J.P. Donleavy, The Ginger Man

"The Ginger Man" cover art © Atlantic Monthly

This is a telephone interview with J.P. Donleavy at his home in Ireland on June, 2006 and was originally posted in June of 2006.

Photo of JPD and his cattle!
© Bill Dunn @ The J.P. Donleavy Compendium

I was so thrilled as I had been waiting for this day to come. I had my desk set up and ready to go. I had the questions printed out and in front of me, I had stacks and stacks of 8 X 11 lined tablets and a new box of pens and I had the comp up and running with book marked reference works minimized on the bottom of the page. I had been told to have plenty on pens and paper and I took that advice seriously. OK...I was ready. I rang Mr. Donleavy at our scheduled time, after several rings, the voice mail picked up and I left a message saying I would phone back.. Hmmm I knew I had the right time and the right day and the right number. So I waited a while and rang back. This time he answered, it was about 6:35 pm his time in Ireland. He wanted to tell me where he'd been and why he was not at the phone. It seems that a mother cow was separated from her calf and he was driving (on foot) the cow back to her calf. He said he has a rather tame herd...and they answer him when he calls, he was concerned that the calf would not be able to find it's mother and he suspected she had been searching for it earlier in the day, which lead us to a conversation about the ways the older animals teach the young how to behave.We chatted quite easily about ourselves and got to know each other a bit as you do when first meeting someone. I told him how honored we were to have him take such a personal interest in us and in our questions and thanked him most humbly. He speaks with a combination of accents, he has a lovely British sound to his voice, with the occasional Irish inflection and then BOOM....his American roots pop out. His speech pattern is quite like his writing style and it comes in bits and snags and thoughts lead to others and to others often without completing sentences. He does NOT sound like anyone 80 years old. He sounds much younger and very robust. He is thoughtful of what he says and listens with great interest and laughs often. He shares thoughts and ideas and information in a very kind and caring way and is a lot of fun to get to know. I was told I would have a blast talking with him, and I did! We spent close to two hours together on the phone and when the time came for us to hang up, we had agreed we would speak again and meet!

This conversation could not have taken place without the assistance of Mr. Donleavy's business partner and I thank him most sincerely! OK..now for my conversation with Mr. J.P. Donleavy. I have added some things in parenthesis to clarify something now and then.

 I asked him how he became a writer, as we knew he had started out as an artist.

JPD I wrote at Trinity College, inspired by Jack Yates....friends of his (Yates) were painters who belonged to a group called the White Stag group..and was encouraged... continued painting and had some exhibitions and then gravitated back into writing and TGM because painting seemed to localize me too much --that you didn't reach too many people that might want to know about you. Couldn't get anywhere as a painter unless you first got famous. So I had to get out and get famous, certainly one or two people have heard the name. (meaning his own)

You have been quoted as saying "once you lose your nerve, you lose your abilities to be a good writer." Does this apply to your art as well?

JPD Yes it does and you are right to think that, you can't be cautious at all, if you notice young people that draw a picture you don't know that they have nerve..but they have, they don't have an influence controlling them and it's actually very much, as you get older, you've got to be able to buck things...forge on...do what you want to you.

 About your art and your paintings, may I ask what medium you like to use?

JPD It's tough to get ..use an original technique..that I invented to accommodate me.....trying to get a new studio set up. I do watercolors mostly and with this technique that I have I like to work quickly with the (oil) paints. And my technique absolutely lasts. All these years.no colors fading...mostly the paint is locked in with linseed oil.... Paint on a masonite board.

When did you start your art work, your painting?

JPD Young.... young... 21 -22 right after the Navy.

 You wrote TGM at 25...where did you get the wisdom to write such a character as Sebastian Balfe Dangerfield at that young age?

JPD I am not so sure that I have always thought that if you reach the age of 14 - 15 in America.. where children grow up very quickly.. there's not many insights that I've had since I was that age where it's changed my thinking. At the age of 18 I don't think that I thought very differently than I did at the age of 25. I think we instinctively have the knowledge and adapt the knowledge we need.

