ENRICHMENT AND ABSORPTION: an interview with Ryan O'Neill

Posted on April 30, 2012 by in The Melbourne Review Interviews

LES ZIGOMANIS

Tell me about your collection.

RYAN O’NEILL

The Weight of a Human Heart is a collection of stories set in different parts of the world and told in a range of different styles, from realist to formally experimental and metafictional. The thing I love most about the short story form is its versatility, and I wanted to try to demonstrate that versatility in the collection. So there are funny stories, sad stories, stories told through exam papers, book reviews, graphs, charts; stories set in Rwanda, Uganda, China, Lithuania and Australia.

LES ZIGOMANIS

How did the collection come together?

RYAN O’NEILL

One of my stories, ‘The Eunuch in the Harem’, was fortunate enough to be selected for Best Australian Stories 2010 (Black Inc.). After publication, Black Inc. contacted me to say they had enjoyed the story and would like to see more of my writing. I replied thanking them for their interest, and explained that I only wrote short stories, and so had a collection and not a novel to show them. I assumed that would be the end of the matter, as so few publishers are willing to consider single author short story collections (or if they are, the author is usually an already established novelist). I was delighted when they said they would like to see my collection, and it was eventually accepted.

LES ZIGOMANIS

So why only write short stories? Surely there’s a novel somewhere lurking in your imagination?

RYAN O’NEILL

JG Ballard argued that there has never been a perfect novel, but there have been perfect short stories, and I agree. Although I’ll never achieve that perfection, it does seem to be within reach, and it is always something to strive for. A great short story doesn’t have any flat spots, any sections where you feel like flicking ahead, any digressions, and it is never too long. A great novel may still have one or all of these features.

In short stories, I enjoy moving from setting to setting, style to style, and experimenting. If a story doesn’t work, then it has perhaps only taken a month of your life. A novel that doesn’t work can take years of your life (and years off it). In general, a novel doesn’t welcome experimentation and different styles (though there are, of course, magnificent exceptions such as Ulysses). I love the short story form, and I think it plays to my strengths as a writer, such as they are. If I ever feel the burning need to write a novel, I will. But as yet, the need isn’t there.

LES ZIGOMANIS

Short story (collections) are a form which seem to be making a comeback. Do you think there’s a reason for that?

RYAN O’NEILL

Perhaps one of the reasons is that people who love reading and writing short stories have become publishers of short stories, which is the case with Sleepers and Spineless Wonders. I also think the success of collections such as Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and, closer to home, Nam Le’s The Boat have encouraged publishers to have another look at the form. It certainly seems a more hospitable environment for short story collections now than when I first came to Australia seven years ago, when almost every publisher’s submission guidelines, it seemed, told you not to bother if all you had was a short story collection.

LES ZIGOMANIS

Well, tell us about the stories.

RYAN O’NEILL

As with any writer, there is an autobiographical element to many of the stories. For instance, I lived and taught in Rwanda, Lithuania and China for a number of years, and a few of the incidents (such as the experience of having malaria) in those settings are drawn from life, though most of the plots and characters are entirely invented. Another story features my childhood love of superhero comics, though that is the only thing about the story which I didn’t make up. Also, I’ve always loved books, reading and writing, so it seemed natural to write about those topics. Some ideas have been sparked by reading great writers such as Borges, Barthelme and Barth. Other times I would try to list some of the forms I had never seen attempted in short stories – such as book reviews, examinations, bibliographies, and so on – and then see if I could write a story in that form. The stories sometimes weren’t successful, but I always felt that I learned a great deal from the process.

LES ZIGOMANIS

You talk about stories having an autobiographical element. Is that just on a physical and circumstantial level? Or does it go deeper to an emotional and spiritual level?

RYAN O’NEILL

That’s a difficult question. I suppose any piece of writing, from a novel to a short story will reveal a lot about the writer, whether they want it to or not. After all, the characters in any story are all drawn from one person’s character – that of the writer. Even those characters slavishly modelled on a real person are not in fact based on that person, but the writer’s recollection and interpretation of that person. In that sense, it’s reasonable to say that the characters in my story do represent different parts of me, and my preoccupations, and maybe even my neuroses. It’s not something I think about when I am writing a story. I just want to get the words down on the page, and for them to make sense.

