My Back Pages: John O’Brien Dalkey Archive Press

Posted October 16, 2015 in Features

John O’Brien founded Dalkey Archive Press in Chicago in 1984. The Press has since become one of the most significant publishers of literary fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and criticism in the world, mostly publishing works in the experimental tradition of James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and Flann O’Brien. The Press has also focused heavily on literary translations, with books from over 40 countries on its current list, while Dalkey Archive authors have won countless honours, including the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In 2011, Dalkey Archive received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Book Critics Circle, and in 2015 John O’Brien was made a knight in the Orde des Arts et des Lettres for his contributions to publishing French literature abroad. The Press is now based in the United States, out of the University of Houston-Victoria, in London, and in Dublin with offices in Trinity College.


Dalkey Archive Press came out of the literary magazine Review of Contemporary Fiction. What was the impetus behind that project? What purpose were you hoping it might serve?

I started the Review of Contemporary Fiction for two reasons: firstly, I didn’t know anyone who was interested in the writers I was interested in and so I wanted to find those people and hear what they had to say about these writers; and secondly, I wanted to show the world – from reviewers to academics – how wrong they were, both about whom they elected as the major writers of our times and how they wrote about fiction. In brief, it was started in a state of anger and frustration.


You take the name of the Press from Flann O’Brien’s The Dalkey Archive, and the Press has helped lead a resurgence of interest in O’Brien’s work. What is it about his writing that appeals to you? Does it speak to a particular tradition you are trying to promote?

I love O’Brien’s work for many reasons. And I should point out here that I am *not* related to him, as many people assume. ‘O’Brien’ was just one of a few of his pen names.

First of all, O’Brien is one of the funniest writers of the last century, and he must be Ireland’s funniest writer regardless of the century. And it’s a wild, whacky, unpredictable humour of the absurd. At the same time, he is also one of Ireland’s most inventive writers, as evidenced in At Swim-Two-Birds. There was little in the history of the novel that would have shown him how to do what he did in At Swim. That was pure genius: that you can re-use characters; that characters can have an existence that’s independent of the roles they’ve been cast in for a particular novel; that characters can come back in other novels because they are good workers who put up with a lot of abuse from their creator; that a novel need not be the victim of deadly realism as it has been practiced for the past 60 years or so. O’Brien knew that the highest form of literary art was that which was free to question its own fictiveness within the novel, to reflect upon the novel as a novel, and to be a field of play where the pleasure of play is what engages the reader. So, the Press is in many ways an homage to Flann O’Brien.


Besides O’Brien, who are some of the past Irish writers you have been interested in? Do you think there are divergent strands of literary history in Ireland? 

It’s a cliché of sorts to talk about this division in Irish writing, and to properly name it. The handle I’ve always used is Frank O’Connor on one side and Joyce on the other. I first read both of these writers as a sophomore in high school. I knew immediately what O’Connor was up to, where he was going, and how he was going to get there. He’s professional, competent, and to my mind, very predictable and boring. Joyce, on the other hand, was risk-taking, singular in style, intense, and resisting. I felt immediately at home with Joyce. And after Joyce was Beckett, Flann O’Brien, and – a writer yet to get his fair due – Aidan Higgins, who has some passages of prose that are among the finest ever to have been written in English. More recent examples of this latter tradition are Kevin Barry – especially his short fiction – and Rob Doyle.

What defines 20th century fiction is that written by Joyce, O’Brien, Beckett, and I’ll insist again, Aidan Higgins, these dark and funny scribblers whose apparent motive was to please themselves, though all seem to have wanted more readers but weren’t willing to surrender to the drudgery of writing ‘popular’ novels, as though these semi-mindless books are easy to write. It is in their presence that one participates in the world of the imagination and experiences the rare joy of discovery.

But there are others in this tradition, though different one from another, and to name just a few whom I publish but seem to remain secrets to the general reading public, as well as to the media, critics, the Arts Council, and the award-givers: Dorothy Nelson, Bernard Share, and Alf MacLochlainn.


Which other authors are you most proud to have published?

This list is nearly endless: it certainly must include well over half of the writers on our backlist. Let me just recite the names that are less well-known, or at least not as well known as they should be: Sorrentino, Glover, Burton, Pinget, Rudan, Basara, Brandão, Lins, Boon, Robberechts, Murnane, Jonke, Mosley, Roubaud, Higgins, Fosse, del Paso, Țsepeneag, Shklovsky… I’ll stop here because the list is already getting too long.



You founded the Press back in the 1980s in the United States, but Ireland has become a focal point for the Press’ activity. Why Ireland and why Dublin?

