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A Portrait Of the Artist As a Young Junkie: An Interview With Tony O’Neill

Interview by Andrew Gallix.


3:AM: You recently wrote the memoir of an American football star, Jason Peter (Hero of the Underground). Were you involved because, like much of your own work, it revolves around drugs?

TON: When the prospect of doing Jason’s book came about I did feel that there were certain similarities between our stories that initially drew me to it. Not only the drugs, but the idea of someone hitting an early peak in the their career, and having to deal with the fact that that it ended very soon. Now in Jason’s case the career peak was a much more exaggerated version of my own early career in music. But there was a shared feeling there. The biggest draw to the book was meeting Jason, because if we hadn’t got on, then there would have been no way I could have written the book. But in Jason I found someone whose life was very different to mine, whose personality in many ways was very different to mine, but someone who I could really relate to on a certain level. Jason has a real charisma, and I knew that in telling his story we could create a book that stood head and shoulders above others in its genre. In learning about his football career, and the way that business is done in the NFL, I became fascinated by what was essentially an alien world for me. Jason had read Digging the Vein and our attitudes towards our own drug use was very similar, also I suppose in me found someone who could write from almost inside of his skull when it came to matters of addiction.

3:AM: Was it very different from writing fiction?

TON: Yes. A lot of research, and a lot of interviewing. I mean even once the initial manuscript was finished, it had to be vetted by lawyers, because there were a lot of public figures mentioned, and we had to walk a fine line between calling people out on their shit and just libeling them. I’m not a sports guy, and I had to learn everything about the NFL from the ground up. So completing the book — and the subsequent success that it has had (and I that I hope it will continue to have) — was a huge validation for me. It freed me in a lot of ways: I felt like I could write anything, after writing this. And there was a big thrill in seeing my name up there on the New York Times bestsellers list with, uh Tori Spelling and all of the other greats.

3:AM: Your new novel, Down and Out on Murder Mile, is described by your publisher as “semi-autobiographical fiction,” which is interesting because it raises the question of just how autobiographical it is. In the acknowledgements, at the end of the book, you thank your “wife and muse” because she doesn’t mind you “airing [your] dirty laundry in public”. Her name in the book, as in real life, is Vanessa. Some names — of bands and band members, for instance — have been changed, but they are still easily recognizable… Murder Mile seems to be based so faithfully on your life that one wonders at times what (if anything) is fictitious about it: if you were to write a straightforward autobiography, how would it differ from Digging the Vein or Murder Mile? Would it just be a question of names and presentation or something more fundamental?

TON: My first and main reason for not labeling the book as autobiography is really simple: who the hell would want to read my autobiography? I have no interest in the memoir market, and I don’t feel that I come from that lineage. I read and loved Permanent Midnight back when it came out, but Jerry Stahl was a public figure. You could relate him to popular culture. I’m reading about him, and a lot of the interest in this story comes from the fact that I watched a bunch of these crappy TV shows that he wrote to basically support his drug habit. And the book offers a glimpse into the workings of the television industry, skewered through a junkie perspective. But all of these memoirs written by people who just happened to be addicts or whatever… I mean, it isn’t hard to become an addict, and for me you’d better bring something more to the table than your track marks and some missing teeth. I make no bones about the fact that I mine my own personal experiences for material. I think most writers do that, some more obliquely than others. But the writers that I admire are novelists. When I sit down to write, I don’t have the idea that people will be fascinated by my story because of my personal history. I hope that the telling of it will fascinate them. My books are meant to read as immersive experiences. I don’t tell you the whys and the history or any of that. You are dragged into the toilet stall, and you feel the needle going in. The drug use in my books is almost secondary to the world I am evoking. There is very little actual drug use in Murder Mile. It’s more about the mechanics of surviving as an addict, it’s about love and hope, and it’s a look inside the inner workings of the methadone clinics. I hope that people find that there’s something more to the stories than just war stories. I’m looking back over a period of my life that affects every aspect of the person I am today. That’s something that everyone goes through. It just happens that my story involves a lot of narcotics. I am by no means a professional ex-addict. Literature always was a major part of my life, and when I started to tell my own story, I used the drugs as a jumping off point, for sure, but not as the main point of the book.

