I have just learned of the passing of Michael O’Brien, founder and director of O’Brien Press, who was a cheerleader for White Feathers from the very start, ever since the Novel Fair in 2013. He was also married to my wonderful then-agent, Svetlana Pironko (you should have seen the back-and-forth on that publishing agreement :)) I’m shocked and a bit winded. Michael had an incontrovertible life-force to him and it’s hard to imagine that force extinguished.
From the very moment I first met Michael, at the Novel Fair (which is a sort of speed-dating service for writers and publishers, after the winners are chosen from a competition) I saw he was not like the other professionals in the room. Publishing tends to be a business where people try to hedge risk – perfectly understandable, because there’s plenty of risk to the business already – but Michael wasn’t concerned about that. He was inquisitive, I would almost say hungry, in a way that perhaps others were not. He was prepared to take a chance. I’m deeply grateful he took one on me that time.
Michael was blunt. He didn’t suffer fools gladly and I confess that I was sometimes half-terrified of him. But when he liked you or your work, he was a tiger fighting for you. I remember shortly after the Novel Fair he rang me at 8am while I was on the DART into work and said of White Feathers – “Someone’s going to publish that and I want it to be me.” The deal was signed in September that year, in Les Editeurs cafe in Paris where we dined and drank along with Svetlana and Jonathan. I can’t imagine a nicer and more appropriate place to sign the most important document of my artistic life.
He was resilient under institutional pressure, always innovating and discovering. When the O’Brien Press lost its Arts Council grant later on in the same year White Feathers was published, he wrote a letter to the paper and encouraged many authors and professionals to sign it. It did seem odd to suddenly remove it like that for no reason, but he fought back and O’Brien Press is now thriving.
But there was another side to Michael. At home with Svetlana, he would often spend time in his arts studio aka man-cave at the back, painting. The death notice lists him as “Publisher, activist, artist, sailor” and I think that sums him up. I’ve never in either of my professions ever met anyone quite like him and I doubt I will again.
Sail well into the sunset, Michael. I’m only sorry I couldn’t have achieved more for you and I’ll keep on with the work. My thoughts with Svetlana, his son Ivan, and all those who knew and loved him, in the days ahead.