Interviews · 07/09/2013

A conversation with Stephen O'Connor

What books and/or authors have had the most influence on your writing?

I’m almost embarrassed to answer this question, partly because my biggest influences (Tolstoy, Kafka, Joyce and Shakespeare) might seem just a bunch of “the usual suspects,” and partly because merely saying that these authors “influenced” me seems to imply that I have somehow inherited their genius, which I am extremely sorry to say I have not. The primary characteristic that these writers have in common is that they each, in their distinctive way, have an astounding ability to penetrate and reveal the human psyche. Joyce and Shakespeare were also, of course, consummate masters of language. I am, however, far less interested in Joyce’s language than in the psychological depth of his characters (Leopold Bloom especially), which means that I am only amused by Finnegans Wake, and even then, only in small doses. I have been powerfully influenced by the language of many writers, most notably: Virginia Woolf, Donald Barthelme, Frank O’Hara, Wallace Stevens and, especially during my high school days, Dylan Thomas.

How do you decide when a piece you’ve written is “finished” enough to publish?

I try to have no idea what I am going to write when I sit down at my computer, not just when I am beginning a story, but, to some extent, all the way through. As I write, I try constantly to take the action and language in directions I never would have expected, but that somehow, and often in very mysterious ways, feel right. What never ceases to amaze me is that, no matter how hard I try to subvert my own expectations, the stories almost always end up remarkably coherent — though, admittedly, sometimes in rather eccentric ways. Once I have finished a draft, I go back over it and try to come to some sort of understanding of what the story is about and/or doing best. After that, my editing process consists almost entirely of trying to make whatever seems best in my story as good as it can possibly be — a process that also involves cutting a lot of weak or unnecessary material. And, of course, I tinker endlessly with language, always aiming for greater precision and surprise. I should emphasize, however, that I have little interest in surprise for its own sake. If some turn of phrase or of the plot is surprising but doesn’t seem true, I cut it out and try to replace it with something equally unexpected but that seems to give us more of this life as we actually live it. I’ve never kept track of drafts, but I probably work each my stories through from beginning to end between five and ten times during the revision process, with some sections going through hundreds of variations. I stop revising when I think I have made every scene and sentence as strong as I possibly can. There is, of course, always a bit of anxiety attached to stopping revision, because I can never be sure that what seems interesting or true to me will feel the same way to my readers — but that, alas, is an anxiety I have no choice but to live with.

What would you consider to be a productive day of work, and do you have a writing routine?

I try to get started first thing in the morning, when I am still a bit groggy and my unconscious mind (the best source of inspiration) is less restrained by the obligations of daily life. During the school year, I rarely have more than an hour or two to devote to my writing, but on weekends or breaks, I usually keep writing until around 3:00 p.m., at which point my brain goes on strike and it is time for some exercise. Sometimes I go back to work before dinner, but usually my brain is still too blitzed to do anything productive. I consider it a good day when I feel I have moved forward in what I am writing, even just a little. The bad days are those in which I discover something terribly wrong in a story, poem or essay, but don’t have an inkling about how to correct it.

What part of your writing process do you most enjoy?

I have two favorite moments: The first is when whatever I am writing is flooding into my brain and out through my fingertips and I seem to be actually living it. That’s when I get to feel like a genius — at least for as long as the piece is coming out well. My second favorite moment comes at the very end of that long and depressing confrontation with my mediocrity known as revision. It’s that moment when all those changes I sweated over and doubted suddenly come together and the piece seems coherent and alive again, and I — all too briefly — get to feel that I might be a genius after all.

You have written in a variety of genres, including short fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. When you first begin a piece, do you assign it a genre, or do you let it play out first?