3:AM: Many readers are attracted to your work, not only because of its inherent value, but also because you talk it as you walked it — like Orpheus, you’ve travelled to the Underworld and lived to tell the tale. How important do you think it is for a writer to have experienced the (under)world before setting pen to paper?

TON: You know, I did a reading up in Marionapolis College in Montreal earlier this year, and it was a very interesting experience for me as my book is actually on the syllabus there. So there were all of these lit students who had read my stuff — and even read some of the stuff that appeared on small presses and journals — and were coming to me with all of these questions. Most of them were aspiring writers themselves. And that was a question that kept coming up. My take on it is this: it was the right thing for me. Because my life, up until the moment that I started to write my first book, had consisted of a lot of very extreme experiences. To ignore that part of my life would have been insanity. But I’m in the middle of reading a book called Rivethead by Ben Hamper, which is basically a book about the author’s life spent building cars for General Motors, in Flint Michigan. I think it is fascinating to read about the lives of others, regardless of whether they were stone dope fiends like me, factory workers like Ben Hamper… it’s important to have gone out into the world and got your hands dirty, for sure. I mean that’s just called growing up. Maybe for other people it’s different, but for me life had to knock several rounds of shit outta me before I realized that I knew what I wanted to say. I remember sitting down at 16 and attempting a novel — and the biggest stumbling block was that I had nothing to say. I wanted to make grand statements. Sometimes we don’t realize that the most profound shit is the stuff that is all around us. If I had sat down and written about life as a 16-year-old in a dying-on-its-arse old cotton town like Blackburn, maybe I would have had something. But I didn’t. I just wanted to imitate all of my favorite writers, and the book came out so awful that I didn’t dare put pen to paper for almost a decade. In short: it’s important to know what you want to say, and for me the best way to do that is do go out and live. But don’t think that doing a lot of drugs is a short cut to any kind of insight, because it isn’t.


[David Peel, Tony O’Neill and his wife Vanessa at the Murder Mile book launch, KGB Bar, NYC]

3:AM: There’s a passage in Murder Mile where you explain how you used to conjure up the names of great junkie artists and writers as “a perfect excuse for a little hit”: “Did William Burroughs sit around, worrying about taking dope? Or did he just do it and then write immortal books?” I know what I’m going to say is a load of bollocks, but one almost gets the impression that you did it — became a junkie — in order to be able to write about it. It’s pretty obvious from interviews and, of course, from your books, that you are very conscious of belonging to a tradition of junkie artists. Would you agree that, in your case, writing and drugs are inseparable? Writing proved cathartic enough to help you get off drugs, which, in turn, enabled you to become a writer who writes about drugs. In a way, you have transmuted drugs into words… Is writing your new drug?

TON: It’s funny because you’ve picked up on a paragraph that I really agonized over. It was almost cut a few times when I was editing. Part of what I didn’t want to say was that somehow I started using heroin because you know, Johnny Thunders did it. It wasn’t really until I already had a habit, that I really picked up books by Burroughs, or records by Lou Reed, Johnny Thunders and the like, and realized — shit! — they’re talking about my lifestyle. I didn’t have this urge to belong to their club before I was a junkie. It was more that after I became a junkie, someone pressed a copy of Junky into my hands and said, “You’ll probably like this”. So that’s one part of it.

What I was trying to express with that paragraph was the reasoning that would lead me to relapse, the kind of mental tricks and emotional blackmail that your mind can play on you. I knew that if I were to not get high today, take a few days off, then I could avoid a habit. But all it takes is for the romantic part of your mind to start goading you on, and my your resolve slips, you know? It was my mind’s way of telling me not to be a pussy, and get high. It’s probably a fair point that, for me, writing and drugs are intertwined. But so is writing and breathing. So is writing and music. So is writing and my family life. Drugs did inform basically every part of my life; I see drugs as just another strand of all the stuff that shaped who I am as a person: musical taste, fashion, my family, I mean all of that extremely potent stuff. All of that shaped how I write, and what I write about.


