Nuala O'Faolain, Irish Writer

For most of her career, the Irish writer Nuala O'Faolain (NOO-luh O'FWAE-lin) was a journalist, working as a television producer for the BBC and Irish television, and later as a columnist for the Irish Times. She became a best-selling author only after she sneaked a lengthy personal memoir into what was meant to be a book of her political columns. She followed that memoir, Are You Somebody?, with the novel My Dream of You. She'll read from her latest book, Almost There, in Tucson on Monday, April 19, at a noon lunch at the Arizona Inn ($35), and at 6 p.m. at the Wilde Playhouse, 135 E. Congress ($10, includes hors d'oeuvres). For tickets, call 323-0650. The Weekly caught up with her by phone in New York, early one morning last week.

Are you an early riser?

The older I get, the earlier I get up, but still only around 7 o'clock. I heard that Condoleezza Rice works out with weights at 5 o'clock in the morning. Someone to make you feel inferior.

Well, I don't think you want to be her this week.

No, but even though I'm not particularly on her side, I think it's only too predictable that it would be the woman who would get hung out to dry. We won't get any of the background guys. We'll just get her.

Where are you now?

I'm staying in Park Slope (Brooklyn). It's a bit suburban. It doesn't have the buzz of Manhattan. Is Tucson beautiful?

Yes, very beautiful in a totally different way, but the summers are 115 degrees.

Bloody hell.

What are you working on now?

I'm writing a book about a woman who worked in Philadelphia, admittedly as a high-class tart, and died there in 1929. I'm now even an expert in Philadelphia's graveyards, because I was there recently looking for her grave. Her name's Chicago May. She was an Irish girl who went very spectacularly to the bad. I'm following her life through late-19th, early-20th-century America, because to me, it's of huge interest: the alternative side to emigration, not exile, not sentimental, (but) making a tough life in a tough environment. There isn't as far as I know that kind of book, yet.

I thought you were writing fiction.

This is the terrible, awful thing about being a writer. I spent three years writing a novel, and last autumn, I realized that it was no good and couldn't be published. I don't ever want to see a word of it again.

Your other three books all did great.

They did, considering that I never expected anything of them. If anyone had known I was writing (a personal introduction to the book of columns), they would have stopped me. Nobody ever wanted me to. Nobody ever suggested it. So it was a wonderful example of sneaking something out. One of the reasons I could be so candid was that nobody reads old columns. I could make my statement about my life, but it wouldn't necessarily be read by anyone but a handful of lunatics.

Wasn't the editor upset when you turned the thing in and it turned out to be so long?

Oh, yeah! I'll never forget his face! He picked up the pile of pages and kept dropping them again as if the weight was killing him. He said, "We haven't budgeted for the paper for this."

Why did people respond to the personal memoir?

In Ireland, some truths had been told about women's lives, in fiction, by Edna O'Brien, and in song, by the likes of Sinead O'Connor. Obviously, I was unique in that I got the chance to publish, though I wasn't worthy by the usual standards. I don't really have a story. This has always struck me compared to these sensational autobiographies you'd see in America, about Prozac and sleeping with your father and everything. I didn't have cruel parents. They were just very neglectful and hurtful. That's all I had. Nothing worse ever happened to me.

What do you think of all these Irish Americans who are so interested in Ireland?

The little I know about Irish-American society, it's more conservative than Ireland. Its politics are very old-fashioned, and its gender politics seem very old-fashioned. ... But on the other hand, I know that I don't understand Irish Americans. In a way, it's a pity; we could do so much for each other. We need the virtues of Irish Americans, and they need the virtues of Ireland.

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