The Ginger Man was published in 1955, how does this book fit in with, or "feed" the culture of the 21st century? Or how do you explain TGM's longevity?

JPD I'm not absolutely sure...it might have something to do with it's based on people who did live, Gainor Stephen Crist ( for example) who hailed from and lived in Ohio... and I think that the reality of Dublin and in Ireland in those days... somehow was unique in the sense that it was a country that was isolated, wasn't in the second world war and even to this day it's only now joining the general world as a country joining the EEC. Now Ireland is being totally transformed, it's no longer Ireland or Irish, its full of immigrants, Poles, Lithuanian, etc......the Irish are getting a bit alarmed that they don't exist anymore.

This brings us round to something that I have read. Ten years ago in an interview with Thomas E. Kennedy, you spoke about the Darcy Dancer books: "…they are totally Irish, set in Irish houses, about the things that happened to the Anglo-Irish. This thing is disappearing in Ireland now. In another ten years, the term Anglo-Irish won't mean anything in contemporary usage." Ten years later, how do you see the term "Anglo- Irish"? Do you think you were correct?

JPD Yes indeed, they have actually vanished, yes they have vanished from anyone's consciousness in general terms, they are never brought up in newspapers or related to in any way, they've totally vanished, their manners their sort of general elegance. I still know a handful of them who are advanced in age now, but they are sort of dying out totally and their generation of growing up... say children 15 to 18 years of age -- they are totally different and they have to adapt to another world, they are still growing up with that sort of Anglo Irish sort of pattern, I guess that's a better word to use. That disappears from them now. What they have now is times where people are affluent. they let you know what they possess. It's a change...Ireland Isn't as attractive as it used to be. There is a lady physician here and she did say something, she treats people who come here now, like the Lithuanians, Poles and so on and she sees a lot of them as patients...she says that they are like the Irish used to be 30 years ago. They are thoughtful they are polite and so on and charming where as the Irish have lost that now.

As we continued to talk we visited about our grandparents and forefathers and

JPD says that "it dawns on me that TGM is pirated in Russia and probably many translations may exist and circulate, the curious thing...the only formalized thing is that some years ago one of my books called the Unexpurgated Code..that's the only thing of mine that the Russians have published and they published it in the Moscow Literary Gazette. It's a kind of a curious thing about behavior somehow that struck their interest. There's the case of this book and a lady who took the book on some sort of aircraft ..was reading it and fell into the aisle of the aircraft laughing out of control and the people on the aircraft knew that she was making a connecting flight to another flight and so when she was making the connection and came to make the flight, they took the book away from her and wouldn't let her board. (I asked if they wanted it for themselves) and he said "No, they thought she was a danger to other passengers she was laughing so much and so uncontrollable. So it's my only book that's still rather banned. In fact it's locked up in all Britain...you can't get it in a British library...it's prescribed and under lock and key.

I had to ask him what it felt like to have his books banned?

JPD Well it's not too much of a problem now...and helps authors because their books generally get better known but it was quite a serious thing in those days with TGM because there was a point where I could have been prosecuted ...and the book was sort of prosecuted in a couple of places in early days.

JDR: Many of our readers are women and some of them had problems with Dangerfield's neglect of his daughter and the way he treated the women in general in his life. He always stayed true to himself, but not was not always true to everyone else.
JPD I've always thought of it in terms of the fact that he's referred to as this sort of maverick husband and so on and reading between the lines that sometimes in the behavior in marriages in so on and so forth you find that these things in outbursts and so on...I suppose it's very graphic in Dangerfield's case but it could be a sort of normal sort of marriage kind of problem that crops up from time to time.... and see, the gentleman that he's based on Mr. Stephen Gainor Crist..he always absolutely a gentleman in every way ...never struck a woman and never misbehaved basically he was someone also that when a lady entered a room would always jump to his feet and even click his heels in the southern manner and so on and so it was always difficult to say "well this awful person you wrote about but to point out that this awful person wasn't quite so awful.