LES ZIGOMANIS

Has anybody – a friend, or somebody in your family maybe – ever said to you, ‘Hey, that’s me in your story!’ Or, ‘Hey that’s what I did that time and you’ve put it in your story!’

RYAN O’NEILL

Actually, that’s never happened. If I do use an incident taken from life, I make sure I disguise it as much as I can, so no one has ever really seen themselves in any of my stories.

LES ZIGOMANIS

You quote JG Ballard saying that ‘there have been perfect short stories’, and say that it’s within reach, but then claim that you’ll never achieve that perfection. Why not?

RYAN O’NEILL

I suppose, like many writers, I am most critical of my own work. Whenever I look at a finished story there is always something I want to change. In the extremely unlikely event I ever did write a story someone else considered to be ‘perfect,’ it would still not be perfect to me. There’s a line from Robert Browning that I’ve always loved: ‘Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?’

LES ZIGOMANIS

Then when is enough enough? When is a story initially finished for you?

RYAN O’NEILL

For me a story is finished when I can’t bear to look at it any more. I rewrite and rewrite until the very sight of the story makes me nauseous. Then I know the initial draft is finished!

LES ZIGOMANIS

Then what’s the process? Do you have a clique of readers who give you objective feedback? Or do you just start sending the stories out to fend for themselves?

RYAN O’NEILL

I have five or six good friends and fellow writers whose judgement I trust on my work, and who trust me to look at and comment on their work. When I’ve reached the stage where I can’t stand to look at the story, I send it on to them, then review their comments, which are always extremely useful, and make changes. These can be small cuts or additions, but on occasion their feedback has led me to completely overhaul a story.

LES ZIGOMANIS

When the story’s made you nauseous and sick of the sight of it, how do you feel when you send it out, it’s accepted, and it comes back marked-up?

RYAN O’NEILL

I welcome comments from editors. In fact, I am very suspicious when I don’t get any, as I know there is always room for improvement in the stories. My best experiences with editors are with those who have made lots of comments and suggested changes and deletions, as I know this means they have read the story carefully. On occasion, there are some quirks of style, etc., I might want to keep, but I think in general I would accept 95% of suggested changes, as a good editor will obviously only make a story better. I’ve never had a bad experience with an editor. About the only thing I can think of is one story where the journal wanted to change the title of the story. I agreed, though I didn’t like the new title. But then I didn’t like the old title either, so it wasn’t much of a wrench.

LES ZIGOMANIS

You say a good editor will only want to make a story better, which I agree with. But how do you tell a good editor from one who may be overly intrusive, who may mark-up changes and make suggestions simply for the sake of making them?

RYAN O’NEILL

I think it comes down to what you think when you see the changes and suggestions made by the editor. Almost all of the time, when I’ve seen them, I’ve thought instantly, ‘Of course! That works so much better!’ On those occasions when I didn’t feel that way, the editor respected my opinion, and kept the work as it was. So far I haven’t come across the kind of intrusive editor you mention. But I don’t think they would be too difficult to spot, as their changes just wouldn’t ‘feel’ right.

LES ZIGOMANIS

So, given all this writing and revision, is a story ever actually finished?

RYAN O’NEILL

I choose to believe it is finished when it is published, as you could work on a story forever.

LES ZIGOMANIS

Movies are re-cut and re-released. Raymond Carver’s short stories were re-released as he intended them, as opposed to how they were published following his editor Gordon Lish’s revisions. Could you see yourself one day realising a published story should’ve unfolded another way and going for an Author’s Cut?

RYAN O’NEILL

I don’t think so. The only time I have gone back to published stories was when I looked at those in the collection that had been published before, and spent some time revising them. If the collection hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have looked at those stories again. For me, the final cut is publication. After that, I stop tinkering.

