an ongoing series by Thomas E. Kennedy and Walter Cummins
"Only for the Moment
Am I Saying Nothing:
A Journey to J. P. Donleavy
Interview and photos by Thomas E. Kennedy
IN THE TAXI, a Powder Fresh car freshener, hung from the interior light, dangles and sways with the road, and the driver, a young father of three with a scarred cheek, talks of football and the cost of food as we roll through the green countryside. A fat young fellow with folded arms and sandy hair sitting on a fence watches as we fly past. We pass a shop that says Paddy's, a sloping green field with a rook circling in the air above, old thatched-roof farmhouses, hedges, stone walls. The speed limit is forty, and the driver does ninety around a "Slow Dangerous Bend." Then it says, "Welcome to County Westmeath." We stop to ask directions of an Esso boy who says, "I know of a Donleavy out on the other side of town," and a surge of joy lifts me: that I am in Ireland to meet J.P. Donleavy who has written books that have brightened many a drear December of my discontent.
J.P. Donleavy's The Ginger Man-along with Joseph Heller's Catch-22, Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye-has been one of the most influential American novels of the past fifty years. All four novels have characterized and defined the spirit of the American individual at war with a repressive society, each in its own way. Suppressed for more than a decade, The Ginger Man's first unexpurgated publication outside of France was the British paperback by Corgi in 1961, its first unexpurgated hardcover edition from Seymour Lawrence having to wait till 1965. Since then it has sold several million copies and developed a vast cult following. The novel has been performed on stage many times, adapted by its author, and eminences from the film industry such as Robert Redford, Mike Nichols, Sam Spiegel, and John Huston have attempted to negotiate film rights over the years, but Donleavy is reluctant to relinquish control of the project.
Critic George Grella admires Donleavy's mix of verisimilitude with fantasy, his celebration of "the eroticism of all materiality." There is a recurrent theme of loss of the loved one-Dangerfield's first love drives a car off a bridge; George Smith's Sally (A Singular Man) dies in a car crash; Balthazar B.'s love dies in a fall from a horse; and Cornelius Christian's wife also dies. In A Fairy Tale of New York, the main character is an apprentice mortician; in A Singular Man, there is a central image of a mausoleum.
The critics received The Ginger Man with enthusiastic praise. Critical reaction to Donleavy's next eleven novels, however, has been less resounding. The complaint is that Donleavy merely repeats himself, In fact, the theme and content of his books vary greatly, although they do share a vision of death's inevitability and man's dark-comically earnest wish to evade it, a vision as old and established as the ancient Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh.
"Like all good comic writers," says Grella, "Donleavy grounds his vision in a dark view of the world." Beneath it all lie "fear, guilt, and the dread of death." Yet comic the books are, mine fields of belly laughs, farce, and the laughter of sharp recognition.
A Singular Man is a dark comic masterpiece of another sort, and The Onion Eaters, which caused the critics to wrinkle their noses, is vastly popular among readers. Time has shown that J.P Donleavy does not need the critics, for his books continue to sell famously, without rave reviews, without even being advertised.
This interview was conducted in Donleavy's 25-room mansion in Mullingar, about sixty miles from Dublin. I was admitted by a housekeeper into a spacious, comfortable sitting room where a high-heaped peat fire was already burning. I sat on a cozy sofa before the fire and a wall of pictures, and a marble fireplace with tall ivory carvings. On a side table, a Handel concerto and a photo of Donleavy with someone wearing a patch on his eye and a beard. All the paintings seem to be signed by Donleavy himself, and enormous coloured pillows are spread all across the great plank floor. On another side table, a leather bound book by Gay Talese, another of Darcy Dancer. The coffee table is a walnut plank across two small mill wheels with a Fortnum and Mason catalogue on top of it. Alongside the fireplace, a basket of peat and andirons. Snapshots here and there, a boy, a strange-looking sheep; on the wall a great brass tongs stretched open, looking like something Skully might wish to use on Sebastian Dangerfield. Above the mantle, an ornately framed mirror.
As I wait, from time to time the telephone rings with a kind of giggling sound. On one radiator, a pewter fish. To one side of the room, a grand piano of dark wood. Donleavy's secretary, Miss Jacqueline Killard, comes in, young and modern in black tights, to assure me Mr. Donleavy will be here soon.
As the wait extends, I begin to feel nervous. I notice rips in the bottom of the easy chairs and a sofa-a dog? a cat? The fire burns low. I get up and push the door shut not to let the heat out, feel an incipient chill in the air, look back a moment later and see the door has swung open again.