[Judy Nylon and Tony O’Neill, Murder Mile book launch]

3:AM: I believe you wrote your first novel while on the methadone programme in London described in your new novel. Perhaps this is part of the greatness of Murder Mile: like all important books it chronicles the genesis of its own writing…

TON: Right. Well, I had to come out of all of that experience as a different person. Either that or I had to die. The period in London was tricky to write about, but also extremely exciting to write about, because it was a process of awakening. Whereas Digging the Vein detailed me literally digging a very big hole for myself, Down and Out details to process of my crawling out of it. I deliberately didn’t mention the writing of the book, but I suppose it is this unspoken thing that haunts the last part of the story.

3:AM: What will happen when there is no more junkie past to recycle and you reach your present state of happily-married bliss? Is that something that sometimes worries you?

TON: Well, you know, no one lives in a state of bliss, at least not all of the time. If you were in a state of bliss, there’d probably be no impetus to write. I think what the first two books gave me was a chance to discover my voice, and my themes. This is stuff that can be easily expressed away from autobiographical fiction. I can say definitely that my next book will not be so heavily based upon my own life.

I am currently working on the French translation of a new book of short stories that do in a certain way provide a bridge between the two styles of writing. The book is called Notre Dame du Vide and there the stories veer from total fantasy to some pretty straight ahead autobiographical stuff. That’s due out in early June 09. The publisher, 13th Note Press are currently translating Dan Fante, Mark SaFranko, and will do the first ever French translation of William Burroughs Jr’s Speed which is a real favorite of mine.

I started developing away from pure autobiographical fiction with the short stories, and now I am working on a new novel that will be a distinct and different thing from either Digging the Vein or Down and Out on Murder Mile. But there will be certain reoccurring themes, reoccurring locations; even some of the same peripheral characters will make appearances. I did want to take a break from talking about my own life and do something different this time. There are more stories to tell, but for my own sanity I needed to get away from that on the next book.


[Michael Signorelli & Carrie Kania from Harper Perennial with Tony O’Neill at the Murder Mile book launch]

3:AM: Your marriage to Susan was a loveless and largely sexless (due to the drugs) relationship, but in spite of the squalor and hardship there is something quite romantic, in a Sid and Nancy kind of way, about a junkie couple in freefall, shooting up and getting high to plumb the lowest depths (“Without a strong pull in any other direction we decided to go down together”) — at least on paper. Here, drugs stand in for the love potion of so many age-old love stories, and there’s the obligatory coupling of Eros and Thanatos — the “unspoken agreement that [they] would eventually die together”. Do you recognise these traditional tropes in your work?

TON: Well yes, I mean I recognized those tropes simply looking back at my life. There’s something really romantic about death and self-destruction when you’re at a certain point in your life, isn’t there? There was always an instinct within me to push it to the very furthest limit. That coupled with a naive assertion that I myself was immortal, even as everybody around me were dropping like flies. But yes, in committing those events to paper, those themes do become very apparent.

3:AM: Have you ever considered the fairy-tale qualities of your real-life love story with Vanessa? There’s the randomness which turns out to be necessity (the first contact is made when you call her number at random on someone else’s mobile). She falls in love when you were “at [your] lowest ebb, [your] worst point, [your] most destroyed, destitute and bankrupted,” and yet she sees through all that as if you were a prince disguised as a pauper…

TON: Ha, well I suppose that there is that quality to it. What it certainly made me think about was the randomness of life. The fact that life really doesn’t have a plot trajectory. That one phone call, one interaction can make your life branch out into a completely different and unexpected direction. Would I be dead if I hadn’t met Vanessa when I did? In all honestly, the chances are yes. There certainly wouldn’t be any books, put it that way.

