Friday, September 26, 2008

Jack O'Connell

Tom Piccirilli is not only one of the leading noir writers of our time he also hosts one of the most interesting and entertaining websites, The Big Adios. I'm sure you'll like it. In addition to disussion topics, Tom conducts excellent interviews. Here's an especially notable one.

From The Big Adios:

Jack O'Connell is the author of four critically acclaimed novels (BOX NINE, WIRELESS, THE SKIN PALACE, WORD MADE FLESH) which have earned him something of a cult status. His work has been praised by James Ellroy, Neil Gaiman, Katherine Dunn and Jonathan Carroll, among others. Another fan, George Pelacanos (author of THE NIGHT GARDENER), wrote, "In [his] remarkable books, Jack O'Connell has riffed on language, fire-cleansed genre conventions, and stripped the artifice from the modern noir novel, creating a body of work both exciting and entirely original." The author lives with his wife and two children in Worcester, Massachusetts.

PIC: Jack! You're known for your unique novels, which often mix fantastic, surreal, or horrific elements in with your full-throttle noir sensibility. I know that after your last novel some nine years ago, WORD MADE FLESH, which is an immensely dark book, you wanted to take a break from that kind of bleakness. But seriously, is the story of a traumatized father searching to help his long-term comatose son at a strange clinic where the staff are all lunatics, an area motorcycle gang steals brain fluid, and a child's comic book features rape, murder, and lethal discrimination all that much lighter, bro?

JO: That whole "lightness" break didn't work out too well, did it? In fact, I did write a non-noir novel between WORD and RESURRECTIONIST -- a first-person, lyric road novel, of which I am still fond. But my advisers, who are much wiser than I am in such matters, recommended that I refrain from taking that story to market. Its composition, however, provided a much needed sabbatical from the horrors of Quinsigamond, my relentlessly noir city. By the time I finished the unpublished road book, I was ready to make the trip back into Q-town.

PIC: The novel alternates between Sweeney's story and issues of the comic book, Limbo, which follow the adventures of Chick the chickenboy, Bruno the strong man, and the rest of the Goldfaden Circus Freaks as they try to escape from the mad Dr. Fleiss and find a land where they are no longer persecuted. I know you wrote the Limbo storyline as a single piece you later cut up and inserted into the book at the appropriate places. Did you ever have doubts that you were straying too far from your original vision or did it always seem right to expand the Limbo story to such an extent?

JO: Oh, sure. As with so many writers I know, doubt is my primary impulse. I continue to have doubts about the dueling storylines. But at day's end, I find myself clinging to the lifelong notion that instinct is the storymaker's most valuable asset. I'm glad you asked this question, Pic, because it allows me to chew on some residual concerns that have been with me since the book debuted. I did about three weeks on the road after the novel hit the street and my biggest surprise was to hear that the majority of readers seemed to prefer the freaks' story to the "primary" Peck Clinic story. I did not see that coming. I figured that whatever small readership I'd built up in the previous novels would be looking for the familiar Quinsigamond landmarks and hardboiled (but recognizable) mayhem.

Occasionally, attendant to that preference, I heard of a reader's difficulty in imagining the freaks' story as a comic book - or, alternately, a reader's desire that the freaks' storyline had been presented as an actual comic book. (Something Jodi Picoult would go on to do in THE TENTH CIRCLE.) Which my agent and I did discuss briefly. But I never intended the Limbo sections to serve as, let us say, a novelization of the comic book. Rather, I intended them as glimpses into the over-arcing narrative of the totality of the freaks' story. At some stage, we decided that this might be too confusing. That we needed to situate the reader a bit, to spell out each narrative jump. And so, I nailed "Limbo Comics" titles to each Limbo section. In fact, the comic book is just one medium in which the freaks' story is conveyed.

I have a complex relationship to massive, world-creating narratives. I'm completely intrigued by this kind of ever-expanding franchising of story. But I'm also edgy as regards the outer frontiers of such stories - the places where it becomes a morphing, communal enterprise. Where the base-story is cloned and cloned again. Where it is spread out across mediums. Where strangers usurp the story's history and its future. Where fanatics know more about the overall integrity of the myth than does its creator. Because, you know, clearly, Quinsigamond is set-up to function as that kind of narrative universe. I gnaw weekly on the question of whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.

PIC: Although you use some aspects of the comic book and carnival mythos in the story, you really break from the romanticized notions and go off in your own direction right from the git-go. The story is very adult and even vicious, you chose to write the comic book in prose, and despite the freaks being from a carnival you don't focus in on the standard carny atmosphere. It was all incredibly daring for you. Was it a conscious decision or simply part of the organic process?

