Wild Mountain Thyme: The Last Summer with John O’BrienBy Joshua Bohnsack
July 07, 2021
I started the drive at 5AM from my Chicago apartment to Funks Grove, an unincorporated woodland area twenty minutes south of Bloomington-Normal. I was supposed to start working the previous day, but the publisher of Dalkey Archive Press had been in the hospital for treatment of a heart attack over the weekend. Off I-55, the narrow road twisted through corn fields and forest preserve. I pulled into the driveway and heard multiple dogs barking while I gathered my bags. The door opened as I approached and, in his Irish staccato speech, John O’Brien told the golden labs, “Quiet down, guys, it’s just my new friend.”
The house smelled of cigarettes, which was no surprise after my three-hour Zoom interview the week before, during which John chain-smoked as we discussed the difficulties of modern publishing. The week I arrived, John gave up smoking after fifty years of doing so, because his cardiologist bet him that he couldn’t quit, and he was determined to prove him wrong.
I was admittedly nervous due to the notoriety of the Dalkey Archive Press, as well as the infamous “worst job posting ever” articles that appeared when I initially researched job openings at Dalkey. The 2012 posting for an unpaid internship demanded applicants “do not have any other commitments (personal or professional) that will interfere with their work at the Press (family obligations, writing, involvement with other organizations, degrees to be finished, holidays to be taken, weddings to attend in Rio, etc.).” John was the one to bring up the posting in my interview, stating “I’ve been called an asshole many times before, but never as much in a twenty-four-hour period. Some people don’t get my humor.” While my position was for a modest salary, commensurate with experience, I convinced myself it would be worth the opportunity, and if not, I would try to learn more about publishing.
The seven Labradors circled me while John made coffee. Though I was eager to pet the dogs, I didn’t want to get their hair on my black dress shirt and ruin my first impression with the man I would be working one-on-one with for the foreseeable future. We sat down at the dining room table covered in unopened mail as well as issues of Conjunctions and NOON. John took a moment to ask me about my experience at TriQuarterly and the small presses I had previously worked for, before drilling me about Dalkey authors. “I can’t believe you don’t know Nicholas Mosely. Great writer. Hitler was at his father’s wedding.” Later, he handed me a stack of Mosley’s books and instructed me to read at least halfway through all of them by the following week.
John was raised in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago, in what he called, “an Irish ghetto.” His only desires growing up were to play baseball and read. When he was ten years old, John initiated a meeting with Warren Giles, president of the National League to discuss the future of baseball. Looking back, he remembered how serious he was about the matter, and the skepticism Giles must have had when a grade school kid asked for his plans to move more franchises to the Midwest.
After a few ambitious years in academia, John edited Interviews with Black Writers, published by Liveright in 1973. He found the best way to contribute to the literary landscape at the time was to do what he did best, which was to talk about writing. When he turned the hardcover book in as his masters thesis, the review board scolded him for not following their formatting guidelines. “What did they want me to do? I could tear the pages out and put it in a folder if that’s what they wanted.”
To share his passion for experimental writing with fellow readers, John started the Review of Contemporary Fiction in 1981. “I called it that so people would know exactly what it is,” he told me. When he noticed books he loved were going out of print, he started Dalkey Archive Press as a way to make titles from Gilbert Sorrentino, Flann O’Brien, and Viktor Shklovsky available again. Soon the hobby took on a life of its own.
After our coffee, John taught me how to feed the dogs in minutious detail. They ran around as I carried their bowls of kibble. John pointed out each dog, telling me their literary names and personality traits. The puppies were fed first, in their crates in separate bedrooms, then the two patient dogs ate in the laundry room, followed by the alpha, the energetic one, and the rescued puppy-mill breeding dog. He watched me carefully, waiting for me to misstep or mishandle his directions. He later told me he was observing me to see what kind of employee I would be.
There is no doubt John was a difficult person to work for. Talk to any graduate student from University of Illinois or the nearby Illinois State University who had a fellowship with Dalkey and they can attest that he demanded a lot, and offered very little praise in return. The turnover rate was high, and John knew it. He often said, “You can’t teach passion,” meaning John expected full dedication to the press. It came naturally to him, and he assumed everyone should be grateful for the opportunity to work with Dalkey. Determined to get his way, John would chastise employees until he got the quality of work he thought the books deserved. “If you give an editor a hard time,” he said, “they’ll find a way to fix their mistakes.”
The first time I saw the Dalkey office, it felt like a lucid dream. John turned on the light to the basement and instructed me to follow him. The stairs led to the largest personal library I could imagine. Rows of bookshelves lined the entire parameter, and each was filled with experimental writing sorted by the author’s country, issued in every condition from rare artist books to broken-spine pulp editions. The bottom row of the shelves held Dalkey books used for fulfilling in-house orders. “We can get more of our books if it floods again. Most of these books on the shelves are irreplaceable.”
