Irish author O’Connor is a renowned fiction writer. The Thrill Of It All is an engrossing account of a band, The Ships In The Night, told through the eyes of their lead guitarist Robbie O’Connor charts their emergence from Luton’s pub scene in the early 1980s to global fame and promptly followed by self-destruction.
Was the book inspired by the fact that there are nearly-men/women everywhere in their fifties and sixties who are living with having had a brief taste of success in the 1980s?
No, it was more that this character, Robbie Goulding, arrived in my head, and once I started to hear his voice and understand his point of view, I thought he could be the centre of a funny and life-affirming novel. I had the idea that most of us see the younger version of ourselves as almost a different person, and that the two-part structure of the book would allow Robbie to find his younger self funny and touching but also naïve about the very real problems that face him. And that he might discover in the course of writing the book, which is presented as his autobiography, that words are his music and always were.
The frontman Francis Mulvey has a bit of Bowie, Richey Manic and Geldof in him. How easy was it to ensure his ego was balanced with a more vulnerable side?
Creating any character is something I find extremely difficult. But, oddly, once I got Fran’s speaking voice he seemed to come to life. It’s difficult to write a character who is a believable enigma. The paradox of Fran is that he is a brilliant singer and performer but always hiding.
Do you feel that fame is the enemy of creativity?
I think fame is an absolute curse. I can’t imagine ever wanting it. To be in the public gaze all the time must be utterly horrible.
Why did you choose to have a harp and violin as part of their sound?
I didn’t really choose that, it was chosen for me by the characters. But I guess I was thinking of bands like ELO including a cello and classical instruments, and then Dexy’s Midnight Runners using instruments we think of as traditional. But at heart the Ships are a new wave rock band, not folkies.
Was there any specific reason you had a female band member?
It happens that two of my all-time favourite bands, The Velvet Underground and Talking Heads, had women members, and one of my absolute heroes is Patti Smith. So I was determined that the band in the book would include a woman. I thought this would make the band and the book more compelling. Rock is a fairly blokeish medium, and there’s nothing more boring than a room full of only men. So Trez is in the book because (a) she is a wonderful musician, and (b) to make the band real contenders. Also, she is the only member of the band who has wisdom, though they all have very strong qualities, and her insights are valuable and deeply respected by the boys. Which in itself makes them more interesting characters. For me, any novel without a woman character isn’t worth reading.
Was Fran’s surname a nod to your previous depiction of Pius Mulvey who also had a difficult past?
Yes. Pius from the novel Star Of The Sea, like Fran, is a runaway and a refugee, a waif whom nobody wanted and had to survive by inventing himself. I hope the two characters comment on each other.
Why do you think people are so enamoured by those great male friendships in rock (Morrissey and Marr, Lennon and McCartney, Richey Manic and Nicky Wire, Pete Doherty and Carl Barat)?
Because these friendships somehow reflect and refract the relationships we have ourselves, or the ones we wish we had.
Do you think that the trajectory of this story would not necessarily happen nowadays due to the fact that record labels no longer invest so much in bands or have the time to encourage them to tour and learn their craft? If their video doesn’t win thousands of hits on You Tube, then that’s the nail in the coffin it seems?
Yes, part one of the book, when the band are getting going, is really a 1980s story. The music charts were a good bit looser and more inclusive at that time. There’s no way The Ships would make it now.
Was there a soundtrack to you writing this book? Did you do a lot of looking back at old nme interviews and archive footage of older bands?
Yes, I listened to a lot of 1970s and 1980s music. But I am a huge music fan anyway, so that wasn’t a sacrifice. I can’t imagine a day without music.
Do you enjoy the process of readings and public appearances?
I do enjoy giving readings, yes. It’s good to meet readers. And it’s a lot easier than working!