WITH A BEAUTIFULLY designed little book, novelist Scott O’Connor launched a distinguished career. Praised in the Los Angeles Times, the 2004 novella Among Wolves went from limited publication to national distribution. Disenfranchised Huddie Blaylock tells his story at a breakneck pace. Listen, on his eighth birthday, as his real parents are replaced by facsimiles!
In 2011, the novel Untouchable drew praise from, among others, Publishers Weekly and The New York Times Book Review. Powerful and tautly told, almost claustrophobic in its vision of people trapped in their lives, Untouchable is about the Darbys, a widowed father and his grieving son. Like so many people who hate their real names, The Kid is an easy target at school. To make things worse, he’s taken a vow of silence, hoping it will bring his mother back, and his dad. An outcast in his own way, David Darby works as a cleaner, erasing disgusting traces of people who died alone, discovered only after neighbors come, alerted by the reek of decay. In a starred review, Library Journal calls it, “Astonishing ... Introducing an amazing new talent to the world of fiction.”
O’Connor’s Half World (Simon & Schuster) commands a bigger screen, as Henry March a.k.a. Henry Gladwell moves from a somewhat compromised position at The Agency on the far side of the Potomac to a diabolical CIA operation in gritty downtown San Francisco. He has a wife, two children, and a new job he will learn to despise. The novel draws on documented CIA experiments in brainwashing techniques. In the mid-1950s, agents employed hookers, who lured unsuspecting victims into their padded chamber of horrors, complete with observation room. An unwilling collaborator, Henry watches as Jimmy Dorn terrorizes their subjects, demolishing them in ways that change both men forever.
With power and passion, O’Connor creates brainwashing sessions so scarifying that they drive Henry away from his family and out of the known world. Without a word of explanation or apology, he vanishes.
Some 20 years later, the Agency sends emotionally crippled agent Dickie Ashby west in search of Henry. Lines blur as pursuer and pursued cross paths, and roles shift as Dickie encounters members of Henry’s family — and Dorn, his ex-partner. Scott O’Connor’s Half World is a brilliant and terrifying story of trust and betrayal. O’Connor’s taut prose and his split-second timing are so sure that Henry and his family, Dorn, Ashby and the crazed victims of those experiments spring to life on the page. Half World is an adventure in which everybody is at risk. Not even the reader is safe.
For me, Untouchable sparked a conversation that led to our dialog as Scott interviewed me about two books of mine (Los Angeles Review of Books, August 21, 2013). The second of the Reed/O’Connor dialogues began in Glendale last August, continued in months of emails and online “chats.” It continues both on and offline today. — Kit Reed
Kit Reed: To begin at the beginning: Untouchable made me do something I’ve never done before: I mailed you out of the blue to tell you it took hold of me and wouldn’t let go. Untouchable brought me into the tent, Among Wolves kept me there — and the vibe, or whatever it is — the energy — is at its strongest in Half World. Things happen that the characters can’t understand and you don’t explain. When did you notice that the world wasn’t as, um, ordinary as other people think it is?
Scott O’Connor: I still think the concept of an “ordinary” world is tricky and subjective. There are very pragmatic people who are also religious, as so they see the world through a mystical lens that’s so widely shared that even nonreligious people tend to see it as “ordinary.” I think the world is a strange and mysterious and fascinating place that we only scratch the surface of.
KR: Explain “less mysterious than it really is” for me. What are the mysteries, really?
SO: I was raised Catholic, so I was brought up with the sense that there’s Something Else. My idea of what that Something Else might be has changed considerably since then, but I think most children who are brought up in a religion, whether deeply or casually, take something along those lines as a given, at least for a while. But my parents also taught me to be a skeptic, so it seems inevitable that something eventually had to give. I think that’s another thing the books keep coming back to — that tension between faith and doubt.
KR: About “ordinary”…
SO: I think I mean “ordinary” as in, what you see is what you get, and what you get is exactly what you see. Do other people see the world as ordinary? I don’t know. “Ordinary” is a pretty relative term. I think there are times when we’re anxious or fearful that we choose to see it as less complex, and less mysterious than it really is. And by that standard, when the limits are loosened or exceeded, it can be a tremendous shock.
I think that’s something I’m interested in with the books — characters who have different levels of control over themselves and their environment, and what happens to them when they lose that control.
KR: Poet friend Richard Wilbur said that every once in a while, something moves the curtain between the natural and the supernatural, just to let you know it’s out there — different, and bigger. This is something I’ve been messing with.
SO: Yes. I have a feeling we could consider this more-or-less one of driving forces in both of our work, so we could (and maybe should someday) go on forever.
