Stephen O’Connor is a native of Lowell, Massachusetts, where much of his writing is set.
His first book, a collection of short stories, Smokestack Lightning, was published by Loom Press in 2010. That was followed by The Spy in the City of Books, in 2011, (Sons of Liberty Press), which is a historical novel set in Lowell, and in WWII France. His most recent novel, The Witch at Rivermouth, (Merrimack Press, 2015), has been described as a love story and “a cerebral mystery.”
O’Connor has published stories in The Massachusetts Review, The Houston Literary Review, Lodestone Journal, Watchword, Sobotka, and in various other journals. His story “The Hipster’s Hopper” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He recently won the Helen Literary Award for Best Short Story for “Work, Music and Love.”
The Storyside: You hold a full-time teaching job and are a devoted family man with a thousand friends—how do you find time to be as productive as you are in your writing?
O’Connor: I really only have a few friends so that’s not a problem, (except for them). I do a lot of writing in the summer—once school starts it’s an hour here and an hour there. Ain’t easy.
I get up very early. Insomnia has got to be rampant in the writing community as you work out plots etc. through the wee hours.
TSS: In addition to many short stories, you’ve published three books—two novels and a collection of short fiction—with three different independent publishers. What has that experience been like?
O’Connor: It’s been a learning experience of course—and there’s still a lot that I don’t know about the business side of publishing and marketing. In general the smaller presses publish the book and then you’re on your own to market it, which is tough. My most recent publisher has done some promotion, but it’s difficult for any small independent publisher to get the book “out there” before the greater reading public. Writers are a greedy lot—myself included—I was thrilled to get a story published; then after I had several published, I wanted a book published, then I wanted several books published; now I want a big publisher. And I imagine if I ever get a big publisher, I’ll want a best-seller, then probably only a Pulitzer would make me happy, but probably not for long! In the meantime, all you can do is try to write the best stuff that you can, and take satisfaction in that.
TSS: Expanding on the last question, what are some of the challenges that a writer working with small independent publishers faces?
O’Connor: You are probably not going to see your book on the shelves at the big bookstores, and as I said, you will have to market the book yourself to a large extent. And I’m not very good with social media, for example, so that makes it tough. If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears . . . that’s the problem.
TSS: What are you currently working on?
O’Connor: I’m trying to write a comic novel that involves a bit of magical realism as well as real human dilemmas and relationships. I heard an interview with John Cleese recently in which he stated that he had reached the age at which he realized that nearly everyone is full of shit. Call me cynical, but I immediately recognized the truth in that. And one thing I’m trying to illustrate is just all of the BS that a typical modern human has to endure on all sides. Tentative title is This Is No Time to Quit Drinking.
TSS: Of all the great books that have been published over the past hundred years or so, which one of them do wish you had written?
O’Connor: Off the top of my head I would say A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, actually published ninety-nine years ago. “Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” Quite a remarkable goal, and Joyce pulled it off. If you have within you one creative spark, you will surely respond to that biography of the evolution of the artist’s soul. Joyce at times can just take your breath away, as he does again at the end of the greatest short story ever written, “The Dead.”
TSS: Can you distill a bit of what you’ve learned about writing and offer two words of advice to new writers?
O’Connor: In a little more than two words–don’t be too self-critical, that is, so self-critical that the internal editor will not permit you to put anything on paper. All writing is preparing you for more writing, and if I were to compare myself with Joyce or Conrad or countless others, I would be continually discouraged. Derek Jacobi, an actor I admire, said something like, “If you want to act, don’t do it. If you have to act, then by all means go for it.”
The same might be said of writing. It’s hard. It’s time-consuming; it’s all-consuming sometimes. You are probably not going to get rich, but if you have to do it, write, and take solace in the fact that there are a million untold stories out there, and that no one else on earth has your perspective, and that you can only get better.
TSS: What one question do you wish we’d asked, and how would you have answered it?
O’Connor: What is the one tool that is indispensable to a writer?
A coffee pot. (A bottle of good Irish whiskey ain’t bad either, in moderation of course).