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Portrait of the Artist as a Displaced Irish Bird-Lover
An Interview with Patrick O'Leary
by Nick Gevers


One of the most significant new SF writers to emerge in America in the 1990s, Patrick O'Leary is a powerfully idiosyncratic literary artist, offbeat, poetic, intense, sharply humorous and mesmerisingly surrealistic. His novels to date are Door Number Three (1995), an acute satirical take on the theme of alien invasion, and The Gift (1997), a complex fantastic meditation on the telling of stories, the telling of the world. His latest book is a fine collection of stories, essays, and poems, Other Voices, Other Doors (2000); forthcoming is his most ambitious work yet, The Impossible Bird.

I interviewed Patrick O'Leary by e-mail in October 2000.


NG: Starting on a light biographical note: are you as Irish in background (and temperament) as your name would seem to imply?

POL: My name has always struck me as normal until other people point out how very Irish it is. But, really, growing up I had little or no sense of my heritage. My grandparents were born in the U.S. I was born in Saginaw, Michigan (birthplace of the poet Roethke and Stevie Wonder), raised in the suburbs of Detroit. Ireland was as remote to my life as Peru. It wasn't until my early adulthood that I learned about my past. I come from butchers and railroad men--all Catholic. My ancestors were the O'Learys, the Glynns and the O'Connells. They came from counties Mayo and Cork. Like many immigrants they were starved out of their homeland. A distant ancestor immigrated to Canada during the Civil War, enlisted in the Union Army and got citizenship. In terms of temperament, the apple never falls too far from the tree: I feel strongly and trust laughter. I have loved alcohol, Jesus, depression, and still regard reality as a cruel trickster nun with occasional lapses of mercy, grace and humour. I now live beside railroad tracks and several times a day the trains rumble by, the whistle blows, the windows shudder and I know I am home.

NG: You're "an advertising creative director" in your "day job" incarnation. How creative, in a pure artistic sense, is your advertising work? Does it in any way feed into, or overlap with, your fiction writing?

POL: Like any job, it has its share of frustration and bullshit. But a satisfying portion of it is creation and it lets me wear many hats: writing, music, and filmmaking. Best of all, I get to work with a variety of superb artists in many mediums: musicians, actors, directors, editors. I draw a lot of inspiration from them. It is my privilege to work with those more talented than I. My writing can't help but be affected. But I am under no obligation to analyze that overlap.

NG: You first became known in writing circles for your poetry. How did you get started in that direction? And what do you regard as the highlights of your work as a poet?

POL: I've been writing poetry since third grade. I've always written. It seemed the most natural thing in the world, as did basketball and guitars. Poems taught me how to write. They were little rehearsals for a bigger show. I am very pleased that the highlights of my poetry are collected in my latest book, Other Voices, Other Doors (Fairwood Press).

NG: Going on now to specific literary influences: you've been compared with, among others, Kurt Vonnegut and Philip K. Dick; and I know you greatly admire Gene Wolfe (more on him later). Which authors, mainstream and genre, have particularly helped shape your philosophical and creative vision?

POL: I am flattered by the comparisons. But I don't think writers are the best judges of their influences. If we're operating at a high level such considerations should be unconscious. If we become too aware, too self-conscious, it comes out forced. On the other hand The Beatles were great mimics and just because Back in the USSR wears the Beach Boys on its sleeve doesn't make it bad art.

Also, the presumption behind your "your influences" question is that writers are only influenced by other writers. Don't mean to sound crabby. I do appreciate your qualifying "mainstream and genre" in the question, though I do seem to gravitate toward fantastic art. But, here goes: the gods in my pantheon.

John Berryman taught me how important it is to put a voice on page. Graham Greene taught me how critical it is to put a feeling into every line. My father and John Lennon made me want to tell the truth. Nick Drake taught me how to trust the mystery. J.R.R. Tolkien opened a crevasse at my feet which I still haven't crawled out of. P.K. Dick taught me not to take reality for granted. The Beatles taught me that art can be fun. Ursula Le Guin showed me SF can be beautiful and mind-blowing. By the time I got to Gene Wolfe I had discovered myself as a writer and thus was spared the seductive hopeless challenge of reinventing myself as him. But he is teaching me that most difficult lesson for writers to learn: what to leave out.

A list of other artists I love might or might not be a clue to their influence on me. In no particular order: Jane Siberry, William Faulkner, Jim Harrison, Muriel Spark, Van Morrison, Evelyn Waugh, Philip Roth, Jack Womack, E.L. Doctorow, Jim Morrow, Octavia E. Butler, Neil Young, Vladimir Nabokov, Elmore Leonard, James Lee Burke, John D. MacDonald, Miles Davis, Frank Lloyd Wright, Kathe Koja.

