If you missed my retrospective review of O'Connell's first novel, Box Nine, last month, you can link to it here or just scroll back through November's entries. In the meantime, here's the original interview:
The thing that stands out about Jack O'Connell is his sheer enthusiasm for the art and craft of writing. As we reduced the world's stock of Guinness, and a bitter named The Fall, whose Biblical overtones impressed us, in an Irish pub nestled in a West End alley, O'Connell spun out the pleasures of reading which, for him, grew into the pleasures of writing. That we appeared to share the same tastes, indeed many of the same experiences with the same editions of the same paperbacks of our younger days meant the two hours became an exercise of head-shaking agreement, each punctuated by another drink.
O'Connell was born, educated, and has spent his whole life in Worcester, Massachusetts ('within a three-mile radius, really'), which provides the geographical basis of his fictional Quinsigamond, but it is his reading that has provided Quinsigamond with its unique mix of rust-belt America, Weimar Germany, and futuristic LA. Although it's easy to see the influence of any number of modern cult-favourite writers in O'Connell's work, it is sui generis, never derivitive, and at least two of his five novels, his first Box Nine, and his latest, The Resurrectionist, deserve to stand alongside names like Pynchon, DeLillo, Disch, Dick, or and Burroughs.
Like many cult writers, though, none of O'Connell's books has found commercial success to match their critical acclaim. His problems may have started when Box Nine won the Mysterious Press first novel award. Prestigious as the prize was (and appreciated as the $50,000 prize was as well), it saw him labeled as a 'crime writer', and although it fit into that category, it also resisted it. Genre labels don't quite work for O'Connell; there are significant elements of sf, and stylistic experiment which put much 'serious' fiction to shame, which makes it difficult for them to appeal to the 'hard core' crime reader, while at the same time making it almost impossible to reach beyond the genre boundaries created by the 'mystery' section of bookstore shelving.
Along those lines, I noticed Jack was carrying the new US paperback edition of The Resurrectionist, and I commented that the covers of that book reflected his dilemma of classification. constant nodding in agreement and digressing into tangential concerns that seemed to be mutually apparent immediately....
JOC: I loved that first cover (the US cloth edition), but the publisher thought it was not quite right.
MC: It emphasized the circus/freak show sub-plot; it reminded me of Glenn David Gold, or maybe a book like The Prestige or The Illusionist.
JOC: And this cover (which features cards) is along the same lines, but less mysterious. I think it reflects part of the problem with my books. I was doing a tour recently, and in Denver I was in the general fiction section, in Phoenix I was in crime, and in San Francisco I was in horror/sf...
MC: Which might tell you more about San Francisco than your books! But the British edition really looks great, like a mainstream novel, perhaps historical, that John Banville or someone might have written. Maybe we should call it 'slipstream'...
JOC: No Exit have done a great job with my covers...
MC:...and they've always GOT the book; the Box Nine cover is much more sf than anything else! I saw you mentioned Harlan Ellison as an early influence. I didn't see Ellison the writer as much as Ellison the editor, because everything you've written would fit nicely into Dangerous Visions.....
JOC: Oh yeah. I loved those books, Disch, Delany, Aldiss. I sort of stumbled into sf as a kid, but then this stuff seemed so radical, and those writers led me, naturally, to finding Gravity's Rainbow, and wow! There's an anthology of stories out now, called the Secret History of Science Fiction, and it's based on a piece Jonathan Lethem wrote about ten years ago, speculating on what would have happened if the Science Fiction Writers had voted the Nebula to Gravity's Rainbow in 1973, when it was nominated, instead of Arthur Clarke's Rendezvous With Rama. From Pynchon to Delany's Dhalgren was a natural step.
MC: And where does the crime fiction fit in?
JOC: As a kid I loved Hammett and Chandler, and the next generation of pulp writers, the Jim Thompsons and David Goodises. But my first fictions were two Pynchon-type novels, long and dense, and they never sold. Then I did Box Nine, which is at heart a dark city noir, and has a female detective, and after it sold the first question was, can you make it a series? Is the main character coming back? And I said 'sure', because in my mind the main character was the city, Quinsigamond, not the woman! Both my agent and the editors were disappointed, but I said, did you see where Leonore winds up at the end of the book? And they said, well, send her to rehab! From a strictly commercial point of view they were, as usual, righter than I was. I think the problem is that I'm generally a little too dense for the dedicated crime reader, and there's no way to make the jump to 'literary'. There have been some relatively brief windows into what they call the 'slipstream', the cultish books just off the mainstream, but now my attitude is I've written five books, I'm turning 50, and I'm just gonna write what I write. You never know what's going to come out...
MC: The Resurrection is your first book in nearly a decade. Was it very carefully planned?
JOC (laughing): Just the opposite! Partly, I was working days, editing the alumni magazine at Holy Cross, and I'd get up at four ayem to write. But the first draft did not contain Limbo ((the comic book story which Sweeney reads to his comatose son)) and I wrote it in a white heat, in about 8 months, which all began after a cafe crawl around Poitiers, at a festival with Francois Guerif, or Rivage, my French publisher. It was inspired by the Gold Medal guys I love, particularly Gil Brewer, and it was the story of Sweeney and his son and the gang of bikers. I'd written maybe 90% of it, and I was really excited and I sat down to write a simple scene, where Sweeney reads a comic to his son, and the questions started. I took a left turn. Six months later, the wife says 'how did it go?' and I say 'we're going to have to get rid of Sweeney,' and she looks at me and says 'Let's not do that, alright?'. But the Limbo story just grew and grew, and in the end it was double the length it is now in the book, as I had to select just the best bits.
MC: How direct is the Gil Brewer influence?
JOC: It's partly conscious and partly organic evolution. I knew from the beginning that the only thing I wanted to do was write, but I had this terror because it didn't seem a career option to a kid growing up in Worcester! But it was the verve of those guys, the Brewers, and Ellisons, and also Richard Matheson, which I wanted to emulate. Eventually, I was able to marry it to more metaphysical themes, and more epic scope, but it took lots of experimentation, false starts, and frustration; not least those two novels which are up in the attic somewhere. Box Nine finally started to do it, I think by leaning more toward the genre electricity side of things. The crime element of The Resurrectionist is mainly one of character; Sweeney is a real noir hero, he's disturbed, he's needy, and above all he's vulnerable, with a weak spot that the ruthless can take advantage of, and there's a black widow femme fatal, in Nadia, a seemingly virginal blonde in Alice and a creepy shrink, a Dr. Ampthor type, in her father.
MC: And the Limbo Comics stories are so wonderful. I'm amazed someone doesn't jump at adapting them in comics, it's very much like Alan Moore..
JOC: And how great would that be. Comics, and then the movies!
MC: I'll drink to that.