Paul O’Reilly: Addiction, Therapy and Fiction
Why write? Why turn perfectly sunny days into hours sitting in a darkened room, waiting, searching, imagining and remembering experiences that might better be left unsaid. Perhaps it’s an addiction, a desire for a fix, a compelling urge to satisfy that instant crave like a shot of whiskey or a drag of a fag or a nailed sentence. But then – almost as quickly as it comes – that instant high is gone. And so you crave another. And another. And another.
Or, since writing my first song over 25 years ago, to recently completing my debut short story collection The Girl Missing from the Window, published by Doire Press, perhaps, when I sat and wrote for all those years, I was just going to therapy all that time. It’s another way to look at it! Perhaps, when I picked up a pen, I was working through my real life troubles by writing about them, and tackling them in the comfort of a silence that an only child – like me – can often crave. But what then if those pages of scribbles and ramblings suddenly take on a life of their own? What if the man in therapy is no longer the ‘I’, but a shadow of the ‘I’, an alter ego, a nemesis, an idol?
Perhaps, when this happened, when the man in therapy was no longer the ‘I’, but somebody else, I began writing fiction.
Fellow Enniscorthy man Colm Tóibín was quoted in The New Yorker as saying: “I was looking for a voice whispering, a voice saying something difficult and important and true. A voice that would speak only once.” To me, this is analogous to the man in therapy, as is literally the case in Tóibín’s story ‘Sleep’, also published in The New Yorker. And to any man in therapy, or character in a story, as their counsellor and voice I too recommend you listen very carefully, as they may tell you something very private yet astonishing only once.
In fiction workshops with Claire Keegan, Claire repeatedly asked me to delve deeper, to imagine right down to the white-hot core of the character. And so I’ve learned to lean on the senses, the light in the room, the shadows, the sounds from outside, the scratches on the furniture. I’ve learned that what we observe would tell you a lot about yourself. It can be a portal to the unconscious, a spotlight on feelings we haven’t yet put into words.
One of the most important things I took from those workshops was that it was as if Claire wanted me to be possessed by each and every character. To not only know their troubles, but to understand why they would need therapy. And I have tried. In all of my finished stories I have tried to imagine as deeply and as painfully as I can, every character, not just the lead, or the funniest, or the most evil.
Perhaps the second most important thing I took from Claire’s workshops was to be respectful. At all times: be respectful, be compassionate, do not dehumanise. So if you do manage to get right down and meet with the white-hot soul of a character, to that safe place where they trust you, where you can feel their pain like any good counsellor can, well then I recommend you’d better show them respect. Because if you don’t, if you go off and start putting words in their mouths, or forcing them into some corner, then I believe the characters will choke on you, they won’t open up to you, they will leave and find a better listener to talk to, to tell their astonishing observations to.
There’s no doubt that having my first story accepted by Ciaran Carty for New Irish Writing was a turning point, and this for what I consider my most memoir-like story. It had the pub, the song, the pints, the dancing with the mother in the kitchen. These all happened in my past. These were all true. But the man in the story wasn’t me. He was a man about to emigrate. I’ve never emigrated, or realistically considered it. So, in the writing of the story, my memories had transformed into fiction somewhere along the way, and this publication in the Irish Independent (where New Irish Writing was then published) was a real game changer and confidence booster. Shortly after I became bolder in my writing, the fiction began to absorb my memories of places, experiences, my observations, my addictions, and to take from them simply what it needed to make the fictitious world as real, and as believable as possible. I went on to write from other points of view, about bullying, Alzheimer’s, the Red Light District, about swinging. I’ve travelled with female narrators to the most amazing places on the most amazing journeys. And yet even though these nine creative voyages have ended, the stories lovingly edited and printed by John Walsh and Lisa Frank, it’s still wonderful to be able to pick up this book now and go back whenever I wish, as can others, and re-watch the imagined memories unfold again and again like an old and cherished photo album.
I have many happy memories of my life so far, and many sad ones I can also lean on when it comes to creating a fictitious world. But I’ve also had many addictions. I’m currently addicted to writing, reading, watching, listening, my family, to the news, sometimes to coffee. I drank far too much alcohol when younger, I socialised far too dangerously, not anymore. But I understand now that addictions and a lack of therapy have had a more profound and devastating effect on the family I come from, and it’s only by observing this, and questioning this, and hating this, and accepting this, and not forgetting this, that I can become a slightly better writer than I was this time yesterday.
(c) Paul O’Reilly
Acclaimed Irish writer Peter Murphy said of Paul O’Reilly’s debut collection The Girl Missing from the Window does not attempt to forge poetry out of the everyday. O’Reilly pushes all the unsavoury aspects of existence under your nose. This is the way things are, these stories seem to say, and there’s a trapdoor under every footfall.”
The Girl Missing from the Window has been longlisted for the renowned Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. In the past O’Reilly’s stories have also been shortlisted for the Hennessy First Fiction Prize and the Seán O’Faoláin Prize. His work has been published in the Irish Independent, the Irish Times, the Stinging Fly, and the Bristol Prize Anthology. In 2012 he was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in the US. He is due to appear at the Cork International Short Story Festival in September.
A talented singer and musician, O’Reilly is also a documentary maker and screenwriter. He lives in Wexford with his wife and family.
The Girl Missing from the Window is in bookshops now or pick up your copy online here.