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Interview with Colin O’Sullivan

Big in Japan

Polly Young talks to Colin O’Sullivan

Colin O’Sullivan is an Irish author on the rise, receiving critical acclaim in France in particular. He received this year’s prestigious Prix Mystère de la Critique, and is nominated for the Grand Prix de Literature Policière. His first novel, Killarney Blues, was released in France by a publisher famous for its crime and noir.

This ‘came as a complete surprise’ to O’Sullivan. Even though there is crime in the novel, he never considered it as ‘crime fiction’. As a writer, he explains, he concentrates on telling the story, leaving the publishers to worry about classifying it. He says he is ‘thrilled to have won this award’ and ‘having my name on the same page as previous winners is an absolute honour’.

His second novel, The Starved Lover Sings, is different: more dystopian and political. O’Sullivan started to write a follow-up to Killarney Blues, but changed tack. ‘I found these things creeping into the story as I wrote, so when the notions came to me, I just ran with them. I allowed myself more freedom with this novel and took chances that I hadn’t done previously.’ This novel is also a geographical move away from Killarney Blues, as it is set in Japan, where O’Sullivan lives.

Being a Beckett fan, notions of existentialism are played with throughout The Starved Lover Sings. O’Sullivan always wanted to write an existential novel and he has a talent for portraying his anti-hero trudging through awkward or absurd situations in his or her own distinct, and usually comic, way. He admits that Beckett ‘looms very large’in his life, saying he goes back to his work constantly. The thing a lot of people don’t pick up on, though, O’Sullivan believes, is just how funny Beckett is, which is the thing that attracts him to his work.

The title is a quotation from Paradise Lost, which O’Sullivan was reading at the time. There are terrific lines throughout Milton’s epic, he says. He is interested in titles that are ‘mysterious and make the reader wonder’. For example, Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians. It makes you think: who are the barbarians? Who is waiting for them? And why? That’s three questions just from the title. O’Sullivan hoped The Starved Lover Sings would work the same: who is this lover? Why is he starved? And what’s he singing about?

He talks of Japan, but not about society or politics: ‘It’s hard to get beyond the food!’ Perhaps it’s a sign of getting older, getting more health-conscious, but the food (at least most of it) suits him, being both delicious and healthy. But that is not why the novel is set there. O’Sullivan’s protagonist originally had no particular nationality. With the disasters/ordeals the man experiences, however, Japan, with its threat of earthquakes, tsunamis, etc., seemed apt.

In the novel the city is unnamed, and for O’Sullivan that means more imagination can be used, rather than remembering details of a real location. These days he finds pure creation easier than recollecting, although he ‘can’t say for sure why that is’. The futuristic setting creates a wonderful technological array but O’Sullivan’s own relationship with technology is ‘embarrassingly negligible’. Whilst the technology in the novel was fun to dream up, he says, it was necessary for the story.

Both novels possess lyricism. In contrast to songs in Killarney Blues, however, in The Starved Lover Sings poetic excerpts are included. O’Sullivan started writing poetry from an early age. It’s always been a part of his life. He still writes poetry occasionally and wishes he ‘had more time to devote to it’. Recently, he has delved again into old poetry collections, finding himself ‘surprised and delighted all over again’. He believes that if Tombo, his protagonist, didn’t have poetry in his life, then he’d be very grim indeed: ‘Perhaps I thought the poetry of the lines could elevate his situation in some way.’

He believes that novels ‘are all about commitment’, staying on track with something that might take a year or two to finish. Poems, on the other hand, usually come to him fast. He explains that ‘they are a bit more slapdash’, jokingly calling them ‘gimcracks’. ‘I don’t mean to disparage poetry, only my own poetry,’ he wants to make clear.

Not only does the novel include poetry, but some chapters consist solely of talking mountains. To O’Sullivan this emphasises the delight of the novel form as always changing, challenging and provoking. Since Killarney Blues was in the realist tradition, for The Starved Lover Sings he decided to steer clear of that, instead being experimental. So yes, talking mountains and mudslides and other things that should not speak are given voice. O’Sullivan found great freedom in this, ‘in the same way the Magic Realist writers freed themselves’.

The characters still have realistic struggles, grappling with loss, the past and their lack of purpose. Mental health is prevalent in O’Sullivan’s works but he claims this is not deliberate. He argues that we all consider our place in life and whether we have any direction or purpose. The image of the referee just made this manifest to him, the guy in the middle trying to find balance, as chaos reigns all around.

O’Sullivan watches a lot of football but he admits that as he doesn’t know much about referees professionally and didn’t research them. It made more sense for Tombo to be a part-time referee, alongside his main job as a P.E. teacher, informed by O’Sullivan’s own experience of teaching in a Japanese high school.

The idea of morality is intertwined with Tombo’s role as referee, constantly judging right or wrong. This evokes the present turbulent political environment. O’Sullivan’s opinion is that ‘the world, if history is anything to go by, will always have turbulent politics, and bombastic leaders will always rise to power’. But he also thinks that most people are ‘smart and sensible and responsible enough to pull through tempestuous times. We are still here, after all, or I should say, despite all’.

He does not overly interrogate politics in his novel but instead creates tangible dangers, not only tsunamis and earthquakes, but wolves. He likes wolves and says that’s the reason for their inclusion. This animal is loaded with connotation, however. ‘They have been a part of folktale and gothic literature for centuries—we only have to think of Dracula and the wolves howling in the Carpathians.’ Wolves are extinct in Japan, which was all the more reason to cheekily throw them in, as if poor old Tombo didn’t have enough on his plate.

His third novel, The Dark Manual (released May 2018) has no wolves, but it has owls. This new book is also set in the unnamed Japanese city. The themes and focus are different, as are the characters and pace. O’Sullivan says it is a mix of Irish and Japanese, as the heroine is Irish. And there are some ‘mystery’ elements that haven’t featured in his previous novels. He continues to look forward: The Dark Manual may be his last to feature Japan or Ireland. After it who knows—space?

Interview by Polly Young. First published in Books Ireland magazine Sept/Oct 2018

Killarney Blues (2013), The Starved Lover Sings (2017) and The Dark Manual (2018) are published by Betimes Books.