JO: I'm a research geek. I love wandering in libraries. I'm thrilled when one book leads to another, which, in turn, points the way to another and so on. I love experiencing those moments of faith, the sense that if you do the work, the exactly correct bit of information will be given to you. That if you spend the time, you will be rewarded at some point with the perfect images. I was delighted to find a useful array of reference material on circus freaks, traveling carnivals, sideshows. I bulked up on all of it. (This was one of those great instances in which I discovered that I had loaded in bits of my research arsenal years before the idea for the novel landed. I'm delighted when that happens - when you find physical evidence that the subconscious was preparing for your story long before your conscious mind acknowledged the idea.)

My longstanding method is to read broadly in the appropriate area and then just let all that material sink into the back of the brain. I tend not to plug the research directly into the narrative. Once I start writing, I simply try to hook into the voice and the rhythm of the story. There's a sense of "appropriateness," a feeling of interior "correctness," when the process is working, when the cylinders are all firing. And when that's happening, I find that things will just slide into the story as needed. That as you're working away, building a scene, the brain will just reach up into the attic and grab little bits of fodder from that pile of pre-composition research. I instinctively grab what feels right and slap it into place to shore up the story, or to create the milieu, or to build a little verisimilitude.

PIC: I've read the book twice now and I'm fairly certain there isn't a single truly sane character to be found within its story proper. You've got emotionally stunted and traumatized folks, psychopaths, sociopaths, mad medical doctors, nymphos, nutcases, and newts. Every cast member is highly complex who falls under the umbrella label of "loony." Do you agree?

JO: We could argue as to whether or not Nadia is sane. But I feel certain that Rene, the salamander, is utterly sane. He's a herald and a shaman. His kind arrived in Quinsigamond with the first colonists. They're in Q-town for a specific reason. The newts are agents in the dense schematic of the city's myth.

The fact is, Quinsigamond will make you crazy. Over time, something about the city itself will trigger what you, on the outside, would define as insanity. But remember that your definition of that word might not match up with the definition embraced by those of us within the city's borders. Someone sent me a comment from a tellingly angry blogger who was put out that, in the story, a six-year-old was reading a comic book that featured, as you note, rape, murder, hermaphrodites. Six year olds would never read such a thing, this reader fumed. Well, I'd rather you not attack the messenger, but I've been lodging in Quinsigamond for a quarter century now. Wandering, observing, scribbling in my notebook. I understand that it violates the mores of mom's basement, but I've seen six-year-olds reading exactly such things in my dark city.

PIC: What is it that drives you to such a unique take on speculative fiction? Don't you ever worry about what agents and editors might think?

JO: I worry all the time. And I try to respond to such worries. I swear that I'm not being weird for the sake of being weird. I genuinely value the reader and I think, at this stage, I have some sense of the marketplace. I'm not a masochist and I'm not being perverse. I'm also, pointedly, not an elitist. I have always hungered for input from informed, wise readers. You could ask my agent and my editor and my wife (my first reader) - I desire and value editorial dialogue. And 90 percent of the time, I acquiesce on all requests to make the stories more accessible, more reader-friendly, even more market-friendly.

When I sit down to begin a book, my outline tends to be very straightforward. Clear, concise, exciting, engaging. What I strive for, every time out of the gate, is to be professional. I know that you and I share a fondness for the paperback noir-ists of the last century - Thompson and Goodis and Brewer and Rabe and Marlowe. For me, one the things I love about those writers is their obvious understanding of their job and their ability to execute. I have an admiration for genre masters, for pros, for writers whose craftsmanship is impeccable. I think a lot about our uncles (or older, wiser big brothers) - Ed Gorman and Bill Pronzini. Stark and Gores and Crumley and Block. I read a Loren Estleman a while back and just marveled at the sheer craftsmanship - nothing wasted, everything balanced, the engine of story humming perfectly. I just want to genuflect in front of these guys. For me, there's often a moment as I'm reading one of their books when I experience a bittersweet rush - an almost physical reaction - that I think is a manifestation of this simple understanding: Jesus, this bastard knows what he's doing. That's the sweet part. The bitter part is the understanding that, whatever my modest talents, that kind of ease of solid, polished, tight overall control (let us say), is not among them. I suppose what I'm saying is that when I launch a story, my ambition is to build the sleekest, most efficient, most accessible mousetrap on the shelf. And almost inevitably, in the middle third of the book, my inherent weirdness overrides my control systems to some extent. And I end up chasing and pulling and chasing and pushing the story into the territories where time and space become a little unstable.

Let me say it: I'm a goddamn Martian. I have a warped sensibility. We could spend hours trying to uncover why that is. God knows, I've spent my adult life and about 10,000 notebook pages trying to do just that. But the fact is that the core of the stories that I'm compelled to spill onto the page gestate within and emerge out of that warped sensibility. Now, the folks who like my work appear to think this is a positive thing. That this warped perspective, this skewed vision, is what gives the books whatever power and meaning they possess. Some days, I agree.