KR: And I’m guessing that sooner or later, we will. But for now, I’ll try to begin at the beginning. What did you read compulsively when you were a kid?
SO: My father loved The Lord of the Rings. He was an air traffic controller and worked alternating shifts throughout my childhood. One week he worked days, the next he worked nights. So every other week we only saw him sort of coming and going. But he was always there. It never seemed strange. Any time he was away from work he was doing something with us.
Before I could read, he would tell me stories from the books. He had a workshop in our basement where he built and fixed things, and on his days off I would go downstairs with him and he’d tell me stories from the books while he worked. I was five or six, maybe, and his retellings left an indelible impression. The power of a great storyteller. It would be years before I’d even attempt to read the actual books. I was afraid they wouldn’t hold up to his version.
I got into comic books long before I read LOTR. I was about five when my dad let me pick out my first issue of Batman. I became an obsessive comic book reader. These would be DC and Marvel superhero titles. My parents were skeptical that they held any redeeming value, but they went along with it. They would even drive me down to a sketchier neighborhood in Syracuse every couple of weeks to visit the only comic shop. Then when I was about 12, the black-and-white indie explosion happened, and that was a huge eye-opener. The fact that suddenly there was this freedom to make comics about anything, and that many of the artists were printing and publishing their own work. That stuck with me, this sense that there were no boundaries.
KR: I was an only child, spent a lot of time alone. You?
SO: I have an older sister and we had sort of the classic suburban neighborhood: bunch of kids the same age, at the same bus stop, the same school. The area was still being developed as I grew up, more and more neighborhoods, which meant the schools got bigger, etc. It’s a pretty densely populated place now; we were all friends or enemies depending on the week. But it was a pretty active childhood. We played baseball or basketball whenever it wasn’t snowing. Sometimes even when it was.
That said, I had a pretty active interior life, for better or worse, which I’m sure translates in the books. Even when you’re part of a large group you can still feel apart, for various reasons. I certainly did, at times. I was a reader. I liked making up stories on my own.
KR: You’ve worked in movies and TV. Did these figure into your life as a kid?
SO: Movies came in about the same time as comics. My mom took me to see Star Wars when I was about five, and of course that changed everything. We didn’t have cable TV, but my dad is something of a technophile, so we were the first family in the neighborhood to get a VCR. The only video store in town carried just a handful of titles, so we’d rent the same things over and over. Mostly science fiction that my dad was thrilled to rediscover: the Planet of the Apes movies, Fantastic Voyage, Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings. Then all those ’80s kids-in-space movies like Explorers and The Last Starfighter. I can remember staying up to watch the ABC Movie of the Week when it was Superman or something and with commercials it would run like nine hours.
TV was part of it, too. I watched the same dubiously worthwhile shows as everybody else. But the serial nature of the storytelling was interesting, as it was in comics. The great “To Be Continued.” What’s so exciting to me about TV now is the use of time, which is far more novelistic. A show is no longer just an hour — it’s 12 hours, it’s a season. And a series like Mad Men or The Sopranos uses that time in a fairly loose way. There’s breathing room, there are digressions. Not everything ties up neatly; not everything is strictly in service to the plot. Which makes the plot payoffs, when they come, even more enjoyable. Or like what Todd Haynes and Jon Raymond did with their Mildred Pierce adaptation for HBO. It was five or six hours — just a perfect length to tell the story.
KR: Your use of detail and your sense of timing, as in this scene from Half World, are terrific.
The girl leaned across the bed, tapped her cigarette against the wall to pack the tobacco. She found a box of matches in her purse and lit the tip inhaling, blowing smoke in a long steady stream. It was part of some kind of show, Henry knew. She was establishing her character for him. A hard-edged woman of the world …
“What has he told you?” Henry passed her an ashtray, stood back by the dresser while she sat back on the bed.
She looked around the room, caught her reflection in the mirror, pushed her hair behind her ears. “That I’ll be bringing men here a couple times a week.”
“And then what?”
“Slipping them something, maybe. In their drink.”
“How long have you known him?”
“A couple of years.” She looked to the mirror again, then back at Henry.” There’s going to be someone else? Another girl?”
“How do you mean?”
“I mean that’s yet to be determined,” Henry said. “What did he tell you about me?”
“He didn’t tell me anything. Just your name: Mr. Gladwell.” She gave a smart-aleck smile, getting the name right.
Elizabeth leaned across the bed again, tapped the end of her cigarette into the ashtray. She looked back at Henry. “He said that you’re someone who likes to watch.”
KR: Some writers’ scenes just sit there; yours all play for the reader. Is this instinctive, or something you learned from experience?