LES ZIGOMANIS

In terms of there always being something you want to change, do you think writing’s like parenting? In that regard, I mean a parent will always – to some degree – treat their child as a child, regardless of age. So is a story always something you’ll try to parent to what you hope is something better for it?

RYAN O’NEILL

I hope writing isn’t like parenting. I don’t think I’m a particularly good parent to my stories. I usually can’t wait to see the back of them, so I never have to think about them again! When I finish a story, and if it has the good luck to get published, then I generally never look at it again. I think it’s important to always think about the next thing you are writing, not the piece you have just finished.

LES ZIGOMANIS

So you wouldn’t pick up an unsuccessful story which is years old and have another shot at getting it right?

RYAN O’NEILL

I do have a few stories that are years old, and have never been published, and occasionally I go back and tinker with them. I usually only do that if I have nothing new on the go. Sometimes the old stories can be saved, and sometimes they can’t. If they can’t, then I cannibalise them for characters, imagery, dialogue, anything I can rip out of there and use in a new story.

LES ZIGOMANIS

You wouldn’t try rewriting from scratch and getting it right?

RYAN O’NEILL

The idea of beginning an entirely new story is much more appealing to me than trying to recast an old one, so I will always tend to go for the new over the old.

LES ZIGOMANIS

As far as the process of writing goes, is there somewhere you want the story to take you?

RYAN O’NEILL

I just want to get from the first line to the last, and hopefully leave something worth reading in between.

LES ZIGOMANIS

How do you measure worth? You mentioned earlier about experimentation with form, but that you weren’t always successful. You once told me that your story, ‘The Chinese Lesson’, had literally been rejected by just about every journal in Australia, yet it placed third in the 2010 Age Short Story Competition. So how do you measure the worth in your own story, given reading is such a subjective business?

RYAN O’NEILL

I think after writing for a few years you hopefully develop a sense of whether a story works or not. Of course this sense is not 100% accurate. I’ve laboured over a story for weeks believing it to be very good, only to realise much later it was deeply flawed, and on the other hand on one occasion I dashed off a story in a couple of hours just to amuse myself, and it was published very quickly. If my sense of a story working lets me down, then I can rely on the circle of fellow writers who give me feedback to catch it.

In the case of ‘The Chinese Lesson’ I thought it was a solid story, better than some other stories of mine which had been published, so I was a little surprised when it was rejected time after time. I thought about revising it, but couldn’t see too much wrong, so I put it away for a while. I only entered it in The Age competition as an afterthought. It wasn’t even my main entry, which was a story that still remains unpublished today.

For me, a story is successful if it accomplishes what I set out to do. In that sense, I’ve written some experimental stories that I consider successful, but that I doubt will ever be published.

LES ZIGOMANIS

In terms of writing, are you a planner, or do you just let the story take you wherever it wants to go?

RYAN O’NEILL

I’m a planner. Before I begin I plan it all out. I get some paper and write ‘Beginning, Middle, End’ and then put in all the events of the story in their proper place. Prior to commencing the first draft I also like to spend time thinking about the story and jotting down notes for possible dialogue, imagery and so on. Sometimes these notes will run to several pages. I am happiest when I have a first line and a last line in place as I start to write, and I also like to have a title, though that doesn’t always happen. I used to envy writers who say their characters take on a life of their own. Mine always do exactly what I say.

LES ZIGOMANIS

So at no point do you deviate? At no point does your imagination brooks the plan and takes you elsewhere?

RYAN O’NEILL

If something isn’t working, then of course I will try different ideas. But in general I don’t like to deviate too far from my signposts of ‘Beginning’ ‘Middle’ and ‘End’.

LES ZIGOMANIS

Then there remains something organic in your process, because whilst you have your plan, you also have a gauge while you’re writing which distinguishes the irreconcilability between how story’s emerging and how it was planned?

RYAN O’NEILL

Yes, I suppose so, though I usually just plod on to the end even if I realise a story isn’t working, as I hope it can be saved in the re-writing process.

LES ZIGOMANIS

But is it sometimes saved in the journey? By that I mean, in the process of writing, do solutions to issues reveal themselves which you hadn’t otherwise considered, or planned?