3:AM: Tell us about the junkie idealism which shines through at times — that childlike blanket rejection of compromise and mediocrity: “…I start to realize that the war on drugs is a war on beauty — a war on perfection, because everything is perfect on heroin…”

TON: Well, I accept that part of my problem is that I have never been able to let go of that sense of idealism. And it’s a part of my personality that leads to a lot of conflicts in my life. I tend to rail against everything, and that is definitely a part of my personality that left me wide open to heroin addiction. Not everybody that tries heroin becomes an addict. I think that it takes a certain personality type to actually jump from experimenting with heroin, to becoming a full-blown addict. Addicts are not created overnight. It took months of daily use before I was physically addicted for the first time. Heroin feeds into that excessive, idealistic part of me. “If I can feel this good for one moment, then I should be able to feel this good every moment of ever day.”


[Tony O’Neill with EJ (aka Speedball Eddie in the book) at the Murder Mile launch]

3:AM: Drugs in Murder Mile aren’t simply a means of escaping the daily grind; they also provide the opportunity to escape the confines of the self. When the narrator shoots up with Steve, he feels that they are “connected with something larger and more ancient and more vast than either of [them] could truly conceive of before the drugs” — an experience which is described in religious terms. A very similar dissolution of the self happens during sex with Vanessa (with a little help from a few Ecstasy tablets): “We become fluid and unstable, and for moments as brief as epileptic flashes, the laws of physics are suspended and we melt, tongue in cunt, cock in mouth, in a lightning crack of divinity. For moments we cease to be individuals”. Could you tell us about this parallel between drugs and sex, and the desire to escape the self?

TON: Speaking personally, a large part of my existence has been based around trying to flee the idea of “self”. I have done that with drugs, with sex, with music… all of those are just the tools that most of us have at our disposal. My biggest fear is mundanity, of being stifled. I mean why shouldn’t life be pure pleasure all of the time? That is my thinking. Of course it can’t be, but I feel that there is some intellectual justification in saying that even a life spent in the futile pursuit of some kind of transcendence is a life better spent than if you accept it will never be as perfect as you imagine. Or, as a junkie friend of mine used to scoff when he saw non-drug users, “Look at the poor fuckers! Imagine waking up in the mornings and knowing that’s as good as you’re going to feel all fucking day?”

3:AM: We’ve already touched upon this, but religious imagery runs through the novel. On one occasion, the narrator feels “an understanding of God” after shooting up. When he meets Vanessa for the first time, he feels born-again — an experience he describes as a “revelation”: “…the mountain of mangled flesh and calcified veins had somehow been removed by God’s hand”. (In the acknowledgements at the end, you thank Vanessa for giving you a “second shot” — a loaded word in this context — “at life”.) There’s the aforementioned Ecstasy-fuelled “lightning crack of divinity” as well as the themes of the prodigal son and redemption through love. Could you comment on this?

TON: Well, I’m sure a lot of that has to do with my Catholic upbringing. Like most Catholics, I turned out pretty screwed up. I have an almost phobic fear of organized religion of any kind. Living in America, I suppose, added an extra dimension to that horror. At least in England, if a politician were to stand up and start evoking God as a reason behind a policy decision they would be laughed off the stage. Here, it’s a fucking prerequisite. Going through rehab as well, you get a lot of God talk. I don’t pretend to know if there’s a God or not. My own personal sense is that we’re all alone. It’s just a feeling that I have. I am a believer in the absurdity of life, and the meaninglessness of existence, and Samuel Beckett spoke more profoundly to me on the nature of existence than a thousand prophets and saints. However, that doesn’t mean that one can’t find a (here comes one of those recovery clichés I have absorbed over the years) god of your understanding in everyday life. For me, God comes in the post-orgasmic rush, or in a spoonful of just-cooked heroin. God is in my kid’s eyes. God is in a perfect autumn day. God is in that moment after 12 hours dropping pills, where you are finally outside of your own skin and bones, observing yourself from another place. Unlike the believers, though, I don’t think that these thoughts validate the idea of a God outside of these moments. That’s all there is… For me, it’s enough.