SO: I think it’s partly instinct, and partly learned. There’s that innate sense when something just feels right, and then there’s what you pick up by paying attention to the pacing in novels or movies or music. What works and what doesn’t. Then you internalize those lessons and they become more instinctual.
KR: One of the big reasons your scenes play so well is cadencing: both in dialogue and in your characters’ thought patterns. Film, TV, stage training — or something you hear playing inside your head?
SO: I think cadence comes from all of those sources. We’ve got our own cadence, how we talk and think, that’s probably influenced by our parents and people who raise us. Then we absorb rhythms from film and music and TV. I’ve also had the good fortune to work with some great film and video editors, so that’s in there, too. I’m always looking for a rhythm that seems right, feels right, but can still be surprising.
KR: Novelist/historian Paul Horgan said, “Style is metabolic,” and I think he’s right. But you’re right about sources. Movies taught a lot of us how to segue, how to cut, what builds suspense. To riff off a conversation I’m having with Connie Willis, the extended series have a lot to tell us about how narrative is put together — it’s why I watch so much TV drama. Subconsciously figuring out who did what, and how they did it.
SO: Films and novels are very different. I think we forget that sometimes, and get ourselves into trouble. But in terms of process, filmmaking is very collaborative — it’s a shared vision. Writing novels is very solitary; it’s primarily an individual vision, though I’ve been very fortunate to work with great readers and a great agent and great editors. But I think that totality of a single imaginative leap is what appealed to me.
KR: When was the first time you wanted to make one of the things you liked so much? Was it a comic or a story? Which came first for you, the art or the words?
SO: When I was a kid I’d make these little comic books and magazines and force my parents to buy them. I put out a newspaper for a while, and roped in a couple of friends to act as reporters and go out into the neighborhood to find stories, most of which had to do with somebody getting a new driveway or having a garage sale or something. I was always interested in the physical act of making things. I think that really informed my decision to publish Among Wolves myself. I wanted to know how to make a book.
KR: Did you spend a lot of time alone? I’m extrapolating from all the reading, drawing, making comics.
SO: I’m not sure how much time alone other kids spend, so I couldn’t say if I spent an extraordinary amount, though I never had a problem being alone as a kid. The more I think about it, the more I realize how much time alone I probably spent. I think I was also a very sensitive, maybe overly-sensitive, kid, which can get you in trouble.
KR: But you were writing?
SO: I’m sure I wrote some stories as a kid, though, like I said, I was more interested in making the thing, so stapling the pages together was probably more fun for me than the actual writing. I vaguely remember some terrible story attempts in college. When I started writing seriously, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out the “secret” to writing a novel. I thought everyone else knew something I didn’t. It took writing one to figure out that this wasn’t the case. Every book is different, with its own joys and challenges and rules. It turns out that the secret is just sitting there every day and working.
KR: Did you ever take a “creative writing” class?
SO: I’ve only ever taken one writing class. It was an online short story workshop, in the fairly early days of the internet. I can’t remember too much about it, though I liked having deadlines.
KR: So you learned on the job.
SO: I had all sorts of ideas of what a novel might be before I’d actually written one. Writing one made me more realistic and more imaginative at the same time. Anything was still possible, but it involved real work.
KR: In all three books, you seem to inhabit your characters — see through their eyes, know what they know, whether you draw them in first or tight third person. Did you simply decide that to make things work, you had to be inside your characters’ heads, or were you born knowing?
SO: I worked as an actor both before and during the time I started writing, and getting inside of a character is a very natural part of that training. I think that’s always been how I approach it: go in, stay in. I studied acting in college, then in Chicago.
KR: How did you support yourself?
SO: I had had numerous jobs in Chicago. I worked at a company that made plumbing pipes, delivered messages for law firms, edited commercials for a bank, worked overnight for the city setting up summer festivals in Grant Park. I was focused on acting and writing, so my day jobs were many and varied. I was still studying acting in Los Angeles. This was mostly Meisner Technique, which is intensive character preparation before rehearsal, but then very focused moment-to-moment response when on stage. So you don’t do anything, don’t plan anything, until another actor does something. Then you move off of that. You can see where this would influence writing a scene, and how you’d have to take it one step at a time.
KR: A director-friend and I talked about this and, he brought up the Stanislavsky method… that actors have to become their characters to bring the play to life. I think we do the same thing. Were you onstage outside the classroom?
SO: I worked a lot on stage both in Chicago and in Los Angeles. Did some film and commercial work, as well. Did quite a bit of Sam Shepard, I just love that language, which I’m sure influenced me as a writer. The myth of the West.
KR: But you were writing too. What was the first piece of fiction you wrote that wasn’t scripted and illustrated as a comic?