I always know exactly what genre I am writing in. A couple of my stories — “The Final Frontier” and “All in Good Time” — grew out of images that first came to me in poems, but there was never any confusion about what genre to call them. When it comes to the distinction between fiction and nonfiction, however, I am somewhat old fashioned. I know full well that no assemblage of words can give us the world as it actually is, but I think that the struggle to keep as close as one possibly can to fact is what gives nonfiction its particular vitality and significance. What I value most about nonfiction is the writer’s sincere and determined struggle to make sense of fact, sometimes even at the expense of artistry. It is, of course, perfectly fine to surrender fact to artistry; I wouldn’t write fiction and poetry if I felt differently. But I do object when authors produce works that are substantially imaginary and then lay claim to the automatic credibility and emotional connection that come from calling a work nonfiction.

You teach in the MFA programs at Sarah Lawrence and Columbia University, and you also directed and taught in a Teachers & Writers Collaborative creative writing program in New York City. How has teaching in these programs shaped your work?

I love to teach, even though it eats up a lot of time that I might devote to writing. And I have learned a huge amount by looking carefully at student writing, trying to figure out exactly what works and doesn’t work, and then explaining to my students as clearly as I possibly can how they might make their writing better. There is no way that I can do justice here to all the benefits I have derived from teaching, but the single most important lesson I have learned standing at the front of a classroom is never to fake it. I can’t help my students by pretending to know something I don’t know, or by relying on some impressive but only half-comprehended bit of critical dogma or vocabulary. If I speak to an issue in the classroom, I want to be sure that I completely understand every aspect of the problem I am dealing with, that I can express what I understand clearly, and that I truly believe everything I am saying. I apply exactly the same standards to my writing. Some of my work strikes many readers as profoundly mysterious, if not downright impenetrable, but I work as hard as I can to be sure that I understand the implications of every scene, image and word, and that they all work toward some sort of effect and/or significance that seems right to me. I know that I can’t and shouldn’t even try to control every aspect of my readers’ experience (and often I have been surprised and delighted by my readers’ interpretations of my work), but, at the same time, I always want to be sure that I don’t promise my readers goods I can’t deliver.

Do you have a favorite piece you’ve written? If so, what is it and why?

My favorite piece is always the one I have just finished writing!

What else are you working on, and where can readers go to find more of your work?

Right now I am working on a mixed genre novel (realism, fabulism, essay and prose poetry) about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings that I am calling Human Events. An excerpt from it will be running in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading sometime in the near future. I also have a story forthcoming in The Common, and have stories in the current issues of Conjunctions, The Literary Review and Black Clock. I’ve got links to some of these and to other works on my website: stephenoconnor.net

Finally, what advice would you give yourself when you first started writing?

Have fun, work as hard as you can, and don’t quit. The literary life has been a lot more difficult and a lot less remunerative than I ever imagined it would be when I started out. I’ve had quite a few good moments, but also my share of grim ones — some of them seeming as if they would never end. But when all is said and done, I think that writing is an utter joy, in part for the very things that make it so difficult. The fact that I never know exactly how a work is going to come out, or whether it will be published, or even whether I can actually do it means that I am constantly challenged and never bored. Also I consider myself unbelievably lucky that my “job” is to endlessly examine my mind, my heart, and the world in which I live and to give my readers whatever I find there that seems most interesting and beautiful.

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Stephen O’Connor is the author of the short story collections, Here Comes Another Lesson and Rescue. His nonfiction books include: Will My Name Be Shouted Out?, a memoir and Orphan Trains, The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed, narrative history. His fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Threepenny Review, Conjunctions, The Quarterly, Partisan Review, Electric Literature, TriQuarterly, and many other places. His poetry has been in Poetry Magazine, The Missouri Review, Agni, Knockout, and Green Mountains Review. His essays and journalism have appeared in The New York Times, Doubletake, Agni, The Nation, The Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe and elsewhere. He is the recipient of the Cornell Woolrich Fellowship in Creative Writing from Columbia University, the Visiting Fellowship for Historical Research by Artists and Writers from the American Antiquarian Society, and the DeWitt Wallace/​Reader’s Digest Fellowship from the MacDowell Colony.