KR Conversations

Paddy O’Reilly

Paddy O'ReillyPaddy O’Reilly is the author of three novels and two short story collections. Her work has been published internationally and has won or been shortlisted for a number of major prizes. She lives in Melbourne, Australia. Her story “The White Line” can be found here. It appears in the Mar/Apr 2016 issue of the Kenyon Review.

What was your original impetus for writing “The White Line”?

Most of my work begins not with an “idea” as such but an image or a line of dialogue or just a sentence, a random sentence that follows me around for a few days until I write it down. From there I try to trust in the writing to reveal what it’s supposed to become. That sounds simple but it isn’t—the trust isn’t easy, nor is the process. Later (and I suspect this is the case for many writers) I look back and can often piece together where the story might have come from, what generated the connections or the drive to explore. But that might well be me trying to answer questions like this when in fact the process is truly mysterious and can’t be dissected. So the honest answer? I don’t know.

Much of this piece is filled with different breeds of dissociation—disassociation from family, self, duty, debt, and body—as you are portraying it, would you call it more of a survival mechanism for or a symptom of the lives your characters lead?

I suspect we all live in a constant state of being torn between duty and desire, community and self-interest and so on. The difficulty of these choices is amplified in times of poverty or, at the other extreme, great wealth, or any manner of other circumstances we find ourselves in. Sometimes what pulls us in different directions can be reconciled, but if not, one choice necessitates dissociation from the other in order for us to keep moving. To stay sane, even.

Are there any contemporary Australian writers you’d especially recommend to our readers?

I’d recommend a novel that had a powerful effect on me and many other readers I know. The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood is beautifully written, frightening, moving, and revelatory. I think everyone should read it.

Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?

When I’m in the state of writing, there isn’t much going on that’s non-writing-related. Everything seems to cast what I’m thinking and writing in a new light or connect with it in some way. But reading is the key for me. Without reading, I don’t think I would have any desire to be a writer. The Australian writer Gerald Murnane once wrote in an essay that after he’d read a book by the Hungarian author Gyula Illyés, “The book had such an effect on me that I later wrote a book of my own in order to relieve my feelings.” That is what reading can do.

What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given?

Worst—“This is how you should write.”