Interview with James Edward O’Brien5 min read

James Edward O’Brien lives in Far Rockaway, NY with his wife and three rescue dogs. Jim’s fiction and poetry appears in Cyclopean, Nerve Cowboy, Bathtub Gin, and Black Bear Review, with a story forthcoming in Hybrid Moments: A Literary Tribute to The Misfits. You can find him on Twitter @UnagiYojimbo.

What was the inspiration for “The Hellion”? How did the story develop/change from conception to completion?

The story sprung from an idea I had of turtles paddling through a sea of stars. Unhurried, ancient, impossible creatures that predate––and presumably may out-survive––humanity as we know it.

A lot of the speculative fiction I’ve read relies upon larger-than-life characters and world-shattering catastrophes. Fun, but grandiose. I’m more interested in the types of characters who populate Hopper and Bruegel paintings––ordinary characters who populate extraordinary worlds. What’s life like for them? Can their small acts of resistance have resounding impact? In turn, can ours?

How did the main character, Cradock, first form in your imagination? Was there a pivotal moment, in the course of writing the story, where you discovered something unexpected about him? 

Cradock could just as easily be the intrusive barfly who shoulders up to you at your local watering hole as he is a hesitant space explorer at galaxy’s end. In many ways, he’s a nine-to-fiver clocking in and going through the motions, except he’s got this voice in his head gnawing away at him. The space opera setting is, in many ways, inconsequential.

Joan of Arc as persecuted warrior-saint has always been an historic figure who fascinates me. Transpose modern psychology over the religious interpretation of Joan and we find ourselves treading that blurry line between sainthood and possible madness/mental illness. Is it the voice of a higher power speaking to us––or just voices in our heads? Cradock is in the grand tradition of Joan, but farm league.

Ideas of science and faith orbit each another in a thought-provoking dance throughout the story. What interested you in exploring this theme/concept? 

I’m happy you picked up on this. Science and faith are all too often treated as mutually exclusive––when in reality there’s a lot of intersectionality between the two. I try to illuminate this when I can in my work. If we look beyond fundamentalism on both sides, science and spirituality at their best are about asking questions, removing the blinders we wear as we go about our day-to-day lives, and expanding our horizons.

In my mind, either science or spirituality can serve as the Buddhists’ proverbial “diamond that cuts through illusion.” There’s a lot of congruity between ancient Buddhist teachings and modern physics and psychology, for example. Problems begin when people try to replace or substitute science with faith, or vice versa––or when people stop seeing science and religion as tools, and wield those potential tools as dogmatic weapons.

How would you describe your writing and revision process? What have you found to be most helpful for you when dealing with writer’s block?

I’ll start with a seed––a scene, a concept, a character, a line of dialogue––and start weaving a story around that. Once I finish, I’ll step away from the story for a day or two, and then start revising. Ideally, I’ll cut a story in half. I aspire to Beckett or Basho’s economy of language.

Writer’s block is tricky. I can only offer your readers the textbook, eternally frustrating answer of “write through it.” Treat writing like physical exercise––something that nine-times-out-of-ten we can come up with a million-and-one excuses not to do, but it’s good for us––good for the soul––and we feel better having done it. It’s not easy. For every minor victory I’ve had writing-wise, there’s twenty-plus rejection slips or an unpublishable, unreadable novel squirreled away in the trash bin of my computer.

What’s the one piece of advice you’ve received as a writer that has helped you the most / What one piece of advice would you give new writers?

Love the grind. Don’t wait around for the muse. Think Sam Beckett’s quote from Worstward Ho, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

What are you currently reading? What book has been most influential on your life or on you as a writer?

I’m currently reading Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History by Dan Flores. It’s about the tumultuous, shared cultural and biological history of coyotes and humans in North America. It’s passionately written, and I can’t say enough good things about it!

A countless number of books have influenced me throughout my life––I’d be doing so many great ones a disservice if I honed in on one! That said, I find a good indicator of the power a work has is its continued relevance when revisited at different phases of life. For me, such works include T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets; Patrick Kavanagh’s Collected Poems; Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; most of Bukowski’s poetic output; To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf; The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts; the short stories of Raymond Carver, Robert E. Howard, and H.P. Lovecraft; the plays of Samuel Beckett and Eugene O’Neill; and Hubert Selby, Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn.

I’ll be kicking myself later for the legion of other great talents I’ve left off the list!

Anything else you’d like to share?

You can keep tabs on me via my Goodreads Author page, my Amazon Author page, or on Twitter @UnagiYojimbo. Thanks!

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