BIOG: OLAF TYARANSEN
Olaf Paul Tyaransen was born in Dublin in 1971, but spent his formative years in the west of Ireland. His poetry collection,The Consequences of Slaughtering Butterflies, was published by Salmon in 1992. He has since written an autobiography,The Story of O (2000) and three bestselling collections of journalism, Sex Lines (2002), Palace of Wisdom (2004) andSelected Recordings 2000-2010 (2010).
Described by the Irish Times as “one of this country’s more interesting, and gifted, young writers,” and by the Sunday Times as “the enfant terrible of Irish journalism,” Olaf hit the headlines in 1997 when he stood as a ‘Cannabis Legalisation’ candidate in the general election. A regular columnist with the Evening Herald, and an irregular broadcaster on TV and radio, his journalism has appeared in Rolling Stone, Mojo, Penthouse, Sunday Independent, and countless newspapers and magazines around the world.
A former columnist with Ireland’s Evening Herald, Olaf also holds the position of ‘Writer At Large’ with Hot Press and has written more than 200 cover stories for the magazine over the years – including notorious interviews with Allen Ginsberg, Nick Cave, Hugh Hefner, Larry Flynt, Johnny Adair, Hugh Hefner, U2, Dolly Parton, Sinead O’Connor, Will Self, Gerry Adams, Candace Bushnell, and many others.
U2’s Bono has said of him, “It’s easy to forget you’re being interviewed when talking to Olaf, which is probably what makes him so good. He’s a beguiling character... I always feel I should be interviewing him.”
In December 2013, having been previously shortlisted twice, Olaf was named the ‘Journalist of the Year’ at the Irish Magazine Awards. His next book, a collection of interviews with noteworthy Irish people called Mind The Gap, will be published by Hot Press Books in April 2014, with all royalties going to Galway Autism Partnership. His Paul Duane-directed short film, Don’t You Know Who I Am?, directed by Paul Duane and starring Larry Love of the Alabama 3, will be released on iTunes in May 2014.
That depends entirely on the person and the circumstances of the interview (where is it happening? How much time have you been allocated?). I tend to go in with general themes rather than specific questions prepared, and see how it flows. Of course, if there’s a million dollar question, it has to be asked in the right way at the right moment.
The biggest blunder can be talking too much yourself. When I was younger and less experienced, I used to talk way too much – often in a misguided attempt to befriend or impress my interviewee. Then I’d listen back to the recording afterwards and go, “Why the HELL am I wasting my valuable interview time telling THAT stupid story!?”
Sometimes you should tell an anecdote/joke/whatever if it’s going to make them open up a little more or trust you. Generally, though, the interviewee should always be the one doing most of the talking.
My very first interview was with the Dublin poet and former children’s TV presenter Pat Ingoldsby. I was around 18 and I interviewed him in Galway’s Imperial Hotel for a local entertainments free sheet. He was an absolute gentleman. Curiously, another early interviewee was Marcel Marceau, the French mime artist. He was actually quite talkative.
My most recent interviewees? In the last two weeks, I’ve interviewed American singer-songwriter John Grant (in Galway), novelist John Banville (in Dublin) and musician Damon Albarn (in London). This week I’ll be interviewing musician and memoirist Ben Watt and singer Paolo Nutini (both in Dublin).
My favorites include the porn star Ron Jeremy, the terrorist Johnny Adair, the poet Allen Ginsberg, and the musician Courtney Love. Bono of U2 is also always a pleasure to interview.
Elvis would be interesting. Or John Lennon.
Again that totally depends on the interviewee. With a politician, most definitely. There’s a tendency for some journalists to treat celebrity interviews like bloodsports. For the most part, I’ve found that charm works a lot better than aggression.
questions for Irish Short Story Month Year 4
These questions are designed to get responders talking. They are asked out of a deep respect, they are not a quiz. Feel free to ignore questions you do not wish to answer. The more you answer, the more valuable the session will be. Say as much as you like.
1. Declan Kiberd in his book, Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation, said the
dominant theme of Modern Irish is that of the weak or missing father. Do you think Kiberd is right? How does this impact your work, if it does.
Weak or missing father? I would have thought that the domineering father was a more prominent theme. But it doesn’t really impact on my work – or hasn’t to date, at least. From my children’s perspective, my work might often result in me being ‘missing’. I always try to bring them something nice back, though.
2. How and when did you begin to write?
I was lucky in that I knew from a very young age that I wanted to be a writer. I probably wrote my first short story before the age of 10. It should be noted that I haven’t grown up to become the writer I wanted to be. But there’s hopefully still time for that novel.
