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At Swim, Two Boys
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‘Be True and Persevere’

Frontiers magazine, May 9, 2003. LA.
Acclaimed author Jamie O’Neill on his life and the success of his novel “At Swim, Two Boys”. By Noël Alumit.

Every once in a while, there is that book. A book known for its richness and complexity. A book that makes an indelible impression on its reader. A book that receives the kind of advance that would make Donald Trump gasp and gets the kind of press coverage an author only dreams about – like being named one of the “Notable Books of Year” by The New York Times. It’s a book you keep on your coffee table to let people know that you’re well-read and up on current literature. In 2002, that book was “At Swim, Two Boys” by Irish writer Jamie O’Neill, which was recently published in paperback by Scribner and is now a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Men’s Fiction. O’Neill is a man whom you can’t help but be fond of. He’s smart and possesses a droll sense of humor. He’s also approachable. On the day of this interview, he wore casual professorial garb: a coat over a sweater, oxford shoes, toting a fading black satchel. He has a quiet voice, made even more charming by an Irish brogue. His 19 years in London, however, have colored his speech with a regal British accent.

O’Neill’s image today seems incongruous with the nude photo of him that appeared on the front cover of the Sunday Mirror, a British newspaper, in the late 1980s. The photograph was from his earlier modeling days. “I lived with this very, very famous man for six years in England,” O’Neill explains. “He was what you’d call over here a talk-show host. He died after six years. The papers made a huge thing about it. When he died, they started showing all these photographs. It was a very bad time. I’d done some modeling for some magazines once, when I was very young.” When asked about his age now, however, O’Neill says, “This year, I think I’ll be 39 and three quarters. I haven’t made up my mind yet.”

That nude photo was also how O’Neill’s parents found out about his sexual orientation. “Not only did they not know I was gay, they didn’t know my shoe size. They knew nothing about me,” he says.

O’Neill ran away from home at age 17. “I suppose underneath it all, there was a sexual time bomb going off. ... For the last three years at home, my father and I had meals separately. I couldn’t talk to him. He couldn’t talk to me.” His father died in the mid-‘90s. According to O’Neill, they reconciled, and got along quite well for the three or four years before his father’s death. And that man about whom the newspapers made such a fuss was Russell Harty, the famed British television personality who hosted several of his own shows in Great Britain in the 1970s and ‘80s, including “The Russell Harty Show” and “Harty Goes to Hollywood.” O’Neill had a six-year relationship with Harty, who was 20 years his senior. They shared a cottage in London. It was Harty who helped O’Neill get his first two books, “Disturbance” and “Kilbrack,” published in England. Harty had sent out the two manuscripts without telling O’Neill.

When Harty died in 1988, his family locked O’Neill out of the London cottage and burned O’Neill’s clothes. He was, however, allowed to keep the couple’s dog, Paddy. “I lost my station in my life, my home, as well as the share of my heart,” O’Neill says. “Questions of identity do crop up. Appearance can often engender reality. I think depth seeped imperceptibly into my personality, and I found myself wanting to write what you’d call a deeply serious book.”

Homeless and devastated over Harty’s death, O’Neill set about writing that “deeply serious book.” He would set his novel in Ireland, leading up to the Easter uprising of 1916, during which over a thousand Irish men and women tried to seize Dublin from British rule and claim Ireland as an independent state. According to O’Neill, “The Easter Rebellion is the heart and soul of my country. It is the birth of modern Ireland. We trace our republic from that day.”

In it, he would create Jim Mack and Doyler Doyle, two teenage boys who promise to swim together to a rock in Dublin Bay, two boys who grow in an environment of mounting political and social tension, and find at 16 what some of us look for over a lifetime: a true, pure, loving bond with another person. As Doyler says in the book, “It’s my pledge to you. We’ll have our Easter swim, my hand and heart on that. We’ll make them rocks together, Jim.”

O’Neill has created a cast of fascinating characters in his novel, including Aunt Eva, a woman who represents the grand old strength of Ireland; the benevolent spirit Scrotes, who is somewhat based on Harty; Anthony MacMurrough, who spent two years at hard labor in London for “gross indecency” with a mechanic/chauffeur; and the appearance of Sir Edward Carson, who in real life prosecuted Oscar Wilde for the same offense.

”At Swim, Two Boys” has been called a “challenging” read; even people who are fans of the book have described it as a “hard, literary novel.” It demands a lot from readers. There is the rhythm of the Irish way of speaking, quite different from British or American syntax, which is so prevalent in the story. Even the author concedes that his book can be difficult: “If you get up to Chapter Three and you haven’t got the rhythm of Irish English, it’s a terrible drudge.”

If you do manage to pass Chapter Three and still feel confused, take heart: O’Neill says it’s intentional. “One of the problems for American readers is that there is built-in confusion in the book,” he says. “They’re supposed to feel confused, particularly about the politics of what was going on, because nobody knew what was going on at the time.”