Nearly 70, he is remarkably youthful and energetic. He shows me around the house, room after beautifully appointed room, a sauna, the pool, a library of his own books and manuscripts, his enormous work room with papers everyplace, where he works on four projects at once sitting in a chair with a board on his lap. On one wall, a black and white photograph of his first wife, quite dreamy and beautiful. He shows me the places in the house-the entry hall, the garden which Joyce described in Stephen Hero (what one Joyce scholar has called "The Mullingar Connection").
Then "Mike" Donleavy was there (a Trinity nickname taken from his confirmation name), spiffily dressed in unmatched tweed jacket and vest, a red handkerchief spilling from his breast pocket, blue-and-white striped shirt open at the throat, an athletic man who boxed in school, plays tennis, has a swimming pool in the old house and a soccer and tennis court on his 180-acre grounds.
There is something chill and lonely about the big empty house, beautiful as it is, but back in the sitting room, Miss Killard has served tea and a great selection of cheeses and brown bread, and the aroma of burning peat scents the air from the once again heaped and crackling fire. Donleavy speaks slowly, drawling slightly, an elegant piping nasality to his voice, his accent a mix of American, Irish, and British, the occasional flat east coast "a" bursting through.
TK: You left the U.S. more than forty years ago and became an Irish citizen around 1968. That year was an occasion of some ugly occurrences in America - the assassinations of Robert F Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the Chicago Convention Riots, etc. Did these things influence your decision to change your citizenship to Irish?
JPD: No, I don't think so. I'm fascinated to hear that these things were occurring around that time, but I'm afraid that what influenced me was a purely practical matter of tax-not actually to gain money so much as to simplify my life. I had connections so many places. My first wife was living in Geneva, and I had three places in London and one in New York, and so a nightmare of things. To simplify this, I became an Irish citizen. But one thing that was never lost on me was the fact of my trying to get The Ginger Man (GM) published in America, and my whole impression of America from that period was tremendously overpowering. You know the McCarthy period, and even that I had a beard throughout that time. It was quite incredible. People found it very strange. I decided why should I hack at my face everyday with a sharp blade, but there was always some kind of problem. Having been an ex sort-of boxer-I had boxed in school and then with Arthur Donovan, whose photograph you can see up on the mantle there refereeing a Joe Louis fight-I could look after myself, and it didn't worry me, people trying to give me trouble, but this time that you speak of, in the late sixties, it reminds me of my impression of America of that earlier time. I recall wanting to leave and wanting never to have anything much further to do with the U.S. After the sheer rejection of GM. My last book is a history of that. GM was in fact highly thought of by the editorial people at Scribner's-John Hall Wheelock, a kind of Maxwell Perkins type, he was then a minor American poet, a long time ago now and he may now be a major American poet. But the Kennedy assassinations, I would have had the reactions you were talking about, but the act of changing my citizenship stemmed from that.
You finished the GM around 1952-53, twenty years after the Supreme Court decision which legalized"Joyce's Ulysses. It seems odd that the only edition of GM published in the U.S. until 1965 was an expurgated one.
Seymour Lawrence brought out an edition in 1965, which was the first real hardcover uncut edition, and how the book I had imagined would be published when I sent it to a press in Paris years before.
I understand that Maurice Girodias published GM under the Olympia imprint that he used for pornographic books rather than the imprint he used for Beckett and Nabokov and such. Why did he do that?
Yes, in effect that's correct. He had two imprints under Olympia Press, Collection Merlin and the Traveller's Companion Series. He would bring out a new series of pornographic books each spring, and the French government would descend upon him to ban them all, but he just sort of kept one step ahead. When I sent the manuscript to Paris, I mentioned that extracts had appeared in the Manchester Guardian, which was highly regarded in Europe. And Jack Kahane, Girodias's father, was a Mancunian, from Manchester, and knew how highly esteemed the Guardian was. Girodias knew that, so when he published his whole set of new pornographic books, he included GM in that Traveller's Companion Series so he could plead that it was, in fact, genuine literature, having been excerpted in the Manchester Guardian. To protect the dirty books. He did the same thing to Nabokov's Lolita to the extent that he published it in the same format, but not in the Traveller's Companion Series. So I was the only writer he had actually done that to. He was worried about Nabokov, who had contracted through an agent. Brendan Behan recommended the Olympia Press to me, and I wouldn't put it past him if he said to Girodias, "Oh, he's some drunken sod back in Dublin who doesn't care about what you do with his books," and Girodias thought he might take this chance . . . but on second thoughts Behan took writing and The Ginger Man very seriously and is unlikely to have said any such thing. Nabokov got in legal troubles with him, but successfully extricated himself.
