Joe O’Connell has been a long-term member of my online writers’ group, The Write List. As with many of my cyber-friends, I haven’t had much chance to get to know him beyond his postings to the list. Then I read and reviewed his new novel, Evacuation Plan and it just knocked me out. So I HAD to get to know Joe better. He was nice enough to agree to an interview – especially since I didn’t even really ask – I just emailed the questions to him. And I’m nice enough to share that interview with you.
Me: I love movies so I envy your job as a columnist about the film industry for The Austin Chronicle and Dallas Morning News. In many ways, Evacuation Plan
reminded me of the hit movie, Crash. How has film influenced your writing?
Joe: I think film is really the literature of our era. If Shakespeare were around today, he’d probably be writing teen comedies. So, I don’t think there’s any escaping that. The result is much of today’s literature is very cinematic. That said, the big influence for the form of Evacuation Plan– the stories within a story – is the wonderful writer Tim O’Brien, and in particular his novel July, July, which tells of students reuniting at a college reunion. The story veers off to tell the important stories of what happened to individual characters since college. That’s sort of what I was after with this form. I wanted to understand what personal baggage steered these people – the dying, their children, the nurses who care for them – to a hospice, this place of last things. I’m in Austin, Texas, where the film industry has been championed by independent director Richard Linklater, who some people say I even look a bit like (though I’m about a foot taller!), and I do think his films like Slacker and Waking Life are a bit of an influence.
Me: You also teach writing to grad students at St. Edward’s University and to undergrads at Austin Community College. I’ve done a little teaching myself – mostly online workshops – and it’s a difficult job. Mainly because of the variety of skill levels that come together in one class. How do you accommodate that with your students?
Joe: Teaching is an odd thing. It’s sort of like walking onto a stage. You’ve got to create this safe, fun environment for learning. I was thrown into it without any preparation during my last year completing an MFA in creative writing at Southwest Texas State University. I was scared to death! But I discovered I love working with students, particularly what I call the “mutts”— students who have failed before somewhere down the line, but who used that failure to make themselves stronger. Does that make sense? A famous poet came and spoke to my classmates during grad school and one student asked him what he thought our chances for success as writers were. His response was that we were already failures. He weren’t in the famed University of Iowa writing program where agents come and woo you. We were in San Marcos, Texas, studying with some fine writers (Tim O’Brien teaches there now, but came after my time there and I’ve never met him). So the poet meant we started out as Mutts ourselves. We were going to have to fight every step of the way. It was a call to challenge.
OK, I don’t know if I’m really answering your question. I’ll try to do better! In grad school I worked long distance with Andre Dubus, one of the best American short story writers ever. I was taken with how generous he was with students while still being very honest about the work. I try to do that. The idea is for each student to improve during the semester. I believe a lot in the workshop process, and I think the key is to create that safe environment. So far none of my workshops has gotten toxic, which I saw happen once in grad school, where people were making personal attacks or critiquing the choice of subject matter instead of how it’s executed.
Me: What’s your favorite writing exercise?
Joe: Most of my best writing exercises are stolen, and I usually don’t remember where I got them. Here’s a good one for being visual: Imagine you are in your car with the windows up and the stereo up full blast. Outside your window you see two people arguing. You can see their mouths moving, but you can’t tell what they were saying. SHOW that scene.
Me: Your book, Evacuation Plan touched me deeply. My own experience with hospice happened in 1985, when I was hospitalized with Lyme disease. At first the doctors didn’t know what was wrong with me (or if I was contagious) so they tucked me away in a far corner of the hospital right next to the hospice wing. I guess they didn’t care if I infected those patients. Anyway, once they determined I wasn’t contagious, I was allowed to roam the halls so I visited the hospice patients. The staff discouraged that because they thought it would depress me. But it was just the opposite. The people I met inspired me and gave me a renewed outlook on my own life Evacuation Plan brought that experience back to me and I remain struck by the similarities between my experience and Matt’s (the main character). Hospice truly is the intersection of life and death and your portrayal of that is stunning. Please share with us how you came to write this unique book.
Joe: Peggy, your story is wonderful! You are the type of person I wrote this book for. Back in 2001, I was working on a mystery novel set in this odd sort of halfway house. Then I saw an ad asking for writers and artists to spend time with the terminally ill at Hospice Austin’s Christopher House and tell these people’s stories. The experience was eye-opening. They don’t have time for phony conversations about sports or the weather at the hospice. They live in the moment, because most people at the hospice die within a week of checking in. I became friends with a woman who was the exception. She lived at Christopher House for more than three months, and I got to know her, her wonderful daughter who also moved in there, and her husband. They taught me a lot about life and death, and I saw the power hospice offers people to be in charge of their own ending. It gives people the gift of being able to comfortably say goodbye on their own terms. And there is a hazy line in this place between life and death that, regardless of your religious beliefs, is truly spiritual.
Later my wife lost her 93-year-old grandmother, a feisty woman who we both really cherished. At her bedside as she was in the death rattle, I decided to tell the story of hospice through fiction. During my time at Christopher House I only chickened out once. It was while talking to an older man who reminded me a bit too much of my own late father who, like the character Matt’s dad, died suddenly. I decided that man’s story – or one really inspired by him – would have to be at the backbone of the book as it meandered through the many stories coming to an end in the hospice. I hope I’ve succeeded in being true to the experience. One strange complaint is that there’s not enough actual physical death in the story. As the dying man Charlie Writing says in the book, he won’t know death until he experiences it. Instead I tried to write about the lives that surround this place of death.
Me: Evacuation Plan was just released in August so I know you’re still busy with the promo stuff. Are you working on anything new? What’s can we look forward to coming next from Joe O’Connell?
Joe: The promotion is crazy stuff. My novel was published by a small literary press, so I really have to do a lot of work myself, and I’m committed to that. I particularly want to encourage book clubs to read Evacuation Planand discuss this notion of life and death. Anyone interested can drop me a line at: Joeosbooktour@yahoo.com
Right now I’m working to get a series of mystery novels out in the world. I’ve had a lot of encouragement on the first in the series, Dreadful Selfish Crime – you might have seen I had a character in Evacuation Planreading it! Now I’m completing the second book. It’s all a juggling act, but I just keep in mind what Andre Dubus said to me: “It’s a tough job, but we volunteered for this mission.”
Me: OMG, we did, didn’t we? The definition of insanity. Let me also add my encouragement to book clubs out there Evacuation Plan is the perfect choice because the possibilities for discussion are endless. This is a book you want to talk about and share with others.
Thanks for your openness and insight, Joe. I think it would be a gas to be a mouse in the corner in your writing class.