Restless People from the Sick City
Tony O’Neill interviewed by Alan Kelly.
Tony O’Neill is everything I hold dear. His sick, slick, salacious, hellacious Sick City is an exploration of a psychosexual, meth scarred, murderous landscape with some of the most loveable lunatics I’ve ever had the (dis)pleasure of meeting. It’s an OTT unrelentingly bleak and hilariously funny tour of Skid Row, as well as a sucker-punch in the so-called wholesome cunt (sic) of celebrity. The content of the book alongside its multiple story strands and subplots reminded me of scribblers in the hardboiled tradition – James M. Cain, Donald Westlake and Elmore Leonard – as well as contemporary cutting-edge, razor-sharp, shitkicking American writers and dirty artistes such as David Henry Sterry, Darcey Steinke, Scott Heim, Lydia Lunch and Amra Brooks. But O’Neill is possessed of a voice entirely his own and what a trailblazer this boy is. Reading Sick City is the literary equivalent of tossing a Molotov cocktail through the window of a housewarming party, only a million times hotter, hornier, pulpier, ultra-violent and, dare I say it, funnier and is one of the finest novels published this year.
3:AM: Sick City is a pornstar’s cock sized departure from both Digging the Vein and Down and Out on Murder Mile. The trashy, traumatic, titillating pared down gritty aesthetic style of your writing is still there, but how big of a leap was it for you moving from autobiographical to fiction writing in the long form?
Tony O’Neill: It was a challenge, for sure. I nearly abandoned the book a few times because it just seemed impossible to pull it all together. I mean, I’d stretched out into fiction with the short stories, about half of the stories that appeared in the French collection Notre Dame du Vide were ‘pure fiction’, or whatever you wanna call it. The rest were more in the autobiographical mode. I really liked the freedom I had just writing those stories, and I wanted to do something like that with the next novel. Every time I finish a book I have a mini-crisis – what the fuck am I going to do next? All I knew was that I didn’t want to write another book in the style of the first two. But it was scary, wondering if I’d ever make it to the end and, if I did, if the people you liked those books would come along for the ride. I’m essentially self-taught, I just read a lot, so I think it’s probably helpful that I have spent my whole writing career just fumbling around in the dark trying to figure shit out for myself. That way when I bite off something like this it seems no more impossible to me than anything else I have already done, you know?
3:AM: Sick City has all the seedy, sexy squalor of John Rechy’s City of Night, the boy throat-fucking debauchery of Dennis Cooper and the shoot-from-the-dick whipsmart humour of David Henry Sterry’s Chicken. When did you first come up with the premise for Sick City and how different is it from where the idea started to what the book became?
TO’N: Man, thank you. That’s very kind of you to say so. The original idea came from a conversation I was having with a friend of mine about Manson lore, and that’s where I first heard the urban legend about the LAPD confiscating a sex tape starring Sharon Tate and a bunch of Hollywood A-listers. The story went that the cops had organised underground screenings of the flick for years. I heard this at the time I’d been considering my next book, what direction to go down, all of that stuff. I had this half-formed idea lingering around about two junkies involved in a get-rich-quick scheme that goes wrong because they can’t keep off drugs. Jim Thompson on crack was my starting point with that. When I heard the Sharon Tate story, the two ideas came together and I was off and running. I never really plan these things out, I just start writing and trying to piece it all together like a puzzle. So there were tons of different variations on the idea that I had to thrash out and throw away. I’m sure I could probably write in much more systematic fashion and save myself some time, but I’m one of those writers who gets a rough idea of where the story is going and just has to write and write, and dig and dig, and try to figure it out as they go along. A messy bastard, basically.