My position was totally different; I couldn't afford lawyers, and literally, the book was ruined. But to my surprise, I found an English publisher to bring it out, and I flew to Paris and offered Girodias a very beneficial deal, splitting the foreign rights and proceeds fifty-fifty. But slowly and surely, when I got to Paris, I discovered that the book had already been handed around, people had read and knew it, and it had a coterie of readers there. That is how the action began. He suddenly realized that maybe there was some money in GM. His attitude was like with Beckett and Nabokov: "I'll put these guys' books out because they're good books, and I'll sell my dirty books because they make money." Though, of course, such so-called good books as The Ginger Man and Lolita could and did end up able to buy and sell the entirety of Olympia Press.
But you in fact wound up buying out the Olympia Press?
Yes, this was quite an extraordinary reversal of fortunes and an amazing literary anecdote, I suppose, the author taking over the publisher. One of the things one disliked about Girodias so much, he was always knocking authors. His dirty book writers he had nothing but praise for, but his serious writers with whom he fell out, he was always knocking in print. I saw an interview with him when he was quoted as saying something like, "You may wonder why J.P. Donleavy never turned out to be the writer that everyone expected him to be when he wrote The GM. The reason is simple. He spent his entire life in legal action with me. You may have your doubts about Donleavy as a writer, but have no doubt about him as a legal wizard." This was actually quite complimentary because Girodias was one of the great litigious geniuses of all time. No one could get the better of him with the exception of myself, according to Girodias. So that battle went on all of those years, and the pot of gold got bigger and bigger. That is one of the strange stories I am trying to deal with now with the book I wrote about the history of The GM.
In the aftermath of that very repressive period of the fifties in the U.S., things seemed to become wide open in the sixties and seventies to the point it seemed to me that we would never have that problem again, that oppressive hindrance of freedom of expression. Now suddenly, in the nineties, it seems to be back again, both from the left and the right, with the political correctness movements on the left and the fundamentalist Christians on the right, Jesse Helms, and all the problems with the National Endowment for the Arts, who they may fund and who not and whether they may fund at all. Last year was the first time in my life that I have had stories rejected for purportedly being racist and sexist-which were in fact anti-racist and antisexist. Some of this is university-based, and so many writers now have their homes in the universities. I wonder what effect this might have on their own sense of freedom when they are writing. Do you have any thoughts about this?
To some degree this is news to me. Some of what you are talking about began to appear a while back and in my case came out very strongly in the Schultz books, the trilogy, which are very anti-feminist. My publisher was Atlantic Monthly Press, and a young man bought the firm who was willing to take risks, but all the publishers were concerned about the feminist movement.
I wonder if the reason GM had difficulty being published in the U.S. had perhaps less to do with its eroticism than with the fact that it is perhaps viewed as an assault on the status quo, the "moral" structure of society.
That is possible. I remember early reactions coming back, the "we must be sure to screw down the furniture in our houses" kind of thing. The other thing which always has amazed me, and you have this problem say with actors who might be playing Dangerfield on stage, people misunderstand him. They forget that he wants to take up his place in society. He is not interested in the downtrodden or the worker, but rather in his private income. He wanted to take his place in upper society and all that was missing was the private income. The book is modelled to some degree on this old friend of mine, Gainor Stephen Crist, whom I have written about in The True History of The Ginger Man. He read the original manuscript of The Ginger Man at the time, and it never occurred to him that anything seemed to refer to him. I came to Europe from an immigrant background in the U.S. His background was entirely different in a way. Curious thing about people from the Midwest, they possess a strange elegance which most easterners don't have. They come east, like Scott Fitzgerald, and they have this elegance about them. Gainor Stephen Crist had that. He much resembled the Duke of Windsor. Certainly in looks and elegance if not behaviour. And he was a model of a sort for Sebastian Dangerfield. When I was in the U.S. trying to get GM published, I spent a year there with Crist. He went over there for financial reasons, his life was such utter chaos. In the book, I just describe being on the boat escaping back to Europe and staring out at New York harbour. With the boat about to leave, Gainor caught it by the skin of his teeth, running down the pier. That was when I submitted the book to Scribner's, and four of their editors read it and three thought it the best ms to come to Scribner's in years, and one thought it the best he had ever read. They had just published From Here to Eternity, and, having become sensitive about the censorship and outcry this work had produced, the previous editorial freedom no longer reigned, so they turned GM down.
