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O’Connor’s guides 15 Irish writers to satirical masterpiece

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Dylan Foley

"Yeats is Dead! A Mystery" was written by 15 Irish novelists, playwrights and journalists as a fund-raiser for the Irish section of Amnesty International. The book celebrates Amnesty’s 40th anniversary, which takes place in June, and will be published in Ireland and in the United States on Bloomsday, June 16, which is the day on which the James Joyce masterpiece "Ulysses" takes place.

In his own four-year odyssey of sweat and toil, novelist Joseph O’Connor recruited some of Ireland’s most talented writers and with virtually no instructions had them write a novel, which turned into a murderous satirical quest for a priceless unpublished James Joyce manuscript.

"I was glad to be approached to do the project," said the 38-year-old O’Connor from his Dublin home. "Amnesty had originally wanted to do a book of Irish humor, but those haven’t sold so well in the past, so I came up with the relay-team idea."

O’Connor compiled a list of Irish writers he wanted to work with. "I didn’t only want people from my background, literary fiction," he said. "That would be a bit dull. I thought, who was the best investigative journalist? Who was the best sportswriter? Who was the best stand-up comic?"

One of the writers O’Connor selected was Gene Kerrigan, one of Ireland’s most famous investigative reporters.

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"I’d always really admired Gene’s writing," O’Connor said. "He writes about things that are not far from Amnesty’s concerns, like miscarriages of justice and police methods. He also turned out to be a very good narrative writer."

Starting the book was easy. He tapped famed novelist Roddy Doyle ("Paddy Clarke Ha Ha") to write the first chapter.

"All I suggested to Roddy was that he write a contemporary story set in Dublin, which he does so brilliantly, and maybe it should be a crime story, which allows for twists and turns," O’Connor said.

Doyle started with two corrupt and inept gardai killing an old man who owes a mysterious package to a crime boss. After Doyle, O’Connor turned to the award-winning playwright Conor McPherson, Kerrigan and dramatist Gina Moxley. By this point, the body count had spiraled out of control.

"By chapter five, most of the characters that Roddy had created were dead," O’Connor said.

At the halfway point in the writing of the book, O’Connor stepped in — he made the character of the justice minister go on a wild pub crawl with an Irish rasta and a virginal garda. At this point, O’Connor gave the remaining writers, which included Beckett biographer Anthony Cronin and sportswriter Tom Humphries, some guidelines: "I said they had to work with the characters already in the book and no flashbacks or spectacular murders."

At points, "Yeats is Dead!" takes some bawdy turns, especially in the stand-up comic Owen O’Neill’s chapter on the demise of Spt. Andrew Andrews.

"It would truly be ironic if a book for Amnesty International would indulge in censorship," O’Connor said. "It is the mix of voices that gives the book its strength."

One thing that O’Connor did notice in the evolution of the book was the element of one-upmanship among the writers.

"There was an element of trying to make it as difficult as possible for the next writer," O’Connor said. "I was surprised that nobody came up with an atom bomb and dropped it on Dublin, killing everyone, then passing it on to the next writer. I think it was actually playful — it was more schadenfreude (joy at other’s sorrow) than absolute sadism."

Another complex part with the project was holding the writers to their commitment.

"People would say yes to me in theory, but when I contacted them six months or two years later, things had changed," O’Connor said. "They would have a new book or a new baby. These are very busy people.

"I have a lot more gray hair now, and there were times when I thought that the whole thing would grind to a halt. It was a real difficult piece of editing and it was a real baptism of fire for the editor.

"I had to go back and do some judicious pruning of story elements that were not picked up by other writers."

O’Connor confessed, only half jokingly, that one night his wife had to restrain him from throwing the whole manuscript out the window.

Sorting out the truckload of loose ends at the end of the book, O’Connor selected Frank McCourt to do the last chapter.

"I thought that Frank was going to have a nervous breakdown," O’Connor said, "but he took several weeks, went to the country, and tied it up with great flair."

The book has already earned £500,000 after the sale of Irish, British and international rights, without any copies being sold yet. All royalties will be donated by the authors to the Amnesty chapters in the country where the book is sold.

Rumors are also circulating that several production companies are vying for the film rights, including one group headed by the actor Gabriel Byrne.

"God help the screenwriter," O’Connor said.

"Frank McCourt told me in a withering manner, that, ‘This novel is like a Russian novel. Instead of being written by one egomaniac, it has been written by 15 egomaniacs."

"Yeats is Dead! A Mystery" is being published by Knopf in the United States, and Jonathan Cape in Ireland and the UK.

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