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QRD #29, January 2006
about this issue
If Thousands interview
Kobi interview
Plumerai interview
Timothy Renner interview
Torch Marauder interview
Bill Horist interview
Erin O’Brien interview
Nadav Carmel interview
Memories of Piggy
Plumerai Tour Diary
The Day She Carried Me
Four Pieces by Patricia Russo
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Erin O’Brien interview November 28, 2005

Erin O’Brien first came to my attention because of her work on her brother’s The Assault on Tony’s, one of my favorite novels of the 1990’s.  Now she has out her first novel Harvey & Eck.  Her style has a similarity to her brother’s; but remains her own ready to be filed beside Jen Banbury, Chuck Pahlaniuk, & John O’Brien.  So here’s our conversation about her brother, her book, & the future of publishing.

QRD – What’s the difference between Erin O’Brien (pen name) & Erin Nowjack (legal name)?

Erin – Erin Nowjack is a mild-mannered suburban housewife who makes an excellent meatloaf.  Erin O’Brien is a dark and mysterious woman who only goes out at night, wears thigh-high black leather boots and inspires intrepid desire in every man she meets.
Okay, that’s not exactly true.  The meatloaf is only mediocre.

QRD – Do you think most of your readers are aware of your brother’s work?

Erin – Nearly everyone is familiar with the film Leaving Las Vegas, and a surprising number of people know John’s personal story, fewer have read the book upon which the academy award winning film was based.  His two other novels, The Assault on Tony’s and Stripper Lessons were predictably less successful. 
For years, I was sheepish when it came to talking about John’s writing and my writing for fear people would think I was trying to glom onto his reputation.  And then there was the general intimidation.  I’d imagine someone reading a passage of mine, shaking their heads and musing, “Good thing the brother isn’t around to see this.”  I am mature enough now with my writing, as well as my grief, to have confidence in my work.  It is mine, not some footnote to John’s body of work.  Nonetheless, his shadow will always loom for me to some extent.

QRD – Which day/chapter of The Assault on Tony’s did you write?

Erin – I contributed part of Day 16 and all of Day 17, as well as the Afterword.  The rest of the text is all John O’Brien, in first-draft condition, save a bit of copy-editing.

QRD – Was it hard to duplicate your brother’s voice?

Erin – Now that is some compliment.  I reread Tony’s over the summer.  There are many problems with it, but it was a first draft.  Not surprisingly, I still loathed my additions.  Over time, I have forgiven myself for trying so desperately to keep John alive and I haven’t had a dream in which he admonishes me for my efforts with Tony’s in ages.  That said, and despite its flaws, the book remains a perfect snapshot of the end of John’s life and my subsequent immature grief fueled flailing.  The book is also important because it is as much about John O’Brien as it is about riots and booze. 

QRD – Why was The Assault on Tony’s written in non-chronological order?

Erin – I would say John used a ricochet frame in order to cast a pall over the story right out of the gate.  I think he succeeded in getting the business of hope, 12-step programs, and redemption out of the way very early on.  Using the numbered days as chapter titles was a brilliant way to snap the reader from the brink of the story’s violent end back to its tremulous beginning.  It works.  The reader is edgy from the onset.

QRD – Will we ever see The Assault on Tony’s turned into a film?

Erin – There is a film option deal in the works at this very moment. 

QRD – Was Stripper Lessons considered complete by John?  It seemed to me like Stevie’s mysterious benefactor should be revealed at some point in the novel.

Erin – With the exception of some copy-editing, the published version of Stripper Lessons is exactly as John left it.  And my gut tells me he was done with it.  He left nothing behind to indicate otherwise, no lingering notes or outlines.  The entire book can essentially be described as John O’Brien on religion, which is likely why he left Stevie’s elusive sugar daddy in the dark.  Incidentally, Stevie Nicks was one of John’s top fantasy women, hence the character’s name.

QRD – I think I read in a press release or something that it was "John O'Brien on religion," but I don't really see it.  What were his religious beliefs that are reflected in the book?

Erin – For years, John vowed atheism, although his fiction is replete with religious icons, particularly angels. The name Sera (from Leaving Las Vegas) was a shortened form of seraph, which means “angel of the highest ranking.”
In Stripper Lessons, we have this guy Carroll, who devoutly worships that which is unattainable – the beautiful stripper.  Consider the following passage, taken from the scene when Carroll first sees Stevie dance on page 30:
“She glistens; I drip.  Her perspiration is sweet water, and I would lick it chastely from her feet, would gratefully die for the privilege; she would never allow it.  Her beauty is sublime; I have none.  She walks among men; I crawl.  And if I were to recklessly approach her, speak to her, utter a simple platitude, if I were to give her the time of day, ask for it, if I were to gently cough while crossing her path, breathe while standing near her, and if she were to answer, respond, look up, acknowledge me in any way, she would not hate herself for it; I would.”
On page 37, Carroll dreams of a lofty angel.  He even asks Stevie if she is an angel on page 62.  The religious references in the book are endless.  “And Carroll receives the word,” on page 46.  Then there is the drive-in church on page 155.  It goes on and on.  At the very end, however, when the angel at once becomes accessible to Carroll, when he discovers her name is not Stevie, but Jennifer, he isn't sure he wants her at all.
Of course John isn't here to comment on this, but I believe he harbored a personal spirituality.  At the very least, he grappled with religious concepts.  Other than that, all I can say is, read the book.

QRD – Will any more of John’s writing be released?

Erin – There is one other manuscript languishing with an agent.  Better is an existentialist novel that features characters such as Double Felix, William, and Zipper who lounge in a posh apartment as the city a few miles from them burns in a swirl of race riots.

