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Conor Fennell and his Joycean Journey

Writing.ie | Magazine | General Interest | Interviews | Non-Fiction

By Sarah Downey

Conor Fennell’s fascination with James Joyce’s time in Paris sparked the idea for his debut book, A Little Circle Of Kindred Minds: James Joyce In Paris.  Sarah Downey of writing.ie  spoke to him about 1920s literary Paris, influential writers and penning his first book.

Conor Fennell’s illustrious career has included presenting the popular programme Countrywide and has seen him work as an esteemed journalist with RTE for many years.  Now, he is embarking on a new venture which will see him publish his first book, an intriguing look into James Joyce’s time in Paris during the 1920s and 30s.

Conor’s  interest in Paris during the first half of the century married perfectly with his interest in two particular writers, Joyce and Hemingway.  “I had always been interested in Paris, particularly the Paris of the 1920s when thousands of people descended on the city, mainly American, British and Russian, and stayed for most of the decade, some longer. Many of these were writers, artists and musicians who were finding it difficult to carry out their art in their own countries where there was a climate of conservatism and even bigotry. Paris was a more liberal place. It was the world capital of culture and this was an exciting time to be there.” Paris in the 1920s and 30s was home to Stravinsky, Diaghilev, Picasso, Hemingway, Beckett and of course, James Joyce.  “I thought I would try to bring all these people together and describe how they got on with each other and, very importantly, how they got on with Joyce and he with them.  The result is this book about the Joyce circle in Paris.”

During this important, exciting period Ulysses was published and Joyce also wrote Finnegans Wake.  “What fascinated me most was his relationship with others, especially his Irish friends. He was quick to use them, to get them to run errands for him, to search out books and dictionaries, to transcribe his writing. He could be quite manipulative. When he asked them to write articles defending his work from outside criticism, he told them what to write and to what journal they should send the piece. He told the Waterford artist Arthur Power, “I am always friends with someone for a purpose.” Joyce often dined in the most expensive restaurants, tipping generously and purchased extravagant haute couture for his wife, Nora- even though he always claimed to be short of money.  “Then there is his moodiness. He could be sullen and monosyllabic in conversations sometimes, while at other moments he would be erudite and full of life. Socially he was at his best at soirées in his apartment which were like Irish sing-songs, when Joyce would sing come-all-ye’s, play the piano and dance.  He was a family man but his writing always came first and I think his children suffered as a result.”

I asked Conor whether he had always planned on writing a book? ” Over the years I dabbled in writing. I can’t count the number of stories and plays I started but never finished. Eventually I decided that non-fiction was the genre for me. After all, my life was spent writing and editing news which is non-fiction. Deciding on what to write about was not difficult because of my interest in Joyce and 1920s Paris.”

While he admits most journalists harbour a desire to write a book one day, he doesn’t believe there’s a natural progression from journalism to novel writing.  “Writing a news story or an article is quite different from writing a book of 70,000 words. It’s the difference between a sprinter and a marathon runner: you have to approach it in a completely different way. In print or broadcast reporting, you make your inquiries, gather your facts and put them down on paper quickly in a clear, readable way, starting with the most topical or newsy part and ending with what is least important.”

Conor found this structure was unhelpful when writing a book.  “When you start to write a book, you can throw that model out the window. Whether it is a novel or non-fiction, you must establish the structure of the book (you can do that while you are researching it so long as you don’t leave it too late) and you might find that the most “important” part is in the middle or at the end. The way journalism helps is that it gives you the confidence to go further. It also teaches you how to say something in few words, how to avoid clichés and how to interest your readers.”

Writing about Joyce and other influential writers of the time meant Conor needed to carry out an intense and sometimes challenging research process.  “I think if I had known at the start how much work was going to be involved I may not have chosen this subject. Writing about Joyce was a big enough subject in itself, but to write also about the writers who knew him involved a lot more research. I wanted the book to stand out from other books about Joyce (so much has been written about him) so I decided to deal in some detail with the backgrounds of the other writers as well as their relationship with Joyce in Paris. That involved research into their lives as well as Joyce’s.”

Conor ‘s research focused on trips to the National Library in Dublin, the libraries and archives in Trinity College and UCD, as well as the Bibliotheque National de France. “I wanted the book to be accessible – not too scholarly  – so I was constantly reminding myself to keep the language and the thoughts simple. For the same reason I included a lot of anecdotes in the book because I enjoyed them and I wanted to entertain my readers. I showed one chapter to an established American biographer who had written extensively about the period and she said she enjoyed it for its lively entertainment value and for the fact that it read like a short story! That pleased me.”

As a successful journalist and now author, Conor believes simplicity is key and clarity is at the heart of good writing. “Clarity has to be the most important element of writing. Your writing is nothing unless it is understood. That’s even more important than grammar which is very important too. But characters in a novel can speak bad grammar and be understood. The narrative is important too. I would also put a lot of thought into the opening paragraph. If it does not grab the readers’ attention you may lose them. That doesn’t mean it must be dramatic. It could be a kind of teaser that will make them want more; or just good writing that the reader will enjoy. Another thing I would advise is not to go for fancy words. Simple English is best and you can embellish it sometimes, but using rare words that people have to use a dictionary to understand is just showing off. Writing should be sincere.”

How does Irish writing stack up today? “Irish writing is very rich at the moment. It’s almost another Literary Renaissance and it has been going on for years. We are fortunate that, despite the size of our country, we have some of the world’s best writers amongst us. Then we have excellent historians, biographers and literary commentators. Regarding writers that inspire me: Joyce is inspiring because he was an early Modernist and he has taught us to look at words in a different way. Most recently I have been reading biographies and I have to mention Joyce’s biographer Richard Ellmann; his books are learned, comprehensive and very readable – a difficult combination to achieve. Antony Beevor is another writer I admire for his accounts of wartime Berlin and Stalingrad. But there are so many more.”

Securing a publishing deal is difficult at the best of times, but after some initial disappointment Conor managed to get a book deal.  “Getting published is not easy in the present economic climate. But the fact that I secured a deal while things were bad speaks for itself – there is still a market for books. People will always read and it seems they are reading more than ever, although in different ways, now using digital technology as well as the traditional book format.” His advice? “Publishers don’t have time to read and advise, so make sure you are happy with what you have written. By the time I submitted it to Eoin Purcell who had just set up Green Lamp Editions, I had pretty well perfected what I had done. I knew he has a strong interest in history and as an ex Mercier editor who has spotted several award winning books, had a good eye, I was delighted that he was as excited about my book as I was.”

Has Conor any plans to embark on another literary journey soon? “Not immediately. I have a couple of ideas but I’m not sure they will come to anything. However, my motto is never say never!”

About the author

© Sarah Downey for writing.ie June, 2011

Conor Fennell started his career with the Irish Press in the 1960s before joining RTE as a reporter.  He went on to present Countrywide and was later appointed Television Chief Sub Editor in the News Division.  A Little Circle Of Kindred Minds: James Joyce In Paris is his first book.  He lives in Sandycove, Dublin.

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