How, in a world where From Here to Eternity was just published, could GM have been rejected on grounds of censorship sensitivity?
Yes, but The Ginger Man was thought to exceed the problems that From Here to Eternity had presented. Wheelock gave me the name of an agent to go to. He was very upset about it. The agent wouldn't even believe that I had actually talked to Wheelock. So when I realised that the most intelligent and sensitive editorial people turned this work down, my chances were not good, so I came back to Europe and that was it. That was in 1952. We were sailing on the Franconia out of New York Harbour, and at Battery Park they had marble plaques where they listed all the dead in the Second World War, and it occurred to me, and I state this in the book about GM, that it seemed to me if these people had not been killed in the war, these brave people, the mealy-mouthed McCarthy kind of thing you are talking about might not have had a chance to develop in America. There were one or two handfuls of people who stood out and battled this. I saw a TV program recently showing these people who lost their jobs and lived in misery for years afterwards. And America still has that kind of feel to it.
Do you still think of yourself as an American?
I am the son of immigrant parents and the subtlety of Europe and its influence must have been instilled in me. It was not as if I supposed my parents were ignorant Europeans. My father studied for the priesthood, and my mother was taken to America as a young girl by a very rich Australian uncle. Her view of America was composed of private railway cars and suites in the best hotels. So my background in America was a kind of strange mixture of that and the Irish lower class ghetto thing, which I did not encounter until I was about sixteen. I didn't find it curious to come to Europe and when I am back in America now, most people sense that I am foreign to them to some degree. But the American thing never leaves you. It is always basically there in you. It colours your life.
When you grow up in America, it is a fairyland for children. For me it was. My father, who was a dahlia fancier, a horticulturist, would see me walking across the lawn, and I could always see a bemused look on his face to see my carrying a golf club or tennis racket. If I had come from a farm as he had, I would have been carrying a scythe or an axe. He never lost his Irish characteristics, his brogue and his interest in the land stayed with him throughout his life. I don't know if you've read the Darcy Dancer books, but they are totally Irish, set in Irish houses, about the things that happened to the Anglo-Irish. This thing is disappearing in Ireland now. In another ten years, the term Anglo-Irish won't mean anything in contemporary usage.
Henry Miller is quoted as saying that when the muse sings if you don't listen you get excommunicated, and that when he wrote the tropic books he was appalled at what the muse was singing. Please, he thought, they'll kill me! By which I understand he meant it took some courage to go against the grain and accept this very special vision that came to him. When you wrote GM, did you have to do battle with opposing forces in yourself?
Undoubtedly that could have been the case, but I had an advantage in that I was a painter and had already exhibited and was out there already battling in the public forum as it were.
Do you still paint?
Yes and I have given several exhibitions in recent years and must now have sold hundreds of pictures. Occasionally even a reader will show up to buy something.
When you write, do you create by word or image? Does inspiration come to you as phrase or as picture, or both?
I think both, but it is true I am very much taken with the sound of words, and I write in a way that every sentence has to fit. I worry also if a paragraph gets too long-a matter of the human eye and how it perceives the page.
How does inspiration come? Do you sit back and close your eyes and see a picture that you have to find words for, or do the words go off like electricity, creating their own experience, pictures, senses?
A little bit of both I guess. I sometimes get surprised that you can take words just because they happen to be there and then turn them into part of fulfilling your story, like bricks that you can use to build a wall.
Do you gather and save bricks for when they will come in handy? When you are out looking at your cattle, say, do you jot down inspirations, observations, phrases, etc.?
Yes, I tend to, but perhaps not when my dangerous bull is near. And my notebooks get filled up, and sometimes I hardly use the notebook. I generally concern myself with three or four different projects at the same time. Sometimes I take notes for years and years, and then when I finally sit down to write the book, I might not even refer back to the notes.
Do you revise as you're writing or tend to let the writing run its own course and then go back to it to revise?
I revise all the time, again and again, until the final is reached, when I might not have progressed more than a couple of thousand words.
When you are working on a novel, do you generally see it as a whole in advance or do you have an intuition, a fragment of character or scene, a voice that you follow into the novel? Does your work surprise you as you are writing? Who was it said, no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader?
