Our guest author this month is Joe O’Connell, award-winning short story writer and author of Evacuation Plan, a novel-in-stories. O’Connell is also a film columnist for both the Dallas Morning News and The Austin Chronicle. He's also written for Variety and Texas Monthly. Plus, when he’s not writing, he teaches writing to grad students at St. Edward's University and undergrads at Austin Community College.
Joe blogs about film, fiction, and his life. You can also find out a lot more about him and his teaching at his Austin Community College website.
Joe agreed to be interviewed about writing in general and his writing specifically. Not only did he answer all my questions, he’s offered a free copy of his book to a reader. At the end of this blog post, you’ll find out how to add your name to the drawing.
Helen: How has your work as a film industry columnist and journalist helped you in fiction writing?
Joe: When I was a newspaper reporter in mid-sized cities, we'd have to take turns working Saturdays and the dreaded "festival beat." Every Saturday, particularly during warmer months, there would be a festival of some sort with a theme-watermelon, cotton, corn, you name it. Throw in some rodeos and you have a real challenge. Well, as an undergraduate I minored in business. The one class that actually stuck with me was economics where the talk was about the macro and the micro. Most reporters wrote the macro story ("A good time was had by all."), but the writerly reporters learned quickly that it was all about the micro--telling the big story by detailing the small tale of a young girl riding her first bull as her nervous family watched. I learned from this how to pay attention to detail.
At the same time, reporting teaches you to listen. Evacuation Plan grew out of a project I was chosen for that sent writers and visual artists into Hospice Austin's Christopher House, a residential hospice. Because I was an experienced reporter, I had less trouble shutting up and listening to people's stories. And the main character, Matt, is a screenwriter going into the hospice in search of a plot from his next script, so that's clearly inspired by my involvement writing about the film industry.
Helen: Evacuation Plan has an unusual structure. How did you come up with it? Was it planned or did it evolve as you wrote or researched?
Joe: When I did that project at Christopher House, I wrote poetry about it. I don't know why; that's just how the experience came out. Later, sitting at the bedside of my wife's feisty 93-year-old grandmother as she died, I realized this was a story I wanted to explore more in fiction. I'd read Tim O'Brien's novel July, July, which tells of a college reunion then jumps off into the stories of what experiences had shaped these old friends in the intervening years. I saw that I could do that with Evacuation Plan as well. Tim O'Brien, by the way, received some of the same reaction to this novel-in-stories style that I have! Some people love it, while others are put off by it and refuse to accept that this is in fact a novel. I think it's all about our expectations as readers. But it's the style I chose because it allows me to fully tell the story of this place while concentrating as well on a larger story of redemption and loss.
Helen: How much work did you do on each character's story, background and voice? Did some characters come whole to you? Were some based on real people?
Joe: That's a tough question. Some parts of the book date back a good while and others are very recent. My actual experience in Christopher House largely involved a friendship I developed with a wonderful 80-year-old woman. When I decided to write this as fiction, I knew I couldn't tell her story per se. Instead I thought of the one time I chickened out at the hospice. It was with an older man who reminded me too much of my own father. I left his room without hearing his story. So I decided I would tell his story as I imagined it. I also wanted to tell an entire family's story. I wanted to know the children's stories that the father never knew. My friend from hospice is alive in my book though. My experience with her and with other people at Christopher House is sprinkled throughout the story. We also get the stories of nurses, a funeral home worker, a cook, all sorts of people who move through this world of last moments.
Helen: A lot of published authors say that marketing is more difficult than the actual writing of the book. Have you found that to be true? What ways are you using to get the word out about Evacuation Plan?
Joe: It is tough. An author can choose to release the book out into the world and let it quickly disappear or work very hard to get people to read and talk about it. As the book was nearing publication, I met with a woman from Hospice Austin who offhandedly said, "It's good you realize how you can be of use." That hit me hard. I realized this book comes with a responsibility. While I consider myself an artist and writer and therefore mainly responsible for creating the best work possible, I also must work to get the word out about hospice. That message as I see it is that hospice gives people the gift of taking charge of the ends of their lives in as peaceful and pain-free an environment as possible. So I'm spreading that word. I talk to book clubs, writers groups, at book festivals, at pretty much any event that will have me. It's hard work--both finding places that want me to speak and devoting the time. But I think it's worth it. Celebrities dominate the book world these days. Serious writers who want to get noticed are going to have to do the heavy lifting themselves. And that's OK. As my personal writing mentor, the late Andre Dubus, said to me: we volunteered for this job. I guess the truth is marketing is putting me book on the festival circuit, only this time it's book festivals!
Helen: As a writing instructor at both St. Edward's University and Austin Community College, what advice would you give to Straight From Hel readers who are aspiring writers?
Joe: Know that it's not easy, and be sure that this is what you are driven to do. Find some good mentors to help you hone your craft, whether it be teachers or a solid critique group. I got an MFA in creative writing, and that helped me a lot, but I also got just as much after graduate school from a critique group that included mystery novelist Mary Willis Walker. They didn't talk much about plot in grad school, but the critique group did! And pacing, character motivation--all of those important things. The big advice I have is to be both humble and arrogant as a writer. Don't get too attached to your words, but don't bend to everyone's advice. The worst thing about being a writer is you essentially volunteer to be rejected over and over again. The writers who are successful learn to get past that. Ask yourself why you are doing this. If it's because you have to, keep going and never quit. Success comes to the persistent.
Helen: What are you working on now?
Joe: I wish I could say I applied for the project that brought me into hospice for all the right reasons. Actually, I was doing research for a mystery novel. I'm completing the second in a series that involved a small-town newspaper reporter and actively looking to place the first book, which was a finalist for publication from Poisoned Pen Press. I'm also doing some screenwriting projects. I've got a script treatment going out right away to a very influential producer. But that side of writing is even tougher! I've got enough story ideas to keep me busy for a long time, and I like that.
Thank you Joe!
Beth Newcomb, with The Paisano, said this about Evacuation Plan:
"Evacuation Plan: A Novel From The Hospice" by Joe M. O'Connell is nothing short of remarkable….While reading this book, one feels a need to race to the end and unravel the mystery surrounding this complex story.
If you’re interested in buying a copy of Joe’s book, you can find a link on his website. And if you’d like to possibly WIN a copy, all you have to do is go to his blog and leave him a comment with your contact information. Good Luck!
Thank you again, Joe.
6 months ago