An intervew with JP Donleavy

Fifty years after its publication The Ginger Man is being made into a film. Brian Lavery talks to reclusive author JP Donleavy as he approaches 80, anything but gingerly


A crumbling mansion, centuries old, sits amid rolling fields on the outskirts of this market town. It looks uninhabited, its windows blank behind heavy wooden shutters. But inside, a sprightly old man lives alone, tending overgrown gardens, playing the piano and occasionally casting an eye over the cows that roam his wild estate's 72 hectares.
By his own admission, he ventures through the rusting gates at the edge of the property only once or twice a month. After more than 30 years here, he has never met his neighbours and does not want to.
But sometimes even the most tenacious recluse succumbs to the temptations of the outside world. JP Donleavy, who sky-rocketed to international fame half a century ago with The Ginger Man, his debut novel, remains a cult figure in the country that has provided the setting for much of his work, and one that clings fondly to its literary celebrities – especially the notorious ones.
Now, two months before his 80th birthday, Donleavy is back in the limelight. After several abortive efforts, a promising attempt is under way to make a film version of The Ginger Man, starring Johnny Depp and directed by Laurence Dunmore, who recently worked with Depp on The Libertine. Donleavy is in negotiations to sell his papers – described as one of the most comprehensive archives in contemporary letters – to a university. And the New York-born author, who trained as a painter before he began writing, just unveiled a 60-year retrospective of his artwork at a Dublin gallery.
“This is a kind of rough period,” he said with a smile, surveying the grounds around Levington House during an interview. “I'm always trying to hide. I don't go out in the world, I'm never seen.”
Until recently, he said, he had “lost my ability of dealing with people at all”.
Despite his claims to be an ascetic outsider, Donleavy enthusiastically welcomes visitors and relishes the chance to regale them with stories about his past. He carries himself with a youthful energy and says he is “embarrassed” about becoming an octogenarian because people will expect him to shuffle along with a hunched back. Instead, he jumps out of his armchair to demonstrate that he can kick his legs into a near-vertical split and throw lightning-quick punches (seven in one second, he said).
“I was organically raised from childhood,” he said. “I was never allowed to eat white bread or drink Coca Cola and have always stayed in shape, because I trained as a boxer.”
That animated joie de vivre attracted a crowd of young admirers, including local rock stars and society personalities, who surrounded him at the opening of his exhibition at The Molesworth Gallery. Only some watercolors and sketches were priced at less than €1,000. Newspapers fawned over the exhibition; the Irish Independent said it was full of “talented irreverence, sparkling caricature”.
But the film, if it gets made, is most likely to catapult Donleavy back into the public eye. Passers-by stop him in Dublin to say hello, thanks to recent magazine photographs of him and Depp taken in New York last year, at a party to mark the 50th anniversary of The Ginger Man.
“Showbusiness is old hat to me – you could even call me a star maker,” he said, listing some of the actresses who had starred in his plays. He expressed high hopes about the cinematic potential of his most famous work. “No one who has ever been to Hollywood, has ever lived there, had anything to do with Hollywood, hasn't thought of making The Ginger Man,” he said.
The novel, which details the drunken exploits of a rowdy young American studying at Dublin's Trinity College after World War II, certainly has a loyal following. The Ginger Man was reprinted in its first Irish-only edition last year, and has sold more than 45 million copies in two dozen languages.
Its enduring appeal has ensured that Donleavy never quite slid into obscurity. While most readers would be hard-pressed to name many of his 23 other books (among them The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B), only three have ever been out of print.
The author also aims to keep his fame alive by selling his letters, which were recently inventoried by his archivist, Bill Dunn, a former newspaper reporter and fan of Donleavy's who asked to take on the job. The collection, which is currently housed in dozens of filing boxes across the floor of Donleavy's study in Mullingar, encompasses all aspects of his career, including lengthy court proceedings and correspondence with figures like Robert Redford and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
“We put a value on it some time ago, of $7 million or $8 million, which one thought was pretty modest,” Donleavy said. He cited the manuscript for Jack Kerouac's On the Road, which sold for $2.43 million in 2001, as a precedent.
“What's particularly interesting is that Donleavy kept everything intact,” said Robert K O'Neill of the Burns Library at Boston College, which expressed an interest in the papers but baulked at the price. “You seldom come across a collection that is as complete as his.”
Donleavy keeps adding to it. He is currently “desperately trying to complete” one of several short fables about a quirky happening in New York – in this case, a dog jumping out of a 17th-floor window.
“There are tiny little incidents that happen in New York, that take five seconds to happen,” he said. “I'll take that incident and make it into a real story.”
JP Donleavy's The Ginger Man published by Grove Press, €10
© The New York Times