SO: I started writing seriously in my early 20s. I was living in Chicago and making short films after work so I started writing short screenplays, then features. This was the late 1990s when there was a whole movement of DIY filmmaking and I was very attracted to that. But my scripts soon became unfilmable — too big and expensive, but by that point I’d fallen in love with writing and there was no going back, so I just kept on with it, writing these movies I would never make. Not long after I moved to Los Angeles I switched from writing screenplays to prose. Among Wolves was the first that I felt was ready to go.
KR: Why did you make the switch?
SO: I think the switch from screenplays was both an issue of control, because I realized I was writing all these things that would most likely never be made, and a desire to go further, to create an entire world in a book. I’m not sure how many false starts I had before Among Wolves. More than a few. What attracts me to novels and stories, as both a reader and a writer, is the singularity of vision, that essentially one person is telling the story. And then the very personal connection made between the reader and writer, each on opposite ends of the rope, trying to pull this thing off together, in a way. I don’t think I’d be comfortable trying to accomplish that with another writer.
KR: That word control. Sooner or later we’re going to have to talk about control, but right now let’s talk about how you got from there to here. At this point, what were you reading?
SO: I’m not sure what I was reading at that particular time, but I was (and continue to be) inspired by writers like Thomas Pynchon, Joan Didion, Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy.
Pynchon was one of the first authors I read that just clicked, that just spoke to me. I read V and Mason & Dixon when I was in Chicago and I knew I wanted to become a writer. But I know people go either way with him. I find his books formally exciting but also very moving, very deeply felt, which is a quality I think is often missed with Pynchon. To me, Pynchon is mind-expanding. Anything is possible.
KR: My sense is the emotional level in your work is less about Pynchon than it is about you, but as for form... do you think maybe he made you, as writer, aim a little higher than you would have because he reaches higher than most?
SO: When you read a great writer, there’s a challenge there. There’s a challenge to you as a reader, and there’s a challenge to you as a writer. It’s like all the other swimmers sitting around the pool while Michael Phelps does his thing.
KR: What started you on Among Wolves?
SO: I was in Los Angeles. I think I had just decided to move from scripts to fiction and was looking for some direction. It was probably helpful in some way, but what was more helpful was injuring my back about the same time and being laid up on the floor of my apartment for two weeks slowly going crazy with pain and boredom, and, basically in desperation, writing the first draft of Among Wolves. With Among Wolves, I was using a very common childhood fear— that your family might not be who you say they are — and trying to push it beyond the bounds of adult logic, something you do so masterfully.
When I was growing up I loved those kid’s adventure novels, where the child protagonist is always in peril, in a reality where anything is possible. Huddie Blaylock from Wolves is like a character from those books, except he’s grown up and that reality has stayed with him; it won’t leave him alone.
KR: And Huddie grows up believing his family got replaced by outsiders who look like them and talk like them.
SO: I’m drawn to writing characters who have that rug pulled from underneath them, and are forced to see the world in a new way.
KR: It’s written in a tight first person. Did you have to try out voices, or did you hear him coming?
SO: I think Huddie’s voice in Among Wolves was more of an imaginative leap than anything researched or observed.
Jensen tells me to put my pack of cigarettes on the desk. I unzip my costume and pull the pack from the waistband of my underpants and put it on the desk.
Jensen gives me a lecture about how we aren’t supposed to smoke in costume. You know this, Blaylock, you know this. I know, I know, I say, wringing my hands, googling my eyes, but I’m an addict and I have a problem. Jensen doesn’t laugh. The pirate laughs and Jensen shoots him a look and the pirate stops laughing. I don’t recognize the pirate. He must be the new shift supervisor. He’s got his eye patch up on his forehead. He’s got mean, squinty eyes. One of his front teeth is blackened to make it look like it’s missing. He scratches around his knee, where it fits into the wooden peg.
Jensen tells me that I very nearly caused a Safety Incident. He tells me that I’m a fuck-up but that I have a way with the kids, though God knows he wouldn’t let his kids anywhere near me. He tells me that because of my way with the kids he’s not going to tell the higher-ups and that I’m lucky because if he told the higher-ups I’d be out on my ass. He tugs at the knot of his tie and says goddamn that smoke, Ilford. Ilford must be the pirate. Ilford gives a little cough to show Jensen that he sympathizes.
Jensen tells me that this is my last warning. He tells me that he believes in rehabilitation over punishment but that he’s no fool in that regard. That there will be some punishment and the punishment is that I’m going to have to stay late tonight and help the Cubans put up the Christmas in July decorations.