O’Neill also assumed that the reader would have some working knowledge of the background of Ireland, especially the stronghold of the British empire or the intense influence of “old Catholicism” (before the Vatican made drastic changes to its ideologies in the 1960s). The reader has to understand that O’Neill never dreamed his book would ever make it past Ireland. It amazes him that his novel has found an international readership with translations set for France, Germany and Israel, to name a few. “My book is going to be in Hebrew!” he exclaims, his eyes widening and brows rising.

O’Neill was protective of his novel from the very beginning. In a much earlier draft, it was bought by a publisher with a caveat: that there be no sex of any kind and it be no longer than 80,000 words (a far cry from the 200,000 it turned out to be). O’Neill borrowed money from the bank and bought the rights back. “It was my vision,” he explains. “I didn’t care if it was good or bad. I just wanted it to be true. Be true and persevere, that is my talisman.”

Persevere he did. Two years after Harty’s death, O’Neill was in a London pub when his dog, Paddy, ran away. O’Neill found the dog with a handsome dancer named Julien Joly. O’Neill and Joly have now been together for 12 years.

Joly, whom O’Neill describes as “beautiful inside and out,” inspired the writer to get his life in order, which meant finding a job. (Some Angelenos may have seen Joly dance. He performed in Mathew Bourne’s “Swan Lake.”)

O’Neill ended up working as a night porter at a mental institution. “My shifts were 13 hours long,” he recalls. “Nothing was required of me except to stay awake. I was the lowest of the low. I wasn’t even allowed to speak to the patients. I was quite happy. I didn’t want to be talked to. Believe it or not, I am a shy and retiring character underneath it all.”

What O’Neill did do during those evenings was write. When he believed his book was finished, he cried. As fate would have it, publisher David Marcus had read a short story of O’Neill’s and requested to see more of his work. O’Neill sent him “At Swim, Two Boys.” Marcus snatched up the rights and three weeks later, O’Neill got a call and was told to write some numbers down. It took him a second to realize that he wasn’t writing down someone’s telephone number. He was writing down the size of his advance. “When I started this book, I was living on the streets of London. Now I’m probably one of the wealthiest writers in Ireland,” O’Neill says.

O’Neill’s success also means that he has been able to do a book tour of the United States. Part of his tour required a trip to New York. He was at a bookstore that had a table of new novels. He was surprised to see that of the 37 books on display, seven of them were Irish. “That’s extraordinary. There are only 4 million people in Ireland and about five of them read,” he says, laughing.

Irish authors, of course, have a long history in world literature, from James Joyce and Oscar Wilde to more recent writers like William Kennedy and Frank McCourt. The literary-fiction scene certainly has had some heavy Irish hitters. One wonders if the gay literary fiction genre will see the same. The possibility of an emerging gay Irish literature scene is not something to which O’Neill has devoted much thought, although writers like Colum McCann (author of the recently published novel “Dancer”) and himself are now often touted as such. “The thing is that anything like that could only be seen in retrospect. It’s not as though myself or Colum McCann say, ‘Let’s start a new fashion in Irish queer lit.’ You’re too busy looking at the page to see anything in any wider context.”

Response to “At Swim, Two Boys” has been positive in his native country. Although he wasn’t nominated for any major awards in Ireland – according to O’Neill, one judge said it was a gay book trying to pass as literature – one newspaper called O’Neill one of Ireland’s three great living writers.

In writing the novel, O’Neill says he wanted to address what it meant to be Irish and how being gay fits into that scheme. Ireland is, after all, a devoutly Catholic country. “People in London would say, ‘Are you Irish?’” he shares. “And, I would sometimes answer, ‘No, I’m gay.’”

He’s referring to some people’s perceptions that being Irish and being gay don’t mix. To say that you’re Irish almost immediately attaches you to Catholicism, a religion that accepts gay people but not gay sexual behavior. O’Neill wanted to change that concept with this story. “I wanted to ask the same question: ‘Are you Irish?’ And I wanted to answer emphatically, ‘Yes.’”

“I really like Catholicism,” he continues. “I think it’s majestic. It is really like one of those Gothic cathedrals in France.”

As much as he likes Catholicism, however, he doesn’t believe in it. “You can like a film without believing in it,” he says. “I’m an atheist. People always think that atheists are irreligious or unspiritual. You’re never an atheist by chance. The cross that all atheists bear is that they have this spiritual yearning to seek answers and they sought and sought and found nothing.”

Something in which he has found joy is being a well-respected literary figure. He’s had the pleasure of meeting several luminaries, including David Leavitt and Alan Hollinghurst. “It’s lovely to meet heroes like that,” he says.

The money is a major plus too. “I used to write novels and now all I seem to write are checks,” O’Neill jokes. Nevertheless, he knows he now has a certain degree of comfort the money affords: “I now own a house. I never owned anything in my life.”

Noël Alumit is the author of “Letters to Montgomery Clift,” which is also nominated for a Lambda Literary Award for Gay Male Fiction.