3. Who are some of your favorite contemporary short story writers? What classic writers do you find yourself drawn to reread? If a neophyte short story writer were to ask you who to read, what might you suggest?
I love Kevin Barry’s stuff, Mike McCormack. Joe O’Connor’s recent collection was excellent, if a tad depressing. I’ve just recently read Ethan Coen’s Gates Of Eden, which I thought was fabulous.
Of classic writers, I like Jack London. Charles Bukowski. Raymond Carver. John Fante. Maybe the last three are too recent to be considered classic, but I read them a lot anyway.
I’d advise any aspiring writer to read just about everything they can lay their hands on. There are lots of great short story anthologies out there, offering a wide range of styles to sample. The Granta collections are a good place to start.
4. Frank O'Connor in The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story said short stories seem to be about marginalized people, the lonely, those with with little voice in society. Do you think he is on to something illuminating about the format? Why is there so much loneliness in the Irish short story?
There’s all kinds of short stories. Some are about marginalized people, and some aren’t. But everybody is interested in outsiders. And writing can be a very lonely occupation.
5. I sometimes wonder why such a disproportionate amount of the regarded as great literature of the world is written in the colder temperate zones rather than in the tropics. How big a factor do you think the Irish Weather is in shaping the literary output of its writers.? I cannot imagine The Brothers Karamazov being written ontropical island, for example.
I once lived on a tropical island beach in the Gulf of Thailand for a year, surrounded by cheap alcohol, good drugs and lots of naked women. It was a lot harder to write there than it is in the rain-soaked west of Ireland.
6. (This may seem like a silly question but I pose it anyway-do you believe in Fairies?-this quote from DeclainKiberd sort of explains why I am asking this:" One 1916 veteran recalled, in old age, his youthful conviction that the rebellion would “put an end to the rule of the fairies in Ireland”. In this it was notably unsuccessful: during the 1920s, a young student named Samuel Beckett reported seeing a fairy-man in the New Square of Trinity College Dublin; and two decades later a Galway woman, when asked by an American anthropologist whether she really believed in the “little people”, replied with terse sophistication: “I do not, sir – but they’re there." In general how do you feel Ireland's extensive mythology impacts the literature?
I don’t know if the mythology impacts on the literature, but I do believe in fairies. I saw them dancing on Silver Strand beach in Galway during a magic mushroom trip in 1991. They were twerking.
7. Do you think the very large amount of remains from neolithic periods (the highest in the world) in Ireland has shaped in the literature and psyche of the country?
It’s hard to say. Our last government wanted to put a motorway through an important heritage site (the Hill of Tara), which should give you some idea of how much value they put on it.
8. When you write, do you picture and audience or do you just write?
It depends on what I’m writing. If it’s journalism – an interview, column or feature piece – then I have to bevery conscious of the intended audience. If it’s a poem, short story or longer piece of fiction then I just write what works for me. It’s rare that something does.
9. Assuming this applies to you, how do you get past creative "dry spells", periods when you have a hard time coming up with ideas or when things seem futile?
I used to have terrible struggles with writer’s block. Now that I have two young children to support, it doesn’t happen anymore. I just keep on writing. Even if it’s not very good, you can always fix it later. (Actually, that’s only partly true. There are days when I just head to the nearest pub to drown my sorrows and curse my lack of talent).
10. How deeply is the Irish short story impacted by the Famine years? The diaspora?
Nobody really talks about the Famine here, but it made the Irish a very international and nomadic race of people. That internationalism is reflected in a lot of the writing.
11. What are the last three novels you read? Last three movies? Do you have any favorite TV shows?
Books: The Free by Willy Vlautin. The Black-Eyed Blond by Benjamin Black (aka John Banville). From Out OfThe City by John Kelly. All for work, but all very enjoyable.
Movies: Director Paul Duane just sent me a rough cut of a short film I wrote called Don’t You Know Who I Am? I’ve watched that at least three times this week. He’s done a really terrific job.
TV: I rarely have time to watch TV, but I recently watched the entire box set of Breaking Bad. I’m still suffering withdrawal symptoms.
13. If you could live anywhere in the past for six months, or forever, and be rich and safe, where would you pick and why?
Paris in the 1920s would be interesting. As would San Francisco in the 1960s.
14. When out of Ireland, besides family and friends, what do you miss most? What are you glad to be away from for a while?
I travel out of Ireland quite frequently on journalistic assignments, but usually only for a day or two. When I lived in Thailand, I eventually wound up missing the food.
15. Why do you think the short story is so popular in Ireland?
Same reason it’s so popular everywhere else. Because it’s short. And so are people’s attention spans nowadays.