RYAN O’NEILL

On good days, yes. On good days, sometimes it almost feels like playing ‘Tetris’ where different parts of the story float down and join together perfectly. At other times you can get too close to the story, and not see a way out of a difficulty. That’s where feedback from others becomes important.

LES ZIGOMANIS

How long does a story’s conception and planning take?

RYAN O’NEILL

Sometimes the initial idea, then the first draft, rewriting and final draft can take a very short time, such as a week, but that is very unusual. Normally I have an idea, then write it down and leave it for a while, adding notes as they strike me, and it might be weeks, months or years before I get around to writing it.

LES ZIGOMANIS

Do you know how long the story will be before you begin writing?

RYAN O’NEILL

Not really. But I would expect it to be less then 5000 words, as I don’t usually write stories past that length. It’s not a conscious decision. I just tend to write between 3000 to 4000 words for a story.

LES ZIGOMANIS

Any preconceptions on how long a short story should be?

RYAN O’NEILL

I think the length has to be justified by the quality of the story. A long story had better be excellent.

LES ZIGOMANIS

How long does it take you to finish a story?

RYAN O’NEILL

For me, the story really comes together in rewriting, and this is something I spend a long time on, usually far longer than the time it took for the first draft. On average, probably three or four weeks.

LES ZIGOMANIS

I’ve always found that characters develop life the further you write. As opposed to taking ‘on a life of their own’, they become almost real and dear, (well, to me at least). Have you ever felt reluctant to put a character through whatever you’ve planned for them?

RYAN O’NEILL

I used to feel a bit envious of writers who talked about their characters doing unexpected things, surprising them, and becoming almost like real people to them, as they never did to me. But then I read an interview with Vladimir Nabokov in which he said that his characters were simply puppets who did exactly what he said, and any writer who believed their characters had a life or will of their own must have mental problems. Though this was, of course, Nabokov being typically provocative and mischievous, it did make me feel better!

LES ZIGOMANIS

Any writing quirks? Favourite pens, music, feng shui of the room, need for the perfect opening line – anything?

RYAN O’NEILL

I’m afraid not. I just sit down at the computer, whenever I have the time and energy, and start tapping away.

LES ZIGOMANIS

Do you feel story is a reinterpretation of self, that it exists on a level of entertainment, or there is some (for the want of a better word) ennoblement about it?

RYAN O’NEILL

The short answer would be, yes, yes and I hope so. But I’ll try to expand.

For a long time I’ve believed that we read to make sense of the world and our lives, as they so often make so little sense. The earliest story in human history, Gilgamesh, has a man seeking immortality and the secret of a happy life. (For the record, the answer he gets is to eat, drink and dress well, and cherish his wife and child, which still strikes me as good advice today.) We read to experience other lives, whether searching for the Maltese Falcon or for bananafish. I like to think that the best stories can change us for the better, though I have no scientific proof. Reading a story is putting yourself in someone else’s situation, and the world could only be a better place if we all did that more often.

A story should also entertain, if I can interpret ‘entertain’ as also meaning ‘provoke’ or ‘disturb’ or ‘cause reflection’ as well as amuse. Both P.G. Wodehouse and Franza Kafka I find wonderfully entertaining, in very different ways.

LES ZIGOMANIS

Who are your other influences? What have you drawn from them?

RYAN O’NEILL

The writer I most admire, and who I think has influenced me to an extent, is Graham Greene. Open any of his books at random, and you will almost certainly find a striking line of dialogue, an original image, a vivid description, or a memorable character. His novels are never a line longer than they need to be. There is no padding and by today’s standards, most of them are quite short. Even his weakest novels are worth reading, and do not waste the reader’s time. I have tried to follow Greene in keeping my stories as short as possible, and doing all I can to make the reader feel their time has not been wasted.

Apart from Graham Greene, I love writers who play with form and convention, such as John Barth, Murray Bail and Jorge Luis Borges. From them I have taken the idea of squeezing the short story into different – and sometimes strange – forms and seeing what happens.

LES ZIGOMANIS

So what are your favourite books? What’s the one that stands out for you?

