Thursday, February 15, 2018

A Writer’s Life with Kevin O’Connell

I'm honored to host Kevin O'Connell and introduce his latest novel in The Derrynane Saga series, Two Journeys Home: A Novel of Eighteenth Century Europe. He writes about Irish nobility and a relatively unknown aspect of Irish and European history (at least to me). The fallen Irish aristocracy served at the courts and in the armies of Catholic Europe. And, yes, they got to visit Vienna and Versailles. Tell us about your journey as a writer, Kevin.

As Beyond Derrynane and Two Journeys Home continue to be more widely-read, a number of questions have been posed to me, about writing them as well as about my writing in general. I have chosen to elaborate on several of the more intriguing ones.

     What are my goals as a writer.

 At the outset, unlike many later-on-in-life beginning authors, it was not a long-deferred dream of mine to write – certainly not novels.  Yet, once I began – on rather a lark, I must admit – it quickly became a passion, and, as “the first book” became the first book in what is now the Derrynane Saga, with the second one now recently published and the third underway – the passion has evolved into what I have now come to regard as being my life’s work.
Quite candidly, my initial goal – once I had the barest of story lines – was to see if I could indeed do it, that is, to actually write fiction, create characters and give them lives and voices, and tell their stories. The first reviews were very good and my goal has evolved into creating a series of books, a lengthy saga, worthy of the complex, colourful characters and of the tumultuous time and the challenging, oft-times dangerous settings in which they dwell.  
An equally important goal remains to do all of this – and more – as a storyteller, in a manner so as to make the books an enjoyable experience for both the casual reader as well as the true devotee of historical fiction. Especially in terms of the latter audience, my aim remains to have the history and the fictional tales meld well, such that it would be virtually impossible for the majority of readers to successfully parse which events actually occurred or did not.
Lastly, my hopes and my goals remain to have the books – and, indeed, once the Derrynane Saga is finally completed, the further work that I plan to undertake –  continue to be well-regarded as quality, accessible historical fiction, recognised as being meticulously-researched, beautifully-written and enjoyable.

   What are the boundaries you have pushed as a writer? 

Whilst I do not believe, nor do I pretend that my work has shattered any significant literary boundaries, in that the Derrynane Saga is the first fictional treatment, relating stories of members, and of families of what was referred to by then as the fallen Gaelic Aristocracy, as they served at the courts and in the armies of Catholic Europe in the Eighteenth Century. Though understanding that the topic is narrow I was indeed rather surprised to discover that it had never before been treated in fiction.
Whilst the books are not a specific chronicle of all courts – nor anything approaching an exhaustive even fictional treatment of the subject, I believe the Saga does succeed in opening a literary door onto a relatively unknown aspect of Irish and European history in the Eighteenth Century.

What is my writing style and how I have adapted it to work for my story?

At the risk of appearing glib, this is relatively easy– I had no distinguishable writing style before I began to work on these books, so I was not compelled to adapt any in-place pre-existing style to writing the books of the Saga.
This said, in reflecting on how I wished the reader to experience the stories, from the very beginning I had consciously decided to write “formally” (some would say “archaically”) – in some approximative suggestion of Eighteenth Century written communications, such that the gap between the descriptive text written in the Twenty-first Century and the dialogue of the characters would not be quite so jarring. Consistent with this decision, I write in “Irish (or “English”) English – both in terms of spelling (“colour”) and usage “whilst”).
In terms of dialogue, I make every effort to have the characters – be they Irish at the courts in Vienna or Versailles – or the nobility or royalty at those locations – speak and interact the way I believe they did. In the same vein, servants – whether at Derrynane or Versailles – may be viewed as subtly speaking differently than educated courtiers.
I frequently use correspondence as one means of telling the story, providing details and insights into what is occurring or the thoughts, hopes, concerns of the writer; in doing so I have worked hard to reasonably assure that any such letter is written as it would have been by the writer in the time and place of its composition.
I have, I believe successfully, largely avoided verbal stereotypes, I have employed the Irish “lilt” sparingly, recognising that, for example, that, despite that they were native Irish speakers and possessed at least to some natural degree the “brogue”,  the O’Connells were, for their station, sophisticate and highly-educated; they thus most likely spoke in tone and manner little different than similar lesser aristocrats would in England at the time.
I have selectively used non-English – Irish Gaelic, French and German – language for emphasis and./or to set the mood or tone of a scene or setting.  In replicating, in English, the cadence or manner of a native-French or German speaker, I have been as subtle as possible in choosing phraseology, such that an English-speaking reader could easily conclude that the character was speaking wholly in German, for example. (I find this to be less invasive than constantly reminding the reader “. . . she said in French . . .”
Comments made by an individual who’d read literally the first fifty pages of the original manuscript, “I can see the setting, where the characters are! I can hear them speaking!” had a profound impact on me as I was attempting to determine the importance, the appropriate degree of descriptive language to use. My conclusion was, especially in this genre – where virtually everything is different from life in the current century – that descriptions were critical and that details – from the largest, to the smallest – provide readers with the opportunity to say what had been said to me, “I can see the people, where they are, I can hear them.” As I write,  I make every effort to use vivid language so as to make the setting visible to the reader, permitting her to sense that she is at a ball, aboard a ship or in the saddle.
I have thus come to employ significant vividly-descriptive language to place the reader on the beach at Derrynane, in the courtyards and the interior of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, amongst the riders on a journey by horseback and in carriages, coaches:

The horses’ bells gaily marked their progress to the huge, ornate white building that housed the renowned Winter Riding School, also known as the Spanish Riding School, as it had thus been named for the horses that originated from the Iberian Peninsula during the sixteenth century and were considered especially noble and spirited, as well as willing and suited for the art of classical horsemanship. Eileen learnt that, in 1729,the empress’s father, Emperor Charles VI, had commissioned the magnificent structure in which they rode, and it finally had been completed in 1735. She had immediately fallen in love with the edifice, its history and all that went on within, to the extent that she had come to regularly smile at the massive portrait of the monarch, mounted on a magnificent white charger, which gracedone end of the splendid riding hall. . .

From her first days in Vienna Eileen had found herself frequently employing the term magnificent to the buildings, rooms,churches, opera house—somuch so that she’d inquired as to the appropriate German usage; advised that there were some thirteen—some tongue-twisting—ways of expressing the characterisation, she settled. It was as a result of her near instantaneous feelings for the Riding School that she would quickly learn to, meaning truly magnificent. The phrase came to mind virtually every time she entered the riding hall itself: its galleries buttressed by,despite their size, almost delicate Corinthian columns, massive and dazzlingly white, the hall illuminated on gloomy winter afternoons by a series of extraordinary crystal chandeliers, their dozens of candles flickering, as if each flame danced to its own unique tune. The crowning intricately-fashioned vaulted ceiling above the lights was an extraordinary work of art in itself.

In this vein, to the extent I deem necessary, and, thus on more than a few occasions I employ a minute level of description – including sounds,odours, the weather:

Mainly, however, she rode in blissful silence, the immediate atmospherealive with the soft creaking of coach wheels and springs, jangling tack and the steady rhythm of thudding hooves—the gentle squeak of her own body,her bottom, her thighs against the thick leather of Bull’s saddle, all to her comforting, timeless sounds. A light wind came up as they were perhaps two miles gone from the Hofburg, diffusing the morning’s thin cloud cover; the sun was growing brighter, warmer. More than once, she lifted her face to it, feeling the rays on her cheeks, the gentle breeze tossing her hair,sensing her spirits rising—beginning to feel in a way as frisky as Bull continued to behave.

Thank you, Kevn. I look forward to your next book in the series.