3:AM: The male prostitute-cum-kept-houseboy Jeffrey finds himself ‘orphaned’ at the beginning of the novel with a corpse and a potentially infamous film reel of an alleged orgy between Sharon Tate, Steve McQueen, Mama Cass and Yul Brynner. The secrecy of Hollywood’s past and the scurrilous sacrifice of the ‘celebrity’ identity in Hollywood’s present (or celebrity anywhere) lock horns in the narrative. There is no such thing as personal privacy anymore and this is frighteningly resonant. The devil with the dazzling smile Doctor Mike and his approach to ‘rehabilitation’ does far more harm than good. From what I have seen of reality television, it’s little more than the exploitation of borderline damaged people. Would you agree?
TO’N: Oh totally. I have a bit of a love-hate, or maybe a hate-hate relationship with the recovery industry. But as an ex-junkie, I can’t take my eyes off of US shows like Intervention or Celebrity Rehab because it’s like drug-porn for me. Watching people shoot up, smoke crack, all of that stuff – I find it hypnotic. But I hate the sanctimoniousness of how it’s presented, the idea that ‘we are only showing this to help people’, all of that shit. It’s titillation, just like those prison reality shows, or the rash of reality shows in the US about dwarves, or people with 18 kids, or whatever. It’s simply, ‘let’s gawk at people shooting up’. I find addicts as fascinating as the next person, I guess because I can relate to them, and I don’t find their way of life any less worthwhile than the life I lead, really. I suppose that’s the difference in how someone like me views those shows and how the rest of America does. I dislike how the addicts are contextualised, how they are portrayed as being sick, mentally ill, helpless – all of that bothers me. I don’t think that I have a disease, and I don’t think that when I was a heroin addict I was mentally ill. I lived my life that way because it seemed slightly less futile than living it as someone who works a 9-to-5 they hate so they can pay bills and buy shit they don’t need.
3:AM: Sick City, in parts, took me back to films I love: Midnight Cowboy, Dancing at the Blue Iguana and Leaving Las Vegas. Is film as much a nudge, an inspiration, for you as much as say music and literature?
TO’N: Totally, I mean I take inspiration wherever I can find it. Tom Waits or the Ramones loom as large in my list of literary influences as the likes of Burroughs, or Fante, or whoever. You have to remember that I don’t come from a literary background, I started out as a musician and I think because of that I approach writing from a different angle. I am after the straight ahead simplicity of a Ramones, or a Dictators song when I write. Or yeah – the straight ahead visual storytelling of a really great movie.
3:AM: You co-authored both Neon Angel (with Cherie Currie) and Hero of the Underground (the memoirs of NFL player Jason Peters). Would you tell me about your collaborative work and if you have anymore in the pipeline? Has Courtney Love somehow found your unlisted number and tried to commission you to write an unofficial biography?
TO’N: Nothing in the pipeline at the moment, but always on the look out for the right project. Collaborating is a tricky thing, and takes a lot more out of you than regular writing because you have more people involved, which can be trying. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to do stories that interested me in the first place. I think there’s a certain kind of celebrity who would want someone like me to tell their story, they know the kind of stuff I do. Actually Courtney Love could be a perfect example. I met her once in L.A., years and years ago, and she slapped across the face pretty hard. I can’t remember why, I was drunk, she was drunk, it wasn’t so long after Kurt died, and she was really on one, you know? It was a messy night all around. I keep meeting people who have run into her throughout the intervening years, and everybody always comes away telling me that she’s a complete fucking nightmare. But I do love how obnoxious she is. I mean, I’d take ten Courtney Loves over a Taylor fucking Swift, you know?
3:AM: Something which really appealed to me about your book was your protagonist Jeffrey. I’m always moaning that there are no tough, flawed and appealing gay characters in literature. Did you make a conscious decision to make your anti-hero an Irish gay runaway?
TO’N: You know, it wasn’t a conscious thing at all. I don’t think that you can come up with a character that way. It’s hard to say where any characters come from, isn’t it? I suppose there’s a bit of detritus floating around in my head – guys I’ve known who’ve worked as prostitutes, having family in Belfast, stories about the Piccadilly scene, that came into play when I was writing Jeffrey. But mostly I can’t really analyse where any of it comes from because I don’t know if there are any definite honest answers. They’re just there and I write about them. That sounds really evasive, doesn’t it? I don’t mean it to. As for him being a tough gay character, you know I’ve known plenty of non-camp, tough gay guys in my time so I guess he doesn’t seem like a particularly unusual character to me. I can definitely relate him to people I have known. It could well be that tough, flawed gay characters are underrepresented in literature, but to be honest I really don’t pay attention to that stuff. If Jeffrey stands out because of that, great, but I didn’t do it to make a statement or anything.
