Q&A with Patrick O’Keeffe – Shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award 2015

Patrick O'KeeffePatrick O’ Keeffe was born and grew up in Co. Limerick and moved to the United States in his twenties, where he earned a degree from the University of Kentucky and a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan. He currently teaches the Graduate Creative Writing Program at Ohio University. Patrick’s critically acclaimed first work The Hill Road (a collection of four novellas) won the prestigious Story Prize in the US and has been described as possessing the lyrical eloquence of Alice Munro and William Trevor. His debut novel The Visitors is shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award 2015. He lives in Athens, Ohio.

Q. You emigrated to the United States in your twenties. Do you think you would have become a writer had you stayed in Ireland?

A. It’s impossible to know. If I had stayed in Ireland I would have had a very different life than the one I’m now living. Writing wasn’t a part of my life when I lived in Ireland, but that part of my life is central to my present life as a writer.Patrick O Keeffe

Q. Are there any other writers in your family?

A. My father’s first cousin self-published a book on the history of the area where I grew up. I believe this cousin was a school teacher in Dingle. (Both he and my father have passed away.) I never met him, and know nothing about his life. I read the book he wrote, and really connected with it. I especially liked the personal anecdotes, the historic details about changing patterns in farming life, and the playfulness in the writing voice. I used some of the information from his book in my first book The Hill Road.

Q. The Visitors is your second published book. Its protagonist James Dwyer has undertaken a journey from Ireland to America not that dissimilar to your own. Were you interested in drawing on your own memories in the writing of the novel?

A. Jimmy Dwyer is certainly not me. I think the book came from the different places I have lived. Those places became incredibly vivid to me when I was writing the novel, and, in fact, drove the novel, though I’m not sure if the book is fully true to those places, or whether I got them right.

Q. Do you find writing cathartic?

A. To be honest, I don’t.

QThe Hill Road is a collection of four novellas set on a fictional Irish dairy farm and is about those who stayed at home instead of emigrating. Were you a close observer of the characters around you growing up or are they largely fictionalised?

A. Much of it comes from reading other writers. Some of these writers wrote about a similar world to the one that I grew up in: Mary Lavin, John McGahern, William Trevor, etc. Also, because I ended up attending college in the US (as an older student), I mostly read American writers, who continue to have an enormous influence on me as a writer. When I was growing up the lives of adults and children felt separate; you did not have much access to the lives of adults, even though when I was young I was very curious about the adults I grew up around. They were more interesting to me than those of my own age. One of the many challenges of writing, at least for me, is inventing characters that feel real to me and, hopefully, to the reader, and so it wouldn’t be truthful to say the characters come from my real life.

Q. The very last paragraph of The Visitors sees Dwyer at a railway station; he changes his mind about boarding a train and steps out of the ticket queue: “This big dude behind me muttered something about some folks never being able to make up their darn minds. I looked him in the eye and said immigrants were like that….”   Is there a sense here of the immigrant never being settled?

A. Yes, I think so. This is the way I saw his character develop in the writing of the novel.The Hill Road

Q. What was your favourite book growing up?

A. I loved reading the myths – from all countries and cultures. I also enjoyed comic books, and adventure novels like Treasure Island and Robison Crusoe.

Q. There was a big debate this side of the pond last year about whether creative writing can actually be taught. What are your thoughts on this?

A. The two-year MFA was a very positive learning experience for me. I would probably not be a working writer without it, and I feel a genuine sense of gratitude toward my teachers, who are themselves writers. Artists have always learned from – and copied from – one another. But, in the end, you have to learn it for yourself. Writing is very solitary work, and it requires endless patience. You keep doing it over and over, until it feels right to you, maybe until you can live with it. It sometimes feels as though you are forever practicing, maybe like a pianist or a painter.

Q. Which writer, living or dead, would you most like to share an airline flight with?

A. Alice Munro.

Q. What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?

A. I think if you have the passion for it, you will keep writing – if it’s what you think you should be doing with your life. More than once I have spent a long time working hard on what I thought were novels, though in the end I had to abandon them. I felt terribly dejected, and when I told a writing teacher that I felt I had wasted all that time, he said, “There’s no time wasted writing.” For me, this was very sound advice.

Q. Have you been to Listowel Writers’ Week before?

A. I have never been to the festival, and I am very excited to be invited. Thank you very much for shortlisting the book. I’m eager to hear all of the readings and all of the talks, but also hear the music and see what’s happening on the streets.

Thank you Patrick. We’re very much looking forward to welcoming you to Listowel. We are also delighted to announce a new event at this year’s festival on Thursday 28th May at 8pm called ‘Eavesdropping on a Novel Conversation.’ Meet the five shortlisted novelists of this year’s Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award: David Butler, Eoin McNamee, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Patrick O’Keeffe and Eibhear Walshe. The event will be facilitated by arts and music journalist Jim Carroll. For more details and to book please click here



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