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States of Nostalgia: An Interview With Tony O’Neill

This interview will largely be composed of questions adapted from past issues of the Paris Review. The hope is that it will be interesting to see what kind of response these questions provoke from artists less well established than that magazine’s impressive roster of illustrious writer scalps. The other hope is to spite the future. If the Paris Review, or similarly august publications, do eventually interview any of the bright talent that will be featured here over the next few years, you, me and 3:AM Magazine will be able to say: “We got there first. Suckers.” (And without any of those really weird accusations of spying and CIA activity in the editorial office. Unless Andrew Gallix knows something we don’t.)

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This interview was carried out by email . I was sitting on my broken chair next to my cluttered desk in Oxford, being harassed by a wasp that entered through an open window. It was a hot day. Tony? I don’t know yet. I guess that will be the first question.

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I have met Tony O’Neill, however. He’s a snappy dresser, fortunate in having the kind of slender frame that makes suits look especially good. His accent is an unusual mix of gritty Lancashire and sun kissed LA. He’s far gentler in person than he is on the page, but the quick energy and enthusiasm of his writing becomes immediately and forcefully apparent if you strike on a topic that interests him.

Once we met in a dive bar in Queens, New York. Once in Coney Island, New York. There we went to a freak show, saw a guy bang a nail into his nose, a woman swallow fire and a wolfman walk on a tightrope. During our first meeting we drank a beer and Tony was on codeine-based medication for a cold I suspect he was half glad to have contracted… During the second, we drank one beer each again and Tony occasionally took small plastic spoonfuls of Katom from a plastic bag.

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Tony O’Neill has already led a very long life for such an unsettlingly young person. He grew up in Blackburn, escaped to LA thanks to his involvement with several moderately successful and wildly infamous music outfits (most notably Marc Almond, Kenickie and The Brian Jonestown Massacre), married twice, and spent years scraping around the seamy underside of the death of the American Dream, addicted to heroin and heavy narcotics. More recently, he has found a sort of redemption through family life and writing.

He is the author of a semi-autobiographical novel, Digging the Vein, a collection of short stories, Seizure Wet Dreams, and a book of poems, Songs From the Shooting Gallery. He is currently working on Hero of the Underground, a book about Jason Peter (an American Football hero turned serious junkie), and the follow-up to the already critically acclaimed Digging the Vein, Down and Out on Murder Mile.

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3:AM: Where are you, and what does it look like?

TON: I am in my apartment in Astoria. It looks like a mess. Everything is in boxes, as we are in the process of moving. The bookshelf is empty. My daughter is sleeping in the next room. It’s quiet except for the mice in the ceiling and the hum of the air conditioner. I am sitting at my kitchen table. Typing on a Mac laptop.

3:AM: In my introduction, I suggest you’ve found a “sort of redemption” through writing and family life. Is that actually true? Were you even looking for redemption? And is writing really a salve for anything – or just a new kind of challenge and struggle in itself?

TON: Redemption is an odd concept. I don’t think I believe in redemption. I think, as human beings, we are on a constant journey. You can be many things in your life, and I think maybe I’m an absurdly extreme example of that, but it’s something that’s basically true for everyone. Family life fills a hole in me. Being in love with my wife, my family, fills a certain void in me that I’ve had for as long as I can remember. So does writing. So did music. So did heroin. But the hole is never really filled. I think when we stop yearning for something we die. I mean I can’t imagine that kind of contentment.

3:AM: Is emotional stability necessary to write well? Ernest Hemingway once said you can only write well when you were in love. What do you reckon?

TON: I remember not understanding that the first time I read it, but over the years it’s started to make more sense to me. I know that I’m quite an emotionally unstable person. I can say that honestly. But when the bad stuff is constant it cripples you, it cripples your ability to create. I think you write best when you’re a little hungry. I mean that literally I guess as well as figuratively. I write well in the aftermath of trauma. In states of nostalgia. Never completely content. I’m always looking back. Time travelling.

3:AM: Had you written anything before Digging the Vein?

