Interview with Gene O’Neill10 min read

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For those familiar with the horror and dark science fiction scene, the name Gene O’Neill should strike a note that rings of commitment to excellence and the deep, dark places people fight through in the great struggle of life. He has authored more than a hundred short stories and novellas, and a clutch of well received novels. Several of these works have received Nebula and Stoker nominations.

For those unfamiliar with Gene’s previous work, he is like Verne’s Nautilus: a silent, deadly submersible, cruising through the mysterious waters of the publishing industry, a great talent that catches you unaware and plunges you into the depths of permanent fandom. He doesn’t write about perfect, shiny-armored heroes. He doesn’t often write about “nice” things. But in his stories, he almost always captures that little something in all of us that makes us wince, or look away, but that always keeps us reading.

Despite how devoted he is to his writing, I managed to finagle a little time from Mr. O’Neill to discuss his upcoming release from Apex Publications, A TASTE OF TENDERLOIN.

APEX: What is the Tenderloin, for those who haven’t lived in San Francisco, or who haven’t yet read A TASTE OF TENDERLOIN?

GENE O’NEILL: It’s probably unfair to characterize the Tenderloin as just San Francisco’s red light district. True, it does have its share of crime, shifty-eyed pimps, skimpily-dressed hookers, furtive dealers, dead-eyed junkies, wandering homeless, shuffling winos talking to parking meters, and bag ladies wearing multi-layered greasy clothing. But it also has a lot of kids darting about, playing, and going to school, mostly SE Asian immigrants; and there is a certain amount of uplifting gentrification. One way of describing the face of something is aged; a better way is experienced. The ‘loin is experienced and colorful, with a kind of lingering electric excitement in the foggy air—you sense anything can happen at any time.

APEX: Did you write all of the stories in TENDERLOIN with this collection in mind, or did you write them separately/spread apart?

GENE O’NEILL: No, the first couple of stories were written some time ago. I think “The Apotheosis of Nathan McKee” was written maybe before 2000. Then close to that time “5150.” Steve Savile read both, and was intrigued by my take on this part of the City. At some point in time he suggested that I do more stories and put together a collection, calling it: A TASTE OF TENDERLOIN. A few years went by, and I published a couple of more stories with the ‘loin as background. Then I remembered Steve’s recommendation. So, fairly recently I completed “Lost Patrol,” “Bruised Soul,” and “Bushido,” with the collection in mind. Jason Sizemore thought the idea and collection had potential and agreed to publish it. The last three stories mentioned will all be original to the book.

APEX: Of the stories in TENDERLOIN, which is your personal favorite? Why?

GENE O’NEILL: Two are my favorites, “Balance” and “Bruised Soul.” Of course part of it is I’ve been a Marine and an amateur boxer (like the lead characters in the two stories). In the early sixties Marines returned from Vietnam with only marginally adequate care in VA hospitals, especially hospitals away from urban centers. As we’ve found out that care has only recently been upgraded. So the damaged vet here—including obvious mental problems—is a dramatic example of the consequences of our lack of adequate psychological services for our returning troops. To place a yellow ribbon on the back of your SUV doesn’t really help someone like Declan Mulcahy all that much. The problems the boxer faces returning to the Tenderloin after his boxing career is over are not uncommon either, especially his fear of having been seriously damaged by the accumulated punches absorbed in all the past fights—no one wants to be “punch drunk,” which is what the fighters dub the characters shuffling around gyms exhibiting Parkinson syndrome—like slurred speech. If I did my work well both stories stir a reader’s sense of deep poignancy and empathy–feelings I share for both characters.

APEX: In the (beautiful) introduction to TENDERLOIN, your son Gavin writes that you don’t like anybody, and yet the stories in TENDERLOIN seems to capture a lot of the empathy you feel for the struggling of humanity. So, Gene, do you really not like anybody?

GENE O’NEILL: I hope that my writing reflects a kind of humanistic/existential philosophy which I think I have always subscribed to. Characters are respected, without being judged. There are no real heroes or villains—people just doing the best they can. No over concern with current definitions of morality. That’s pretty much how I want to relate to most people. Maybe I don’t always suffer fools quite so easily. But Gavin is making a kind of long-term joke that started in his adolescence. I never “liked” any of his friends, you know. Of course most of them still come to visit Kay and me now, bring their spouses and their babies, even though they are in their upper thirties. So I suspect that even back then, this characterization wasn’t quite true. But Gavin is also probably referring to my kind of reclusive nature. I’ve never been good at parties or large social occasions, finding the chit-chat superficial. So I avoid gatherings even family affairs. I have no problem blurring alone and lonely. I’m comfortable by myself. Although I do like to meet fans at conventions, and do fine on panels, lecturing, or reading. But I come home emotionally exhausted from the being on experience..

APEX: What is your process of taking a story from initial concept to final draft?

GENE O’NEILL: Well, now days I do more thinking than writing. Early on I used to get an idea, set down at the manual typewriter, and knock it out. But now I mull it over. I actually take longer to complete a story now—so much for efficiency increasing with experience, right. First I need to have a premise, then the main character’s name, the title of the story, and where I’m heading for an ending. All this before I put one word down. Then I write a scene, and revise it before I go on. Then, another scene, and revise what I’ve written. Even in a short story some of the work will be revised ten-fifteen times. This becomes even more extensive in a novella or novel. But by the time I finish that “first” go around, the story, tone, theme, etc. is pretty much there. Just a little more polishing then before going out to a few trusted readers. And usually not too much change after that. But I’m very slow. A novel takes me a long time from initial commitment to finish—perhaps 18 months typical for 80K words.

APEX: What is the hardest part of writing a work of fiction for you?

