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‘My job is to imagine. I am a novelist’

Booker long-listed author Joseph O’ Neill on ‘The Dog’, the reasons for setting it in Dubai and why he feels he is ‘doubly eligible’ for the literary prize

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Joseph O’ Neill is the author of a new novel set in Dubai, which has been long-listed for the prestigious Man Booker Prize. The Dog tells the story of an attorney who moves from New York to Dubai to work for a rich Lebanese family. Looking for a fresh start after breaking up with his long-time girlfriend, he discovers life in a foreign land brings new challenges.

This is the second time the New York-based author has been nominated for the literary award. His previous novel, Netherland, was published in 2008 and was also long-listed for the Booker Prize.

The book centred on a Dutchman living in New York who enjoys playing cricket in a country where it is a minority sport popular among immigrants from South Asia and the West Indies. Netherland was awarded the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 2009.

O’Neill is of half-Irish and half-Turkish ancestry. He was born in Cork, Ireland, and grew up in Mozambique, South Africa, Iran, Turkey and the Netherlands. He has a law degree from Cambridge University and worked as a barrister in London before moving to New York. He teaches writing and literature at Bard College. O’Neill has published four novels, in addition to a memoir he has previously written about his family called Blood-Dark Track.

Excerpts from his conversation with Weekend Review.

Where does the title of your new book come from?

Well, that is a question which is answered by the book, not by me. What I can say is there isn’t a real dog. There are no really significant canines in this book.

The main character in your novel is someone who leaves New York to work for a rich Lebanese family in Dubai. What inspired you to write a novel based in the UAE?

I first got the idea in 2006. Everyone was talking about Dubai at the time. I’m referring to my English friends. Not so much those in the United States. In the United States, people are barely conscious of the fact that there is an outside world. In England and in Europe, they’re much more international.

So I just kept hearing about Dubai and what I was hearing, from friends who are architects, designers, and lawyers, was that they were all working in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, or wanted to work there. I became interested. In 2006, Dubai especially had this kind of magic Shangri-La kind of brand, and Brand Dubai was very powerful. And so I thought it would be very interesting. I didn’t go to Dubai until after I had decided to write about it.

When did you go to Dubai the first time?

In January 2009 just as the financial downturn was happening.

What kind of research did you conduct while writing this novel?

I went to Dubai twice. That was enough time for what I needed. And then there is the internet, which has revolutionised research. I set the story in a specific time period, and so I got the information from the people I met in Dubai, and I got some ideas from the usual, most reliable source — the imagination.

You can geographically visit Dubai on the internet. On Google Maps you can get the street map, look at buildings, it’s quite amazing. So that was how I did most of my research.

Could your story have been told in a different city? Could it have been told in New Delhi or in Beijing, or is it something that is specific to Dubai?

That is a good question. At the centre of the novel there is a human story. The human story is not limited by geography or culture. It is a human being trying to make sense of his life. And that is something which everyone does.

And it is also a story about capitalism and the problem of living in a globalised world, the ethical problems, the philosophical problems, these are all issues which can also arise in any globalised city. And of course Dubai is an especially dramatic city, a fun city, from many viewpoints.

It is city which is carrying out a programmatic, and of course problematic, experiment in building a city out of sand. And the drama of Dubai is part of its brand.

People in Dubai are well aware that what they are trying to do is a special experiment in constructing at record speed a city that is without precedent. That is the idea anyway.

I want to get more of a picture of your own visits to Dubai. You said you went twice. When you visited the first time, was it how you had imagined it listening to your architect and designer friends?

It was my first time in the Gulf. That’s my first point: I had never been to the Gulf before. Now I am a little bit familiar with Arab culture for this very strange reason: I am Irish, my father is Irish, I was born in Ireland; but my mother is Turkish, and belongs to an Arab minority in Turkey, from Syria. They are a Christian minority from Aleppo in Syria and Tripoli in Lebanon — places like that. So they are Turkish, but culturally their background is Arab. And they spoke Arabic.

I often heard Arabic being spoken in my family as a child. So all these words — Mashallah, Inshallah — I knew from my own family.

That said, I arrived in Dubai as a westerner, and experienced it as an extremely separated, or stratified, society. There are the Emiratis, there are the western expats, there are the South Asian expats, and everyone is separate from everyone else. And the society is kind of dictated by the economic situation. The people I met were western expats mainly. My book is situated in that world. And I said to them, can I meet some Emiratis? They didn’t know many, even people who had been there for many years.

My job wasn’t to become an expert. My job was to imagine what it would be like for someone who lived there. I am not an anthropologist. I am a novelist.

Your previous novel, Netherland, published in 2008, took you seven years to write. How long did your latest book take?

Well, the same time. I spent four years thinking about it, reading things, making notes. And then I wrote it for two or three years. It just takes a long time.

In Netherland the narrator was a Dutch banker living in New York. An important theme in the book is his interest in cricket — a sport not very popular in the United States. Did your book generate any interest in cricket among your American readers?

It did actually, yeah, but only a shallow interest. But it certainly did. People were interested in it for a while. Of course if you are writing about Dubai I thought about mentioning cricket because a lot of cricket is played in Dubai. But I decided not to. I have had enough cricket for me for a while.

But you play cricket?

Yeah I do.

But you are a minority there.

Yeah. Cricket here is a game played by immigrants. I have played New York cricket which is played mainly by West Indians from Jamaica, Trinidad, but now increasingly lots of players from Pakistan. Because immigration patterns change. It all depends on who is coming to New York — a city full of immigrants. So when the West Indians arrived, they played cricket, and now it is India, Pakistan, Bangladesh. Most of the players are from those countries.

Your most high-profile reader Barack Obama praised Netherland as “fascinating” and “excellent”. Were you surprised when you discovered he was reading your book?

I was very surprised. I thought he would be too busy to read my book or anyone else’s book. To be honest I appreciated it but it wasn’t a big deal for me.

Did his comments have a noticeable impact on book sales?

Yes, a good impact. (Laughs)

Perhaps anyone you would like to read the book?

I would like the Pope to read The Dog.

I think he would like it, like the president he is a very busy man. He also has to relax sometimes. You never know, he might relax with my book.

The Dog has been long-listed for the Booker Prize even before release. This is the second time you have been nominated for this prize. What significance does winning or being nominated for prizes hold for you as a writer?

Well I can’t say how significant it would be to win the prize because I have never won it. I imagine it would be great. It is very nice to be on the long-list and I am glad the judges liked it. It is certainly encouraging when such things happen.

What are your impressions of the other nominations on this year’s Booker list? Are you familiar with any of them?

Not necessarily the books, but there are some amazing writers there. And they all deserve to win the Booker.

The Booker Prize has been opened to writers from beyond Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth. There has been some controversy about this. You yourself are from Ireland. Is there a danger it could become dominated or monopolised by American writers?

Ten years ago I became a US national, so I also have US nationality.

So you are a dual national.

I know, I should get extra marks for being doubly eligible.

Where did you normally work while writing?

When I am in New York, I work in cafés. I rent a place in Canada and I go there for two weeks and I write in isolation.

Syed Hamad Ali is a writer based in London.