Do I have a vision? A philosophy? I do, but I'm not sure I inflict it upon my readers. It's hard enough to write a decent sentence. My philosophy is: Life Matters. We Die. Love Hard. Don't Fuck Around.

NG: When did you consciously become ambitious to be an SF writer? And was it difficult to break through into book publication?

POL: The conscious decision was to write a novel. The novel I chose to write was a fantasy which turned into a Science Fantasy after twenty-two years. That was The Gift. Then I wrote a novel over a period of seven-and-a-half years (a process I cover in detail in Other Voices, Other Doors). It was based on an SF vaudeville premise: "A woman walks into a shrink's office and says she was born on another planetů" That was Door Number Three. I started The Gift first but finished D#3 first. Imagine how freaked people would have been had D#3 been released second!

Publication was extremely difficult. After years of rejections I lucked into an editor who liked my work and was willing to put up with the intense revising process it required to make it work. That was David Hartwell at Tor books. I owe him a lot.

NG: Your novels, then, have had long gestation periods. What procedure do you follow in conceiving and writing a novel? How much do the books change while being written, and how many drafts do you usually go through before you're satisfied?

POL: Honestly, there is no procedure. My complex life allows no such order. And I am cursed, as my sons are, with a form of Attention Deficit Disorder. I make weird intuitive leaps of logic. I write when I can, if I can, when I feel like it, in cars, planes, restaurants, parking lots, and my office while smoking. Usually, I don't write. Luckily I have a very strong Virgo organisational side and a fierce ability to concentrate. This corrals the flighty Pat into actually doing something.

I don't have a method. I've only done this novel thing three times. But I always seem to start with an image. I believe and trust images much more than words. Door Number Three was a naked woman walking into a dark lake. The Gift was a black bird hanging upside down from a branch at night. The Impossible Bird was a hummingbird jabbing its beak into the corner of a man's eye. I follow the image wherever it leads me.

I write until I have half a book, revising constantly, making enormous changes along the way. Then I outline to try to keep track of which character is blonde and which has a lisp. I never know what I'm writing about. Though I knew the last line of The Impossible Bird before I wrote a word. It is no longer the last line. I make it up as I go, like Indiana Jones. Like life.

How many drafts do I need? Do you realize that "drafts" is not a solid factual quantity, that it, in fact, is a meaningless term? No two writers mean the same thing when they say "drafts." It's not like "takes" at a recording session. There the music is done; the song written; it's a rehearsal process. Yet, for me, perhaps, a musical analogy will serve. Composition is like improvisation. Jamming on a paragraph over and over until it feels right.

I do as few as five drafts and as many as fifty. Depends on the sentence, depends on the page. It takes me a long long time to write well. I am an extremely bad writer who has learned to take out all of the mistakes until he can do a passable impression of a competent writer. And even after all the mistakes are out it does not mean that your paragraph or page or story is worth reading. Maybe you are lying. Maybe you are not seeing it well enough. Maybe that beautiful paragraph you just laboured over doesn't propel the story, or is in the wrong spot, or draws too much attention to itself. There are infinite ways to go wrong. But they all have to do with not telling the right story. Not honouring that. That is the difficult thing.

I discover the book. Like a reader. I open doors. And listen to the strangers talking in my head. I don't know who they are. I don't know what they wear or where they're from or what they had for lunch. I honour them with my attention, believing that they have an important story to tell me, a story that, if I'm lucky and work hard, may be worth telling to others. And after years of this I begin to realize what the book is trying to be, what the story is that the book is so patiently telling me. You see? The book is the thing. The book is the story. I'm just the border/customs guy it has to get past to get to the foreign country of consciousness. I'm the one asking it all these stupid questions. Then I rewrite and rewrite and rewrite until I can't think of any way to make it better. Then I show some trusted friends. And I rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. And even then there's no guarantee that all my labour was worth it.

Drafts! Would that it were that simple.

NG: Your first novel, Door Number Three, was very well received critically; you were at once hailed as a major new star in the SF firmament. How did you yourself feel about this reception? How good, generally speaking, is your relationship with the literary critics who review your work?

POL: When Tor finally accepted Door Number Three I called my friend Ken Ethridge (he's a YA novelist and we've been critiquing each other's work for years). I told him, "I feel so good you could put a bullet in my body and I wouldn't give a fuck!" Everything after that was gravy. Then Jim Morrow praised it and I could have fainted. It all felt like a long cool drink of clear water after years of being in the desert. Despite having published some poetry I had still felt like a voice in the wilderness. The positive reception of Door Number Three felt like a welcome into a band of gypsies--a group of weirdoes I hadn't known existed--readers, fans, critics, and SF people. It's been an utter delight, a dream come true. No wonder I'm such an optimist.