Only at certain points. You come to the end of the chapter and you don't know how it's going to end until it suddenly ends. This happens to most of my chapters. As to what you see in advance, the Darcy Dancer books, for example, I can trace back to their origin. I was going around the countryside not far from here to look at an old Georgian mansion of some architectural merit. Some people were interested in seeing the building, and I came with them. They said this place was going to fall down, and it was a magnificent building and no one was doing anything about it. Turns out that the man who lived in the building moved out of the main house and into a small sort of stable he had there and we went into this building, this great big country house, and nothing in this house had been touched. The place had mirrors like that in it (pointing to the great gilt-framed mirror above the fireplace). The roof, the main kingbeam or kingpost or whatever you call it, had fractured through dry rot and part of the ceiling had come right down into the main hall. Then the thing that dumbfounded me: in this main hall where you looked down toward the servants' quarters, there was a row of hangers-all of this man's things, his hunting coats, his caps, his hats, were all still hanging there, and antique furnishings worth thousands of pounds, and the rain was coming down into the building. No one ever interfered with this. It was his property, his place, and he moved out into the stables. Well, that, with a combination of other factors, inspired these Darcy Dancer books. Just a week ago, I was walking along the hills and someone said, "Ah, how's Darcy Dancer?" There in the countryside, that's what they read of mine, not The Ginger Man.
What do you think about the teaching of writing? In university programs?
Well, an author's occupation is using words, using tools that the world uses every day, and that is why authors make wonderful lawyers, for example, and are able to defend themselves. The use of words is so important-in a presidential speech for example, it influences an entire nation. So in fact, a student taking a writing course is doing one of the most important things he will do in his education. They don't have to go out and publish novels. The fact that they have learned to write and use words is the most important thing they will ever do. Everything in the world turns on words. All the world's corporations know this and are very interested in trying to obtain copyrights rather than patents - copyright protection lasts much longer. So IBM and these corporations will try to get writers to write up their patents, to make them creative patents so they can be copyrighted. Authors are throughout all society doing the most important manipulations through the use of words. And a writer can apply himself to all sorts of things, a vast array of businesses. People don't realise how dangerous writers are. Writers don't know it themselves. They are brilliant at law, naturals, they use words, and they can take those words and ruin you.
Do you still give public readings?
I haven't for a long time. I used to be quite good at it, could recite the text extemporaneously, which I don't do any more. I actually have to read from manuscript now. I was somewhere once, University of Chicago, and my sponsor, a pleasant man, an author himself and quite well known years later, noticed I didn't have any papers with me to read from. This terrified him. When I got up on the stage in front of several hundred people I looked down and he was sitting there in a sweat, and it turned me into a nervous wreck. I found myself totally drying up, and practically unable to say anything, I was so overcome with fear. Ever since then, I use a manuscript.
What sort of instrument do you write with-pencil, pen, typewriter?
Ah! A good question because I don't know how many writers use the method I use. I write things out on a piece of paper, maybe a few words, then it goes to my secretary who types a clean copy, and then I will actually write around that, and it goes back to her, and she reproduces it again, and than I paste the pages one over another until the pages get very long. Some of them get as long as this room, one page (NB: approximately 10 metres). It keeps expanding all the time with the story unfolding so I can trace back mistakes, things missed and notes. Each clean copy then is pasted over the previous one. The mss. I have are all very massive, but contain every single word written and every inundation and every change. Sotheby's say the manuscripts are unique, but I don't want to auction them because I can't get used to the idea of them going somewhere I don't know. However, they now take up so much room I am trying to place them somewhere, but the American universities don't seem able to afford to buy such things now.
Wouldn't Trinity like to have them?
You won't find a book of mine sold in the college bookshop at Trinity. You go across the street outside the gates, and the books are available in all the bookshops, but not inside the college. So I don't see much point in my manuscripts ending up there although it would be the most appropriate place. My concern is that here they take up so much room and are not kept in an ideal dryness. I never throw anything away. Most authors don't, so if their life goes on long enough you have this enormous deposit of things. An example: have you ever heard of Screw magazine? They interviewed me once when one of my books was coming out. The publisher, Dell, was not very happy about it, but I said, "Look, I was a banned writer in this country-no one would touch my things for accusations of obscenity, so if Screw wants to interview me, fine." They sent an interviewer who looked like a banker from Wall Street- in comparison to the guy in tennis sneakers and open shirt who had just interviewed me for the New York Times. This chap from Screw gave me their latest issue and I was sitting on the fountain outside the Plaza Hotel in New York reading it and the photographer asked me to put it down so he could take my picture. "You don't want to be photographed with that." I said, "Well, why not?" So they took my picture clearly reading Screw and Mr. Al Goldstein then ran this photograph of me all over the place, J.P. Donleavy reads Screw. His lawyer said, "My God, Al, this guy could sue you." I didn't even know until much later, but I wouldn't have sued him anyway. But then Screw started turning up here every week, and I had this big stack of them which, like everything else, I wouldn't throw out. So my second wife, you know she was an American girl and very particular about impressions, took a stack of these out to the incinerator to burn. Some of these editions went back for years, and my God you know it occurs to me now she was burning about twenty-five thousand dollars worth of magazines at collectors' values. Who was president, then? Johnson? Nixon? Anyway, Screw would append a photograph of a president's face onto pornographic pictures in the centre of the paper. They tried to stop him, but they couldn't, and this couldn't happen anywhere else in the world.
