Olaf Tyaransen – Writer & Journalist
Writer and Journalist Olaf Tyaransen is a contributing editor of Hot Press Magazine. He is also a filmmaker.
Tell us about yourself, your background?
I was born in Dublin in 1971, and spent the first two years of my life in Portugal. My father's family had a boat building business, and they had a boat yard in Malahide in Dublin - they had one in Portugal as well, on the Algarve. I was there until the age of 2; I remember nothing about that period. I often, in my own interviews, ask people what's their earliest memory, and my own is me, at the age of two-and-a-half or three, in our house in Howth, reaching out for a naked lightbulb on a lamp by the bed and my mother saying, 'Don't touch that!' So of course I touched it and burnt my hand quite badly. I realised later that that's been the story of my life - just ignoring really good advice, and getting badly burnt as a result.
So my early years were in Portugal, then in Dublin. I moved to Galway when I was about six or seven, but we went back to Dublin every weekend. In Galway, I was a Dub and a blow-in, and in Dublin I was a culchie because I was from Galway. And my name was Olaf Tyaransen, so I didn't really fit in anywhere. I've always felt as an outsider as a result, which is no bad thing I think. I went to school in Enda's Primary and then Enda's Secondary. I actually won a scholarship into the school, a book scholarship. So I was a bright young kid, I think, and did a very good Inter Cert as it was at the time.
Was it that you were studious or just smart?
Too smart for my own good, I was often told. I was big into books; always was. School was fine until I was 15 or 16 and then women and drink got involved - I was a lovesick teenager. I was lucky in the sense that I always knew I'd be a writer of some kind or other. Then I got kicked out of school, and wasn't getting on so well at home either. It was me and my three sisters, my fourth sister came when I was 21, so I left school and home at 18. I knew I didn't want to go to university; I didn't want to follow anyone's path but my own and I wanted to be free. I figured; once I'm out of school, I can do what I want. A guy called Ambrose Judge had a paper called the Galway Ents Guide that I wrote for. I was editor of The Word, which was Kevin Healy's thing. I was also doing film reviews for the Galway Advertiser when Jeff O'Connell was there.
Then I got a job in the Warwick, which at the time was the hub of all Galway social life. While I was there, all these bands were coming in. I remember Nick Cave was there, the Tom Tom Club, Gavin Friday, all these different acts. And because I was working there as a glass collector, I was there when they arrived, I was there when they sound-checked, I was there for the gig, and I was there for the afterparty. I realised that Hot Press magazine didn't have a western correspondent, so I began reviewing the gigs and, eventually, interviewing the bands. I remember I would handwrite the reviews, get my dad's secretary to type them up and then fax them in. Hot Press began using them almost immediately. Twenty-five-years later, I'm still writing for them.
But I was quite lost at the time; I didn't have any set path. I was working in a nightclub, I was drinking my head off, I was taking drugs, and I didn't have any cosy path to follow. All the students were also drinking and taking drugs, but at least at the end of three or four years, they would have a piece of paper. Well, I had lots of blank sheets of paper that I needed to fill. I started writing serious poetry at 18, 19, 20, and I published some in The Salmon poetry journal, and then [publisher] Jessie Lendennie asked me if I had more material, and if I'd like to do a book. I said I had loads; I lied, but I put it together quite quickly and the book, The Consequences of Slaughtering Butterflies, came out in 1992. So I got a bit of attention from that and things progressed.
Then I moved to Dublin. I was doing a lot of drugs at the time - ecstasy, acid, cannabis, coke if it was around, speed - unashamedly doing it and I was writing about it. This was the '90s when ecstasy was a big buzz word that was in the headlines all the time. I was one of the few journalists who was writing about it from a point of view that wasn't 'Ban this filth and this evil poison!' I had a much more balanced and a much more honest and open view of; 'I'm taking these drugs and guess what? They're not so bad and they shouldn't be illegal', and that got me onto a lot of radio and TV and university debates. It culminated in 1997 with me running in the general election for cannabis legalisation. There were various factors that led to that happening, but one was John O'Donoghue, the then Minister for Justice. I was arguing with him on a Kerry radio station and telling him that everything he knew was wrong and everything about his policies was wrong, and he more or less said, in a very exasperated way, 'If you're so fucking smart, why don't you try to do my job?' So I said, 'Grand'. Now, I knew I wasn't going to get elected, but it was a good way of putting my point of view across. I didn't do it to court controversy, I did it because it was the right thing to do. Somebody has to say those things.
What happened after the cannabis campaign was I was meant to do an anthology, like a Best of Olaf type thing. I'd been doing all these different stories; I was at spanking clubs in London, I was on the set of a porn movie in Budapest. I was doing all those kinds of stories and Hot Press asked me to put a collection together. So I began to write an introduction, a lot of memories came up, and I ended up accidentally writing my autobiography, The Story of O, which came out when I was 29. Needless to say, a lot of people said, 'Who the fuck do you think you are publishing your autobiography at 29?', and, 'Who are you anyway?' type thing. Actually, I remember one headline in one of the papers was 'The story of Who?' I didn't let that bother me. And the book sold very well. What's interesting at the moment is that there are a lot of young people reading it, I think that book should really have been aimed at teenagers, and so they're now possibly going to republish it for the young adult market.
Looking back, is there anything you'd change about your drug-taking, partying days?
Well, see, you can call it partying, but I was working. It always saved me from going completely overboard. A lot of people I knew are dead, mainly from car crashes believe it or not, but the car crashes were the result of the state of mind they were in. And a few overdoses and a few suicides, all that tragic stuff. But I know a lot of people. Also, if you work somewhere like the Warwick, you know all of Galway because you're the glass collector guy - so I'd know an awful lot of people. But I have loads of regrets; I regret not having breakfast yesterday morning. But no, I wouldn't necessarily change anything. My mother said to me, 'How would you feel if your kids started behaving the way you behaved?' Of course, I wouldn't like that at all, but I would like if they were to take drugs that they'd take safe drugs. I'd like them to be educated about what they are taking. I think of all the pills we were necking in the 90s, we didn't know what the hell was in them.
You're a writer, a journalist, a poet, and now you're making short films - which of those do you identify with most?
I write whatever I feel like writing on any particular day. I'm quite an efficient writer; I am now, I wasn't always. I feel like a bit of a fraud calling myself a poet now, because I'm not writing that much poetry, but I do feel that it will come again. So I haven't totally written poetry off, but I was meant to do a second collection with Salmon and then I pulled it. At that point, I was in Dublin and hanging out with a lot of cynical, jaded hacks who just scoffed at the notion of poetry. Also, I hated the poetry scene. It was like the academic scene - that joke, 'Why are academic disputes so bitter? It's because the stakes are so small'. It felt that way with poetry as well. And maybe I shouldn't have, but I just sort of stopped.
You're regarded as a fearless writer...
I just have no shame - or no filter, perhaps. I'm a very open person - if you ask me how I am, I tell you. Otherwise, why would you ask?
Has that gotten you into trouble before?
Oh, lots of times, but I've always felt OK about it because for all the people that might snigger and walk away, you get some very genuine connections, and the genuine connections make it worthwhile. I think that's why I'm a good interviewer; I tell people about myself and therefore they open up to me. I often get a phone call a day later from someone I've interviewed saying, 'Please don't print that story that I told you'. We all have our personalities, I suppose, and there are times that I've overshared or given people ammunition against me when I shouldn't have; I should have kept my mouth shut, but you can't help who are or how you are. I remember my ex saying, 'You don't realise you've just offended everybody in that room with what you've just said', and I'd go, 'You don't realise that I intended to offend everybody in the room with what I just said'. Maybe that's not such a good thing, and nothing to be proud of, but you have to keep yourself amused. I couldn't give a fuck about other people's opinions of me, apart from my children. If they think I'm ok, and they do, then that's alright.
If you didn't have to write, would you still write?
Yeah, I mean for me it's a vocation. I feel that something is wrong if I'm not working on something. It's a compulsion. I don't do it every day, although this morning, I did bang out a book review before I came to meet you. In the last few days, I've interviewed Donal Ryan, the guy who wrote The Spinning Heart, I interviewed Maeve Higgins yesterday in Dublin, I'm interviewing Daniel Anderson, the musician, next week. I'm interviewing Colin Farrell and Colum McCann, and a couple of days after that, I'm interviewing Kevin Barry, so there's a lot of reading to do as well. Colin's new film, The Lobster, I've already seen, so if I'm not busy writing, I'm busy doing stuff that will lead to writing.
"I used to think that artists or writers occupied this very rarified space or were somehow special, but everyone is special, everyone has their own hopes, dreams, problems, concerns - whatever else."
What else are you working on at the moment?
I'm working on a feature film and that's been going on for quite a while now. I'm working with a Dublin production company called Screenworks, the same people who made my short film, Don't You Know Who I Am? Everything I do, I sort of just throw out into the universe. I used to keep everything, and now I don't. You just put it out there - you don't know who's going to read it, how it's going to come back to you in whatever way, but I've stopped sort of self-anthologising and stopped keeping every last little thing. I just go, 'It's out there, it's gone'. It also helps that on the internet, most of the stuff is there anyway now, it's been archived online.
So you're loving what you're doing?
Not necessarily. I was talking to Maeve Higgins about this yesterday. I don't love writing - I love having written. It's when I've finished the piece. I very rarely go, 'That's absolutely perfect', so I'm constantly frustrated with what I'm doing. I could deliver a piece to a newspaper or a magazine and then I'll look at it when it's published and realise I've repeated the same word within three paragraphs and I'll say, 'How did I not see that at the time?' Ideally, you should write a piece, stick it in a drawer for a week and then come back to it with totally fresh eyes, but it rarely works that way. I can write a lot very, very quickly to order; I can write five or six or seven thousand words overnight if I have to.
You've obviously gotten very confident in your voice as well...as opposed to when you start writing first - you're writing, you're constructing, you're reconstructing. Is it a case that your writing is just like speaking for you now?
It depends on what I'm writing. I think I'm like anybody else - there are days when I'm super confident and there are days when I think, 'Fucking hell, I'm fooling everybody here; I'm fooling myself', do you know what I mean? And the truth is always somewhere in the middle anyway. I always felt that had Twitter been around when I started off, I don't know if I would have had the confidence to keep going. I used to get these mad letters in Hot Press, obviously from people of my age, saying; 'Who the fuck do you think you are?' All that sort of thing - but you're nobody in Ireland unless somebody's had a go at you, you're nobody in Ireland unless you've had a really poisonous review.
I'm a human being and I'm as vulnerable as anyone else. I've been hurt many times by things that have been said or written, but I've always come through it. That whole Japanese proverb thing of 'get knocked down seven times, get up eight' - that's how I proceed. But I am now a lot more confident in my abilities than I was then.
How would you describe yourself?
Confused! As a friend of mine once said of me, 'You're a nice bunch of guys… with a few obnoxious dickheads in there as well'. I would describe myself as kind, and as loyal, fair-minded, open-minded, supportive. Not that I've never given a bad review to anyone, but I've never written anything out of malice. I might be given an album or book to review and, if I just don't like it, my response has normally been to go, 'I just won't bother with it'. I would see my job more as encouraging - this is what's good, this is what you should check out - not, this is complete shit. Unless it's a mega-selling author or a superstar band who can take the hurt. I used to manage a rock band, you see, so I know what goes into making an album. And I would not be quick to dismiss other people's hopes and aspirations and dreams and to burst their bubble. Basically, I'm not a bubble-burster.
So what drives you?
This is just the stuff of life. We all have jobs, and this is my job. I used to think that artists or writers occupied this very rarified space or were somehow special, but everyone is special, everyone has their own hopes, dreams, problems, concerns - whatever else. Something else I would say is I don't see myself as being above or below anybody. I genuinely try to treat everybody the same. Hopefully, you'd like to make some kind of mark on the thinking of your time before you die. I actually feel I've already done that to a certain degree - at least with the drug thing. People might say, 'That's not a very admirable mark to have left', but I actually think it is; I helped to change the way people thought about something. The cannabis legalisation campaign in 1997, it sparked a lot of conversation. People would hear me on the radio, or see me on the television, or read one of my articles saying something that people didn't normally hear. It would start conversation. I don't know what impact things I've written have had on different people. People often tell me they've read something of mine that made an impression on them - for good or for bad, and I guess that's what I do.
What about people that you've interviewed - what was the most fun experience?