PIC: I know your noir comes from a number of surprising places not usually associated with noir, including the music of Springsteen, 70s TV shows a la The Prisoner, and films as diverse as Soylent Green and A Boy and His Dog. What are some of your more acknowledged film noir or fiction favorites?

JO: I love the whole of the noir canon. But I actually came to neo-noir before classic noir. I've written about this before: when I was an adolescent, during my most impressionable years, early 1970s (a fine time, in my opinion, for a noir writer to come of age), there was what we now call a grindhouse cinema in the heart of my downtown. Friday, Saturday nights, my friends and I would hike down to The Paris and, for a buck, see a double feature. So, at 13, 14, 15 years old, I was gorging on Dirty Harry and Assault on Precinct 13 and The Getaway and Hustle and Vanishing Point and The Laughing Policeman. I remember being knocked out by Karel Reisz's The Gambler. All those great, gritty neo-noir pictures with their antiheroes moving through washed-out colors and barely visible night scenes. I just fell for it completely.

Now the thing was, when the movies got out, my pals and I would tramp the couple miles back to the neighborhood. This is early 1970s in a rust belt mill city. So for me, with my inflamed imagination, the streets we were walking looked more than a little like the locales we had just seen up on the screen. And I started thinking of my hometown as a setting for that kind of edgy, grimy, shadowy crime story.

Like a lot of my cohorts, I got my classic noir from the late show on the tube. My favorites change from month to month, but I guess the two films that had the most lasting impact on me might be The Asphalt Jungle and Night and the City. The look of those films, the sense of the city itself as a crucial character - that stayed with me.

As far as fiction goes, a few years after those ritual trips to The Paris, I read THE BIG SLEEP and THE MALTESE FALCON - both of which I love - but it wasn't until I was in my 20s and Barry Gifford launched Black Lizard that I glommed onto Thompson and Goodis. Black Lizard was my graduate school in noir. For me, Gifford was like some revivalist preacher who transfixed and then converted me against all odds. On the day I wandered into Gifford's tent, I was a cradle postmodernist. My trinity was Pynchon, DeLillo and Robert Stone (though, like many, I'd argue that DOG SOLDIERS is a neo-noir). I came out of the tent worshiping Willeford and Paul Cain and Dan Marlowe.

Interestingly, almost as much as any novel or film, there were three works of biography - of all things - that helped to shape my identity as a noir writer: Robert Polito's life of Jim Thompson, SAVAGE ART, completely captured me. I can't count the number of times I've read that book. Likewise, Jim Sallis' DIFFICULT LIVES, which contains haunting, beautifully written essays on Thompson, Goodis and Himes, is something I go back to yearly. And Bill Pronzini's essay on Gil Brewer actually launched me on several years of Brewer mania. (Big thank you to Charles Ardai and Greg Shephard for bringing GB back into print.) What was important about those bios was that they taught me how to have my cake and eat it, too. That the gutter is the best place to brew subversive art. That it's possible (as I think Ed Gorman said) to give the reader what you owe her and, simultaneously, to do your secret work deep inside that transaction.

PIC: Was it difficult wrapping the book up? The last few chapters combine the two storylines in an unexpected fashion that broaches slipstream. Was that always your intention?

JO: The ending seems to polarize readers. I've heard that it elevates and transforms the entire story. And I've heard that it explodes everything that preceded it. Here's what I can say about the book's conclusion: I cannot imagine any other ending. The conclusion is the very point of the book. And I am a guy who is always tempted, in a very real way, to rewrite every book I've written. Ideally, I would like to establish a recall department in my writing office: When you buy one of my books, you register at the point of purchase. Over the life of the book, as I discovered ways to fix defects and enhance the story, I would send out periodic notices to the customer asking him to ship back his original copy, which I would repair and upgrade and return free of charge. But I'll never be tempted to change the ending to THE RESURRECTIONIST. Because to do so would make it an entirely different story. To do so would change the meaning of the book. Would cancel the very reasons it was built.

PIC: What's next for you? Any chance we'll see some short fiction?

JO: I would love to write more short fiction. I'm regularly deluged with story ideas. Most of them only make it as far as the notebook mulling stage. Back in April, I spent a rainy day in Portland, Oregon, all alone in the wonderful Living Room Theater, across from Powells, watching the movie, Boarding Gate. I exited the theater and walked feverishly through the following week mapping out a longish short story whose muse looks suspiciously like Asia Argento. I'd give several pints of blood for the time to knock that one out. But I'm under contract with the fine folks at Algonquin for another novel, which I've promised to deliver in a timely fashion. So that has my full devotion right now.

[Jack O'Connell interviewed by Tom Piccirilli 9/20]


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