Books Ireland was saddened to hear of the passing of Dalkey Archive Publisher John O’Brien on November 21 2020 at the age of 75.
Originally from Chicago but with strong Irish roots, O’Brien founded the Dalkey Archive Press in his hometown in 1984 and in later years opened offices in London and Dublin. The naming of the press, inspired by Flann O’Brien’s 1964 novel The Dalkey Archive was in homage to the writer’s “adventurous” style. A bold and ambitious press, Dalkey Archive published a wide range of literary criticism, fiction, plays, non-fiction, and poetry and is influenced by the experimental work of modernist, avant-garde writers including Beckett, Joyce and Flann O’Brien.
The Press’s key authors include Gilbert Sorrentino, Flann O’Brien, Svetlana Alexievich, Arno Schmidt, Ishmael Reed, David Markson, Anne Carson, Nicholas Mosley, Stanley Elkin, Carlos Fuentes, Danilo Kiš, Carole Maso, Gerald Murnane, Jon Fosse, Gertude Stein, Édouard Levé, Marguerite Young, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Eileen Battersby and many more. Over its history, the press published 1,000 works of fiction, poetry, literary nonfiction, and scholarly works.
In 2011 O’Brien was awarded the Sandrof lifetime achievement award from the National Book Critics’ Circle, and in 2015 was appointed Chevalier in the Ordre des Arts & des Lettres in recognition of his significant contribution to French arts and literature by the Minister of Culture and Communication of France.
Speaking to Books Ireland in 2017, O’Brien spoke of a “slow, textured” approach to developing the DAP audience and he stressed the importance of younger readers. O’Brien held a firm belief that all titles in a publishers list should be treated equally, keeping each book at the front of house and in stock. “We’re not selling toothpaste, or bread that can go stale after a day. Books are the original performance”, he said. He believed that a publisher’s backlist is their backbone and a key aim for Dalkey Archive Press was to “bring new life to writers”, by “creating the canon and throwing bricks at it”. He disliked the use of the word “product” in relation to books, explaining that literature is not a temporary art form that can be discarded when it goes out of date, but one that continues to grow and exist. “We only have a certain number of years. You have to be well read to make your life more meaningful but it doesn’t make us better people”, O’Brien said.