John showed me around the office through the rows of books: a room for scanning books for reprinted editions, a room for packing and mailing out copies, his office filled with every book Dalkey had published in glass enclosed shelves, and a boardroom with a large wooden table covered in press releases and instructions for grad school fellows visiting from nearby colleges. Throughout the rooms, stacks of books, shipping supplies, and assorted notes were left as if people disappeared mid-task. John asked me if I liked the table, and said, “Great meetings can’t happen around a coffee table.”
John pointed to a copy of Douglas Glover’s The Erotics of Restraint and said, “That should get a write up in the Review.” When I just nodded he said, “If I say something like that, you pick it up and ask me for a deadline. I’m not going to repeat myself.”
The initial renovation for the office in John’s house was provided by a grant from the Lannan Foundation, at the request of John’s friend, David Foster Wallace. “David was miraculous in the meeting. He was hitting all the right notes. I’m surprised he didn’t write about it in one of his books.”
John loved to show off his cooking skills. He used ingredients from his garden as often as he could. During my stays with him, he prepared meals like pizza from scratch, filet mignon, salmon, pesto, grilled cheese, pancakes, Chicago-style hot dogs, and his sloppy joes, which he asked to turn away as he prepared the sauce, so I wouldn’t know his secret. He had the palate of a six-year-old until he met Gilbert Sorrentino’s wife, Victoria, in the 80s, who convinced him to eat mussels and became John’s food guide.
While he cooked, I washed dishes, asked him about publishing strategies, and kept the dogs from jumping on the counter. He accompanied his meals with a small can of Pepsi, pushing the boundaries of his diabetes. We ate in front of the TV switching between CNN or the Cubs, if their games weren’t postponed due to the Cardinals COVID violations.
We often went into Bloomington for doctor appointments, groceries, and to mail out books. John always wanted to drive, but was no longer supposed to drive, because of his medical tendency to fall asleep. I started grabbing the keys before he did and jumping in the driver’s seat. On our drives, we’d talk about gaining publicity for forthcoming titles and traditional Irish folk music. Throughout the summer, the only CD we listened to in his SUV was The Clancy Brothers. When track 8 came on, the song “Wild Mountain Thyme,” John made me listen to the lyrics. “I used to think this was just a nice love song, until one day it hit me,” he said. “This is a song about dying. We’re all going to do it.” Once the song was over, he played it again.
Murmurs of Dalkey’s disorder made their way to me well before I started working for the press. As a bookseller, I wondered why the titles from such a reputable press were being swept under the rug by distribution reps. On the other side of things, it became evident there were too many balls in the air. At his age, John couldn’t handle the number of books he wanted to publish per year, although I don’t know a single person who could.
Though John hired me as an editorial assistant, he wanted to use my bookselling background as a way to get me thinking about marketing the books. My job description constantly shapeshifted from editorial assistant, to marketing director, to person who happened to be there when John needed someone to yell at or clean up dog piss. His refrain was, “this is your bread and butter,” whether I was entering metadata or emailing customers about out-of-print books, assuring them we were reprinting soon, despite the likeliness of the reprints coming to fruition. Aside from me, the entire team was remote. The only other employees were Ish Ibrahim, a talented young literature enthusiast in Arizona, a woman in Dublin in charge of European donations, an editor and translator in Romania, a freelance designer in India, and Chad Post, the director of the prestigious Open Letter Books and the only person I heard John describe as “competent.”
John smoked cigars that first week I was with him and said, “It’s not technically a cigarette,” meaning he could go to his next doctor’s appointment and still be right. When I picked him up from the hospital after his follow-up appointment, the first thing he had me do was drive to the gas station so he could get a carton of Pall Malls. When the new books for Ishmael and Tennessee Reed were delayed, John conceded to push back their virtual reading with City Lights. He didn’t see why it was imperative to have the books available for the reading. “I’m trying to get a solution,” he said, “not win an argument.” I think he intended to do both.
In an age where Penguin Random House is preparing to absorb Simon & Schuster, potentially accounting for a third of all book sales, it comes down to independent presses like Dalkey Archive who are taking the financial risks. John estimated between editing, publicity, printing and distribution, publishing a new book cost the press tens of thousands of dollars. Larger presses can bank on the success of up-and-coming authors with successful indie press debuts.
Publishing is like any other industry attempting to commercialize art. Record labels, art galleries, theatre companies. In a sense, they’re all trying to sustain a culture of bringing art to people. I’m not unaware there’s a driving force of money behind all of these. It would be ideal for arts to be produced and appreciated without external patronage, but it’s an unrealistic ideal in our climate. “If you want the luxury of literary publishing,” John said, “you better find the money.” We had different ideas of what that meant. I would encourage shifting to a print-on-demand model for backlist titles, John insisted on haggling with printers. I wanted to update the website, and John was content with the functionality of the WordPress HTML based site. I maintained we needed to get the Podcast on major platforms so people could listen to it on their phones, John claimed the existence of the content was enough for Dalkey fans. I wanted to bring Dalkey into the future, but John wanted nothing to do with it if it wasn’t his idea.
