In mid January my fourth collection, The Boatman and Other Stories, was published by Jonathan Cape to some of the best reviews I’ve ever had. It’s been a long road. I started writing in my early 20s and my first published story appeared in print in 1999, in the Holly Bough, a Cork-published Christmas newspaper of rich heritage that recently celebrated its 123rd birthday and which, at the time, represented the height of my ambitions. Since then I’ve published two novels and four collections, with over a hundred stories in magazines and literary journals all over the world. I am nothing if not a model of stubbornness, determination and perseverance.
To get good at anything requires total commitment. A modicum of talent is necessary, of course, but the gospel I preach is one of discipline. Discipline in putting in the hours with the page and not settling too easily, and discipline in submitting the stories once they’re done. Because hard work can take the writer a long way. For years now, my daily writing routine has been rock-solid: 7am to noon, with a couple of evening hours spent rewriting. This, every day, without excuse. By sticking to such routine, the work can’t help but accumulate, and gets me eventually to a point where the sight of it no longer makes me want to weep, where the story makes itself clear to me, the sentences find their rhythm and start to sound right and hold together, and the worst of the dreck has been picked away.
I write entirely for myself; it is my way of gaining some understanding of what’s going on in my life and the lives of those around me and helps me make sense of the things that keep me lying awake late into the night. At this stage, after so many years, it’s how I function. So I work on a story until it satisfies me. Nobody sees it while it’s in progress; I want no external opinions. That’s my approach, and others have their own way of working. The only right way is doing whatever it takes to get the story to where you need it to be. But once it’s done, and been allowed to cool, a kind of disconnection must happen. The finished story will always be a part of me, but it must also be a thing in itself. And so it needs to make its way in the world.
The Boatman and Other Stories, my new collection, represents the best of me as a writer, I think. Being fully aware of how reluctant publishers are to take on short story collections, I am thrilled to have this book out in the world. We are constantly being told that the form is enjoying a renaissance, but the truth is that collections remain tough to market. If such books sold better, publishers would take more chances. While a certain amount of room continues to be made for artistry, publishing is still at its bottom line a business and needs to turn a profit, so I know how fortunate I am to have found such effusive support for my work. The stories that comprise this collection were written over a five-year span, and the book came together slowly, while novels were being written.
The novel I published last year, My Coney Island Baby (which has been translated into eight languages and is being published this month in paperback by Vintage), was a massive step forward for me, both in terms of recognition and in my creative development. I’d spent eight years writing it, tortured with constant self-doubt, putting it aside now and then to work on stories but living all the time with the obsessions that drove and shaped it. The stories in this collection, intense though they might be, were actually something of a respite from the strain of hefting a novel, but reading them afresh I see that they are full of the same train of thought, the same torments and empathies. Considering the stories now, it is the truth within them that shines most brightly for me, and I believe this to be by quite a margin the best, the most assured, consistent and inventive, of the four collections I have so far published. Which is as it should be. As writers we surely always want to be better than we are, and that’s what we work towards. Each new book, each new story, hopefully pushes us a little further in that direction.
(c) Billy O’Callaghan
About The Boatman and Other Stories:
The breathtaking short story collection from the Costa-shortlisted Irish writer.
In these twelve quietly dazzling, carefully crafted stories, Billy O’Callaghan explores the resilience of the human heart and its ability to keep beating even in the wake of grief, trauma and lost love.
Spanning a century and two continents – from the muddy fields of Ireland to a hotel room in Paris, a dingy bar in Segovia to an aeroplane bound for Taipei – The Boatman follows an unforgettable cast of characters. Three gunshots on the Irish border define the course of a young man’s life; a writer clings fast to a star-crossed affair with a woman who has never been fully in his reach; a fisherman accustomed to hard labour rolls up his sleeves to dig a grave for his child; a pair of newly-weds embark on their first adventure, living wild on the deserted Beginish Island.
Ranging from the elegiac to the brutally confrontational, these densely layered tales reveal the quiet heroism and gentle dignity of ordinary life. O’Callaghan is a master celebrant of the smallness of the human flame against the dark: its strength, and its steady brightness.
Order your copy online here.