Category: Archive

Little-known scribe writes literary gem

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Andrew Bushe

DUBLIN — An writer working as a night-shift porter in a hospital has been paid what is believed to be the highest advance yet for an Irish novel and one of the first things he plans to do is pay for a knee operation for his mother.

Jamie O’Neill, 39, who was born in London but grew up in Cabinteely and went to school in Presentation College, Glasthule, has signed a £250,000 deal with London publisher Simon and Schuster for "At Swim Two Boys."

A more lucrative U.S. deal is expected to follow.

The book is a 300,000-word epic about a love story between two boys that is set against the background of the 1916 Rising. He has been working on it for about 10 years.

A shocked O’Neill said it all happened within a week thanks to a book editor and literary advisor, David Marcus, who has spent his lifetime nurturing new Irish literary talent.

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O’Neill was still making changes in the novel when the deal was wrapped up. "I didn’t go through any of the worry of waiting for the phone to ring," he said.

None of his friends have read it. "I couldn’t get anybody to read it," O’Neill said.

While his colleagues watched TV during their breaks in a London hospital, O’Neill wrote his book.

The story is about two boys who meet at the Forty Foot in Sandycove on Easter Sunday in 1916 and plan to swim to the mudlands, an island off Dalkey Island. But, when the Rising happens, they become involved.

Marcus had contacted O’Neill when he read one of his short stories in 1988 and wanted to know if he had any others for his annual anthology of Irish short stories.

O’Neill asked Marcus to read his novel. He initially sent him half of it, about 400 pages. He then rewrote it and sent the new one to Marcus.

"I was immediately convinced it was one of the greatest Irish novels of the last few decades. I just could not believe it," Marcus said.

The novel has several strands dealing with friendship and the value of relationship and understanding feelings.

"It is a most affecting novel," Marcus said. "Amongst the general run of novels we have today, it lifts you. That’s the beauty of it."

He sent it to a literary agent Giles Gordon and within days he got back to Marcus to say, "You are right." Within a week it was snapped up.

Asked on RTE if he was now comfortable for the future, O’Neill said he didn’t know anything about the future but the present was "very worrisome."

"I have gone from shock to worry and I don’t seem to have had any happiness about it yet," he said. "I have all these people telling me I have to do this and that."

The book is due to be published next September. Meanwhile, O’Neill has earmarked some of his newfound wealth to help his mother get a new knee and improve her quality of life. She has been on a hospital waiting list for three years.

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