3:AM: If Sick City where to be optioned for the silver screen, who’d you like to see in the director’s chair? I ask because it’s a very filmic book.
TO’N: Honestly? Whoever pays me the most to do it. Any other answer is bullshit really, isn’t it? I mean I have tons of favourite directors I could trot out, but I don’t know if they’d make a good job of Sick City or not. I like Tarantino because he loves pulp cinema, and I do, so I figure we could relate to each other on that level. It’s a totally different medium though, so trying to second guess who wouldn’t screw it up is impossible, isn’t it? Usually any director will just give the author some money and then tell them to disappear. Spending time in Hollywood and being exposed to the fringes of all that… it just reinforced my impression that it’s a world I really don’t want to be too deeply involved in. When The Runaways premiered I got to go along because my involvement with Cherie’s book, and that was a trip. Vanessa and I walked the red carpet even through we weren’t meant to. We walked in with Debbie Harry, which was cool. We just happened to bump into her as she got out of her car, she didn’t know who the hell we were, but we walked in together anyway. All the paparazzi were looking at us very strangely. They have these cards with pictures of the stars who are meant to be attending, and when they saw us with Debbie Harry they kept looking at the cards, scratching their heads, as if they were meant to recognize us. “Who the fuck are these two?” I have a good friend who I used to play in bands with, and he ended up falling into movie directing. We talk once in a while, and whenever I ask him how work is going he always says, ‘I’m in hell.’
3:AM: You met the character – this is exactly what he is, a work of fiction – which inspired Doctor Mike, called Doctor Drew at a bar a few years ago. What kind of experience was it? It obviously stayed with you. The cock-rot that comes out of Doctor Phil’s mouth makes me want to throw up or shoot him in the face at point blank range.
TO’N: Yeah, Dr Drew is an interesting one. The thing is, I’m sure plenty of people reading this outside of the US who have no idea who he is. He’s just this bland guy who has made a career out of being a ‘celebrity addictologist’. I actually love that description: addicitologist. Never trust a man who has to resort to made up words to describe what he does. So sure, Dr Drew did loom large when I was coming up with this character of a slick, used-car-salesman type who specialises in celebrity addicts, but he’s just the latest in a long line… my character, Dr Mike, is as much Dr Phil, or Tony Robbins, or whoever, as he is Dr Drew. But yes, I did meet Dr Drew a few years ago. He was as two-dimensional in real life as he is when he appears on my TV screen. I spoke to him for a few minutes at a party in Hollywood, and then he was whisked off by his handlers so he could speak to someone more important. Anyway, that was the same night I got to meet and hang out with Ron Jeremy and Jerry Stahl, so I wasn’t exactly complaining.
3:AM: Will your next novel be as noirishly nourishing as this one, or are you gonna try a new avenue?
TO’N: It won’t be autobiographical, I know that. I have more to tell in that regard, but not yet. I have started another novel, but it’s early, early days and I’m really wary of jinxing what I have. I’m horribly superstitious, and unless something is finished – or at least 90% there – I hate talking about it because I get scared I won’t be able to finish it after talking it up. I find writing to be quite painful. Some days it comes really easy, some days it’s like trying to screw a rabid cat in the ass. I really sympathise with that old Hunter Thomspon quote about writing, “Once I’ve gotten the story in my mind, the rest is pain.”
3:AM: Finally, do you believe in happy endings, Tony?
TO’N: For me each day with a roof over my head, a woman I love, a couple of dollars in my pocket and some cold beers in the fridge is a happy ending. Beyond that, I let the world take care of itself.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, October 20th, 2010.