What did you hope that your readers would take from this story?

JPD That's interesting...I don't know that as a writer you think in those terms you think... sometimes you write and you find yourself almost wondering how it will turn out.

 So does that mean that as a writer, you sometimes let the characters take you where you are going?

JPD I'm wondering as to how premeditated writers allow themselves to get... in that way that there is a point where they really don't sometimes know..I don't think every writer sort of almost admits that at some stage his books can take on their own kind of life it selves and simply lead away into directions that they're not kind of prepared for.

 Has that happened to you...that a story took you somewhere you didn't know you were going?

JPD Maybe that is the case yes...I mean I'm writing a thing now which is sort of highly complicated but set in New York city and so on... I find you know .. I'm surprised that the work will take itself off on various tangents that I hadn't firstly anticipated.

 So it develops a life of it's own?

JPD I don't know whether you ...happen to know the book "The Lady Who Liked Clean Restrooms"? It's the only book I've ever written which has one particular distinction about it ..no one to date (he chuckles) has ever, ever said a bad word about it or criticized it or received at bad review ... or a critical review. It's the only thing I've ever written which has totally ....I remember when it did get reviewed in America it received rave reviews coast to coast ...every single periodical .. and the New York Times sometimes used to wait to sort of trounce anything.. I think I had a lot of enemies sort of hidden on the New York Times without knowing it and I waited til the end I said it was the most extraordinary ...I had this book that's about these very attractive and they used the term rave reviews and I said this is the ideal time for the Irish, for rather the NY Times to finally ...absolutely crucify this work and suddenly there on the fax machine came this review with an accompanying letter isn't this fantastic? Read this! So I... got never....a discouraging word.

How long ago did you write "The Lady Who Liked Clean Rest Rooms"?

JPD Well it's a fairly recent one along with another book called "Wrong Information Is Being Given Out at Princeton" ...it's another book that's rarely got a discouraging word

  We talked about other books of his and he added ...

JPD .."The Lady Who Liked Clean Rest Rooms" isn't too long you see...it's purely about a woman from start to finish and it's.. it's quite...I was surprised that it was received in the way it was.

  I asked if he like the character ?

JPD Oh well yes, it was someone that I sort of knew with stories that had happened to the person ...it was just an incident. And then the three books that I'm writing now about NYC, I've written two of them already.

  I commented that he was certainly a busy gentleman and thanked him for taking the time to visit with me. 

JPD Well it's a nice contrast to have because life where I live here is so isolated that sometimes of you don't make a point to getting out..if you don't get outside the gates for a couple of weeks you don't see another human being.

You grew up not far from Woodlawn Cemetery and you have had a cemetery and remains of a mausoleum on land that you own. I've read that you paint cemeteries and include them in your books...death is a focal point for you in many books. What is there about them that engages you?

JPD Yes I have a few paintings of cemeteries and indeed most gallery owners don't want to hang them for good reason I suppose. I did have a couple once turn up asking could they buy one because they couldn't ever find one. And they did buy one but they had to come here to get it. One of my gallery owners wouldn't want people to have any pictures like that.

  And you included a mausoleum in The Singular Man, is that correct?

JPD Yes indeed that's one of the big things about the book, I remember that's the thing that..you've heard of Mr Redford? Robert Redford... and at one stage Sam Speigel was thinking of making a picture of it and many years..well Sam's dead now he died a few years back and at some place where Redford , whom I know a little bit over the period of years...after Speigel died I wrote him a note and said to him "How would you like to give 'A Singular Man' a try again and his letter back was fascinating because "I'm getting to close now to having to build my own mausoleum"...and the reality of playing a role had got too .  

  Since we are talking about death...death is a reoccurring theme through some of your books.

JPD Yes indeed because the only job I ever had in my life was to...on a summer vacation from school was to go and work in the cemetery cutting grass so that must have been a big influence and I lived ...where I grew up in a community called Woodlawn there's a cemetery, Woodlawn Cemetery and it's one of the world's famous cemeteries because it's so beautiful...rather like a great park and it'd full of mausoleums and so on. And so this must have had a long kind of influence, and I house I owned previously to the one I'm in, that had a cemetery, an ancient cemetery on the land and indeed today some lady friend was bringing it up that she wants to be buried in this cemetery and I'm actually putting a cemetery into this place I live at. (he chuckles, I reply, you might as well LOL) he says " it's not cheap to buy a plot now...I have the land here...thought maybe I'll put together a small cemetery. 

  May we talk about the TGM being made into a film with Johnny Depp, who could introduce Sebastian to a whole new audience of people. How does it feel to have a character, who's been a part of your life for fifty years now become hugely popular character on film?  

JPD Well I guess it's come up..you know a few actors have played the role ..Richard Harris played the role of TGM and one or two other people Nicol Williamson, some people know of his name...he's a brilliant actor and played this role tremendously well, a very eccentric gentleman...and it was always a worrying thing because some other people I saw attempt the role just simply couldn't play it ..where as the one thing one seems to find with Mr. Depp that he's a great perfectionist and anything I've seen of his being quite unbelievable and so I'm fascinated by the fact that he would tackle this. It's very hard for an actor to know just how they.....I always worry about the fact that authors, you know, kind of don't know what to say and in fact, the fact that they can deal with an actor to whom they don't have to say anything is tremendous because you know that he's going to think this out and play it and so it's a big lucky break as it were, because in some ways one always was worried about you know, who might tackle this.

Sebastian Dangerfield will find new life today and a new audience after fifty years, what's it like to have your work as an author continue to find new audience?

JPD Yes, and indeed I've been a playwright and you know my plays would turn up in various places and be performed and I guess this would be the first film, actual film..a full length feature film to come out of one of my pieces of work. One of the problems has always been the fact that controlling my work and owning the rights and so on I've always been in a position to say "no" to something. So in the Hollywood tradition usually is most authors find their work is taken over and a lot of them regret that happening. In effect where I've come across it the author who is in the process of selling a film right have always advised to stick with his property and even tho must insist upon writing the screenplay himself and where this has happened the films have always to turned out to be fantastically good and so here is a case where it's almost ideal where you have this player whose one of the most brilliant actors of all time probably and it's just a lucky break for me and if things go wrong as things can..well then that's that, but on the other hand you are in sort of a position to have confidence in what you are doing. The lucky thing with someone like Mr. Depp is the fact that his power that he has just as a player allows you to actually go and make the picture as say the way that the director wants to make it and Mr. Depp wants to play it. They've got this freedom, that's the thing because of his box office power.

Photo © 2005 Maike Schulz

 Isn't it wonderful that it will stay true to your work?

JPD Yes that is the biggest and best characteristic you can come up with, because you just know that these people who are making the thing, the actors and players are the people I've always had great faith in actors and people and in fact always am there to listen to anything they want to say and have always admired the way they can take words where they can turn something into a living thing.

 I comment that it's magical, the way two people, the actor and the writer, come together to make a character come to life on stage or screen.. 

JPD Yes and a actor does that and it's tremendous how the time they spend and devote ..it makes you realize that this is one of the great art forms, being an actor.

 When I was reading the last chapter of TGM it brought back memories to me of a childrens story that my Mom used to read to me and that was The Gingerbread Man...and the last bit of the story goes "run run as fast as you can, you can't catch me, I'm the Gingerbread man" and it seemed to me that that was what Sebastian had done..run! Run from one situation into another. Was that something that you alluded to or was it just a coincidence?

JPD No curiously enough somewhere the very words that you've just recited..somewhere and it would have been some strange little strange kind of over tone and I'm sure that must has crossed my mind because when I named the book TGM we were looking for a title ...it was originally called just "SD" ..the initials and the publisher, which was Maurice Girodius of the Olympia Press wanted another title because he really wanted to go out and sell it as a pornographic book or any title that could be more of less cover that kind of quality that he thought his readers or his buyers required. And so I just simply suggested the title be The Ginger Man.