TON: I wrote a book when I was 16. I probably did it to impress a girl or for some other 16-year-old’s reason. I wrote it on a typewriter. It was a regurgitation of everything I was reading at the time (pulp books, horror novels). I’ve lost it. I remember it was called “Flesh”. Terrible, of course. I remember when I was in primary school, maybe 10 years old, writing a short story and using the line “the wind howled like some great beast in pain” and my teacher flipping out and acting like I had just done something incredible. You know, “but this is a SIMILE!!!!” I remember just thinking “what is she so excited about?” I tried to write a book in LA because after Kenickie I was completely over the music industry. I needed a break. And I hated the idea of starting in a band from the ground up. I wrote a short novel about a group of teenage boys taking drugs and hanging out in a small northern town. They have sex with a girl who is passed out on sleeping tablets. Again it was terrible. It was traumatic enough – reading it back after it was done – that I didn’t write again for years. Not until I started writing Digging the Vein. By then my life was in such a crazy place – strung out, baby on the way, 2 marriages down the drain, no band, no job, in love with a woman and wanting to make a life with her – that I felt I had nothing to lose. Once I started writing that time… it was like a dam had burst. There was no stopping the words.

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3:AM: How do you plot your books? Do you plan it “mechanically” (to borrow a phrase from Paris Review)? Or does it flow naturally? Or what?

TON: I don’t plan them at all. I write them out of order. I write in “scenes”. I’m not big on plot twists, or even conventional notions of plot because it’s not reflective of how life it. Life is episodic, uneven. I want to write in a way that is completely naturalistic. That said, when I wrote the book about Jason Peter I did an outline, the whole bit. The publisher insisted, and it was different organising someone else’s life into a book form. But Digging, and then Down and Out, they just grew from a chapter. With Digging the Vein, I wrote a short story called “Ghost Town” and the whole book grew from there. With Down and Out, it was a story called “I’m Dreaming of a White Xmas”.

3:AM: Do you write in drafts?

TON: Yes. But I tend to correct as I go along, agonize over each chapter as a separate entity. But then I’ll read the whole thing back, in a state of nervous excitement, and I’ll notice glaring fuck-ups. And then I have to change names, get rid of extra characters. Add, subtract. My first draft is not usually a million miles away from the last one though.

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3:AM: Pencil, pen, typewriter or computer?

TON: Pen, computer. I get my best ideas while walking, so I carry a notebook. I get into a very receptive state of mind, just walking and not thinking about anything in particular. I dunno, like I’m connected to a phone line and I will catch lines or ideas that something can grow from. But I do 70% of my work on computer. I did the book I wrote at 16 on a second hand typer. Never again.

3:AM: Do you think any particular writers have influenced your style and approach?

TON: Specifically in terms of style? Shit! I’m sure there’s Bukowski in there. I think it’s hard for anybody writing this kind of book not to have picked up tricks from Buk or Hemingway. Tom Waits. Especially in Digging the Vein which is such an LA book, and those two — Buk and Waits — completely informed my view of LA. I really had an eye for the seamy side of that city while I was there, and I was completely in love with it. Dan Fante’s novels were a big kick in the ass for me. Reading them it was like “just WRITE and be damned!” you know? Alexander Trocchi, I’m thinking about Cain’s Book in particular.

3:AM: How do you feel about Hemingway?

TON: I’m actually reading Death In The Afternoon right now. I think he’s one of the English language’s best short story writers.

3:AM: Who do you really hate? Not in a personal way, but as a concept or representative of ideas… Or as an artist?

TON: Bono. Isn’t Bono everybody’s pet hate? I think he is. I just hate the way he’s like the authority on the arts for people too lazy to have an opinion for themselves. I hate picking up a book or an album or watching a documentary and having to listen to Bono’s take on everything. It was like that Bukowski documentary that came out recently. Fucking Bono talking about how he loved Bukowski. A lot of people love Bukowski, but no, we have to hear Bono talking about him, like he’s the great cultural validator of our times.

3:AM: Is hate a healthy emotion for an artist?

TON: All emotions are healthy. Hate is as viable as love or even indifference when it comes to art.

3:AM: Is love?

TON: Of course.

3:AM: Do you even believe in love and hate? Really?

TON: Well, to trot out the old cliché: to hate someone IS to love them. It’s to let them into your headspace. So, in a way, I suppose I love Bono. But I hate him more.

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3:AM: Do you have a feeling of solidarity with any contemporary writers?

TON: I suppose. In a very distanced, abstracted way. My day-to-day life doesn’t involve other writers. Writers, by their nature, are self-absorbed, wrapped up in observation and they have to be distant. Sometimes, when I meet other writers, I get this feeling of being observed, because I know that am in turn observing them… I don’t know; it all gets a little strange. But I’m a little weird around people at the best of times.

3:AM: What is Brutalism?

