An Interview with Tony O'Neill
Tony O'Neill is not your average writer. Raised in England, he began his career as a touring musician when he was eighteen. By this point, he was already versed in the bleeding nostrils and collapsed veins of the 90s music scene. A string of tours over a number of years left him in a bad way, leading to a number of lost years in Los Angeles and London, where he was addicted to heroin and crack cocaine. He was able to transform his sordid experiences into fiction with his novels Digging the Vein, Down and Out on Murder Mile, and Sick City.
O'Neill built a strong reputation for his needles-and-all accounts of addiction by publishing his stories online, on sites like 3:AM Magazine. This led him to be grouped with a range of other writers -- such as Ben Myers, Lee Rourke, Adelle Stripe, and Andrew Gallix -- who were collectively branded "The Offbeat Generation" by The Guardian. He returns to releasing stories online in a new arrangement with Galley Beggar Press, with whom he has released "A Story Sadder than All the Bruised Whores In Hollywood" and, more recently, "Almost Blue," the story of an ill-advised injection that has dangerous repercussions.
Here, O'Neill presents his passionate view on writing fiction and what inspires him to keep tapping a rich vein of experience.
You're known for writing autobiographical fiction and basing your writing on firsthand experience. What was the genesis of "Almost Blue," and is the title a reference to the old Chet Baker and Elvis Costello song?
My stories are drawn from my own experience, but my writing is never pure memoir. I have always been more into guys like Charles Bukowski and Dan Fante who take their experiences and turn them into novels. "Almost Blue" is a story that I wrote a while ago. The title is a reference to the guy turning blue in front of me. But I've also been obsessed by Chet Baker for years. My dream is to write a novel based on the life of Chet Baker when he was really strung out in New York during the '70s, playing the nostalgia circuit and really on his ass. He is always someone who I have been interested in. Once he gets into your imagination he stakes out his territory and doesn't leave.
Considering your experience as a musician, do you find as much inspiration in listening to music as you do in reading books?
I think of myself as a musical writer. It was never an ambition of mine to write. I never got an MFA or took writing classes. It was purely a survival thing when I started writing. I started doing it to keep myself sane when I was detoxing from heroin. It came naturally to me probably because I was a big reader. Without realizing I was doing it, I absorbed all these tricks about writing just by reading voraciously.
I relate more to musicians. Most writers now make me want to smash my head against the wall. I find them really dull. I hate going to readings, and I hate doing readings. I don't enjoy the whole mechanism of the reading circuit of showing up in some bookstore. I always sit there and think, "Who the fuck wants to see someone read out of a book?" I try to think of writing more in terms of music; I always want to write a story that is as compact and perfect as The Ramones' first album. I don't put myself in competition with Dubliners, you know. If I am thinking about trying to set a mood I will think about music. A big inspiration on a lot of my books was Berlin by Lou Reed. Just the mood of it was perfect.
You say that you started writing when you began to come off heroin and it was something that you felt you needed to do to keep you sane. Does recalling any of these experiences distress you while you're writing?
It's funny. It's almost a similar thing with how Scientologists deal with traumatic experiences: they keep repeating them. I got really interested in Scientology through a lot of the writing that Burroughs did in the '70s. If you continue to live a traumatic event, either verbally or written, it becomes less traumatic.
When I first write my stories, there are a lot of very unpleasant memories, and I recall periods of my life where I was vastly unhappy. "Almost Blue," for example, basically really happened like that. I stayed in touch with the guy I almost killed. He actually went on to have a very successful career as a video director and he had a kid. I sometimes think if he hadn't woken up I would have been responsible for ruining all of this great stuff this guy had in front of him.
But once I get the stories down on the page and I start rereading them, they become less traumatic. To the point where I can read the story out and see the humor in it. It took me years to see the humor in these situations. A bit of advice I got from another writer was that when something starts to make you feel really uncomfortable, that's where you need to be. Find the bits that make you feel uncomfortable because that is where you're going to really start writing. And it works.
Your protagonists are often very detached from their own emotions, but there are signs that the events they are witnessing distress them: the protagonist's shaking hands in "Almost Blue," for example. Is this how you recall events that may have occurred, or do you find that if you are using a first-person narrator you need your protagonist to provide the thrust of the action?
I have always been a bit detached from my own actions, even when stuff was actually going on and it was terrible. One time I was with a girl, and we'd let a crack dealer stay at our house. He was in a Mexican gang. He'd brought his girlfriend. I found out later they were really serious. He had a gun, and he was giving us all of this crack. Eventually we went into the bedroom and left him there with his girlfriend, and then I snuck out when they were asleep, took the rest of the crack, and smoked it with the girl. I realized that when he woke up, he was going to kill me. I sent the girl out to get some heroin, and I hid in the closet, hoping he wouldn't find me. Even then, when I was thinking, "If this guy wakes up, he's going to shoot me dead." There was always a sense that I was watching this happen to someone else.
Maybe it is something about growing up watching TV. I always felt like I had been cast as a lead in my own drama, and it was happening to me on one level, and on another level, I was watching it from a critical perspective. It is always how my life has been. Therefore, when I write, it makes it really easy for me to look through characters eyes and also observe the scene from outside of myself. It is not a deliberate technique. It is a symptom of whatever sickness is inside of me, which makes me experience my life from a few different perspectives. Maybe it is a psychological defense when you experience something really horrific, but I always feel a bit detached from it all.
Which living writers do you enjoy reading at the moment?
I remain a big fan of Jerry Stahl. Everybody knows him for Permanent Midnight, but he has been putting out these great dark comic novels and is an unparalleled short story writer.
Sometimes it is trendy to say, sometimes it is not, but I have always said that Irvine Welsh is one of the greatest writers who came out of the '90s in Britain. I went to school in Blackburn when it was very uncool to be reading. You didn't have a shred of interest in reading. And then, I went over to my friend's house, and we were drinking three-liter bottles of cider, smoking all of this cheap hash and taking speed and glue, and all my friends are reading Trainspotting. These were guys who would think nothing of smashing people's faces in, and suddenly they got into books. That was a powerful experience. I would rather read Irvine Welsh on an off day than most of these cunts in the New York Times bestseller list or all these boring shits on the Booker list. I have no interest in them -- all this postmodernist shit. I can't stand it. The one thing I can't stand is when books bore me. There are writers out here who have made a career out of being the most boring cunts imaginable and writing incredibly boring books. People buy it and, you know, people buy Miley Cyrus records. What can you do?
What do you make of the work Galley Beggar Press is doing with its Singles Club? Do you feel that releasing stories online is an opportunity to trial new material and take risks?
When you say to your publisher you have a collection of short stories, they're not interested. That's why I am so glad that guys like Galley Beggar are experimenting with releasing short stories.