Q&A: Irish-American Writer Patrick O'Keeffe Finally Publishes His First Novel

Patrick O'Keeffe's first book, the award-winning collection of novellas, The Hill Road, hit bookstores in 2005. His second book, The Visitors, was just published by Viking on March 13. Not everyone spends as long on their first novel as O'Keeffe did, but sometimes the wait is worth it.

On its surface, The Visitors is the story of James Dwyer, who's done nothing but try to put his past behind him since leaving rural Ireland as a teenager. Yet the past catches up to him one night in Michigan, when a homeless man tells Dwyer that a man he grew up with is looking for him.

It sounds like the setting for a mystery, but The Visitors is so much more than its plot—this is a book you read because of the writing. It's funny and smart and clever and dense and emotional and full of all sorts of narrative maneuvers. As O'Keeffe hops back and forth between the present in Michigan and the distant past in rural Ireland and the slightly less distant past in Dublin, the reader is pulled forward, wanting to know what happens, while also having to stop and notice the technical mastery. It's quite the hat trick.

O'Keeffe currently teaches at the University of Ohio in Athens, but he's swinging through town partially thanks to his friends in the University of Tennessee English department, Chris Hebert and Margaret Lazarus Dean—all three got their MFAs at the University of Michigan around the same time. Even if you're worn out from Big Ears, you still should swing by.

Your first book, The Hill Road, came out nine years ago, and you haven't published anything since. Is it a relief to finally have your second book out, if only so people will stop asking you when it's coming out?
It is a relief! I'm always working, you know, always writing, but when you're writing a novel you can go in the wrong direction, which I did. I spent two years on another novel that didn't work out. … And when you're moving around for work, as I have, that affects your writing, too.

The Hill Road was awarded the Story Prize, then just in its second year, and also the Whiting Prize, which comes with a nice chunk of money, if I'm remembering correctly. Did garnering that kind of prestige on your first book affect the pressure you felt writing your second?
It did, actually. I think you can't help but be influenced by it. I wasn't prepared for that to happen at all—I was just happy to be publishing my first book. But it did actually put a big pressure on me—it raised the bar, as they say, for my next book. But maybe that was a good thing?

The Visitors takes place both in Ireland and the U.S. You are yourself Irish, but you've been living in the States since the 1980s. At this point, do you think of yourself as more of an American writer or an Irish writer?
I don't think of myself in those terms at all. I think people just want to put a label on you. My first book takes place entirely in Ireland, but I didn't just sit down to write a book about Ireland—it just happened. For this new book, I did want part of it to take place here, but it was actually really hard for me to write about the American stuff when I was seeing it every day and constantly wondering if I was getting it right. Writing about the Irish stuff is easier because I'm cut off from it.

Do you see your writing in a similar vein as that of writers Zadie Smith and Jhumpa Lahiri, whose work has been described as trying to portray the experience of immigrants from the former British Empire across the diaspora?
I really don't. I love their work, and I suppose my new book does deal with immigrant experience. But I'd never thought about that. I try not to label myself at all. In your own life, you don't think of labels, you know? I lived in Dublin before I came here, and I just had my character do the same thing.

But it's not based on your own experiences growing up?
Oh no, not at all! The only part that's at all the same is that I did live in those different places—I grew up in rural Ireland and then moved to Dublin and ended up in Michigan for grad school. But I was in Kentucky for several years for my undergraduate degree—I didn't put that in at all. Now that I think about it, you do have the character Una moving to London and Australia, so I guess the notion of the Irish diaspora was in there. But I left Ireland in my early 20s—a lot of people were leaving at that time, the economy was terrible—but that's also just the age when you're ready to move away from home, you know?

Your novel is told in first person, but at certain times, James, the narrator, switches into second person, almost as if he can't bear to recount certain things and has to distance himself. It's such an unusual thing to do—how did you decide on this approach?
It wasn't conscious at all. When I started getting into the voice, it just started to happen. And then when it happened, it just felt right. I hadn't thought about the distancing, but that's probably right—it's almost like he's talking to a former self.

It adds such a layer of complexity to your writing and the story, but it also makes it more challenging to read. I'm curious whether your editor tried to talk you out of it at all.
We did have some issues during the copy-editing of the book. But my editor loved it. It was just the copy editor who was confused. At one point during the revisions, I did start to change it, but I couldn't imagine it any other way.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.