KR: Huddie’s a disenfranchised kid working in theme park. Was it hard, getting into that head?
KR: He was easier to get into than the Untouchable characters, though I don’t know why.
KR: You’re in so tight with Huddie that a small book from a small press gets ink in the Los Angeles Times Book Review; Barnes & Noble picks it up for wider distribution. How did you get the word out?
SO: The first printing of Among Wolves was about 500 copies. Then Barnes & Noble picked up the book so I went back for another 1,000, roughly. My (not-yet-then) wife and I went door-to-door, basically, up and down the California coast, asking bookstores if they were interested in carrying it. I didn’t have money for a publicist, but I was lucky enough to get some reviews and some online coverage, based on copies I’d sent out cold. It found a readership, still finds a readership, slowly but surely.
KR: You’d published Among Wolves, you were researching Half World and you shift gears. Where did Untouchable come from?
SO: I was researching what would eventually become Half World and trying to write some shorter pieces to keep in shape. One of those shorter pieces was about a boy who refused to talk, and his relationship with his father. I fought with it for months until it became apparent that it needed more space. Five years later, I had Untouchable, but had to start over completely with the CIA book.
KR: So Untouchable arrived in your head full-blown while Half World notes waited? Or did Half World develop at the same time, as in, can you hold both projects in your head at the same time?
SO: I wish. No, both projects were never in my head simultaneously. I had a very vague idea that I wanted to write a novel about the CIA after Among Wolves. While I was researching, I really felt the urge to be writing, so I started on what I thought would be a small project, a short story, maybe. And then that book took over completely for five years. When it was done, I dusted off the CIA research, but by then I had changed considerably, and my idea of what and how to write a book had evolved, so it basically started from scratch again.
Thank you for thinking I could do that though.
KR: Good to know! The Kid in Untouchable is immediately accessible; we’re in tight with him as soon as we meet him. I’m guessing you knew him from the beginning. What about the father, the cleaner?
SO: Darby was tough to get into. He was a very laconic character, and he was grieving, so it was work to keep him in action. He was probably the last in the book to click.
KR: How did you figure him out?
SO: It took me a while to find the right job for David Darby. I tried quite a few, and none of them fit. I felt I had most of the character, except for his occupation, which would be a big part of his makeup. At the same time, my wife and I got a dog from the Burbank pound. We were housetraining her, and a friend recommended this industrial strength cleaner for rugs and carpets. I had to go to some cleaning supply wholesaler to get it — white spray bottle no cute graphics or logos, no scrubbing bubbles. Serious stuff. And one day while I was using it, I read the list on the back of things it cleaned. There were all the usual household spills, and the list got darker and more grotesque and more serious. And I started to wonder who, outside of a hospital staff, would ever need to clean up after these things.
The moonman suit crinkled as Darby climbed the stairs. He realized too late that he shouldn’t have suited up, that Bob never suited up until he’d talked to whoever was waiting when they arrived.
He stopped a few steps below the man. He waited for the man to lift his head, to say something. Waited for the man to do one of the things Darby had seen Bob absorb at other job sites. Waited for the man to scream or wail, to spit curses, to throw a punch. The man did nothing. Darby could see the pale, hairless skin between the bottom of the man’s pant cuffs and the tops of his dress socks, could smell the last, faint traces of his morning aftershave, clean and sweet. Roistler shifted impatiently down on the bottom step. Darby let another full minute pass before he finally spoke, before he used Bob’s voice, Bob’s words in the quiet stairwell.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” he said.
KR: By this time Darby has had his fill of terrible, messy death scenes that drove his senior partner out of the business. Now he knocks on these doors. How did you research the job?
SO: I had some discussion with people in and around the industry. I read what relatively little there was about it published at the time. I watched many hours of work-site and training videos, which I wouldn’t recommend unless you have a particularly strong stomach. What I learned was that once the initial shock of what you were cleaning wore off, or was mentally banished, it became a cleaning job, more or less, with all the physical exertion and mental tedium that can entail.
KR: In all three of your books, your characters occupy their own half worlds, self-absorbed, changed when these half-worlds intersect. Like The Kid and his father in Untouchable. How did you get so very, very deep into those kids?
SO: The kids’ voices in Untouchable came far more easily than the adults’ voices. I’m not sure why. Maybe I have a good memory of what it was like to be a child? Maybe kids’ voices are just more distinctive, or seem that way sometimes? I tried with all of the characters in that book to keep the narration extremely, claustrophobically close. I didn’t want it in the first person, but I didn’t want us, as readers, to be able to get away when things got ugly.
KR: How does this affect the book?
