimes I think that Mulvey has no character of his own, which makes the depth that you mention somewhat murky. He is whoever he needs to be at any given moment. I spent some time thinking about where we get closest to Mulvey's true character and I'm left second-guessing myself on that, simply because it's the nature of Mulvey to not be himself, to reflect wherever he is at any given time, whoever he's with--and the language that he uses himself (as well as the language that O'Connor uses to write of him in those situations) changes. With the Captain, he's a devout man; with Kingscourt, he's the humble peasant; with Swales, he's a learned man. When it's just Mulvey and the ship (the Prologue), he resembles the ship (a crippled man and a crippled, old coffin ship).

Going off of Marie's ideas of characterization, how do you teach character development in your class? As literary critics we tend to address characterization in its full form without really recognizing the process behind it. How do your students begin to write about characters? What do you think is Joseph O'Conner's greatest skill in maintaining so many characters at once? --Ellen M. CC

Our first discussions of character came in the second week of the semester, before any other craft elements like plot, conflict, or dialogue, because all good fiction hinges on the characters. It’s Harry Potter and the Something Or Other for a reason. We don’t always have to like the characters (and as writers, we don’t have to like our characters), but we need to be able to find something in them that carries us through the story. We talked about what they’d been (and I’m sure this has come up in your classes as well) about round and flat characters—but we also talked about how not all the characters in a story should be round. It would be impossible. If you think about all the people you know in your life, not all those characters are round—nor should they be. As writers, we do a lot of writing about our characters that never sees the finished page (think Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory).

We’ve talked a lot about finding out what a character wants, because that desire drives the story. Sometimes it’s wanting to fulfill that desire—sometimes it’s about running from that desire. But the main thing we’ve talked about is finding what a character wants most in the world and then taking that away from them. We’ve had lots of discussions about there being more to conflict and drama than death. I’ve given my class a few examples about how this can work on the page. My friend Jennifer is writing a novel and at one point, her main character storms out of the house and tries to leave town. I remember having this conversation with Jennifer when she was writing this part of her story and we talked about what her character wanted and what ways Jennifer might take that away—and at one point, she looks at me and says, “What if her car won’t start?” What’s stopping her from getting what she wants? Right there’s a very tangible way of taking away what a character wants most (at least at that moment)—because it’s at those moments where the character has to make a choice about what to do next that will give the story it’s next turn. In my own novel, I have a set of four sisters (this is set during the Famine) and the oldest sister is long married, wants children (that’s what she wants most in the world), so I took that away from her—she can’t get pregnant. What she doesn’t know is that her next sister, who is not married (and these two don’t get along in the best of times) gets pregnant—can you imagine the sparks there when that secret gets out? And what neither of them know is that the third sister, who’s a healer, is secretly feeding them herbal contraceptives, because the third sister fears that the first sister wouldn’t survive the birth. Conflict drives a story, sometimes conflict is a little pebble in the shoe rather than a boulder, but conflict and plot only work when you have characters that have been constructed in such a way that they feel real, feel like they’re real human beings you could sit down and have coffee with.

As for O’Connor’s skill in juggling all his characters, I imagine that it helps to think of them as real people. In our own lives, we juggle friends and acquaintances and family and colleagues all the time, without much problem.
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How has your class responded to the fact that Dixon is the real killer? As writers, do they think this is a good choice? --Ellen M. CC

When we came to class last week to finish talking about the last section of the book, I knew that the unveiling of what happened was going to provoke some great discussion, especially since we’ve been talking since the beginning about how O’Connor set up Mulvey the murderer and Merridith the victim at the beginning, and yet we keep reading. Generally, we loved that Dixon turned out to be the killer. We talked about how even though that’s how O’Connor sets up these characters, he never does tell us that that particular murderer matched up with that particular victim, so even though we initially felt betrayed by what we thought we knew, we had to applaud O’Connor for playing us as well as he did throughout the whole book. We didn’t talk specifically about the choice O’Connor made to make Dixon the murderer, but we did talk about the way that Merridith arranged his own death, suicide-by-murder. We spent quite a bit of time talking about how that epilogue is structured, the metafiction and metanarrative, the way that Dixon’s contemporary (1916) sensibilities and O’Connor’s contemporary (2002) sensibilities are evident. And then just the plain genius of dating the epilogue to Easter Saturday, two days before the Easter Rising. What more can you do in the face of such incredible brilliance but sit back, sigh, and nod in satisfaction, both as a reader and a writer?

