The Avondhu - By The Fireside
TRUE PASSION FOR WRITING
When ‘Diving for Pearls’ was first published in June of 2021, author and Ballyhooly native Jamie O’Connell said he had not expected his debut novel to quickly climb the bestseller charts.
Jamie, who had attended Coláiste an Chraoibhín in Fermoy, said that initially his focus was on writing the best story he could, having started it around 2013.
“It was my first piece of fiction of that scale. I’d say I started that back in 2013 and it was a number of years being written between various things.
“It was funny because the only thing I had fixated on the first week before the book came out was what the reviews were going to be like. I hadn’t even thought about sales if I’m honest,” he said.
Speaking with The Avondhu recently, Jamie explained that he had always been geared towards writing and having grown up in a house where his sister was a keen reader, Jamie was immersed in the literary world from an early age. His older sister, he said, was reading more advanced books, which Jamie said he found ‘frustrating’ at the time so he pushed himself to catch up.
It wasn’t until around the age of 11, when he saw an author, possibly Maeve Binchy, being interviewed on television and like a lightbulb, the idea came to him that this is what he wanted to do.
“It was just a childish thought that I would write a book one day, it was kind of like a bucket list before a bucket list. That would have been the mid-’90s. Roughly around that time, Windows 95 came out and our family got a computer and I started actually learning to touch-type on this computer. As I was getting the hang of that, then I started working away on my first book when I was a pre-teen.
“It took me about two or three years but I did actually get a book-like manuscript out when I was about 14. It was awful, of course it was awful, but out of that came this passion for writing that was kind of addictive. Really, from then on I never stopped writing. I always had a kind of side-project of my own that went on through secondary school and then into college,” Jamie said.
PERFECTING HIS CRAFT
Throughout his childhood and his schooling, writing remained at the forefront for the local author who said that while the amount of time he spent writing might vary depending on what was going on in his life, it remained a constant for him throughout.
“I’ve never not been writing since I was about 11. There are a lot of bad, unwritten stories. I’ve learned the hard way, I have a lot of writing that will never see the light of day but they say you have to do your 10,000 hours to really find your skillset with something and that definitely was the case with me. There’s a lot of hours going into really learning the form and then finding your own voice on top of that,” Jamie said.
Around ten years ago, Jamie saw his first published piece, a short story, brought to the public via a competition held by the Irish Writers Centre for emerging writers.
Following this, the Ballyhooly native saw several short stories published in various places over the years and now lays claim to several accomplished works.
Included are ‘Some Sort of Beauty’ a debut collection of short stories, children’s books ‘Spuds and the Spider’ and ‘Spuds and the Crock of Gold’, humourous books ‘You Know You’re Irish When…’ and ‘Irish Home Essentials’, and ‘Best Loved Joyce’ which draws on James Joyce’s major works.
James has had short shorties highly commended by the Costa Short Story Award, and the Irish Book Award Short Story of the Year. His works have also been longlisted for BBC Radio 4 Opening Lines Short Story Competition and shortlisted for the Maeve Binchy Travel Award and the Sky Arts Futures Fund.
His debut novel, ‘Diving for Pearls’ is set across Cork, Dublin and Dubai and follows six characters whose fates are altered after a young woman’s body is discovered floating in the Dubai marina.
Jamie, locations in the book were brought about through his own experiences having lived in Cork City while studying literature during his undergraduate, in Dublin while undertaking a Master’s in Creative Writing at UCD and having travelled to Dubai on a number of occasions between 2010 and 2015.
The characters, he notes, are a mix of his own qualities and the research he conducted. While Jamie says he put much of his own qualities into the Irish characters, writing non-Irish characters involved a lot of research.
“Aspects of each of the characters would be aspects of myself. At the same time, certainly, the characters who were further afield, maybe non-Irish, I definitely did my research with those.
“The main thing for me is finding the voice of the character and listening to the way they speak. It’s like being an actor, once you can hear the way they speak, the person they are kind of reveals itself to you line by line and you can follow that train of thought.
“Quite often, characters will surprise me and they’ll do something I don’t expect, which is kind of mad, but that is the truth of it. They might do something and I’m surprised, or they might say something funny and I think ‘I’m not as funny as that!’. It’s an odd one, but sometimes you just have to go with it and see where the character takes you,” Jamie told The Avondhu.
Since its publication, Jamie, who now lives in Kenmare, has been the source of much critical acclaim through reviews and was shortlisted for the Sunday Independent
Newcomer of the Year at the An Post Irish Book Awards 2021.
When asked about his reaction to his debut novel quickly becoming a bestseller across the country, Jamie said: “When I was writing, I was thinking about trying to write the best and most entertaining story I could, so it was really important to me that the book was regarded as such by people who knew what they were talking about.
“When I got a phone call from a publisher on a Tuesday and they said it was one of the bestsellers, it was just wonderful and I was very excited. It totally caught me off guard. It wasn’t something I had really focused on at all,” he added.
Following up on the success of ‘Diving for Pearls’ could be a difficult feat for Jamie, however, he is already working on his second novel. Speaking with The Avondhu, Jamie confirmed that there will not be a sequel to the Irish/ Dubai tale, and he is now working on something a little closer to home.
“It’s very different. It’s a book set in Ireland in a country town so it’s probably drawing more from my childhood growing up in the countryside moreso than Dubai. This is a book about a child growing up in the ‘90s which is definitely something I know something about. It’s going very well and I’m hopeful there will be a draft finished next year,” he said.
BEING REMINDED OF LIFE
While Jamie noted that the location in the book might not be recognised by those in Fermoy and its surrounds, he said that some of the themes and references will definitely be familiar.
“Anyone who grew up in a country town will understand the types of people that live there. At the moment, I live in Kenmare in Kerry and I sort of returned to a country town. I’ve sort of gone full circle and now live in a country town again which is why I think this is the novel I was compelled to write.
“I think with that kind of country town, everyone knowing everyone, I lived in cities in various places for about 17 years and quite often, I didn’t know who my neighbours were and now returning to country living, I now know my neighbours, I know the people who work in the café in town and I think I’m very interested in rural community. That is what I know and I’m being reminded of that now by living in the country again. I’m kind of being reminded of my life in Fermoy all those years ago,” he said.
‘FOLLOW YOUR DREAMS’
Often the Arts is a challenging and competitive place to make a name, and considering the time and dedication given, this can definitely be said for the Ballyhooly native, Jamie O’Connell, who lent his advice for any novice literary hopefuls.
“I think to work hard and follow your dreams, but also work smart. I think it’s very important to try. You’ll inevitably fail, but it’s very important when you get a rejection or fail that you figure out why it didn’t work and then learn and readjust, and then try again.
“Try, fail, pivot, try again. One day, you’ll try and it will work and then you’ve found your formula. My philosophy is, failure will happen but just ensure to get the learning out of the failure when it comes,” Jamie said.