Jamie O'Connell: Diving for Pearls

In Jamie O’Connell’s gripping, oppressive debut Diving for Pearls, the death of a wealthy young woman in Dubai exposes the gaping disparities between wealth and poverty, and the darkness at the heart of this glittering city. Diving for Pearls was published in June, 2021.

Welcome, Jamie! Many congratulations on your newly-published debut novel! What inspired you to write Diving for Pearls and why did you choose to set it in Dubai?

There were two main inspirations for the novel. My first trip to Dubai in 2010 was a revelation. The plane crossed the Persian Gulf, looped around over the golden sands of the United Arab Emirates, before turning towards this futuristic city of skyscrapers. I was mesmerised by how alien it was compared to my north Cork world of green fields and bungalows.

My second inspiration was the crisis in Ireland at that time. Many of my recently-graduated friends emigrated due to the financial crash, seeking employment in places like Dubai. I considered moving, but I felt the tension between Dubai’s incredible opportunities and the unease of engaging with a country that had many glaring social inequalities. I also felt the pain of Irish families forced to split yet again as another generation left, a sad return to the ‘bad old days’ of mass emigration.
By successfully weaving together multiple narrative voices in Diving for Pearls, you very effectively maintain the suspense and pace of the drama – how did you plan and develop these threads, and do you think of yourself as a disciplined writer?

Before writing Diving for Pearls, the focus of my writing was on the short story. Looking back, I can see I took that skill set and applied it in the novel. Like most short stories, Diving for Pearls follows the key protagonists over a short window of time (the whole novel takes place over a week). This brought its own challenges and opportunities.

When developing a plot, be it in the novel or short stories, I start with character. I try to uncover their authentic voice, not unlike an actor. As I figure out what sort of person they are – their fears, their worldview, their preferences – I focus on my character’s primary ‘Achilles heel’, the thing that would make them come undone if it happened. Once that becomes clear, I have my compelling story. My job is to put them through that exact experience.

In terms of juggling interweaving storylines, I think the best thing was to give my mind time to figure out the details. I can try to ‘push’ forward narrative with my conscious mind, which never feels right. Instead, if I come up against a plot point, I find it better to ask my mind to solve it, then give it a day or two to figure it out. It all happens in the subconscious. Usually, in a moment of boredom, like queuing in a supermarket, the answer becomes apparent, and I scramble with my phone to write it down and email it to myself.
Your characters are all well-crafted and authentic, from taxi-driver Tahir and Ethiopian maid Gete, to expats Siobhan and Martin, and on to the very wealthiest elite of Dubai. Which was your favourite character to write, and why?

Joan was the most fun to write. At times she made me laugh as I wrote her scenes. I always find it remarkable the way a character can do something to surprise me, even as the writer, or say something funnier that I would ever say myself.
How long did it take you to write Diving for Pearls, and has the final novel stayed true to your original concept?

The novel was written over four years, between 2012 and 2016. I was working full time while also finishing an MFA, and working on short stories, so it was a slow process. The structure was pretty much as-is from the start. As you can imagine, with it being an intricate interweaving of seven characters, there was not much room to move chapters or scenes around. Three significant changes happened after 2016:

- I switched the opening chapters around, from Joan to Aasim. This was primarily due to my concern that an Irish reader would have a preconceived idea of what an ‘Irish mammy’ is (think Brendan O’Carroll), and I was concerned it might give an inaccurate first impression of the book if someone were to browse it in a shop.

- The chapter where the Irish family witness the film star climbing on the Burj Khalifa. This chapter was initially told from Rocco’s point of view, as I liked the idea of having a point of view of a child who had never experienced a life outside of Dubai. However, an eighth voice was one too many. Also, Siobhan’s character needed further development, and that chapter gave me the space to round out her story.

- I wrote a longer Epilogue. As my background was the short story, I had left the Diving for Pearls open-ended. However, this is where novel writing and short-story writing differ. As my editor said, my readers had been with these characters for over 300 pages. They needed some closure. The book still is somewhat open-ended, but I am glad I took my editor’s advice and gave the reader some closure.
My original concept was to create a ‘portrait of a city’, not unlike the portrait Colm McCann created of New York in the 1970s in Let the Great World Spin. I feel that concept is as I originally intended.

How did your experience of working in the publishing industry help you navigate your own journey to publication?

Working in the publishing industry has been hugely helpful for the neurotic catastrophising part of my brain, which took every rejection personally. For a long time, the journey of submitting was one of extreme highs and lows.

What were the best – and worst! – pieces of advice you were given as you embarked on writing your first novel?

The best piece of advice I ever received was from Alistair MacLeod, who once said in a workshop, “reality is boring, don’t write about it”. Fiction merely mimics reality. For example, we think that dialogue and actual conversation are the same thing. However, one only has only to look at a court transcript to realise actual speech makes for terrible reading. This goes for all elements of writing. I encourage the students on my online creative writing course to consider the art of filmmaking, how even the most ‘realistic’ movie is a work of artifice. The more they can see they are creating a new world with each story, rather than recreating reality, the writing tends to improve massively.

The worst piece of advice is “write about what you know”. It is so vague it can mean literally anything.

Which novelists inspired you to write, and what debut novels have you particularly enjoyed?

Writers James Ryan, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, and Paul Perry – my lecturers when I studied creative writing in University College Dublin. I was in my mid-20s and full of undisciplined enthusiasm. They helped me understand the ‘craft’ that underpins great prose. Their guidance has influenced every word I have written since.

Some of my favourite debuts have included The Secret History by Donna Tartt, As You Were by Elaine Feeney, and The Story of Before by Susan Stairs.

Your short stories have been highly commended and published – which genre do you enjoy writing the most, and what do you have planned for your next project?

I enjoyed writing Diving for Pearls and am keen to continue writing longer fiction for now. For the last two years, I have been working on a new novel. It is quite different to Diving for Pearls; I wanted to try a classic narrative, told from one person’s perspective over five decades. Coming from short stories, it is a new type of challenge which I am relishing.

And finally, what advice would you give to anyone thinking of entering the Caledonia Novel Award 2022?

I have a simple hack to get rid of nearly all typos. Before submitting your first 20 pages to the Caledonia Novel Award, read them backwards. Slowly (ideally out loud) read the last sentence, then move to the one before, and so on, right the way back. Why does this get rid of typos? You read the sentences as separate entities, devoid of narrative. It is getting sucked into the narrative of your story that blinds you to seeing silly mistakes (commas, omitted words).

When it comes to the final handful of submissions the judge is considering, the competition will be fierce. Likely any one of those stories could be a potential winner, and they will be looking for what separates the talent. You do not want to lose out on a prize over something so minor as typos.
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