GENE O’NEILL: Well, I guess it is really two things. Ideas swirl around a writer. Snatching a few and then deciding which one is best is difficult. I think the secret here is to pick the idea that you really care about—not the most commercial or the most topical or what fans are clamoring for, but the idea that stirs something emotional within you. Then, soldiering on and maintaining that special feeling, hoping readers will hitchhike on the emotion. Perhaps my weakest area and always the hardest for me is plotting. My strong points, I think, are developing a sense of place and solid characterization. If so, I think these aspects of writing often overwhelm my plotting. Maybe this is just kind of a literary snobbery on my part. Critics and academics both like strong characterization even at the expense of plotting—usually in mainstream literature (I love Raymond Carver’s short stories, but try telling one to someone who has never read Carver). But what does the great Stephen King say about storytelling being the most important part of being a good writer? And I definitely respect Stephen King. So I do constantly address this weakness.

APEX: In an article you wrote for the APEX BLOG, you mentioned that you believe writers don’t follow a steady learning curve, but tend toward a series of disjointed plateaus of progress. Was your development as a writer like this?

GENE O’NEILL: Sure, that’s why I believe it. A writer is always his best source about how a character should feel, react, respond…and his own development—a subject pool of one. Both Damon Knight and Stan Robinson believed in this plateau effect in a writer’s development. They also believe that older writers jump up this steep incline more quickly than younger writers (anticipating some of the below answer). And as it turned out, believing this about the so called curve, I was a kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy, because I developed fairly rapidly—about one year from finishing Clarion ‘79 to seeing a story published in the Twilight Zone Magazine.

APEX: You began seriously writing later than many writers. Do you feel that having started later in life gave you an advantage in that you had gained a lot of life’s experiences and knew more who you were, and what you wanted to say in your writing?

GENE O’NEILL: I think in my case part of that is true. As a younger person I was involved in a lot of what most would consider adventuresome living. So I eventually had some subject matter to write about when I got serious—sometime before Clarion ‘79. I think even now I have a certain passion and enthusiasm when I commit to a project. But generally writing experts believe younger writers have a natural youthful enthusiasm in their work; and older writers lose that youthful vigor. Regardless, I kind of believe in something Damon Knight said about Richard McKenna (THE SAND PEBBLES) who didn’t start writing until he retired from the Navy and completed college. Damon thought that McKenna was an example of his belief that after a writer becomes really competent, he will produce his best work after that in a ten-fifteen year period. When a person becomes competent is the key, regardless his age. Btw, Damon said I reminded him of Richard McKenna in several ways—high praise because McKenna was an excellent writer (he wrote some very good genre stories, many with a darker slant, collected in CASEY AGONISTES). Unfortunately McKenna never got through his ten year period—he died early. Hope that part of his life I don’t imitate.

APEX: You’ve written a number of novels, but also a lot of short fiction—like the stories collected in TENDERLOIN. You’ve said that you moved to novels because a writer can’t make a living writing short fiction. But which format/length do you prefer?

GENE O’NEILL: Well, of course any writer who cares a hoot about his work, cares less about earning a living with that work—it’s the writing, the writing, the writing. I really think the short story form is the most difficult. Every word counts. There is little room for drift. Whereas, a novel is more forgiving. But I think the best form for dark fiction is really the novella. Look at Stephen King’s best work—many think it’s his novellas. I do. Conrad’s HEART OF DARKNESS is something I read over and over—it’s great. And I think some of my strongest stories are my novellas, including the three or four Cal Wild novellas I’ve written—enough room for character development and ample closure, too. But novellas are hard to place. Although the specialty press with their limited/signed trade paper backs may save the form.

APEX: You’re a fan of Roald Dahl’s work (as am I!). Which of his works would you say is you favorite (if you had to pick)?

GENE O’NEILL: Well of course his great “Man from the South” comes to mind. It’s a terrific story to illustrate how an imaginative writer can overcome an either/or ending (most stories are set up for this kind of ending). In this story either the old man wins the gambling bet or the young man does. But Dahl cleverly dodges both these endings. Something unusual happens at the last moment in this excellent story. He is noted for his double twists at the end of his stories. But I think my favorite Dahl stories are: “The Way up to Heaven” and “Parson’s Pleasure.” Both tales are terrific examples of true dramatic irony, which Dahl is also noted for. I think Dahl’s stories hold up exceptionally well today (TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED), which isn’t always the case with past renown writers. For example, I don’t think the famed short story writer, John Collier, holds up to modern standards, including his best known tale, “Evening Primrose.”

APEX: What are you working on currently (if you can say)?

GENE O’NEILL: Currently, I’m finishing up a short story commitment for the bonus inclusion in a lettered edition of one of my Cal Wild novellas—”Jade” will appear in the lettered edition of THE BURDEN OF INDIGO show, out this September from Bad Moon Books. I’m also finishing up some non-fiction commentary for the lettered edition of an anthology of three writer’s trio of novellas from Sideshow Press—SIDESHOW EXHIBITS, includes my novella, THE GREAT NORTHERN SWEET WATER RAID, and will be up for pre-order soon and released in February of 2010 (the other two writers in this book are Gord Rollo and Mike McBride). Soon I plan on giving serious consideration to expanding into a novel the Stoker finalist in long fiction, THE CONFESSIONS OF ST. ZACH. I plan on linking this post-holocaust novella to the Cal Wild stories, including THE BURDEN OF INDIGO.

APEX: In 100 years, what do you hope people will say about your work?

GENE O’NEILL: He’s our greatest living writer! Seriously, not a good science fiction or horror or fantasy or mainstream writer, but just plain good writer. Let’s hope folks are still reading in 100 years. I think they will be.

APEX: I think it’s very likely they will be! Thank you Mr. O’Neill for participating in this interview!

GENE O’NEILL: Thank you.

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