SO: It probably changed the way I handled everybody. Untouchable is, by design, a very myopic book. It has a very narrow world, a small cast, a short time period during which it takes place. Among Wolves was even narrower. With Half World, I really wanted to open things up, spread out. I wanted more characters to share the weight.
KR: Did it change the way you’d been thinking about Half World?
SO: I’m sure writing Untouchable changed the way I approached the next book considerably. Now I’d actually written a novel, with all that teaches you, and doesn’t teach you. And I figured out that facts and research are your friends, but only up to a point.
KR: You wrote Among Wolves in first person; you make me hear Huddie Blaylock, which puts me inside his head. Untouchable and Half World are in third person, but you’re just as deep inside the Darbys’ heads, and we seem to know Henry March and the others in Half World as well as they know themselves. How do you make this happen?
SO: I try not to stand apart. I try to really get in there. If I feel apart then the character’s not working yet. This goes for everyone in the book. I don’t feel a character like Jimmy Dorn is working until I’m in there.
KR: That’s what I thought. It’s not a film director/puppetmaster thing. You’re right there with them.
SO: Both UT and Half World are written in a very close third person, which lets me sort of breathe down their necks.
KR: I’m assuming Henry is the central character, although Marist, in fact, and the CIA defector/traitor thread teased me along; did you know that Dorn would end up being so important in Part 2 and the way Henry’s story ends? And which of the others seems to you more like you than, for instance, Dorn?
SO: I see Half World as sort of a relay race, from Henry March to Dickie Ashby to Hannah March. They each run the book at particular times. None of that was planned, nor was Jimmy Dorn’s reemergence. He came back like that rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem.
KR: And which of the others seems to you more like you than, for instance, Jimmy Dorn in old age, dying of cancer? It’s 20 years after he and Henry met on the job, worked several “subjects” and parted company.
SO: I’m not sure any of the characters are more like me than others. I’m there in all of them, even Dorn, but ultimately they all become their own things within the world of the book.
He places the barrel on his mouth, taste of metal and oil, not entirely unpleasant. He yawns for some absurd reason. Tired old man. The doorbell rings again…
Enough already. Be sorry one final time and then do it.
The fog swings away from the windows to reveal a man standing in the driveway. The man is not a cop, not a paramedic. He looks like a door-to-door salesman, gray hat and trench coat, and he’s peering into the garage, gloves cupping his face so he can see through the glass. Their eyes meet and the man smiles, a quick flash of teeth. The man disappears from sight and then the garage door lifts and the man steps inside, stomping his shoes on the cement floor.
“Jimmy Dorn,” the man yells, loud enough to be heard with the car windows up and the radio on. He smiles even wider. “Jesus Christ. Looks like I almost missed you.”
KR: You know these people — through research and observation, or is it a leap into character?
SO: I tend to push characters toward my own fears. I just find that there’s more interest there for me. A kind of dark magnetism. I think many of the characters in the books — David Darby in Untouchable, Henry and Hannah March and Dickie Ashby in Half World — are living right on the line of control and loss of control. They start in one place and cross the border and either try to get back or try not to go back. You live on one side of the line and realize one day that there’s another side you never knew.
KR: Control. That word comes up a lot in this conversation. Henry March gets sucked into a CIA experiment in mind control. What drew you to the CIA?
SO: I was very interested in the origins of the CIA, the post–World War II beginnings of the US intelligence community. In one of the books I was reading there was a throwaway line about early failed operations, mentioning MKULTRA, the agency’s attempt at using prostitutes and LSD and secret sites to control the minds of unwitting victims. So it was just like, wait a second — what? That led me down the rabbit hole. It’s one of the rare conspiracy theories that’s actually true.
KR: How many months/years did it take Half World from the end of your first draft to the sixth?
SO: Maybe four years, plus a year of research before I started writing Untouchable.
KR: When in the Half World process did you see Henry coming?
SO: I originally imagined Henry as a single man, a solitary figure, who moves from DC to San Francisco to start this CIA project. And as I was writing the first page I suddenly had him driving cross-country with a wife and kids. So it really went moment by moment.
KR: So it morphed as you worked?
SO: In early drafts I try to stay as loose as I possibly can, which is difficult because I’m more comfortable when I’m in total control. But there’s a place for that, usually in revisions, so it’s a balancing act, pressing the gas, pressing the brake, pressing the gas. I’m getting better at it, hopefully. It’s something I work on.
KR: I gather you’re not an outline guy. Do you build from first line, first paragraph, and it develops as you build?
SO: I tend to spend a good amount of time — a few months — writing in notebooks. Just moments or brief conversations or impressions. Then those pieces get longer and longer — still in the notebooks — until they finally spiral out and I switch to the computer. No, outlining isn’t my strong suit.
