Stepping Stones Interviews with Seamus Heaney

Dennis O'Driscoll

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Trade Paperback

560 Pages


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Widely regarded as the finest poet of his generation, Seamus Heaney is the subject of numerous critical studies, but no book-length portrait has appeared before now. Through his own lively and eloquent reminiscences, Stepping Stones retraces the poet’s steps from his first exploratory testing of the ground as an infant to what he called his “moon-walk” to the podium to receive the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature. It also fascinatingly charts his post-Nobel life and is supplemented with a number of photographs, many from the Heaney family album and published here for the first time. In response to firm but subtle questioning from Dennis O’Driscoll, Heaney sheds a personal light on his work (poems, essays, translations, plays) and on the artistic and ethical challenges he faced during the dark years of the Ulster Troubles. Combining the spontaneity of animated conversation with the considered qualities of the best autobiographical writing, Stepping Stones provides an original, diverting, and absorbing store of reflections and recollections. Scholars and general readers alike are brought closer to the work, life, and creative development of a charismatic and lavishly gifted poet whose latest collection, District and Circle, was awarded the T. S. Eliot Prize in 2007.


Praise for Stepping Stones

"Stepping Stones—a conversation-style response to questions submitted over the years by Dennis O'Driscoll—is an outspoken oral work of art."—Karl Miller, The Times Literary Supplement

"[An] important book-length interview, designed to serve in lieu of a memoir . . . Dennis O'Driscoll [is] an excellent poet and critic, and a deeply informed and probing interviewer of his longtime friend."—Adam Kirsch, The New Republic

"These interviews by Dennis O’Driscoll, an old friend, were carried out over many years mainly by post and must, for the time being, serve as biography and autobiography. The book is both an account of the poet’s life, which began in 1939 at Mossbawn Farm in County Derry, and an examination of his verse. Perhaps most of all it is a foray into the workings of a poet’s mind, a 'journey into the wideness of language,' as he said in a speech accepting the Nobel prize. Poetry crept up on Mr. Heaney in 1962, and never let go."—The Economist

"This really is a remarkable book. There isn't a dull, vapid or useless sentence in it; it's about what it is to be human, as much as it is about what it is to be a poet."—Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian (UK)

"These 'linked interviews,' as O'Driscoll calls them, set out to trace, book by book, the contours of Heaney's writing life and the events and memories that inform it.  To a great degree, they succeed."—Sean O'Hagan, The Observer (London)

"[Stepping Stones] is a Heaney word horde that will not be surpassed for some time . . . [It] will be seized on by students of the work as well as the common reader . . . [Heaney] is intensely present within these pages—still surprising, still defying 'the merciless landscapes' with generosity, courage and joy."—Bel Mooney, The Times (London)

"Stepping Stones succeeds on many levels, and O'Driscoll's intelligent probing to go beyond Seamus Heaney the public figure to the inner man, to be essential inner poet, is masterful."—Katherine Bailey, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

Stepping Stones: Interviews With Seamus Heaney, poet Dennis O’Driscoll’s extraordinary book, takes its title from the place in Heaney’s Nobel lecture where he observes that both his writing and his life can be seen as 'a journey where each point of arrival . . . turned out to be a stepping-stone rather than a destination,' and the emphasis on continuing process informs it from beginning to end. The book’s form is that of extended interviews, conducted (largely in writing) over a period of years, in which the interviewer, O’Driscoll, defines his role as that of prompter rather than interrogator. Its purpose—in the continuing absence of any substantial biography—is to present interviews, freed from space limitations, that might come to comprise 'a comprehensive portrait of the man and his times'—and, of course, of the work itself. (Heaney’s only stipulation was that he would not speak in analytic detail of any of the poems, though he does cite particular aspects of many, and to dazzling effect.)  O’Driscoll calls the book 'a survey of [Heaney’s] life, often using the poems as reference points,' thus providing 'a biographical context for the poems and a poetry-based account of the life.' For this reason he is right to find the result 'very much a book for readers of [Heaney’s] oeuvre.' But it is much, much more. Many-leveled, it is a book that rearranges itself according to the angle of the reader’s questioning, and while it will surely send many readers to the poems themselves, whether for the first or the dozenth time, it has, as great autobiography must have, stand-alone value as well. Some of this value is documentary, whether detailing the nuances of Irish cultural politics during the Troubles of the late ’60s, or trenchantly evoking the writers and writings that assumed a place in Heaney’s development. Richly deployed, this is the stuff of cultural history, and it is inevitably central to Heaney’s probing account of his formation as man and poet. What I want to stress here, however, is that the book is more than simply an account of experience; it is itself an agency of experience. You come away from it—at least you can: I did—moved, enlarged and deepened. Stepping Stones consists of three sections, the first evoking in magical detail the poet’s childhood on the family farm (Mossbawn) in County Derry—'a small, ordinary, nose-to-the-grindstoney place'—and his subsequent schooling in Belfast. The long central section organizes the intertwinings of life and work through the successive collections of the poems; and the third—the briefest—brings the account up to date, describing the poet’s stroke in 2006, his recovery, and his view of the world on the eve of his 70th birthday . . . This is not only a radically original book; in its own quiet way it is also a great one."—Donald Fanger, Truthdig

"Popular contemporary Irish poet O'Driscoll began work on this book of interviews with Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney in September 2001. Interestingly, aside from some transcriptions in Chapters 13 and 15, these interviews were conducted in writing and through the mail. This format allowed Heaney to pick which questions to answer and to rearrange their order as he chose, and O'Driscoll sees his role as 'prompter rather than interrogator,' giving Heaney a good deal of influence on the final book. The result is not a comprehensive biography (nor is it meant to be) but rather 'a survey of his life, using the poems as reference points.' Though Heaney has been interviewed by many others, this collection's unique method of creation makes it a worthy addition to literature collections."—Felicity D. Walsh, Library Journal

"There is no shortage of writing by or about Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet Heaney. Yet this big book is a unique and useful addition to the Heaney canon: beginning in 2001, the Dublin-based poet, essayist and anthologist O'Driscoll entered into an extended correspondence with Heaney for the purpose of collaboratively constructing a kind of autobiography-in-interviews. The result is a collection of 16 discreet interviews, the first two of which discuss Heaney's childhood and poetic growth. Then there is one interview-chapter for each of Heaney's celebrated books (except the last two, which are grouped together), followed by a summing up. In conversation, Heaney comes across as extremely friendly, expansively intelligent and in possession of the groundedness in the details of his environment that readers of his poems will be familiar with. Here are boyhood recollections ('Our travelling grocery van . . . was run first by a man called McCarney, but 'the egg man' was our name for him'), memories of the famous Belfast Group and accounts of coming-of-age, and then coming to international prominence, against the backdrop of Ireland's troubled 20th-century politics. And, of course, Heaney traces the events—both political and personal—that led to many of his poems. For fans of Heaney, of 20th-century Irish literature or anyone eager to get deep into the mind of a major artist, this is an essential book."—Publishers Weekly

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Dennis O'Driscoll’s previous publications include New and Selected Poems and Reality Check. He is the author of a collection of essays and reviews, Troubled Thoughts, Majestic Dreams, and works as a civil servant in Dublin.
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  • Dennis O'Driscoll

  • Dennis O'Driscoll’s previous publications include New and Selected Poems and Reality Check. He is the author of a collection of essays and reviews, Troubled Thoughts, Majestic Dreams, and works as a civil servant in Dublin.