I've always loved interviewing U2. I've been the researcher on two books about them, and I've been interviewing them for 20 years. I said to you earlier that I'm not really a 'fan' of people, but I'm a fan of theirs. Growing up in the grimness of Ireland in the early 1980s - there were no cool Irish people - maybe Samuel Beckett, but I was too young to know about him then. U2 were an inspiration for me and they weren't listening to the Irish begrudgers. They were going, 'Fuck you! Fuck off! We're out there, we're doing it, and we're doing it our way!' So I've always admired their attitude and spirit, and so it was great to meet them. Every time I interview Bono, he cares about what he says in an interview; he really thinks about it. I last interviewed him in Vancouver earlier this year, but in October of last year, I interviewed him on the U2 private jet, which was good fun. I actually interviewed all the band but, when we landed in Cologne, Bono and I stayed on the plane for an hour on the runway, to the point where everyone else just gave up on us and went to the hotel. They were all waiting outside and then the band said, 'Fuck this; he's not going to stop talking'. Bono likes to talk, and he likes to talk to me too, which is good. So we spoke and it was a highly pressurised situation for me, because I had to write a major U2 cover story – about 9,000 words - in about 24 hours. But I remember he was talking about something to do with Irish politics. I was sort of tuned out at that point because I was thinking I wasn't going to use it and I needed to get him onto the next bit, but he couldn't remember the name of a certain politician and he was going; 'You know him, he has a brother'. And I was going, 'They all have fucking brothers!' He sort of left that, but two days later, I got a text message from him and the text message just said; 'It was Richard Bruton'. Because it was bothering him that he couldn't remember Bruton's name; he's always been like that. He'll also give you something that's going to make headlines because he'll hold onto a piece of information and go, 'This is for you'. In that particular interview, it was the fact that U2 had been doing some work with the IDA. So I love Bono, he's a great guy. And actually, I do understand the stick he gets, but I will say that he really doesn't deserve it.
Do you ever get star-struck?
No. I did when I was younger, but the stars I was being struck by probably weren't very starry. My very, very first interview was with Pat Ingoldsby - the poet. Pat had been on the television, and I'd watched him as a child, so I was quite nervous meeting him, but he was lovely.
It helps, if someone's nice…
If someone's being nasty to me, I'll give it back. I demand to be accepted on the same level, I won't be talked down to. I won't allow that to happen, but I probably would have when I was younger. You get older and you go, 'Look, so what if you've got €50million and I've got 50 quid, I hope, I haven't checked my Banking 365 yet' - it doesn't make any difference.
Equally, one of the frustrating things about what I do is I meet so many really talented people, it could depress you after a while. But what I've realised is, as a writer, it's about yourself - 'What do I have in me that I want to put out there?' It doesn't matter what everybody else is saying, or how eloquent they are, or how talented they are, how imaginative they are - it's really about saying; 'What do I have to offer?' So I can now happily admire the talent and the genius of other people, and just reach for that in myself. So what drives me, I guess, is I'm reaching for whatever spark of genius is in me, and I believe there's a spark of genius in everybody.
What do you think out of all the successful people that you've met - what has been the main characteristic that has enabled them to bring that to the fore. Is it luck?
Sometimes it's luck, sometimes it's slick management, but in the really talented ones, there's almost always something missing - there's an absence and there's a hurt, there's a void. I was speaking about Bono - he lost his mother when he was a kid. Look at him now; he's crying his eyes out to her on stage every night singing Iris. I'm like a little puppy dog sometimes, in the sense that I'll say; 'Look what I did', like I'm bringing a bone home to a woman. In one sense, I couldn't give a fuck about what people say about me, but in another sense, I have that very basic human need to be admired. But I can take it if people don't. It almost makes me just try harder, but I'm past the point of prostrating myself in front of somebody...unless she's really fucking special.
Galway's a great place, with great people, what's it missing that could make it really special?
An airport. Look, Galway really punches above its weight; we have nothing to complain about. Things could always be better. It would be great to have that arthouse cinema finished, it would be great to have a bigger venue, and a bigger this and a bigger that, but what Galway has is a vibe. It's a vibe that it's acceptable to be an artist or to work in the arts; it's not like this strange thing. I've spent time in every big city in this country and Galway by far and away is the most pleasant place to live. And OK, with all of this austerity bullshit, there have been more cuts in funding, and we always need more money, but we have some state-of-the-art facilities and we're making even more state-of-the-art facilities. We're not doing badly. We have great venues, there's great live music almost every night of the week. Maybe if I was into opera, I'd be calling for an opera house, but opera's not really my bag. But really, I think we just need a proper airport, because it can bring people to us much faster. And also because the closure of the airport really fucked me up because I go to London quite a lot and now I've got to do that three-hour Go Bus journey to the airport. So I actually think, yeah, we need an airport. Then we can really start to fly.