KR: Do you think not knowing until you write your way into it is a good thing or a bad thing? I have to know what is before I have any idea what happens next.
SO: There are definitely times when I wish I could see the whole thing. It hasn’t happened yet. I’m really finding my way in the dark. Sometimes I think I know where I’m going, and I might for five or ten pages at a time, but I didn’t know the ending of Half World until I was there, suddenly.
KR: Was there much rewriting as you advanced?
SO: In the notebooks I’ll work with the characters, the setting, the tone. I’ll sketch out a lot of that. There’s just no real narrative drive until I start typing.
KR: How long did you put things down in notebooks before you knew it was time to type?
SO: I always rewrite as I go, which might be a bad habit. The first draft of Half World took two years. Usually I feel every morning that I need to back up a bit and read to get a running start, and when I’m reading I start finding problems.
KR: Did you do much reorganization in that first draft? And how many drafts did you go through before it went out?
SO: I worked in the notebooks for three or four months. And then I go back and forth all the time during the book. A week in the notebooks, two weeks at the computer, etc. I did some reorganization in the first draft. There were some dead ends and roads that went nowhere that had to be cut a rerouted. I think we sent out the fifth draft, maybe?
KR: Does anybody else see your work-in-progress before it’s done?
SO: My wife and my agent read and reread, probably starting with the third draft. Before that, I’m still not quite sure what I have, it’s still unfocused in some ways, so I don’t like to discuss it much. That said, there were a couple of points in Half World when I was completely stuck and my wife and I would talk through it, but she hadn’t yet read the book. Once she started reading she read pretty much every draft.
KR: Did the order change in the rewriting? Half World has several POV characters: Henry and his wife; other CIA spooks and their, um, subjects in the ’50s; and 20 years later, all those people looking for Henry — Jimmy Dorn and the desperate agent Dickie, Henry’s wife, his daughter. Were all their stories in place by the time you let anybody see it?
SO: I feel like the structure of the book was always pretty much as it stands, with some shuffling here and there from draft to draft. I did a draft after extensive discussion and notes with Millicent Bennett at S&S which was terrifically helpful. Getting that other eye as to what should go where. But in terms of the book’s bifurcated structure — the ’50s, then the ’70s — that was always there.
KR: The sixth draft. Does this kind of revision go fast? The informed one, I mean, with editorial notes from trusted readers
SO: They tend to alternate. Fast draft, slow draft. I reread the whole thing, then work, then read again, usually aloud. (Aloud, alone, in a room, sort of like Henry March.) The drafts after someone else has read it tend to be a bit slower. Often they’ve brought up a point that takes more consideration. They all feel slow at the time.
KR: Wow, everybody I respect seems to read aloud as they go, just not me; I have to hear it in my head. When aloud, do you make notes to yourself in the process or run to the keyboard and make the changes as they come up?
SO: I never read aloud until Half World. I think hearing the Untouchable audiobook opened something up. It was just a very different way to see (hear?) the story, the rhythm, the language. I won’t read aloud until those later drafts, then I’ll do a chapter at time. Something will clink, something will sound wrong aloud. It’s strange: I still see reading as a mostly internal act — the book in your head — but now I feel that reading aloud in those final drafts really helps. Maybe it was only for that book. We’ll see.
KR: The last section has a lot of cross-cutting and it plays like a movie. Is that the function of narrative impetus? As in, it’s hard to build but gathers momentum as you discover the end?
SO: Yes. I feel Untouchable went the same way. I fought and fought for 350 pages and then, suddenly, I could see the end and sort of ran desperately toward it.
KR: The express train effect. Happens to me every time.
SO: You can see where this would influence writing a scene, and how you’d have to take it one step at a time.
KR: And how our stories find their endings.
SO: There’s a scene in Untouchable where The Kid discovers a house that has suffered a great fire. He explores it, alone, at night, with a flashlight, moving slowly from room to room. It seems obvious now, but it wasn’t then. That’s what writing feels like to me. The house reveals itself, slowly, while you move within it.
KR: Yes! If you’re like me, you have to be alone to do what you do in fiction. Writers are by nature solitaries: you have to be alone to do your job, but if you’re like me, you need time with other people too.
SO: I think I was always comfortable being alone, preferred it sometimes. This probably translates well into becoming a writer, where you spend so much time alone, in your head. Though the older I get the more I realize that I have to make an effort to get out, to see people. By the end of writing Half World I was feeling very isolated, but there’s a strange decompression that needs to take place, at least for me. Transitioning from that solitary world to the other one.
