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.
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
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.”
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
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.
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.”
A couple of interesting excerpts:
The last paragraph John typed in The
Assault on Tony’s:
And a bit from Harvey & Eck: