By Benjamin Preston
Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
What do you get when you cross Irish and Assyrian descent with a multinational upbringing? To hear novelist Joseph O’Neill tell it, the result — his own, as a matter of fact — is someone who can create characters that will live anywhere, but are never quite at home. O’Neill’s childhood haunts included Turkey, Iran and the Netherlands, and he now lives in New York, so his own life seems like the main source of energy for the characters who populate his stories.
O’Neill, the latest in the Eat, Drink and be Literary series at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), spoke there Wednesday night about his latest novel, “The Dog.” Reading a few passages, he related a main character who was eager to be a good person, but faced a moral dilemma vis-à-vis his privileged life.
In other words, he thinks the thoughts of a person reared to lack concern for the subordinate others in his life, but tries continually to pull himself out of that mindset. The product is a person readers may find at once irritating and hopeful, and one audience member said as much.
The story, with its first-person voice and read in O’Neill’s own posh upper-class British accent, comes across as a believable struggle within someone who is relatively new to the caring game.
“The book doesn’t have much empathy because this guy doesn’t have much empathy,” O’Neill said of his character, who jumps from a “luxury rental” in Manhattan to a top-tier prestige hotel in Dubai as the story progresses. “He’s a very sensitive soul — he’s a lawyer.”
His comment about the sensitive lawyer was, of course, tinged with sarcasm, prompting laughter from the audience. O’Neill put his dry English humor on display throughout the event, and it was usually followed by a soft chorus of mostly feminine giggling.
O’Neill said there was some autobiographical impulse to the story. He himself served as a lawyer in England for 10 years, and said he had enjoyed the decorum of the legal setting (although he admitted feeling silly wearing the wig and gown required of barristers in English courts of law) and the regularity of office life.
“If I didn’t go to the office, someone would phone immediately to ask where I was,” he recalled. “If I decide not to write, nobody will phone to see what is the matter.”
But his character’s traits are not completely his own, he said. In writing out the life of his creation, he said he learned new things about him every day, and often had, “Do you know what he’s done now?!” moments after a day of writing.
O’Neill said in researching life in Dubai for “The Dog,” he learned a lot about a culture that was mostly centered around work. Most of the people who live there, he noted, were transplants, and not citizens of the country — he estimated that only about 10 percent of the Dubai’s population were citizens.
“I wouldn’t be at all surprised that if we were to start all over again here, we would go with the Dubai model,” he said.
When asked were his next novel would be set, O’Neill thought for a moment, and replied that it would be Africa. He doesn’t know anything about it and would like to learn, he said.
His advice to young writers? “Write about New York; don’t write about Dubai.”