In TGM, other than death, sex is a really strong theme..Sebastian gets plenty and poor O'Keefe can't get any at all from anyone. Surface was prudish yet under neath...

JPD I'm dealing with my archive at the moment so someone has actually gone through manuscripts and things and we have his letters and it's based on a actual character...... his letters actually were laid out sort of showing this archival matter along with the fact of people know what The Ginger Man is all about. And there are these letters actually practically laying our Kenneth O'Keefe's life....from the actual man himself.. so it was very kind of , I suppose factually reported..his life. He didn't marry, is retired and still lives in Ireland.  

 I read that in the writing of the script for TGM that you are including Brendan Behan.  

JPD Yes this is quite true because he's not.. he ...just makes an appearance in the book in the catacombs as Barney Berry, and when Shane McGowan got interested in this role in part, I realized that one had to actually write! So TGM will be one of the few films where a character is expanded upon in the film, where he doesn't exist in the book. If Shane McGowan is anything like you know he can play a brilliant Brendan Behan, so we are looking forward to seeing..they are pals together I think - Mr. McGowan and Mr. Depp. One of my books which isn't a novel, it's called "The History of the Ginger Man", in it there's a great deal about Brendan Behan, some of his conversation and behavior and everything else. So I have a book already that can be used as some base for him drawing his character. Things he would say and how he behaved so he was quite a character.
Photo © 2005 Maike Schulz

 Sebastian and the guys were all running amuck in the city, in the catacombs ..that was run by a gay man and we wondered what the view towards gay people was at the time?

JPD In Ireland, curiously, a very repressed country, so repressed that if you were gay in Ireland in those days it just simply didn't matter. It was quite the opposite thing...you know they were just strange people and were accepted as just strange (different) Curiously Ireland as permissive in the sense that gay people became quite a society in Dublin, because a lot of..um..during the war Ireland was the only place left in Europe which had food after the war (no rationing) so people could come to it (Ireland) and enjoy life. Dublin actually became a sort of homosexual meeting ground. People would come from long distances and visit in Dublin...it had two or three pubs which were gay pubs and things. (Because there was no rationing after the war) Dublin had everything then.

 In TGM you sent O'Keefe off to Paris and that city was also a part of "The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B." Was Paris "the" place to be then - just like it was in the 1920s?

JPD Yes a lot of people gravitated to Paris after the war and it had the sort of quality about it. 

 Did you and your friends go there?

JPD Yes I would go there and spend time in Paris and one or two friends at Trinity, in fact the model for Balthazar is in fact a Frenchman as is described of course and he was a friend of mine at Trinity and I knew him very well, in fact I had to go, I was invited to Paris to attend this enormous dinner of 400 -500 people and I was up on the stage and my friend was .... on stage to introduce me and he said "that I just want you to know that Mr. Donleavy is an author who has written a book called "The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B" and I'd like everyone here to understand that my Nanny never did all those things to me that he said that she did.And there was a scene which you couldn't believe would ever happen that a character in a book....(and the inspiration ) was up on stage coming out with this surprising remark. I nearly fell through the floor.

We soon after concluded our discussion with promises to be kept and with his best wishes to us and his thanks for our interest in his book.I visited with Mr. Donleavy for close to two hours and the time sped past with much laughter, many stories and a shared love of the written word and respect for a man named Mr. Johnny Depp. I am profoundly grateful to Mr. Donleavy and his business partner Bob Mitchell for his constant support and encouragement in making this interview become a conversational dream come true. I hope we will be blessed with more from Mr. Donleavy as time goes by.

2007 post script. I was invited to attend an exhibit of JPD's artwork in New York in May of 2007. I did attend and was also invited to the private dinner afterward. JPD is a fascinatingly brilliant wordsmith and artist. He was most gracious and very entertaining to be around. His business partners were very inclusive and a blast to party with! I am forever in their debt.  Thank you Bob Mitchell!

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