We constantly argued about the merits of building and maintaining a literary community. The small press community I’d worked in was supportive, praising new books from shared authors, but John had friendly vendettas with his peers. Every time I mentioned another press, John scoffed. “I’m not interested in what some other press is doing, even if it’s New Directions.” John held onto feelings of love and contention for his literary peers. Presses like Coffee House Press, Grove, and Milkweed served as inspiration and healthy competition. He constantly complained about newer presses stealing his authors, and just giving the books artsy covers. If I brought up a British publisher that held UK rights to Dalkey titles, John instructed me to double check that their editions weren’t available in US bookstores.
He purchased the rights to works from Aldous Huxley, Djuna Barnes, and Gerte Jonke, because he believed they were “important” books. He never lost sight of the self-derived importance of his work. Norwegian author, Stig Sæterbakken left John a note days before taking his life, telling him “My legacy is in your hands,” which was a duty John believed in.
When I revised and counted the backlist, for John, the total books amounted to 762 titles. John’s vision for the press was to keep each one in print, in service to the author, as well as to his own ego. He was proud of having contributed to the literary landscape.
When I started reading through the piles of Dalkey books, I realized many of the works were direct influences on the writers I loved. Surely Christian TeBordo has read David Markson, Jac Jemc has read Ann Quin, Amelia Gray has read Patrik Ouředník. I never talked to John about my own writing, because of the implication he had repeated in stories about losing good editors when they became too focused on their own work. I’d been shopping for agents to represent my novel manuscript, and didn’t want him to have the impression that I was neglecting my ever-growing list of obligations to Dalkey.
One day, while preparing grilled cheese with basil and tomatoes from his garden, John told me Dalkey books were going to impact my own writing. “We’ll see how your style changes after reading all these books.”
It was a relief being able to discuss writing with John. After all, writing was one of his favorite subjects. I told him I had stayed in my parents’ unfinished cabin off a manmade pond where I fished and completed a revision of my novel. “That’s what I’m going to do,” he said, “hole up in a cabin and finally finish my own novel.”
I never got to read it but I’m sure his writing was beautifully verbose. John was a natural storyteller. Anyone who sat with him for longer than thirty seconds knew this, whether they could get a word in edgewise or not.
His dream was always that someday, once he handed the press over to a successor, he could shuffle into the Dalkey office and read and edit manuscripts in a back office. “You never get the time to edit in my position.” He took great pride in the books he personally edited. He recalled reading a piece from Svetlana Alexievich on a plane and knew he had to publish her work in English. Sales of Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl spiked after her Nobel prize win and the HBO series Chernobyl, and they essentially funded the press in subsequent years. John was assured that’s just how it happened, the same way Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman became a bestselling book on Amazon after appearing in an episode of Lost in 2005. “Anytime something bad happens with the press, something good happens,” he assured me. “Always adopt a view, put the pieces back into place and try to find something better. We’ll wind up on easy street. If we don’t, well, that’s a different story.”
At the end of our days, he’d show me different budget situations on different spreadsheets, including scenarios where we would publish either 40 or 20 clothbound editions per year, or maybe 14 new paperbacks, or 25 reprint titles, plus the backlist. He’d plug in different numbers and different estimates based on what we could solicit in donations and what we could sell in any given scenario.
I’d go to bed in the guest room and read what John referred to as “Dalkey’s defining books;” Things in the Night by Mati Unt, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things by Gilbert Sorrentino, and Impossible Object by Nicholas Mosley, plus whatever else I was interested in. There was no shortage of fascinating books in the basement. I picked up titles by authors like Hugh Fulham-McQuillan, Amanda Michalopoulou, and Jang Eun-jin, all writers who pushed the boundaries of perception and human connection. Meanwhile, John would stay up through the night, smoking cigarettes, composing emails, and coming up with new plans to innovate the press.
In the end, I couldn’t justify the time or the three-hour commute with the meager pay I never fully received. It wasn’t worth the battle to modernize the press and it wasn’t worth the constant belittling I received from John. I felt less like an employee and more like someone to keep John company. If I was as replaceable as he constantly threatened, then I assumed the fate of his press was no longer my problem. I crafted my resignation and he responded, “I won’t pretend that I am not disappointed. And surprised. But on with it,” and asked me to complete a few projects.
I don’t know what’s in store for Dalkey Archive Press. I believe it’s in good hands with Deep Vellum, a publisher I adore and John begrudgingly admired. There is an unfathomable task at hand of keeping Dalkey’s backlist in print and keeping John’s dream alive to publish boundary-defying books.
Others knew John better than I ever could, but in those months I became someone he could talk to about publishing, his favorite subject. While waiting outside the hospital for an appointment, I asked him about trim sizes and cost effectiveness. He stopped me mid-conversation and said, “I haven’t been able to talk to people about this kind of stuff in years. I’ve missed it.”
I didn’t always like him, nor he me, but I always respected John for his convictions and for what he built. After long days of meetings and packaging and arranging the day-to-day dealings of the press, John would say, “Let’s do something productive.” Then we’d go to his garden and pick tomatoes.
This was amazing.
You captured my dad quite well. Great writing.