RYAN O’NEILL

Among my favourite books are Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, John Williams’ Stoner, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Katherine Mansfield’s short stories, Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, B.S. Johnson’s Albert Angelo and Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry and Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby. But my all time favourite is a relatively little known (outside Scotland) novel called Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon. In synopsis it sounds very dull: a young woman grows up on an isolated farm in the Scottish highlands, as the First World War approaches. But it is a beautiful novel, lyrical (an adjective applied to many modern novels that are very far from being so), moving, sometimes hilarious and extremely readable, despite the number of Scots dialect words that a modern reader wouldn’t recognise without the help of a glossary.

LES ZIGOMANIS

Is it perfect?

RYAN O’NEILL

No – though it does come pretty close.

LES ZIGOMANIS

What’s wrong with it?

RYAN O’NEILL

It has its faults, but they only become apparent in the third or fourth reading. The author wrote it in something of a hurry, as if he had foreseen his tragic, and unexpected, early death, and sometimes the slapdash nature can be seen. But the novel’s faults are easy to forgive because of the genius of the whole work. Gibbon was one of the greatest Scottish novelists of the last century. If he had lived beyond the page of 33, he would probably be better known around the world.

LES ZIGOMANIS

Are the faults with the book exclusive to you or faults general to a readership?

RYAN O’NEILL

I’m not sure. On reflection, I think the speed at which he wrote it is a strength as well as a fault. The words crackle with energy and almost leap from the page.

LES ZIGOMANIS

What about yourself? When was the first time you realised you wanted to write? What was the spark?

RYAN O’NEILL

I distinctly remember being in Year One of primary school, and the teacher giving me a gold star for a little story I wrote. I suppose I’ve been looking for gold stars ever since.

LES ZIGOMANIS

Was that it? There wasn’t a story which sparked you, made you think, I want to write my own adventure?

RYAN O’NEILL

Actually, for a long time before I wrote short stories, I wanted to be a comic book writer, and the story that sparked that off was Alan Moore’s Watchmen. I spent a lot of time trying to write comic scripts like Alan Moore, before finally realising that the only person who could write a comic like Alan Moore was Alan Moore. Around that time, I discovered Graham Greene, and it was his novel, Stamboul Train, that drew me back from comics to novels and stories. I still love comic books, though I don’t read them as much as I used to.

LES ZIGOMANIS

Writing’s tough. I think a lot of outsiders looking in don’t understand the allure of it, unless you’re writing a best-seller and making it rich. So why do you do it? Is it for the reasons you’ve given – to make sense of the world, to entertain/provoke/disturb, et al?

RYAN O’NEILL

George Orwell once dissected the characteristics of a writer in his essay, ‘Why I Write.’ For Orwell, all writers wrote from a differing proportion of four reasons; sheer egoism (‘Look at me!’), aesthetic enthusiasm (taking pleasure in writing well), historical impulse (a desire to record events for posterity), and political purpose (a wish to change the world). Out of 100% here is my breakdown:

Political Purpose: 1%

Historical impulse: 5%

Sheer egoism: ??

Aesthetic Enthusiasm: ??

Total: 100%

LES ZIGOMANIS

Have you always gotten support from those around you, (parents, brothers, sisters, partners, kids) that you’ve needed?

RYAN O’NEILL

My mother and father always encouraged my writing. I have a vivid memory of coming home from school one day when I was about twelve to find they had bought me an electric typewriter as a surprise. (This was before the days of desktop publishing.) I used to write science-fiction and comic book scripts on that noisy machine.

For the last seven years, I’ve been lucky enough to have a very understanding wife who realises that I may feel miserable when I don’t write, and conversely, I may feel miserable when I do write.

LES ZIGOMANIS

So where’s the win there?

RYAN O’NEILL

The win is in those moments when it all comes together; when you are writing well, and you know you are writing well, and the story flows and is good, and there is immense enjoyment and satisfaction in making something, and making something worthwhile. Those moments are few and far between, but they make up for a lot of the grind and the disappointments.