[Tony O’Neill by Sam Jordison]

3:AM: Murder Mile is a coming-of-age tale, a portrait of the artist as a young junkie. We’ve already mentioned the search for perfection and the desire to make epiphanies endure, but there’s also the theme of redemption through maternal-like unconditional love. And one of the last chapters is called “Adulthood”. And it closes on this sentence: “And I know now, I need to grow up”. Is this a genre you are attracted to?

TON: Not particularly, but I do recognize that this book is something of a coming-of-age story. Not in the sense that the narrator starts the book as some kind of naïf and ends up an adult, but in the sense that the narrator finally is able to rip down some of the bricks in the wall that he has spent quite a few years building up around him.

3:AM: In past interviews, you’ve explained that to you shooting up was a political act — a total rejection of straight society. What is interesting in the book is that the narrator’s point of view is never that clear-cut one way or the other. After falling in love with Vanessa, for instance, the “black-and-white junk-eye view” of life is replaced by the “widescreen, Technicolor spectacle it truly can be”. And, yet, at the end of the book, he’s popping pills “to keep the ghosts away” and is still a prisoner to the “screaming, whining, dying part of [his] brain that is content to wallow in the gutter for all eternity”. Are you still a sworn enemy of the “recovery industry”? Would you describe yourself as pro-drugs?

TON: Well, there’s a few questions in there that I should address. The first one is about the narrator’s viewpoint being never clear-cut: that’s true. Because that holds true in life. If you are prepared to reject the current “addiction as disease” ethos, then you are left in an uncomfortable position, and your view of addiction is subject to constant change and adjustment. Of course a rational view of one’s own addiction should be complex, and it will probably be conflicted. You hate your addiction. You love the way the drugs make you feel. You feel powerless, but ultimately you have the power. Will you get high today? It’s completely up to you.

My problems with the recovery industry remain the same. I feel that peddling the “addiction as a disease” model is counterproductive. Addiction is NOT a disease. Cancer is a disease. Addiction is simply a matter of exposure. Take enough heroin and you will become addicted to it. Drink enough alcohol and you will become addicted. But nobody wakes up one morning to find they have been struck by addiction. It’s a self-defeating philosophy. Telling an addict that they are helpless in the face of this mysterious disease that they have no control over (“We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.”) creates this phenomenon of the “addict for life” who will never again be able to drink or indulge in drugs “normally” (i.e. socially). So for the properly indoctrinated heroin addict, a glass of lager becomes a “relapse”. And really, junkies don’t need to be given an excuse to use heroin. If you’re telling them that that glass of lager is a relapse, and they are now “addicted” again, then you are basically giving them carte blanche to use heroin again: “Hey, I relapsed already, and anyway I can’t help it: it wasn’t me, it was my disease!” The plain boring fact is that there is no such thing as a relapse. If I were to buy and inject some heroin tomorrow, that wouldn’t be a relapse. Why? Because I could stop there, and nobody would know the difference. The next shot would be a choice. And the next. Going back to the dealer to buy more would also be a choice. A relapse is not something that is mysterious, and irreversible, and drops on you like a piano tossed from a third-story window. Under those circumstances, I would have made a series of choices, all of which led to me becoming physically dependent on heroin again.

That said, I don’t do heroin anymore, and I haven’t done it in over 5 years. The reason is simple: I recognize that the allure of heroin has a significant hold on me, and rather than have to make the difficult decision not to use the second time, I just avoid the whole issue. That said, when I go to the doctor with a toothache, and they prescribe an opiate painkiller, I don’t say no. That I look at like a gift. And yes, I enjoy it…

