Redemption Falls is Irish author Joseph O'Connor's just released sequel to his bestselling novel Star of the Sea. Hailed by the critics as a modern masterpiece, it's an epic tale of the American civil war and its aftermath, assembling an unforgettable cast of characters who struggle to survive in a ravaged nation. CAHIR O'DOHERTY asks the author what led to the story, and where the story led him.
JOSEPH O'Connor, the celebrated Irish novelist and brother of the controversial singer Sinead O'Connor, has written a remarkable new book that's sure to cement his growing reputation here.
Set in America's Western frontier in the aftermath of the Civil War, Redemption Falls follows the path of a crestfallen Irish war hero who's consumed with anger and disillusionment. The new book, already hailed by the critics, marks O'Connor's triumphant arrival into the overcrowded field of great Irish writers.
This week O'Connor time from his heavily publicized book launch to talk to the Irish Voice. Asked why he tackled the Civil War in his latest venture he replied, "I was trying to write a much more contemporary book - a thriller set in modern Dublin - but I found myself late at night thinking about a much more historical character, a young woman walking across a devastated landscape. She turned out to be Eliza Mooney, a central character in Redemption Falls. The book began with Eliza Mooney and pretty much everything about it flowed from that."
Like many other Irish writers and filmmakers of the moment, including Neil Jordan and Terry George, O'Connor realized right away that he was writing a book about war and its far reaching consequences.
Says O'Connor, "For some years I had been considering a novel about the American Civil War, as a sequel to Star of the Sea, and I realized pretty quickly that this was it. Once I realized that I just put down my head and went for it."
Although O'Connor is the author of 11 books he finds the whole business of writing very lonely work, and a craft as well as an art. Unlike many other Irish writers of his generation, though, he doesn't believe that writing is all about self-expression.
For O'Connor it's all about learning to tell a story the best way you can. That sounds easy, he claims, but it's actually the hardest thing he knows.
As he wrote Redemption Falls he learned a great deal about the Irishmen who fought on both sides of the Civil War. And their motivations for joining up, he discovered, were far more complex than he'd first anticipated.
"More than 100,000 Irishmen fought for the northern side and perhaps 80,000 for the south. There was a fear among many of the Irish Americans of the era that the new country would never truly accept them as equals," O'Connor says.
"I think they wanted to demonstrate a loyalty to the adoptive land, which is what makes what they did so poignant."
O'Connor found the letters written by the young soldiers powerfully moving because it quickly became clear to him they had little idea of the realities of warfare, and many were so young, really little more than children.
Also, he discovered that the stories of the women in the soldiers' lives - wives, sweethearts, and mothers - were often absolutely riveting and powerful, too.
"I don't think enough has been written about Irish and other immigrant women in the war, and the often staggering sacrifices they made. It was really important to me that the three central women in Redemption Falls are as important to the story as the men," O'Connor says.
Driving every chapter of the new book is O'Connor's narrative gift, as he skillfully creates a broad canvas that's as scholarly as it is creative. And although he's as accomplished as any writer of his age could be he's still reluctant to give advice to other young writers starting out.
"I'm uneasy giving advice about writing or anything else, but if I absolutely had to if would be the following: Write, write, and keep on writing! Don't talk about it, just do it. Don't even think about it too much."
Although O'Connor has long since distinguished himself as an artist in his own right he prefers, quite understandably, not to be drawn into long discussions about his famous sister. It's not a backhanded comment on the quality or nature of their relationship; it's simply an acknowledgement that they have lived independent lives for decades.
Joseph O'Connor has been a famous writer in both Ireland and Europe for 15 years now, but Redemption Falls is only the third of his 11 books to have been published here in the U.S. So now that his star is now firmly on the ascent here, it's not difficult to imagine why he would wish to focus on his own endeavors and restrict his comments to them.
Redemption Falls concerns itself first and foremost with the cost of war, as it follows an orphaned and homeless teenage girl walking barefoot across a war ravaged nation in search of her younger brother. A child caught up in an adult's war, the horrors she witnesses rob her of her innocence.
It's a profoundly dark tale that has been compared to the best work of Charles Dickens, a comparison that O'Connor gently bristles at. For a start, he doesn't share Dickens Victorian-era politics.
"Dickens was paternalistic," says O'Connor, outlining some of the main differences between them. "Dickens believed absolutely in the class system. He wouldn't have liked to change anything about it. But he believed that the role of the aristocracy and the role of the new rich who were very powerful in those days was to look after the poor.
"He would have liked a benevolent dictatorship. That's pretty much as radical as you got in those days, in England. But there's no question about the sheer scope and bravery of his published work."
That sheer scope and bravery is everywhere evident in O'Connor's new book too. His mature analysis of a nation in crisis brings each of his characters vividly to life, depicting the harsh realities and the social and political history of the American Civil War with a rare ease. Even the most haunting scenes are conveyed with a poetic precision that burns into your memory long after you've put the book down.
Asked what he would like his own Irish American readers to know about the new book, O'Connor replies candidly, "Well, I guess I'd like Irish American readers to gain an insight into the real lives of many of their ancestors in the new land, and how the extraordinary freedoms we take for granted were gained at a terrible cost.
"But much more than that, I hope readers will find the book beautiful, even though it's a story about a dark era. I hope it brings the reader on a journey and entertains and enlightens. And I'm very happy to trust their judgment."
(Redemption Falls is published by Simon & Schuster. O'Connor will read from the book at the New York Public Library on November 14 at 7 p.m., South Court Auditorium, Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street.)