TON: Brutalism is an idea, a concept that Adelle Stripe, Ben Myers and myself came up with. The idea comes from a shared viewpoint of the world, a shared view of poetry and writing. I mean, there aren’t many ‘big’ writers really working in both prose and poetry right now. Not like back when people like Bukowski were writing. Yet now, with the advent of Internet writers, people are again not afraid to dabble in poetry and prose. We’re that generation of writers who started writing right as the Internet became accessible. Brutalism isn’t something with rules or a 10-point manifesto. It’s more about shared ideals, and shared anger.

I remember when I was starting out, I saw Ben’s book The Book Of Fuck and I thought — I mean long before I had read it — that THIS was the kind of book I wanted to write. The Book Of FUCK. I mean, what a title! I wanted to write a book that was a big fuck you. I wanted to get my rage and my anger and my feelings of… well, you have to understand my headspace: I was newly-clean, and instead of being enamoured of the world I was thinking: “Jesus, it’s even worse now I don’t have dope to take the edges off”. So I sensed that Ben was good people, and we did eventually cross paths. It was fate I guess. We ended up sharing a publisher (Wrecking Ball). We’re putting out a chapbook pretty soon. Since we all shared northern hometowns, we chose that as a theme and did a bunch of poems about that. But beyond shared locales, ages, whatever, I guess Brutalism is a big fuck you to poetry snobs and literary snobbery in general. But you know, it’s a very open thing. There are a lot of writers of — and readers for — this type of stuff. And we’re tired of being shut out of the world of ‘respectable’ literature.

3:AM: How do you feel about being regarded as part of a group like the Brutalists?

TON: Nervous, because I don’t like joining into group activities. Excited because the writers involved excite me and the writing they are producing excites me. Look, if it gets people to look at the writing I’m all for it. The kind of writing we do… it just seems like there is this huge bloc of people from traditional poetry fans to the poetry establishment who just throw their hands up in horror and declare that it isn’t even poetry. So it makes sense for us to join up too. It’s self-preservation. But of course there’s a downside. Something pure like this, it’s easily parodied. Some people hear the name, and just decide it’s a bunch of junkies writing about fucking trannies or whatever. Which is so far from the truth. But, you know, they just hear what they want to hear. I think if people approach the writing with an open mind they’ll be pleasantly surprised.

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3:AM: Do you vote?

TON: Never have. I live in America, and if I’d had the right to vote, I would have exercised it, especially to vote against Bush. But unless I become a citizen I cannot vote, and would never give up my British citizenship. I don’t want to take a pledge of allegiance, or salute a flag. I have gone my whole life without saluting a flag and I don’t intend to start now.

3:AM: Do you feel like an empowered part of contemporary society?

TON: Well, no. I’m not so vain as to assume that society really gives two shits about me. I suppose I don’t feel… well, while I was growing up in England my name and faint (long gone) trace of an Irish accent marked me out as different. I didn’t speak like the other kids in my school. I always had that sense of otherness growing up in Blackburn. That I didn’t belong. Only when I went back to Ireland, I didn’t belong there either. To them I was English. People always seem to assume that I’m from somewhere else. I suppose when I was younger I probably wanted to belong. Now I’ve either gotten used to it, or learned to appreciate it. The only time I ever felt like I was a part of anything is when I was a heroin addict. I was accepted without question. I felt that I was among my own kind. We had shared values, shared ideas. Harder than quitting heroin was quitting the lifestyle. That was like losing a loved one for me. I’m feeling sad even typing this. Like I’m opening up an old scab.

But as for being an empowered part of society: the time I spent in England working for a change in the drug laws taught me something very valuable: they’ll listen. They’ll nod their heads. They’ll even agree with you in principle. But nothing will actually change. Not ever.

3:AM: Do you feel that your voice would be heard if you weren’t a writer? Do you feel that it’s even listened to, as a writer?

TON: As a writer, it’s interesting and gratifying to have people write to me and tell me that something I wrote spoke to them. That my thoughts and ideas are valid. Without writing I’d have no other way to express it. I have spent a lot of my life raging against the various control systems that I have found myself in and I feel now that I can do more to change people’s minds by writing about my life, than by preaching in a more obvious way.

3:AM: Have you consciously tried to develop a style?

TON: Not consciously. I listen. I listen to how people speak, and I try to write in as naturalistic a way as possible. I suppose the nearest I have come is by trying not to waffle, and trying not to write in clichés.

3:AM: Nelson Algren, when asked (in 1955) if he ever felt he should try heroin, in connection with writing a book about users (The Man With A Golden Arm), said: “No. No, I think you can do a thing like that best from a detached position”. Well?

