Category: Archive

A star is rising

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

O’Keeffe abandoned school without qualifications and worked as a barman in Dublin. He would return to the County Limerick family farm for weekends, summer vacations and Christmas holidays. However when his parents died he didn’t go back for 10 years, and continued a life’s journey that had already taken him to Boston on into Western Kentucky and ultimately Ann Arbor, Mich.
“I ended up living my life all over again in some ways,” said O’Keeffe, who teaches writing at the University of Michigan.
Now, with the publication of his first book, the 42-year-old “has a great future ahead of him.”
That prediction was made by Michael Shelden — a biographer of George Orwell and Graham Greene — in one of the several enthusiastic reviews that have greeted “The Hill Road,” a collection of four novellas set in farming country around Pallas Green, not far from the Tipperary border
“It feels very strange,” the County Limerick native said of the book’s critical reception. “I’d no idea what was going to happen with it.”
O’Keeffe tells stories of unfulfilled love, secrets and tragedy in a rural community. “It took me a long time to figure out how to write fiction,” the author said.
“My great obsession was getting the language in a way that I thought was doing what it should be doing.”
He was anxious that the language was “not getting in the way,” that it should be “almost invisible.”
“You’re trying to hear the stories in your head, when you’re writing, trying to get it a way that makes it sound real …the way you want it to sound,” O’Keeffe said.
The stories are set in the fictional Kilroan from the First World War through the 1980s, a time frame that posed little difficulty.
“When we were growing up in the 60s’ and into the 70s, things were pretty slow to change in some ways. You still had horses and carts going to the creamery,” he said. “We grew up milking cows by hand and that kind of thing. I remember it very well. Details of farm life are very familiar to me.”
People respond differently to change, O’Keeffe said, and his father was perhaps slower than most.
“I was very close to my father’s sisters and spent a lot of time with them,” he recalled. “They still lived very much the old way. They didn’t even have a television. They’d listen to the wireless.”
“I often think of the way my parents spoke; you don’t hear people speak like that anymore,” he said.
He grew up also, he said, with a great-uncle who was born in 1885 and lived up the 1970s.
O’Keeffe was the fifth of 10 children (five boys and five girls). Being right in the middle, he said, “might explain all that counseling,” he said, laughing.
But he doesn’t believe the conventional wisdom that writers of fiction are responding in some way to early unhappiness or trauma.
“Childhood is painful for a lot of people, but it’s a lot of fun too, and maybe sometimes you’re just looking at the painful parts of it,” he said.
His education at the vocational school in Hospital, Co. Limerick — with its emphasis on technical as opposed to academic subjects – was not designed to cultivate an interest in reading, much less literature.
“Living in the ’70’s and 80s in Ireland, college didn’t seem possible,” he said.
After a few years in Dublin, he immigrated to Boston. “For a year and half, in the mid-1980s I worked illegally, painted houses and worked in construction,” he remembered.
He went back to Ireland for a time when his mother became ill, and her death was followed not long afterwards by his father’s.
“It was very sad, but it also gave me a lot of freedom in my life,” he said. “That’s one response to it maybe.”
O’Keeffe returned to America as a legal resident, settling for a while in Western Kentucky.
“I was with a woman at the time, but that didn’t last,” he said.
He did community college courses, while earning a living waiting tables, and later transferred to study English at the University of Kentucky in Lexington in the eastern part of the state. After graduation, he was accepted into the MFA Writing Program at the University of Michigan
Of his decision to pursue a college education, he said: “Here you could do it at nighttime and also I was in a different place.”
As for his fiction, he said: “I had a lot of writing teachers who said ‘You should keep at this.’ That kept me going quite a bit, and I was just very driven by it in some ways
“Some of it had to do with the way my life worked out after my parents’ death, just being away from Ireland, not having an anchor,” O’Keeffe said.
“Literature is concerned about these things… the past and that,” he said.
He identifies strongly with the life and work of Alice Munro, the 73-year-old Canadian short story writer. She, too, made her way in the world coming from poorer rural circumstances and her mother died also when she was in her 20s.
Munro, who some consider the greatest contemporary writer of fiction in North America, has spoken of her indebtedness to Irish writers Mary Lavin and Maeve Brennan, and O’Keeffe detects an “Irishness” in her stories that are set in rural Ontario.
“She’s just a fantastic writer. I get absorbed in her stories,” O’Keeffe said. “They’re just beautifully done.”
O’Keeffe dismisses as hyperbole any attempt to compare his work with hers. “You couldn’t even imagine being like her,” he said. While one response might be to accept it as a great compliment, he’s more inclined, he added laughing, to say: “Oh, for God’s sake!”
William Trevor is another septuagenarian short-story writer whom O’Keeffe reveres. The novella “Reading Turgenev” has particularly influenced him. “It’s about an Anglo-Irish couple who live in a village in rural Ireland; there’s something beautiful and sad about it.
“I remember lines out of it, moments out of it in a very intense way,” he said.
Of his own rural place, the house and farm are still there; however, none of his siblings are in farming. “My brother rents it out,” he said. Most have stayed close to home, though the youngest is living in Australia.
So far, he said, it’s his sisters mainly, who’ve read his book and “are mostly encouraging and proud of it. They like it.”
O’Keeffe, who stayed away for a decade, has been back twice in the past year, most recently for the Ireland/U.K. launch of the book.
For now, though, he enjoys living and teaching in Ann Arbor. “It’s good work,” he said.
“I’d love to try a novel,” O’Keeffe said, talking of forthcoming projects. “If I can’t, I’m not going to worry about it. Aren’t there enough of them out there?”

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