Books tend to form slowly for me. Usually there’s a novel or two in various states of progress, and particularly early on, and then again between drafts, I’ll bounce between them and short stories. I’ve learned that everything needs time to properly reveal itself.
My mother is responsible for first putting thoughts of Matthias Sindelar, football’s great superstar of the interwar period, into my head. My Christmas present from her, when I was fifteen and football-obsessed, was a history of the World Cup, and that’s how I first learned of the Paper Man, a forerunner of Puskas, Pele, Cruyff and Maradona, and a vociferous anti-Nazi, whose hotly fancied Austrian Wunderteam lost a horrendous 1934 semi-final to hosts Italy and blatantly corrupt refereeing. Within five years he was dead.
In 2014 I visited Vienna, and the book began to take shape. A student offered to show me the city, and when I mentioned Sindelar she tracked down information on the places I needed to see. By the following year I knew how I wanted Sindelar to be on the page, but I also understood that he could be only half the story. For the novel to work I needed to connect that world with mine. And because I’d recently seen the photograph of the little Syrian boy dead on a beach I got to thinking about refugees and what Sindelar’s closest Jewish friends might have risked in desperation. And a door opened. Jewtown, a small dockside corner of Cork city, was the solution. Though it’s long since lost its Jewish population, the history is deeply etched. I’ve also known lots of people from there, and still have relations who call it home.
The writing came slowly, as it needs to. Time was the gift it gave itself, space to absorb what life was being lived around it. During that time there’d been adventures in love and travel, lots of football watched and books read, and my mother’s struggle with cancer and subsequent death. I sat and wrote, set it aside to write other things, and returned to it again and again. And in that way, in its own unhurried fashion, the story of The Paper Man came together.
You can now pre-order The Paper Man by Billy O’ Callaghan.