TON: My using heroin didn’t have any kind of literary significance for me at the time. I never thought, “I’ll try heroin and then write about it”. I mean, at one point I really thought I wasn’t going to survive. I took notes, absurd things that happened I jotted them down, but I never thought “One day this will be a novel”. I mean I had more pressing concerns. Like where I was going to get my next fix from. Algren’s book was written in the voice of a narrator. Mine was written in a way to take the reader into the bathroom stall, so to speak. And how do you write about love if you have never experienced it?

3:AM: They then ask the fascinating question of whether the people he hung out with when researching the book had him down as an eavesdropper. How were you regarded? I know you kept a lot of notes during your years as a junkie. Furthermore, as an Englishman in America, I’m guessing that you must have had a certain outsider status. Or, am I barking up the wrong tree? Did these questions even arise, or take any kind of precedence over the overpowering concerns of drugs, money, police, life preservation etc.?

TON: You know, that kind of stuff never came up. We were in the same boat. We were junkies. The world of heroin addicts is one where race, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation cease to matter. What matters first and foremost is that you are a fellow junkie. Everything else is negotiable. It’s funny, a lot of the junkies I knew fancied themselves as writers or poets. I’ve read a lot of bad poetry from other junkies in my time. I’d make the mistake of saying that I liked to read poetry, or they’d spot a book on my shelf, and they’d pull out their A4 sheets of paper and it was all over, baby. Really terrible shit, mostly. I never thought of myself as a writer back then. I was 100% involved with being the best junkie I could be. I treated being a smackhead like an Olympic sport. I wanted to be the BEST.

3:AM: Carrying on with Algren, he says that a couple of junkies criticised the accuracy of his book when it came out and followed up with the comment: “Well, on the other hand, if he really knew what he was talking about, he couldn’t write the book, he’d be out in the can”. I don’t want to stretch things too far, but did the process of writing actually become your “can” for a while. Feel free to tell me if I’m talking bollocks.

TON: Sam you’re not talking bollocks, but I’m a little unclear on what you mean: what do you mean by “can”?

3:AM: Do you think Algren used? Have you read The Man With A Golden Arm? What do you think of it?

TON: I have no idea if Algren used. But I think that The Man With The Golden Arm is a great book. I wasn’t so crazy about the Sinatra movie though.

INTERMISSION: Readers! The rest of the Algren interview really is great too. You can download it here.

3:AM: This one’s from a Truman Capote interview. “Did you have much encouragement [of your writing] in [your] early days, and if so, by whom?”

TON: A little. I was about the only person interested in creative writing in my school, and I would take great pride in my creative writing exercises. I’d turn in well thought-out short stories instead of something just dashed off to make a passing grade. I remember one remark I got during my final exam for English at school: “A minus. Well-written, but it’s a little bit ‘sick’. Is everything OK at home?”

3:AM: The interview with Lawrence Durrell starts with this remarkably blunt question: “What did you do after Cambridge turned you down?” How do you feel about University? Do you regret not going?

TON: Well, I guess I regret the chance to learn more. But I just traded that education in for a different kind of education. I was all set to start a degree in popular music, and I landed a record deal. So that was my degree in music right there. But of course, when food is running out and the next bit of money from your writing is months away and you are trying to hustle your ass out to a temp agency or something… well, they are less impressed by an education earned in bars and strip clubs, you know? I think the way my life turned out… it knocked all of the naivety out of me real early, and that’s a good thing. I might absently wonder about how things might have turned out, but actual regret? No.

3:AM: Do you think that all that so-arch and so-very-clever stuff in Lawrence Durrell’s books about Latin and medieval history and Cathars and symbols and, you know, everything else, can partly be explained by a subliminal desire to prove Cambridge wrong?

TON: I haven’t read much Durrell so it’s hard to speculate.

3:AM: Or is it wrong to apply cod-psychology to writers?

TON: Writers are human beings. They fall into the same traps that everybody else does

3:AM: Here’s another facer from the Lawrence Durrell interview. Can you summarise what’s wrong with the way we’re living in what he terms “the violently creative” landscape of England?

TON: You know, I actually don’t have a good answer for that one. I guess I’m too removed from England at the moment. Can I pass on that one?

(All pictures by Sam Jordison.)

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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Sam Jordison writes for the website of the Guardian and is the author of several toilet books: Bad Dates, The Joy of Sects, and the forthcoming Annus Horribilis. He also co-edited Crap Towns and Crap Towns II and wrote long articles that he wishes more people would read for a book called “Everything You Know About God Is Wrong”.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, September 12th, 2007.