16. A while ago i read and posted on a long biography of Hart Crane, author of the Bridge-few read it but many known of his life style as one of the first Gay poets living out a life of rough trade and wealthy older benefactors-he lived a very chaotic life and died young from suicide by jumping off a cruise ship. His father invented Life Saver Candy and wanted Hart to go in the Candy business with him - so if Hart had done this and died at 75 rich living in Ohio, fat bald and married would he still be even much thought about let alone read? One of the most referenced poets by Irish writers last year was Arthur Rimbaud who likewise had a short and chaotic life. Does a poet need or naturally tend to a chaotic life? Why so much seeming admiration for writerslike Jack Kerouac and others who died way to young from alcohol abuse? If Ezra Pound had not gone mad, would he still be a role model for the contemporary poet? (I know this is long, please just respond to it as you will.). Some of this may just be a story about a poet with a stable marriage, a job and no substance issues may seem dull compared to wilder lives.
Not all poets led wild, crazy or destructive lives (e.g. Philip Larkin). My own twenties were quite full-on, but what saved me from complete meltdown was the fact that I almost always had a deadline. Which meant that I had to put the brakes on.
Nobody needs to lead a chaotic life. But financial insecurity can often lead to chaos.
17. Please explain to total outsiders like me how important government grants to writers are to Irish literature? Who decides who gets a grant?
In a country as small as Ireland, it can often come down to who you know. I’ve never applied for a grant,although I am considering approaching the Irish Film Board for some development money to make a feature length film. I’ve heard that they’re fine people. Hugely intelligent, beautifully fragrant and extremely well-endowed. Even the women.
18. Have you attended creative writing workshops and if you have share your experiences a bit please.
Through a company called Inspireland, I’ve been doing writing/media workshops with transition year students in Irish secondary schools recently. They can be good fun, but they can also be very hard work. I’ve never attended a creative writing workshop in a student capacity. I’ve always just done it myself. However, I know people who’ve benefitted from them.
19. Make up a question and answer it please.
Q: When was the last time you threw a punch?
A: Three years ago in a Portuguese bar. He was really asking for it.
20. Not long ago I was sent several very hostile messages from Irish writers demanding to know why I had posted on the works of other writers and not them. Some suggested I had been influenced by some sort of shadowy group to ignore their work. I was informed there is a small elite group who decides who gets reviewed, published or receives grants and it was also suggested they had sent me negative feedback on writers I should ignore. What in the Irish literary scene is behind this? Is there anything like an "Irish Literary Mafia"?
I’m sure there is. I’m far too busy trying to make a living to pay them any attention. If you’re any good at all, you’ll eventually get published. Of course, it mightn’t happen until after you’re dead…
21. Do you think poets and short story writers have a social role to play in contemporary Ireland or are they pure artists writing for themselves and a few peers? One of the characters in Savage Detectives by RobertoBolano, set in Mexico city and centering on poets, says that the main reason poets, nearly all male in Bolano'sbook, read at workshops is to meet the way disproportional number of women who come to them in search of a tortured soul to nourish. Is this just stupid?
Not at all. There’s almost no money in poetry. It seems fair enough that poets can at least get laid every once in a while
(A joke: What’s the difference between a poet and a pizza? A pizza can feed a family of four).
22. Tell us a bit about your non-academic, non literary work experience please
Tell us something about your educational background, please.
At the age of 12, I came first in the entrance exam to my secondary school. Five years later, a week before myLeaving Certificate, they kicked me out (I hadn’t done anything terrible, but was considered disrespectful and a bad influence). That was the end of my formal education.
I’ve never attended university, although I now occasionally lecture in journalism. NUIG told me that I could do a Masters without having to do a BA first, but I couldn’t see the point. Rightly or wrongly, my lack of formal education is a point of pride.
I worked as a nightclub barman and a waiter up until my early twenties. I also managed an alt-rock band called the Far Canals for two years (you have to say their name in an Australian accent to get the joke). My first book, a poetry collection, was published when I was 21. I’ve been a fulltime writer since the age of 22 or 23, mostly working in journalism. It wasn’t the plan, but such is life.
23. Why have the Irish produced such a disproportional to their population number of great writers? Or is this a myth?
No, it’s not a myth. Possibly more of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s seen as a viable career – especially if you’re writing chicklit.
24. Quick Pick Questions
I use a laptop.
I love traditional books. I don’t possess an E Reader but, coming from the country that spawned RyanAir, I can see their usefulness.
Depends on the weather.
