In Conversation with J.P. Donleavy

 

 Donleavy in the garden of his Westmeath home, Levington Park, in 2016.

Donleavy in the garden of his Westmeath home, Levington Park, in 2016.

J.P. Donleavy is an Irish-American novelist and playwright, known best for his debut work, The Ginger Man, which takes its rightful place within the Modern Library's list of the 100 Best Novels of the twentieth century. With a literary career spanning nearly fifty years, Donleavy boasts an oeuvre that consists of twelve novels, four plays, and a handful of shorter prose pieces. Before he became the prolific author that he is today, however, he was a student of science at Trinity College (1946-9). When asked in a 1975 Paris Review interview whether he had always wanted to be a writer, Donleavy responded, "I didn't get that driving desire to be a writer until I was at Trinity College in Dublin." In this regard, he finds himself in good company, among an array of successful writers who similarly cut their teeth at Trinity. Given that we strive as a magazine to provide a platform for those who look to follow in the footsteps of Donleavy and others, it is our great pleasure to share with you the following interview. We would like to extend our thanks to Mr Donleavy for answering our questions, to Dr Rosie Lavan for providing us with this opportunity, and to Éabha Jones for making the necessary arrangements.

 

Icarus

You studied at Trinity but left in 1949, the year before Icarus was founded by Alec Reid. Had you come across Icarus prior to this interview?

Donleavy

Yes, I believe I have several copies of Icarus from around that time. It was an important publication for writers at that time, as was Envoy.

Icarus

Flannery O’Connor said that “anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days”. Do you think it is possible to write good fiction under the age of 25?

Donleavy

Yes. I should apologise here for the brevity of my answers but at my age (90) it helps to be concise.

Icarus

Are Irish writers also "European" writers? Which comes first?

Donleavy

I think definitely Irish.

Icarus

What had you already read by the time you were 25 that you feel informs your work to this day, if anything at all?

Donleavy

James Joyce, Franz Kafka, and F.Scott Fitzgerald, particularly The Great Gatsby

Icarus

In your 1975 interview with The Paris Review, you mentioned that you were quite serious about painting in your youth. Would you say that the world needs more young painters or more young writers? If neither, why?

Donleavy

The world always needs artists, especially serious writers as in today's climate it is much harder to distinguish yourself in this field.

Icarus

What recommendations would you have for young writers in general? Would you have different recommendations for young Irish writers and young non-Irish writers?

Donleavy

I would give the same advice to both, that you must write something everyday.

Icarus

Should we write for money and fame?

Donleavy

Absolutely.  I believe I once wrote that 'writing is turning one's worst moments into money'.

Icarus

What role, if any, do you feel that anger plays in your work?

Donleavy

All emotions including anger have their place, but I would say that love is important too.

Icarus

John Banville recently said that he doesn't think any writer could be a good father. Is there any truth to this, would you say?

Donleavy

I suppose you would have to ask my children that question, but writing is a solitary and private pursuit.

Icarus

Who are some of your favourite poets? Do you prefer the work of your contemporaries or otherwise? (Would you call your contemporaries "contemporary"?)

Donleavy

W.B. Yeats. The names of any others escape me at the moment.  Sadly most of my contemporaries are no longer with us, but contemporary or otherwise the work should be arresting.

Icarus

Is there anything that you feel is too "boring" to write about?

Donleavy

Paying one's taxes perhaps.  No subject is inherently boring, but it is essential to write about anything in a fascinating way.

Icarus

What role do you think film plays in the world of art, if any? Do you think that film has superseded writing and theatre when it comes to story-telling?

Donleavy

Film plays a very important part but I don't think it has superseded books or the theatre, although I do think it has very much influenced their style.

 

JP in candlelight 2016.jpg