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Out of the Shadows

The Guardian, November 23, 2000. London, UK.
Jamie O’Neill has just won a £1m book deal. He is being compared to James Joyce. So why has he spent 10 years as a night porter? And what about his love affair with Russell Harty? Stephen Moss reports

(Interview upon publisher’s acquisition of At Swim, Two Boys)

“Impecunious night porter gets £1m for novel” is one of those rags-to-riches publishing stories the press loves. Bus drivers, teenage students, teachers who hit the jackpot: it could be you. But Jamie O’Neill, this week’s literary lottery winner, is even more interesting than that. Who knows, his book might even live up to the hype.

Not, though, his normally sensible agent Giles Gordon’s hype. The book – called, significantly, At Swim, Two Boys – is, Gordon says modestly, “a natural successor to James Joyce, Flann O’Brien and Samuel Beckett”. Simon & Schuster clearly agrees and has paid £250,000-plus for the right to publish the book next September. Worldwide rights and film options are expected to boost O’Neill’s earnings to the magical seven figures.

How does he feel about being branded the new Joyce? “Very nice, isn’t it,” he says, before giving his true opinion. “It’s very unfortunate really. It’s just asking for somebody to shoot you.” “Giles is a good man, he’ll protect you,” I blather. “But they won’t shoot him,” O’Neill counters.

O’Neill is a laconic, softly spoken 39-year-old. He lives in a rented flat near the Hogarth roundabout in west London, and for the past 10 years has earned £200 a week as a night porter at the Cassel hospital in west London, a residential hospital for mentally ill patients.

He chose the job specifically to be able to write at night – his role was to man reception and keep an eye on the hospital – and when we met he was wondering why members of the hospital trust had been trying to call him. “I don’t think they’re too pleased to know that somebody’s been writing on their time,” he says. “It was a bit like getting a bursary from the NHS.”

For someone who has just hit the jackpot, he is pleasingly phlegmatic. He will be giving up his job and going back to live in his native Ireland – he was born in Dun Laoghaire, near Dublin – but had been planning to do that anyway. In any case, it isn’t the usual unknown-writer-gets-fortune-for-first-book tale.

In his late 20s he had two novels, titled Disturbance and Kilbrack, published by Weidenfeld. “If you ask me how did they do, they didn’t,” he volunteers. “The woman who bought the novels left, so they were orphaned.” He more or less disowns them now, and says he can’t even bear to open Kilbrack.

However, I did open the book and was struck by the handsome, dark-haired youth on the back cover, and by the jaunty blurb describing a life spent going to festivals and eating out in restaurants. It didn’t sound much like the quiet, reclusive, almost nocturnal figure in front of me. I soon discovered why.

O’Neill, who had come across from Ireland for a fortnight in 1982 but never gone back, was chat show host Russell Harty’s partner for six years before his sudden death in 1988. They lived together in Harty’s cottage in Giggleswick, Yorkshire, and the shock of his death overwhelmed O’Neill.

The experience was made worse by press intrusion – his parents back in Ireland only discovered their son was gay when they saw his photograph on the front of the Sunday Mirror – and by the determination of the Harty family to get O’Neill out of the cottage as quickly as possible. It was a disturbing experience for the 27-year-old, and one he says he is only now coming to terms with.

“I was in therapy for a while. I still have vivid dreams about Russell. One of the problems was that I didn’t just lose a share of my heart; I lost my whole way of life.” Harty had encouraged O’Neill’s writing and read his manuscripts; by 1988 he had secured a two-book deal with Weidenfeld and the novels were published in the following two years. But then, grieving for Harty and alone in London, he found he could no longer write, parted company with both agent and publisher, and took the job at the Cassel.

The important thing about this book, he says, is that there was no pressure to impress anyone. Clearly, living in the home of the older Harty, he had wanted to prove himself a writer: not to Harty himself, but to his friends, some of whom saw O’Neill as a hanger-on. “I had been published and I didn’t feel the push to finish this book, so I took time over it. I didn’t have to prove anything.”

In fact, he took 10 years. The book tells of the love of two 16-year-old boys caught up in the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916, and O’Neill makes an explicit connection between nationalism and sexual awakening.

“I feel that in the process of writing the book, I learned how to write and how to research. When I had finished it, I felt that I would like to start all over again and do it properly.” Not an opinion shared by his publisher, Ian Chapman, who has pronounced it “a painfully beautiful book” and “the most exciting typescript I have read in the past 10 years”.

O’Neill’s efforts to get the period detail right in the book were unstinting, and his flat is filled with books about the rebellion. “I possibly got bogged down in the research,” he says. “I read a book by Arthur Koestler, and talking about writing Spartacus he said that he knew he was getting bogged down in research because he had two thick files on Roman underwear. I was getting a bit like that. But it’s one of those things where you don’t have to convince the reader so much as yourself. You have to know what was going on, and when you have that confidence you can leave it out.”

He finished the book in September and passed it to David Marcus, a literary scout in Ireland, who in turn sent it to Giles Gordon at Curtis Brown. Gordon, highly regarded and not usually given to hyperbole, called it “the first major novel I’ve encountered in typescript since Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy in 1992,” and sold the book almost immediately to Simon & Schuster. Ironically, while he was still writing it, O’Neill had pre-sold the novel to Duckworth for £400, but bought it back for the same sum when his editor left.

O’Neill’s is a remarkable story of perseverance. He gives the impression that while being published matters, writing matters more. “I’m only really happy when I’m writing,” he says. “I’ve always been writing something.” He was not close to his parents, nor to his siblings (none of whom knew he was gay), and perhaps needed the security of imagined worlds. Harty, in life and in death, had a profound influence on him. His death interrupted his writing, but the trauma also changed O’Neill as a person and deepened the work. He says one of the characters in the book embodies aspects of Harty.

Referring to Flann O’Brien in the title of your book, and having a publisher determined to proclaim your literary pedigree, is courting danger, but O’Neill is alert to it. “You don’t consciously follow anyone. But it is quite difficult for an Irish writer to have Joyce standing there. He is leaning over you the whole time, and it is daunting. You get around it by being truthful to yourself.”