KR: I envy my friend A.R. Gurney. We were at his house while he was back and forth on the phone with his agent and director about a new play; he has colleagues, and a bunch of new friends out there every time. But until it goes onstage, he runs his own shop. Best of both worlds.
SO: The main difference between acting and writing is acting’s collaborative nature. You need other actors, writers, directors, designers, a crew. It can be an incredibly rewarding communal experience. Everyone working together. That’s really the part that I miss.
KR: For a performer, it’s great. Audience means instant gratification; you move, you speak, they let you know how you’re doing. As writer, how would you feel about that? A hands-on mentor second-thinking everything? Or a collaboration with another writer?
SO: I’m open to adaptation. I’m fascinated with that process, what that process might entail. I’d like to see someone else’s vision for one of the books. I’m not sure about collaborating on a novel. I don’t think I’d be comfortable giving up control. But working in film would be interesting, or with a play. Collaborating in those ways is something I could see getting into.
KR: What I’ve saved for last in this piece is that whether you’re talking about form or process, you use the word “control” a lot. I think it’s something we need to talk about. What it means for you. For me, it’s both a life concern and part of process. What we do in our work is so unpredictable and basically unknown that I’m OCD about keeping the physical parts of my life in order — maintaining at least the appearance of control.
SO: Do I? Ha! Well, for me, part of the joy and frustration of writing is that it’s such a solitary act. You’re out there alone, for better or worse. If it works, it’s your success; if it doesn’t, it’s your failure. And it’s your responsibility. Creating this thing, shaping it, getting it to stay in the air. You can’t control response to the work, of course, but the creative process is under your control. That appeals to me on a very basic level. I think, in some ways, being able to control my writing has allowed me to give up control (or trying to control) things out in the “real” world over which I have no business controlling.
KR: I love that. I think we’re running at the same thing from different directions because I don’t think we can control life at all, really, just our working conditions. If your kid or mate or you yourself is sick or injured, it gets harder and harder to work. And in this weird, weird way, fiction is my way, at least, of shaping or understanding what just happened. Not in a confessional way. It becomes a character’s problem. And the story is my way of trying to make sense of it.
SO: I totally agree.
KR: Thanks. You make me sound less like the lunatic fringe.
SO: I’m not sure you should look to me for proof of your sanity.
KR: I’m more looking for how it works for you. As in, process.
SO: Although, of course, one of the other great joys of writing is how often you’re surprised by what you’re creating. How often memory or subconscious bubbles up into something new. I’m not sure you can control that, but you can work to put yourself in a position to facilitate it.
For me, more and more, it’s a matter of learning to relax. Learning to listen. Getting myself in a position to write where I’m not forcing things. Where I’m patient. Athletes do this all the time, they work to put themselves in a state of mind where they can work. Trusting that you’re going to get there, eventually. Trying to be positive, trying to enjoy the process. Often easier said than done, but …
KR: I suspect you’re not talking about the thing where kid writers think they can sit around waiting for inspiration to strike. It’s not about the coffee, the quiet in the house, I bet. Is this a physical process or all about mental states? For you, I mean.
SO: No, waiting for inspiration is something I thankfully outgrew. I’m talking about preparing to work. Things like coffee and quiet can be part of that (and are), but writing is not unlike a meditative state, and I usually need to let a lot of things go to get there. Just about everything except what’s in front of me at that moment.
KR: “Forgetting the Things To Do” list and the “Things to Worry About” list, then.
SO: Yes, absolutely. Trying to.
KR: I think that’s another name for concentration. I go ballistic when somebody walks in when I’m working, and when I’m deep in it, time goes fast.
SO: Right. Focus or concentration. Though part is also learning to regroup when interrupted, learning to work alongside interruption or distraction. This is starting to sound like a desert retreat.
KR: Probably one of the reasons we’re friends: the same kind of dark imagination. As in, we don’t seem to work in terms of happy endings, feel-good stories with 100-percent happy endings. I think I know why I’m this kind of writer. You?
SO: Well, apart from not being particularly realistic, I don’t find anything that’s 100-percent sunny particularly interesting. I don’t look to literature, or any art, for false comfort. And the comfort I’ve found in books like Infinite Jest or Gilead is the comfort of empathy, of understanding. What’s your excuse?
KR: Protective pessimists are never disappointed and often pleasantly surprised. Oh right, and early reading of all of Evelyn Waugh — the satires. Do you think we’re both realists rather than escapist types?
SO: Oh, probably. Those I reserve the right to do something escapist someday.
KR: What if you can’t write escapist because, like me, your dark-side imagination includes a sense of the ridiculous? Like the tap dancer with one foot stuck in the trash can?
SO: That sounds pretty escapist to me.