My relationship with those who've critiqued my work has been very cordial. I am flattered by any attention, and feel positively squishy when someone compliments me. I've bristled against a few thoughtless and lame reviews, but, really, I shouldn't complain, I've been very lucky.

NG: Door Number Three is a comic tour de force with a dark undertone. Is the book entirely a satire and existential farce? Or is there some serious speculation in Door about the nature of "alien visitors", as Jungian archetypes or as actual phenomena?

POL: It is both comic and serious. Those aren't contradictory words like major and minor. The serious speculation in D#3 has to do with the universal presumptions about enemies, time and "reality." The only word, as Nabokov says, that demands quotation marks.

Each of my novels deals with a different type of alien invasion. I seem to resonate with the idea. I don't know why. Perhaps it is my obsession with the idea of "Other." The moment of estrangement when we are given a choice: to enlarge our consciousness or to annihilate the new. An important choice we face daily.

But, fiction aside, I think it's likely that they're out there. The Impossible Bird---my latest novel--speculates on how incredibly difficult first contact will be. I think it is very unlikely that they will contact us or even be able to communicate with us. Think of the gulf between earthly species that share the same reality: birds and humans, say. Multiply that a thousandfold and you get an idea of the barriers ahead in the event of touchdown.

NG: The protagonist and narrator of Door Number Three is a psychiatrist: flawed, but capable of heroism. He's your most fully developed character to date; how did you conceive him? Is he in any respect a self-portrait?

POL: Danger Will Robinson! The autobiographical fallacy question!

John Donnelly wears Lennon glasses, smokes menthols, studied Jung, had an Irish mother, was raised Catholic, went to the seminary, smoked dope, has deadhead friends, is a liberal heterosexual, loves birds. The similarity ends there. I love John, the poor sap. He started as a man who had suffered an irreversible loss--a man who had been deeply betrayed and had to learn to forgive. That was the feeling I began with. Along the way I discovered he had fallen for an alien and had come unmoored in time.

NG: Door features an interesting time traveller, the bird Imish, who has an apparent connection with Ursula Le Guin's City of Illusions (what with the alien "Shing".) What lies behind your fascination with unusual avians (taking into account also your upcoming novel, The Impossible Bird)?

POL: Thanks for catching the allusion and tip of the hat to Le Guin's wonderful novel City of Illusions. But it was a joke. Nothing serious intended. And Imish, the red cardinal in Door Number Three, is not strictly a time-traveller; he is the pet of a time traveller who rescued him from the future and brought him to the contemporary. He becomes John Donelly's familiar/friend.

What's the mystery? I love birds. They love me. I've had many strange experiences with them. See my comments on The Gift below. Birds have obsessed me since I was very young. I mean it's not a hobby or anything. It has never occurred to me to examine this. I think they are the most beautiful creatures alive.

NG: In the "Acknowledgements" to your second novel, The Gift, you mention Gene Wolfe as a major inspiration, who "set impossible standards." And in your new collection, Other Voices, Other Doors, you include an admiring essay on Wolfe, perhaps the most accurate summary of the Wolfean aesthetic and mystique to date. Do you see Wolfe as the ultimate writer of speculative fiction? Where for you does his particular power reside?

POL: Forget "Speculative Fiction." Gene Wolfe is the best writer alive. Period. And as Wolfe once said, "All novels are fantasies. Some are more honest about it."

No comparison. Nobody--I mean nobody--comes close to what this artist does.

I did my best in that essay "If Ever A Wiz There Was" to capture what I think is so remarkable about his work. Thanks for your kind words on it. I doubt I can put it better here. His work is extremely difficult to summarise. And he continually blows my mind.

Wolfe is great in so many inimitable ways. His prose is magical, musical, thoroughly entrancing and deceptive. His imagery is stunning. His characters are palpable, vivid. He can move you seven different ways and you won't even know it. His paragraphs are fraught with meaning and depth. His SF invention is solid and feels real and is therefore more astounding. His literary devices and narrative structures are extraordinarily ambitious; he uses the entire repertoire of modernism and postmodernism. As a writer he plays fair and constantly cheats and everybody wins.

He has the intellectual whimsy, invention and rigour of Borges, the grace and music and hard beauty of Nabokov, the richness of voice and character of Faulkner, the moral insight and passion of Le Guin, the compassion and weirdness of P.K. Dick, and a courage and integrity of spirit that are entirely his own--all grounded, somehow rooted in a modesty, a working-class respect for the dirt and anguish and joy of everyday life. Ultimately he loves spinning a good yarn. And he is a lot of fun.