Are the Irish still upset about The GM?
There was a great deal of resentment, but it's gone now. People have grown up reading the book and it has changed their attitude. I remember catching a bus from the local station here one day, and I began to ask the driver to stop for me, and he said, I know where you live. I thought he'd forget and drive by, but he did stop and started reciting an entire paragraph out of the GM as I stepped off the bus. So that's over, but still I am highly resented in this country because so much information about Ireland comes from me-this may sound exaggerated, but it's true-broadcast on things like widely watched American television where I might appear as a guest. I don't know a thing about the country. I read a British newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, and may as well be living in Timbuktu for all the number of times I go outside those gates. This may have caused enormous resentment because I am still looked upon as American. I've written two books about the country and there has been a TV program on a cable channel, the Discovery Channel, called J.P Donleavy's Ireland, which won a gold medal in the Houston International Film Festival. When I wrote A Singular Country, it received dreadful reactions everywhere in Ireland, but Conor Cruise O'Brien said this was the most important book written about the country in the last hundred years. I was totally unaware of how my opinions were spreading so far and wide. An interviewer would ask me, Well, what is it like over in Ireland? And I would say, Well, I have no idea, but I would state what I think is happening, and the Irish hate this because they have set up their tourist board to do this. So if there is a lot of resentment it may be because I am doing a better job promoting the country. Even sometimes I've heard someone will be on his way up to see me and come through Dublin and mention to someone that he is coming, and they'll say, "Oh he died last year, didn't you know that?" But the opposite happens, too. On Grafton Street one afternoon a big redbearded fellow stopped his car in the middle of traffic and hopped out to boom at me, "I'm so glad you're here!" So it goes both ways, but there was resentment, all the way back to the period of Brendan Behan and Patrick Kavanagh, Myles na Gopaleen, who were contemporaries of that period, though older of course.
Did you know them?
Yes, Patrick Kavanagh, but I met na Gopaleen only a couple of times. However, I did know Brendan Behan well, who was quite a close friend.
Did you know Sean O'Faolain or Frank O'Connor?
No. I didn't know any of the older writers. And they were all writers who had quite big images in the world.
Are you interested in literary trends or theory?
Hardly at all. Yet writers, and their minds, and the way they work, are most fascinating to me. They are not like other people. So I miss that. But I know that if I went to America, it would be something quite else. A wonderful illustration, a young writer, you must know of him, Jay McInerney. I met him at one of these literary things in Calgary in Canada, and he had read things of mine, dedicated one of his talks to me. He looked like a young banker, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, a glamorous figure. But Calgary to me is a fascinating place, like a city just put together on the prairie. There are no people. It is so spacious and they have all these walkways, and this fascinating place, the Hudson Bay Company, a kind of great big shop, and I was walking through this with Jay McInerney, and I felt it should have been the most fascinating place on earth to see because of this great spread of open floors, all these goods, moccasins and skis and things, no people walking around, but not a thing in Calgary seemed to make any impression on him. Obviously he'd already seen plenty of this in America and of more interest would have been the New York literary scene. He was charming and a pleasant guy, I don't mean to indicate that he was boring or anything else, but this fascinated me, that his eyes seemed closed to what was around us, and I would say, "My God, look at this! The Hudson Bay Company, this was doing business with the fur trappers, the Indians!" Anyway, even if the Hudson Bay Company made no impression on him, I look forward to seeing him again.
You were speaking before about Maurice Girodias and Olympia Press Is Olympia still functioning?
No, it is just largely pieces of paper describing the copyrights and so on. Girodias always said that anything he has done, if it found its way into anybody else's hands, it would turn to dust, and he is correct in this respect. There are a few things that didn't fall through, contracts that one could sue on, royalties that are due, etc., but the company does not exist or function.