As I’m filling this out, my children’s puppy Georgie-Lou is in heat, so I can’t take her out for a walk. She’s giving me a serious guilt trip with her sad, doleful eyes. So…cats.
Inspiration can strike anywhere. But I love all of those cities. I’m also very fond of New York.
Depends on the time of day.
Both have their strengths and flaws. Depends on what’s on.
The first play I ever saw was Footsbarn’s King Lear in a tent in Galway, when I was about 10. There was an electrical storm. It made quite an impression. So probably Lear.
25. Do you think Irish Travellers should be granted the status of a distinct ethnic group and be given special rights to make up for past mistreatment? Are the Travellers to the Irish what the Irish were once to the English? I became interested in this question partially through reading the short stories of Desmond Hogan.
That’s a thorny topic. I don’t really know. Travellers aren’t well-liked in Irish society, largely because they tend to make a terrible mess wherever they camp. That might not be politically correct to say, but it’s a fact (although it might just be a case of a few bad apples). Actually, an Irish writer named Gavin Corbett wrote a terrific book about Travellers recently called This Is the Way.
26. Death, natural and otherwise is a central factor in the Irish short story and it seems to me to play a bigger factor in the Irish short story than other cultures-can you talk about this a bit, please .
I don’t know if I’ve read enough stories from other cultures to be able to intelligently comment. But death comes to us all. Along with taxes and our 15 minutes of fame.
27. How important is social media in the development of the career of writers? Do you have your own web page and if so why? Do you think it is good business savvy to post free samples of your work online?
I don’t have my own website, although I probably should. I don’t have a Facebook account either, but I’m very fond of Twitter. It can be quite distracting, but it’s good to be part of an ongoing conversation – especially when you spend as much time working alone as I do. You can find me at @OlafTyaransen.
28. I recently read Strumpet City by James Plunkett (the 2013 Dublin One City One Book Selection). It presents a culture whose very life blood seems to be whiskey. Drinking seems much more a factor in Irish literature than Indian, Japanese or even American. What do you think are some of the causes of this or is it just a myth?
No. It’s a fact that a lot of Irish writers drink to excess. As do a lot of Irish people generally. It’s in the culture. But there can be a lot of drinking in American fiction too (e.g. Bukowski, Capote).
29. Related to question above, recently Guinness sponsored a creative writing program and set up a grant system for writers and artist. A number of my Irish Facebook friends said they would repudiate a grant from Guinness and art festivals and programs should refuse their sponsorship. This was in part because of the perceived terrible social cost of alcoholism on Irish families. It was also stated that Guinness was trying to get people to see drinking as associated with creativity. Would you refuse a grant from Guinness? Are theirsponsorship efforts insidious? When I facetiously suggested I would take on the burden of these malicious grants, I was taken to task as an outsider who needs to mind his own business.
I’ve given Guinness – now Diagio, incidentally - an awful lot of money over the years. I’d be more than happy to see some of it back.
30. Reading Paul's response to one of my questions, I thought of a new question I wanted to ask.
I was reading your answers again. I think there is one sort of big difference between the reader and the writer. As you know, true reading is not passive but involves a creative process.
Looking at this quote from question 1 " That observation makes me pause. If I'm honest, I didn't know it was a dominant theme. I operate in such a bubble when I write and analyse the content very rarely. My writing bears no conscious relation to the world of writing, no matter how obvious the connections are to others. In this pause you've brought I have to say the theme impacts on my work greatly".
Readers do read within a tradition, seeing works as part of a great conversation, part of a hopefully ever deeper culture, writers see themselves as starting from ground zero, without a conscious relation to a tradition. Also readers or especially reviewers, I am not a reviewer- I just post stuff- put a limit on a writers work when they talk about it or find meaning in it, thus breaking the writes sense of pure creation. A writer might well truthfully say, "I just write", but you cannot really just read.
Is there a built in divide between writers and readers? Is this is what the resistance to interpretation is at least in part about?
31. In his book The Commitments, Roddy Doyle has a main character say, as if it were something commonly seen as true, “The Irish are the niggers of Europe and Dubliners are the niggers of Ireland”. There is a lot of self loathing expressed in Irish literary works from Joyce on down to Doyle. Is this just a family fight where one might say something terrible about a father, mother or brother or wife and then attack an outsider who says the same thing or is it really how people feel? I do not see this level of self hate in other literatures. There is nothing like it, for example, in the literature of the Philippines. Talk a bit about how you feel or think about this.
The Irish have always had a gift for self-flagellation. I blame the Church. And the Guinness!
I give my great thanks to Olaf for taking the time to provide us with such an interesting set of answers.