Being a advocate of the use of place in writing, how did you think O'Connor did in his creation of the ship as well as the areas that were referred to in the flashbacks? What did he do well? What did you think he could have done better?--Tom Knowlton CC

I flat out loved the way that O'Connor constructed the ship, particularly because it was playing as much of a role in the plot and the character interactions as any of the human characters. I think I've mentioned before the way that the story starts, with the movement of a crippled ship through the landscape (and the movement of a crippled character (Mulvey) through the landscape of the ship). In a couple of areas, the ship is actually considered in human terms and the discovery of the dead couple as the source of the smell made me wonder if that was a sort of miscarriage. In other places, O'Connor is very good at writing the body through geographical terms. In Chapter 9, he's writing coitus interruptus as geography and there's the moment with Mary giving birth to a dead child in a dead field on her way to Dublin, flipping the expected (positive) linkings of female fertility with the fertility of the land by writing both as death. When David and Laura meet for the first time, social constraints are considered in terms of landscape (pp. 157-8), with the gardens, wild in Galway, tamed in Yorkshire and Brittany. And then there's the landscape of the page in Chapter 27 that leaves me speechless every time I look at it--the way the landscape of the page is constructed can't be overlooked either. Whatever you think that shape is (woman in a cloak, a ship, a coffin, folded hands), the fact that you're pausing to consider more than the words that are on the page is the important moment (and this landscape idea comes up every time O'Connor switches forms).

In class, we discussed how the epilogue acts as a sort of confessional for Dixon which in turn makes him seem like a more reliable narrator. For me, I felt that his epilogue brushed past the confession of himself as the murderer, playing it off as a historical piece of the story on which he was reporting. From a writers standpoint, how do you interpret the function of the epilogue? -Liz Rahn, CC.

Liz, I think you're right on. As I mentioned above, the epilogue--in terms of my perspective as a writer--is O'Connor using that space to reflect on the nature of fiction, the reliability of truth, the questioning of what we think we know and how we know it. Metafiction is tricky, mostly because it can come across as preachy or self-important. But there's something about Dixon's voice in this epilogue--maybe it's his old-man voice--that actually reminds me a lot of the opening pages to John Banville's novel The Untouchable. Your class, as scholars, will have talked about the reflective nature of postmodern work--as writers, we're less concerned about how that reflection functions among postmodernists and more concerned about how O'Connor wrote the epilogue to be reflective. Obviously, setting the epilogue decades later is a part of that, the narrative distance and time that gives the character the time and the space (and the life experience) to be able to make sense of something that happened in his earlier life. The nature of metafiction to be reflective is another part of that, Dixon reflecting on becoming a participant in his story, his inability to stay objective. When metafiction--or metanarrative in general--is done well, it's breathtaking. And this is done well.

As an author, O'Connor is included in the post-modern era, but Star of the Sea is set in the Victorian Period. Can you comment on the inclusion of Victorian values in the novel while also including elements reflective of the Post-Modern era? - Liz Rahn, CC

Actually, this is more your realm than mine. I can talk about the impossibility of separating a writer from the time period in which s/he is writing, but I can't talk much about the movement of Victorian values in a postmodern novel. One of my favorite things about reading historical fiction is where--and even, if--I can tell where the writer's modern sensibilities are coming through. I first noticed this with Liam O'Flaherty's 1934 novel Famine (there are actually very few stories written about the Famine)--and I can definitely tell how O'Flaherty constructed the story he had to tell about the 1840s through the political turmoil of the 1930s in Ireland. It's really, really interesting. Likewise, finding where O'Connor's modern sensibilities about homosexuality (with Jonathan's admission in the epilogue), the role of the upper class and politicians in society, and more--that's just fascinating to me. As writers, though, we don't often think specifically about how to incorporate those modern sensibilities for a particular purpose--it just happens. In my own novel of the Famine, I do have things I want to say about strong female characters, but that's not something I'm incredibly conscious on the page as I'm writing. As far as I'm concerned, I'm just trying to let this character tell a story. As for what it all means, that's your job as readers and scholars.