February 2001. London, UK.
Jamie O’Neill has just been paid the highest-ever advance for an Irish novel. Set against the backdrop of the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916, it is the story of the love between two boys and is already being compared with the greats of Irish literature. Andrew Copestake meets a remarkably modest writer.
In a world which privileges youth so much, fhe youngest this, the youngest that, to find a man who, at the relatively advanced age of 39, generates this much attention is an inspiration to us all. Jamie O’Neill has just been paid fhe highest advance ever for an Irish novel. And a gay Irish novel af that. It seems inappropriate to focus too much on the amounts being discussed. His London publisher’s Simon and Schuster signed a one book deal worth £250,000 and further foreign rights have brought that figure closer to half a million, but O’Neill says, “I don’t write for the money. I didn’t need fhe money. I had a job (up until Christmas he worked as a night porter at the Cassell Hospital in Ham). My boyfriend has a job. But it’s nice when someone bets that amount on you.” For Simon and Schuster At Swim, Two Boys is a big investment and not just in financial terms. It represents their entry into a more literary market. And it is a very big literary book, at 200,000 words. It tells the story of two boys who meet at the Forty Foot, “a sort of genleman’s bathing place” in Sandycove, just outside Dublin. They train and plan to swim out to the Muglins off Dalkey Island come Easter Sunday 1916. Set against the Irish uprising, the fight for independence, “the boys find their own nationality through their love affair in much the same way that Ireland struggled to find its independence.” They are befriended by MacMurrough, an intellectual who has spent time in gaol for soliciting. “It explores the value of friendship. Whether friendships last and if they have a status”, says O’Neill.
Jamie is a quiet, self-effacing, (at times almost frustratingly) modest man who seems to belong to a more innocent and honourable past. The past is a place he revels in. At Swim, Two Boys has taken him ten years to write and much of that time was spent on research. “I love the research. To immerse myself in that world and imagine what it was like to walk down those streets in 1916. My ideal way of writing would be to gather together all the facts in files and then start. I sometimes felt like a spider in his web pulling in all the information. Sitting there in my mittens with the candles burning.” In fact, he wrote the book at work, at the hospital, on a lap-top. “It was like getting a literary grant from the NHS,” he laughs. But were his employers supportive? “I think they were just glad to find someone who could stay awake.” Thankfully, Jamie stayed awake long enough to write a book that is being compared to Samuel Beckett, Flann O’ Brien and James Joyce. It’s a comparison Jamie is a little embarrassed by. “I’m proud of what I’ve done, but I know I’m no Joyce. I don’t recognise that book, the book they talk about. It’s a book I’d like to read, but I don’t recognise it as mine.” Admitting that he is no great reader himself (“I think novels are for writing not reading”), he says he has read Ulysses many times but is always aware of what it doesn’t contain. “I think I look for aspects of myself in a book and more often than not don’t find any. I’m glad I’m gay. After my name it’s the most important aspect of myself. It gives me a subject. I think we’ve only scratched the surface of gay history. All those stories still to be told. It’s fascinating.” But is he worried he may be categorised as a gay writer? An Irish writer? Heaven forbid, a gay Irish writer? “I think it’s beyond my control. I write what I write. I am what I am. But I would like to think my book might be read more universally.”
I worry for him. He seems ill-prepared for the media onslaught that will inevitably come from such a large investment. All the book launches, press lunches, interviews and signings. Perhaps it is because it’s still same months away (the book has been scheduled for September publication), or perhaps he hasn’t yet grasped the full enormity of what he has achieved. Or perhaps I shouldn’t be so protective. He has, after all, had a thorough education in media manipulation. For six years he was the lover of Russell Harty, and when the TV presenter died in 1988 he was hounded by the tabloids but always managed to evade them; offered extreme sums of money but always managed to resist. A less honourable, less well-grounded figure would no doubt have capitalised on this opportunity. It came, after all, just months before O’Neill’s first novel, Disturbance, was published. He had, and clearly still has, a lot of love for Harty. “He was a terrific person to be around. A great deal of fun with a very large personality. I think that television actually diminished him. When he died I lost everything.” But he wasn’t prepared to be bought. And I doubt he’ll be bought now. For all the money, all the expectations that will come to rest on him he seems happy enough to just muddle along. He has a vague idea for his next novel. It’s only a vague idea. There is no sense of urgency. He’s content enough to be packing his bags and returning to his beloved Ireland. “I learnt the other day there is a legal distinction between residence and domicile. Residence is where you live and domicile is where you wish to be buried. Ireland is my domicile.” For now, it will be his residence too.