They were also the first to publish Henry Miller?
No, Jack Kahane who founded Obelisk Press was the first to publish Miller, and then his son Girodias did.
Were you living in Paris at the time, and did you know Miller? I believe I read you said he was an influence.
I travelled and visited Paris a lot, but didn't live there, and I didn't know Miller, but I would think yes, he did have an influence on me. My exposure to literary matters would have come about through a Michael Heron and James Leathers, with whom I shared rooms at Trinity and both of whom had quite an excellent library of writers -- Celine, Camus and a lot of the writers who never became completely famous then. Heron knew of Thomas Wolfe and e. e. cummings, knowledge of whom in those days in Ireland would be rarefied indeed, and then Henry Miller's books were penetrating all around Europe and in a way that no one could ever believe. I read recently a biography of Miller's that he in fact became quite affluent from his royalties. I am presently corresponding with the people who now sell reproductions of his pictures out in California, and they are doing silk screens of some of his watercolours. But Miller's work would have been very influential at that time, having that great extravagant enthusiasm.
What other writers do you look to as your mentors, if any?
I suppose some have influenced one years earlier. Probably in a strange way I have avoided a lot of influence by the happenstance of being a painter and writing forewords to exhibitions I used to give and that set me with my first publications as a writer so the influences of others didn't get to me because I was already up and running as an artist. But in writing the GM, as I wrote through the book and it is only now that I have been reading some old letters written at the time that I discovered how I was actually in the process of learning how to become a writer and to use words.
If I were to say what influence I could perceive, I would say Joyce and Ulysses. Had you read it?
Never totally, but clearly Joyce would have been an influence. Then, too, when I was writing GM, you can see on the cover of my Ireland book a picture of the desk where I worked, and that is where Brendan Behan wrote Borstal Boy, too. In fact, he broke into my house once when I was away, and he started reading the manuscript of GM and correcting it, editing it, and he autographed across the top of the page, Brendan Behan. I resented that, but I was amazed that as I continued to work on the book, I found myself actually acceding to a lot of the kind of changes he was making.
Do you generally take advice from editors of the houses that publish your books, or do they come out as you send them in?
As I send them in.
You mentioned the real-life counterpart of Dangerfield. When you wrote A Singular Man, were you thinking of Howard Hughes?
Not particularly of Hughes, but of myself being put in that position, doing legal battle with the world. I had law cases with Girodias in Paris, London, and New York, gigantic situations-fourteen lawyers at the height of the case. Lord Goodman, one of the major figures in British law, finally represented me in London. But I started out with nothing. However, over the years, as I had to, by necessity, learn, and in consulting with lawyers all the time, did become familiar with legal matters. Girodias luckily hadn't wiped me out in the early stages, which he should have done. You know when you find some author like that, get rid of him right away and make sure he doesn't come back. For writers without knowing seem to excel in legal matters-they're dangerous. I slowly got richer, more powerful, comparatively speaking. I operated in a place that I refer to as Tax Dodgers' Towers in London. No one knew I lived there. I had another address in London, in Fulham, and that's where mail came to, and from which mail would be collected two or three times a week, and there was a person who answered the telephone at that number-in those days they had real people answering, and that was my front, the poor author who lived down in Fulham, but in fact I lived up in the top of this tower in some elegance.
Was it to avoid the confrontations due to your legal cases, or were there other people, young writers and so forth, bothering you?
No, it was not that as I hardly knew any other writers. I was very conscious of security, as happens in litigation, what you try to do is find out about your opponent, whether he has any money, how is he fighting, and all litigation is based on that. What can you find out about your opponent? And what Girodias at first found out didn't alarm him. And so naturally, Girodias, when he discovered I was becoming a much bigger problem, then he actually thought, "Oh-oh, well I'm Maurice Girodias. I'm this still important person. Writers are minions." He was too late to realise that a writer could suddenly cease to be a minion and become an important opponent. Well, as this litigation increased, my withdrawal from the world increased. Howard Hughes and his reclusive behaviour in his life was no mystery to me.
Yet you opened the door to me and have given generously of your time.
