On the Couch with Deirdre O’Connell

Deirdre-O'Connell-Harlem-NightsWho is Deirdre O’Connell?
Right now, I’m a gardener focused on weeds and the progress of the rosebuds. Last week, I was a history lecturer and teacher celebrating the end of semester. Later this week, I’ll be lodged behind a computer (or looking out the window) redrafting my next book.

What would you do differently from what you do now?
At school we went on a geography excursion to a CSIRO land management project, and I was completely drawn into the challenge of combating soil erosion. So, I often think where I’d be if I pursued a career in land or water management, instead of a media degree. For a time, I used to make documentaries for the United Nations environmental program.

Who inspires you and why?
I live in the Blue Mountains on Gundungarra and Darug land – the drama and majesty of the landscape is a continual source of inspiration. I’m also inspired by people who persevere with hope, despite more political defeats than victories. Rachel Perkins and Pat Anderson’s efforts to realise the Uluru Statement from the Heart come to mind.

What would you do to make a difference in the world?
Consume less, breathe more, and tackle the difficult questions.

Favourite holiday destination and why?
Between book deadlines, pandemics, and bushfires, I haven’t been on a holiday for over three years, let alone have a favourite place. At the risk of sounding like a homebody, the Blue Mountains is my favourite place, although whenever I visit Sydney, I inevitably end up clambering over the rock platforms of one of a selection of beaches.

When friends come to town, what attraction would you take them to, and why?
The Aboriginal Place on Kings Tableland at Wentworth Falls. There are two rock platforms with commanding views south into the Burragorang Valley, east across the Cumberland Plain and north across the Kurrajong Heights. Artefacts found in the rock shelter were 27,000 years old. That’s a big chunk of time to dwell on.

What are you currently reading?
All memoirs and biographies: Finton O’Toole’s We Don’t Know Ourselves; Robin Kelley’s Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original; and Elizabeth Kleinhenz’s Germaine.

What are you currently listening to?
Nothing new, according to my Spotify track listing: the soundtrack of Steve McQueen’s series Small Axe; Isaac Hayes’ Hot Buttered Soul; and an algorhythmic mash up of Al Green, Joni Mitchell, Beck, Rufus Thomas, Nina Simone and Bee Gees. (My appreciation for them renewed after watching the documentary, How Can You Mend A Broken Heart). In the world of spoken word, I’ve gravitated from podcasts to longform journalism, although never miss an episode of Ear Hustle.

Happiness is?
The simple things: being fully present in a loving or creative moment.

What does the future hold for you?
More history writing is the short answer. I’m in conversation with an US publisher about my next (almost complete) book on the life and times of Crickett Smith, an almost forgotten travelling Black musician and performer. Then I will start anew with the next biographical project, although right now, there are three possibilities: an Aboriginal lay minister and world traveller, a Sydney bohemian salon queen, and a 15th century Irish chalice.

Deirdre is the Author of Harlem Nights: The Secret History of Australia’s Jazz Age – which has recently been published by Melbourne University Press. For more information, visit: www.mup.com.au for details.

Image: Deirdre O’Connell – courtesy of Melbourne University Press