QRD – What order were his books actually written in?  Would Better be his earliest book?

Erin – Leaving Las Vegas was John's first effort.  It was published in 1990, that was the same year he started work on Better.  John began working on Stripper Lessons, in 1992 and on The Assault on Tony's in April of 1993.  He died one year later on April 10, 1994.

QRD – How did John get involved in writing a story for the Rugrats cartoon?

Erin – John and then wife Lisa were friends with a writer who worked at Klasky-Csupo, the production company behind the Rugrats series.  He set John up with the gig that eventually became Rugrats episode #37, “Toys in the Attic.”  It premiered in 1992 under John’s only known pen name, Carroll Mine, which is also the name of the lead character in Stripper Lessons.  John was disgusted about some of the editorial changes his script underwent, including the scary jack in the box that was featured in the episode.  He had originally wanted a roaring toy lion to be the scary toy, based on a mechanical toy from our childhood that used to scare the daylights out of me.

QRD – In Harvey & Eck you tell the story from the point of view of essentially two characters’ one-way letters.  Did you write all the Harvey letters first & then the Eck letters, or did you alternate them as you wrote them as they appear in the book?

Erin – I wrote all of Harvey first, then all of Eck.  Any other way would have been impossible.

QRD – Was it hard to write in two distinctly different voices?

Erin – Taking on each one separately helped.  And they were compelling characters, easy to spend time with.  They were a perfect contrast to one another.  Incidentally, on my computer Hearts game, the players are Erin, Batgirl, Mrs.  Robinson, and Eck. 

QRD – It seems like Harvey & Eck has been marketed a bit as a romance book; do you think that’s the market it belongs to, or is it just the market that seems the most financially lucrative?

Erin – To use the term “financially lucrative” in association with my novel is certainly optimistic, at least at this point. 
As far as the label is concerned, people put them on all sorts of things.  I don’t care much for the romance reference, but I have plenty of other battles to fight.

QRD – Harvey & Eck ended up being published by a print on demand publishing company, how do you feel POD compares to traditional publishing for first time authors?

Erin – My publisher (Zumaya) utilizes print-on-demand technology, but they are not a vanity press.  Self-publishing implies that the author paid to publish the book.  I did not.  Zumaya is a legitimate little indie house, very hardworking.  Nonetheless, the POD stigma remains and it is not pleasant.  Readers don’t care if the book is POD or FSG, but I’ve had others sniff at my book as if it were some unedited first draft, most notably at my local library where I only wanted to donate a signed copy.  To hell with that attitude.  I have every confidence in my book. 
POD titles are also falling in price (mine goes for about $10 on Amazon) and every time I turn around, bookstores are shutting down because more and more people are ordering books online.  Industry changes are inevitable.  They won’t be immediate.  But eventually, the good POD houses will start doing more and more things right and someone will be paying attention, which is why Amazon bought Booksurge.  I also like the fact that every single one of my books that is printed has already been sold.  There isn’t one traditional print mid-list author who can say that.  And those first print run books that go unsold eventually get destroyed. 

QRD – What do you think is the difference between a novel & short story besides length?

Erin – The length of a piece of work is an incidental detail.  The short story is a passionate affair, the novel a marriage.  The emotional investment of the reader, as well as the author, must coincide.  The short short is a one-night stand.  Call the micro-story a singular kiss.  And as we all know, each of the fictional and relational endeavors I’ve listed can be poorly or expertly executed. 

QRD – I know you’re a bit of a grammar fan, what’s your pet peeve in grammar?

Erin – The inappropriate use of capitalization not only Conveys Self Importance, but it can also be downright INSULTING.

QRD – What are you working on writing next?

Erin – I am at work on a long piece of memoir and I’m constantly fooling around with a screenplay for Harvey & Eck.  My silly blog keeps me busy, but is too much fun to abandon.

QRD – What books are you currently reading?

Erin – I’m reading every single word written by Grant Bailie.  He’s got many stories available online and his first novel, Cloud 8 is just marvelous. 

QRD – Anything else?

Erin – I had an epiphany the other day.  It occurred to me that Leaving Las Vegas describes a finite period precluding death and Harvey & Eck focuses on a very different finite period that precludes life.  I smiled smugly to myself at this.  Then, as he will do on occasions such as these, John rose from his papery grave, snorted and rolled his eyes at me.  “Jesus, Erin,” he said, “don’t be such a sap.”
For more on me and Harvey & Eck, visit www.erinobrien.us.  Those in need of a Human Being Manual can stop by my blog at erin-obrien.blogspot.com.

a picture of Erin & John as children

A couple of interesting excerpts:

The last paragraph John typed in The Assault on Tony’s:
For the first time in his life Rudd found himself wishing for death, hoping (praying?) that the walls came down before the liquor ran out, that they were stormed, bombed or shot in some truculent surprise attack, some irresistible force, divine intervention.

And a bit from Harvey & Eck:
I caught my reflection in the mirror.  Side view.  And it just struck me.  Something about the way I looked.  I stopped.  I put my hands on his chest.
“Wait,” I said.
His hands dropped to his side.  I walked to the mirror.  It was as though I was seeing myself—really seeing myself pregnant—for the first time.  I put my hands on my round belly.  I was alive, full of desire and creation and energy.  He came up behind me and looked in the mirror.  I studied his face.  It was empty.
“I can’t do this,” I said.  “I’m sorry.”
When he saw the look in my eyes and realized that there was no changing my mind, his eyebrows collapsed.  “But,” he started to say something.  I shook my head and crossed my arms over my chest.  He let his hands drop to his sides and sighed a sigh that was flavored with little bit of anger and a lot of disappointment.