As far as being pro- or anti-drugs…. I feel that you cannot be “pro-drugs”. Drugs to me are just another tool at your disposal, and to be pro- or anti-drugs, is like being pro- or anti-love. I am pro-rationality. I am certainly not someone who is against using drugs. I am someone who is certainly against the current illegality of drugs. From an intellectual viewpoint, I find it quite ridiculous that all drugs — from heroin, crack, all the way down to ecstasy and weed — aren’t legal. I feel that the illegality of drugs is not about their potential harm, but more about a perception of drug takers as somehow degenerate or unclean. I still remember the name Leah Betts quite clearly, as I’m sure a lot of people who are my age and grew up in England do. I do know that this girl’s death was ruthlessly exploited in an attempt to demonize ecstasy and spread the myth about “contaminated Ecstasy”. However, I’d be hard pressed to name any of the thousands of young people who have died as a result of getting into a car crash in the last ten years. Why do I know Leah Bett’s name, and not the names of the many teenagers killed in car crashes? Why is it that we demonize Ecstasy, and not motor vehicles? Why aren’t pushing to ban cars? Why aren’t we going after Toyota or Mercedes Benz the way we are pursuing the “drug pushers”? If we’re going to take a line as simple-minded as “drugs have killed people, so lets ban them” why not follow that line of thinking to its (il)logical conclusion?

There is nobody on this earth who could give me a reason for changing my views on this issue, because — really — there is no logical argument for the prohibition of drugs. People die every day from a variety of external causes, yet because drug use is linked to pleasure, and linked to a kind of social subversion, then we demonize drug use. I would be quite happy to see doctors able to prescribe pharmaceutical heroin to addicts.

I’ll add as a caveat that I know a lot of people who got clean through the 12-steps, and I’m not anti-12 step. I am simply anti the 12-steps being the only recourse to the addict, which it is under the current system.


3:AM: Besides the political slant you give to drug taking, there is also an existential one. At the beginning of the book, the narrator argues that we’re all fucked and that drugs are the only reaction (“Maybe I could have painted masterpieces or cured cancer. But at the end of the day, the universe is finite, and soon everything mankind has achieved over the years will some day be gone. Even Leonardo da Vinci and Charles Darwin will one day be no more significant than a fossilized lump of shit. Faced with that reality, getting high seems a hell of a lot more meaningful than trying to change the world”). You also take up the idea (that you find in the works of people like Leopardi or Beckett) according to which life is a disease which can only be cured by death. Do you still agree with this?

TON: Yes. And to me that aspect to drug taking is as real and as tangible as saying that you take drugs because you were abused as a child, or suffered some other terrible trauma. When I was in treatment, I was questioned relentlessly about my childhood. Did my parents abuse me? No. Did anyone abuse me as a child? No. Was I beaten? No. What they would never accept from me was the idea that I simply did drugs because they felt good. That was a no-no because then it blew their ability to diagnose and “treat” me. And what they certainly didn’t want to hear was that I did drugs because our lives are ultimately meaningless and insignificant, so why not pass the time pleasurably? There are as many reasons for taking drugs as there are people taking drugs. This idea of the universal personality profile of the addict is a myth. That’s why I loathe so many of the “drug memoirs” that have come out recently. Because they’re all singing the same fucking tune, and to make matters worse they aren’t even singing it in an interesting way. I wonder: can they really believe the shit they’re trying to sell us? Or do they just think that it’s easier to give people what they expect, because people don’t like to be made to think too hard? It’s hard not to look at something like, say, David Carr’s Night of the Gun as anything but pure intellectual cowardice.

3:AM: Is the Offbeat revolution gathering pace?

TON: Something is happening in literature. I know when I started out writing, looking for like-minded authors was really tough. That’s why Dan Fante was a revelation for me. Finding his book was like finding a wallet stuffed full of cash in the garbage. Now there are so many interesting young writers out there, and they’re all railing against the established system in their own ways. The strength of the Offbeat thing is that it is a broad church, and despite the fact that there is a shared feeling, each writer is furiously plowing a very different and very distinct furrow. I think that ultimately this will be the trait that will help keep the writing of the Offbeats relevant as time passes.

Check out 3:AM‘s 2006 and 2007 interviews with Tony O’Neill.

Andrew Gallix is 3:AM Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief. He writes fiction as well as non-fiction, teaches at the Sorbonne in Paris and lives his life like a string of beads tossed from a frilly New Orleans balcony (mainly in his dreams). He is not currently working on his debut novel.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, November 15th, 2008.