LES ZIGOMANIS

Is there a balance that you think needs to be maintained between writing and life outside of writing?

RYAN O’NEILL

Yes, definitely. Writing and life outside writing should inform and strengthen each other. I believe it’s a mistake for someone to attempt to put all their energies into becoming a ‘Writer’ (with a capital W). You also have to live. I’ve been fortunate to have had opportunities to live and work in different countries, and to have had many experiences which have fed into my writing. Similarly, writing has enriched my life, providing me with an activity which I find wholly absorbing and (sometimes) very enjoyable.

Writing is an important part of my life, but it is not the most important part. If it was, it think it would be very sad. For proof of that, just look at the life of Richard Yates.

LES ZIGOMANIS

How do you find the state of the short story market in Australia, both with publishers and journals?

RYAN O’NEILL

I think in general the state of the short story is relatively healthy in Australia. There are many excellent journals publishing quality short fiction, and there are a lot of short story competitions with significant prizes and exposure for a short story writer. Black Inc. with its Best Australian Stories, and Scribe with its New Australian Stories, have made an admirable and continuing commitment to publishing and promoting local anthologies on an annual and bi-annual basis. However, the more established publishers do seem more open to publishing single author collections from American or British writers than Australians, which does puzzle me sometimes. But this has left the field open to great new publishers like Spineless Wonders, Affirm and Transit Lounge who have been producing excellent collections in the last couple of years, and will hopefully continue to do so for a long time to come.

LES ZIGOMANIS

So are you constantly submitting? A lot of writers I know write, but then their stuff just sits there.

RYAN O’NEILL

For the past year or so I haven’t been submitting as much as I used to, as I was working on the collection, but in general I would usually have three to seven stories out there at any one time, entered into competitions or submitted to journals.

LES ZIGOMANIS

How do you deal with rejection?

RYAN O’NEILL

Being Scottish, and naturally pessimistic. Rejection is my default position. I am always very pleasantly surprised, and grateful when a story of mine is accepted by a journal or anthology. Almost all of my stories were rejected at least once before finding a home, and many of them several times. I would estimate I’ve had over a hundred rejections in the last few years. Being an editor now myself, at Etchings, I’ve also come to realise that stories can be rejected for any number of reasons that have nothing to do with quality. For example, two excellent stories with very similar themes might be submitted, and obviously, you can only choose one of them for that particular edition. It’s been a strange but rewarding experience being on the other side of the fence; reading submissions rather than submitting. It has also made me realise that a rejection is simply one person’s opinion. Hopefully that opinion is well-schooled, but it’s an opinion none the less. And the next editor’s opinion may well be very different.

LES ZIGOMANIS

I’ve been asking you questions as a writer. Let me ask you just one as a reader/editor. How do you feel about the state of writing and short fiction in Australia?

RYAN O’NEILL

Though the golden age of Australian short fiction was undoubtedly the 1970s, I think the short fiction of this millennium has seen the most exciting developments since that time. There have been a large number of excellent short fiction writers active in the last few years, beginning with Cate Kennedy’s Dark Roots through Paddy O’Reilly’s The End of the World, Nam Le’s The Boat Tim Richards’ Thought Crimes and Wayne Macauley’s Other Stories. Experimentation seems to be making something of a comeback, while realism has moved into, and been reinvigorated by, other forms such as the ‘novel in stories’ of Patrick Cullen and Gretchen Schirm, among others. I think now is the best time to be writing short stories in this country in the last twenty-five years.

LES ZIGOMANIS

Any tips for other writers?

RYAN O’NEILL

I can only give a few tips that have worked for me. Read. A lot. Try to find your own voice. Write about the things you love, not the things you think an editor will love. Expect rejection. Accept honest criticism. And the hardest part of all: sit down and write. As Ray Bradbury said, ‘You only fail if you stop writing.’

LES ZIGOMANIS

Finally, I understand the rights to The Weight of the Human Heart have been sold to the UK and the US. How do you feel about that?

RYAN O’NEILL

It’s an amazing feeling. Just getting the collection published in Australia is wonderful, and anything beyond that I start running out of superlatives.

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