This is a difficult question to answer, and to answer honestly. Opening the office here was neither a quick nor whimsical decision. I had been talking to the Arts Council for three years about the feasibility of making Ireland a base of operations in Europe, and had received much encouragement. I also met with a number of key people here to get their views and advice. Back then, in 2010, the recession was hitting but no one knew for how long or how deep it would go. The Arts Council was hit very hard with cuts to its budget, and that meant far less support than I had been led to believe was possible. The smartest thing to do then – about two years into the Irish adventure – would have been to close up shop, at least here in Dublin, if not in all of Europe. It may be that two of my weaknesses then came into play: stubbornness and sentimentality, the latter being the result of growing to love Ireland. I wanted the Press’ future to be here, not just in London, not the land of the oppressor, though I think it has become unpopular to think of the British this way. Some of our leaders seem quite intent on re-writing or forgetting history. Which reminds me of something that bothers me greatly about the media here, the book media, especially the Irish Times. There is an obvious bias towards things British in the popular media, and in the area of books and book reviewing, there seems a definite bias towards reviewing those books by Irish writers that are published by British houses. This has amazed and bewildered me.

But I have also been dumbfounded by the media’s lack of interest in art or culture from other countries. The Irish Times was rather good about reviewing translations for a while, but of late there are few translations being reviewed, and these are also more mainstream books rather than ones showing how wild the literature is in other countries. I don’t know who at the Irish Times decides not to review as many works in translation, but not doing so makes Ireland in general look quite parochial. I’ve seen this trend on the Arts Council as well. Dalkey Archive leads the English-speaking world in terms of the number of literary translations it is doing, but you wouldn’t know this based upon review coverage here in my adopted homeland. The Irish Times in particular should be leading the way in bringing the rest of the world to Ireland, but it doesn’t. Either Dublin is an international city and displays itself as such in many, many ways, or it’s a self-content backwards city that does not want the rest of the world intruding upon it.


Along those lines, a more recent project is the anthology, Best European Fiction, which includes writing from Ireland and the UK, but far more from non-English speaking countries. What is the emphasis of the anthology, and what do you hope to achieve with it?

Well, I think there is a need to bring writers to the attention of a wide readership, especially writers who otherwise would quite likely not get such exposure outside of their own country. There is also a need to get a sense of the range of what’s being written in Europe, as well as to give as much space to, let’s say, France as is given to Latvia, and vice versa. My view is that no country should be given more space or attention because it is more powerful or simply bigger than another: the literature should be selected on the basis of quality. One thing I have insisted upon from the start is that the countries help support the project financially. Only someone who understands nothing about the costs of publishing could think that this book generates a profit. It doesn’t. So, my feeling is that the countries represented in the anthology should make a donation to it, modest as this donation is, given the costs.

One of the very nice things about the anthology is that it has lead to writers being invited to festival throughout Europe and in some cases has led to their being published in other languages. And of course there is a Chinese edition of the book, and so the writers are reaching a Chinese audience as well.


A number of Dalkey Archive authors are considered contenders for the Nobel Prize. How have you gone about attracting such important writers?

I believe that this year there are nine of our authors on the list of possible winners, and there are two in the top nine. For a publishing house that is exclusively driven by the quality of the work it publishes rather than to how well it will be received upon first being published, having this kind of attention is very strange. Strange and wonderful. I think many of the writers are attracted to the list because of which writers are already on it, but especially because of our policy of keeping books in print permanently.



You have been at the helm of Dalkey Archive Press for over 30 years. Looking back on it, have you achieved what you set out to achieve? What do you see for the next 30 years of the Press?

No, I have not achieved what I set out to do, or else Gilbert Sorrentino’s works would be required reading throughout the United States. I had wanted to create a space in the culture that could not be reduced to marketplace value. I suppose that has been achieved, but what of the Press itself? Will that be protected into the distant future and how? The only way that the Press survives me is for it to have a substantial endowment that will achieve two things: one – protection, and two – the Press’ ‘best day.’ Without such an endowment, the Press will go when I do.

We currently have about 750 books in print, and let’s assume that this will turn into 1,000 books in print by the time I step away from the Press. These books will be lost to the culture and to future readers, most will go out of print, and the body of work will be dissipated. My hope is that there are enough people out there that they will not let this happen and will play a very active role in creating an endowment.


Which contemporary Irish writers are you excited about? And what are some of the books coming this autumn that people should look out for?  

One book I am very much looking forward to is Rob Doyle’s collection of short fiction. I wish I were doing it, but Lilliput Press got there before I did. Most of the others I’m excited about are foreign writers, and therefore assured of not being reviewed in the Times. Dalkey Archive authors one should keep an eye for are the Slovenian Drago Jančar; Serbian Svetislav Basara; Romanian Dumitru Țsepeneag; Argentinian Pablo Katchadjian; Estonian Mikhel Mutt; Norwegian Jon Fosse; Israeli Youval Shimoni; and the Korean Lee Seung-U. We are publishing 38 titles this fall.


Best European Fiction 2016 will be released in November. Jonathan Creasy’s book of poems and essays, The Black Mountain Letters, is being published by Dalkey Archive Press in 2016.

Words: Jonathan Creasy

Photos: Killian Broderick


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