Well, my caution, having survived for so long, perhaps has lessened. People, especially publishers, seemed terrified enough of me. But you asked if I was hiding from fans. It has never really been that kind of thing. I've never become famous in that way. If anyone approaches me it is because they know one of my books. I am never bothered by people. They are as sensitive as you are and often just as shy and not wanting to intrude. But with regard to interviews, I neither seek nor avoid them. I am conscious of being so isolated that as you notice, I am as interested in you as you might be in me, and so a meeting becomes reciprocal and as fascinating for me as it might be for you. My information comes often from people like yourself who actually know a lot about a lot of areas which the average man simply never encompasses or is interested in. And an interviewer can be a tremendous source of information. So I seldom would turn someone away, except in some uncomfortable situation, but during the period I was in London, in the Singular Man sense, I did really tend to stay out of contact with people. But here if you come through the gates, it is trespassing, and I am not available basically. No one knows my movements, and in that direction [pointing toward the lake] there is no human being for five miles because it is a great big lake and I own all the land to the lake, and it is a big shore line, about a third of a mile. All providing a form of involuntary reclusiveness. But my attitude has changed over the years.
Of all your books, GM seems to be the most celebrated. Which of your books is your own personal favourite?
I suppose A Singular Man (SM). But yes, GM crops up in the most unlikely places. I was on a tour alone out West once, about fifteen years ago, in Oklahoma I think, and when you get on those plains and look at the horizon, the loneliness is unbelievable, isolation, it almost fills you with terror. I had to get up early one day where one had to go to the college cafeteria for breakfast, and you watch these big football players drinking five glasses of orange juice, and these lonely academic figures there. Nothing in life terrifies me more than the figure of academic pursuit where people are going to college and their futures are ahead of them. It must stem from the fact that I was such a bad student with a future that promised nothing but failure academically. So there I was in Oklahoma and got into this terribly depressed state. I thought, what on earth am I doing out here in no man's land, nobody within hundreds of miles of this place could have a word of sympathy for anything I've ever written. So I walked out of the cafeteria, down the steps, with my head down, staring at the ground, and suddenly I saw printed in the concrete in big letters: All I want / Is one break / Which is not / My neck. A poem ending a chapter straight out of The Ginger Man.
I was looking at A Singular Man again recently, and this wonderful black comic Kafkaesque quality of the letters that Smith keeps receiving. Was that inspired by that period?
Yes, indeed, and the one empirical letter on the first page of the book took me quite some time to devise. It was quite simple, the empirical letter that all lawyers write back and forth, "Only for the moment am I saying nothing." One of the principles of law is let the other guy say something and then that is what you wait for and suddenly you get this reply, Only for the moment am I saying nothing. In other words, you're not getting anything from me to start to use back. The main thing in legal matters is never reply to anything. The moment someone replies in a letter, you go to work on them. It's like counterpunching in a boxing match.
Thus, only for the moment am I saying nothing. And then: Whack!
Books By J.P. Donleavy
The Ginger Man. Paris: Olympia Press, and London: Spearman, 1955; New York: MacDowell Obolensky, 1958; unexpurgated edition, London: Corgi, 1963; New York: Delacorte Press, 1965.
A Singular Man. Boston: Little Brown, 1963; London: Bodley Head, 1964.
The Saddest Summer of Samuel S. New York: Delacorte Press, 1966; London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1967.
The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B. New York: Delacorte Press, 1968; London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1969.
The Onion Eaters. New York: Delacorte Press, 1971; London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1971.
A Fairy Tale of New York. New York: Delacorte Press, 1973; London: Eyre Methuen, 1973.
The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman. New York: Delacorte Press, 1977; London: Allen Lane, 1978. Shultz. New York: Delacorte Press, 1979; London: Allen Lane, 1980.
Leila. New York: Delacorte Press, 1983; London: Allen Lane, 1983.
DeAlfonce Tennis: The Superlative Game of Eccentric Champions: Its History, Accoutrements, Conduct, Rules, and Regimen. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1984; New York: Dutton, 1985.
Are You Listening, Rabbi Low? London: Viking, 1987; New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1988.
That Darcy, That Dancer, That Gentleman. London: Viking, 1990; New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1991.
Meet My Maker the Mad Molecule. Boston: Little Brown; London; Bodley Head, 15.
J.P Donleavy's Ireland: In All Her Sins and in Some of Her Graces. London: Michael Joseph, 1986; New York: Viking, 1986.
A Singular Country. Peterborough, Ryan, 1989; New York: Norton, 1990.
The History of the Ginger Man. Boston: Seymour Lawrence/Houghton Mifflin, 1994
This interview first appeared in The Literary Review, Vol. 40, No. 4
[copyright 2003, Thomas E. Kennedy]