Interviewed by Anthony Whittier - The Paris Review
Autumn-Winter 1957, No. 17
SCENE: Frank O’Connor is of medium height and build; he has heavy silver hair, brushed back; dark, heavy eyebrows; and a mustache. His voice is bass-baritone in pitch and very resonant—what has been described as jukebox bass. His accent is Irish, but with no suggestion of the “flannel-mouth,” his intonation musical. He enjoys talk and needed no urging regarding the subject of the interview. His clothes tend toward the tweedy and casual: desert boots, corduroy jacket, rough tweed topcoat; and a bit of California touch evident in a heavy silver ornament hung on a cord around his neck in place of a tie.
Although a friendly and approachable man, O’Connor has a way of appraising you on early meetings, which suggests the Irishman who would just as soon knock you down as look at you if he doesn’t like what he sees. His wife provides a description of an encounter with a group of loitering teenagers while the two of them were out for a walk. A remark of some sort was made, O’Connor whipped over to them and told them to get home if they knew what was good for them. The boys took him in, silvery hair and all, and moved off.
O’Connor’s apartment is in Brooklyn, where he lives with his pretty young American wife. The large white-walled modern living room has a wide corner view of lower Manhattan and New York Harbor. The Brooklyn Bridge sweeps away across the river from a point close at hand. On his table, just under the window looking out on the harbor, are a typewriter, a small litter of papers, and a pair of binoculars. The binoculars are for watching liners “on their way to Ireland,” to which he returns once a year. He says he’d die if he didn’t.
What determined you to become a writer?
I’ve never been anything else. From the time I was nine or ten, it was a toss-up whether I was going to be a writer or a painter, and I discovered by the time I was sixteen or seventeen that paints cost too much money, so I became a writer because you could be a writer with a pencil and a penny notebook. I did at one time get a scholarship to Paris,* but I couldn’t afford to take it up because of the family. That’s where my life changed its course; otherwise I’d have been a painter. I have a very strongly developed imitative instinct, which I notice is shared by some of my children. I always wrote down bits of music that impressed me in staff notation, though I couldn’t read staff notation—I didn’t learn to read it until I was thirty-five—but this always gave me the air of being a musician. And in the same way, I painted. I remember a friend of mine who painted in water colors and he was rather shy. He was painting in the city, so he used to get up at six in the morning when there was nobody to observe him and go out and paint. And one day he was going in to work at nine o’clock and he saw a little girl sitting where he had sat, with a can of water and an old stick, pretending to paint a picture—she’d obviously been watching him from an upstairs window. That’s what I mean by the imitative instinct, and I’ve always had that strongly developed. So I always play at knowing things until, in fact, I find I’ve learned them almost by accident.
Why do you prefer the short story for your medium?
Because it’s the nearest thing I know to lyric poetry—I wrote lyric poetry for a long time, then discovered that God had not intended me to be a lyric poet, and the nearest thing to that is the short story. A novel actually requires far more logic and far more knowledge of circumstances, whereas a short story can have the sort of detachment from circumstances that lyric poetry has…