Read a story, say, "The Ziggurat" or "A Cabin On The Coast" or "The Death of Doctor Island"--it doesn't get better than that. Read a chapter, say, the Alzabo Chapter in The Book of The New Sun, or any fucking chapter from In Green's Jungles--the best novel I've ever read--Dude, this man is operating on all cylinders. He's like the lead in Steely Dan's "Reeling in the Years"--Jesus, do you remember the first time you heard that? Wolfe achieves that virtuosity and soul for whole books.

And then he does it backward. And in braille. And after the fifth time you read the same page and realize he's fucking doing it on a Kazoo while juggling tomatoes--you give up. You know--forgetaboutit--he's the best. He is so good, he's scary.

This must sound extremely weird to anyone who's never read him. But I envy them the journey that awaits them. It'll be like hearing Sinatra in 1954.

I'm proud to say Gene is my friend. I don't know how that happened. He seems to like me. I trust it wasn't just my sucking up.

He wrote the Foreword to Other Voices, Other Doors. If you had told me this was possible five years ago I would have doubted your sanity.

NG: The Gift is a remarkable many-layered Fantasy, a change in direction from Door Number Three that surprised many. What was its genesis?

POL: Birds. I was going to work one morning in 1975 and I heard a noise. I saw a gigantic black crow on this huge branch which was creaking and swaying under its weight. Suddenly, the tree filled with all kinds of birds. And they were pissed as hell at him. They yelled and screamed and scooted down the branches toward him. He shrugged, not in the least perturbed by this mob of midgets, flicked his wings once, shot 25 feet straight up and casually flew away, the lynchers trailing after him like a cloud of bugs. I stood there for a minute looking up. What the fuck was that? What on earth could he have done to provoke such utter hatred?

I had just read Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and Le Guin's The Earthsea Trilogy, so I thought I'd write a fantasy about a big black bird. Again, it started with that image.

NG: The Gift makes complex and cogent points about the nature of Stories, featuring to this end tales within tales, a complicated and recursive narrative structure. What statement, ultimately, are you making here about the nature of the literary craft, and about the socio-cultural role of storytelling?

POL: Life is a story. Identity is a story. Culture is a story. We are swimming in stories. Stories are what make us human.

NG: The stories and vignettes in Other Voices, Other Doors are highly unconventional: dense, sometimes elliptical, always surprising. Has it been easy placing your short works in the standard genre-related markets? And how does it feel to be publishing your first collection?

POL: I've had very little luck with the short story market. Sometimes I feel I don't fit in, other times I feel like I'm not good enough. Ellen Datlow and Gordon Van Gelder always send me the sweetest most encouraging rejections. Bless 'em. However, I just sold a new story to Peter Crowther for an anthology called Mars Probes.

Other Voices, Other Doors is a collection of stories that don't fit anywhere. It's not just a hodge-podge of outtakes, though some of the pieces were never published. I just pared down the best stuff I had and tried to put it into a coherent order. I discovered that I had a lot of different stories to tell, in a lot of different voices. Thus the title.

It really does flow logically from my novels. Door Number Three used the device of a time traveller bouncing between many time frames to justify a variety of commonplace fictional devices: dreams, fantasies, flashbacks, flashforward, the freeze-frame present. The result is a fairly conventional linear narrative thruline that portrays a man whose reality has been shattered. A disruption of time to examine the concept of time.

Similarly, The Gift was a fractured fairytale. It used the device of a frame narrative--a told tale--to gather a lot of different threads together, to meditate on the nature and ubiquity of narrative, all in an attempt to decode the story of the narrator's life, and the ruling myth that binds his culture together. A story about stories.

So Other Voices, Other Doors is another broken mirror, a scrapbook of a writer's life, a pile of snapshots, various moments of time, rehearsals of self and witnesses of others, a mess of stories, and a portrait of a compulsive storyteller who never knows the right way to do anything. It sort of does for Genre what my other books did for Time and Narrative.

I'm very happy with it.

NG: Finally: how is work on The Impossible Bird progressing? When can we expect to see it in print, and what sort of book is it turning out to be?

POL: It's done. It's been with the editor about four months. I made major revisions to Hartwell's input. We'll see. It could be out in late 2001 if I'm lucky--which is sort of why I'm glad Other Voices, Other Doors is out there now.

It's about hummingbirds and death. I think it's the best thing I've written. And, in terms of complexity, it makes The Gift and D#3 look like tic-tac-toe. (Chuckling cruelly, he exits.)

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© Nick Gevers 11 November 2000