Today we’re talking to Academy Award nominated actor from the 1970s, Ryan O’Neal about his new book – oh wait, sorry. It’s actually Scottish-born Australian author Ryan O’Neill, who this year released a new book. That was awkward. Luckily, he’ll see the funny side because his book has a rather delicious twist.
So Ryan, for those readers who may have seen the 1970 film Love Story starring Ryan O’Neal but haven’t yet read your latest book, Their Brilliant Careers, can you tell us what it’s about?
“Their Brilliant Careers is a collection of 16 fictional biographies of invented Australian writers, from poets and historians to science fiction and mystery novelists. The fictional lives stretch from 1850 to 2016, and intersect in various surprising ways, building to a large-scale parody and satire of Australian literary culture.”
Okay, that’s rather excellent. Can you share with us some of these ‘famous’ Australians?
“Among the subjects in the book are Rand Washington, a racist (and perhaps homicidal) science fiction writer; Claudia Gunn, a crime writer with her own dark secret; and Frederick Stratford, one of the twentieth century’s most shameless plagiarists.”
So the concept for this book is pretty original. How did the idea come about?
“I’ve always enjoyed trying to find new ways to tell stories. I’ve written stories in lists, graphs and charts, stories with word searches, and stories told through book reviews. The genesis for this book came from being asked to write a short story for the literary journal, ‘The Canary Press’ on the theme of erasure. I wrote several short pieces on this theme, including one in the form of a biography of Sydney Steele, considered to be the greatest writer in Australia despite the fact that all his work had been lost. In the end, this piece was not used by the journal, but the idea stayed with me, and I started to toy with the idea of writing a series of such biographies.”
And yet at some point you were worried someone may have already done the same idea?
“I heard about Roberto Bolano’s Nazi Literature in the Americas which explored a similar form, of biographies of fictional fascist Latin American writers. Before beginning my book, I decided to read Bolano’s in order to see if my ideas were too similar to his. Fortunately, Bolano had done different things in his book than I intended to do in mine, and relieved, I continued to mull over my book in a vague way.
“This mulling over went on for a number of months, and could have gone on for years, but fortunately in January 2015 my publisher Black Inc contacted me to see if I was working on anything. They agreed to publish Their Brilliant Careers on the basis of the Sydney Steele piece and a synopsis of the rest of the book. I then had to write the book, and I found that having a deadline concentrated my mind wonderfully so that, within a year, the book was finished.”
Yes, deadlines can be good like that. So, let’s talk writing. What’s your typical day like – do you have a writing routine?
“I’m a strong believer in having a writing routine, though it is something I rarely manage for myself. My last book, The Weight of a Human Heart was written mostly at night, after my family had gone to sleep. Their Brilliant Careers was mostly written during the day, on those days when I wasn’t teaching. I would drop the children off at school, sit down and grind away (if I was writing a first draft) or chip away (if I was revising) for a couple of hours, then stop, have lunch, and try to get another hour or two done in the afternoon. On the days when I was working, I would attempt to write at night, though since I turned 40 I’ve found this harder and harder to do. Despite the best of intentions, I’m more likely to fall asleep after nine o’clock at night than to write.”
Yes, our literary brains just don’t seem to enjoy partying out late like they used to. So tell us, what’s next for you? What are you working on?
“At the moment I’m working on a project called The Drover’s Wives in which I’m attempting to retell the famous Henry Lawson short story The Drover’s Wife in 99 different ways, from Broadway musical, to children’s book, to epic poem, to Penthouse letter, to emojis and blockbuster movie. It’s been a lot of fun to write as well as quite challenging. The trick will be to keep the reader’s attention for almost 100 versions of one short story.”
Your thirst for finding new mediums to write stories is quite wonderful. Although we are a little miffed you haven’t tried to turn this interview into a rural romance. But anyway, final question – what’s your three pieces of advice for aspiring writers who hope to be published one day?
“Read: I think any writer who aspires to be any good has to be a reader, first and foremost, so read as much as you can as widely as you can. Read in the genre you are interested in, but also read outside that genre too. Some emerging writers have the bizarre idea that reading will somehow contaminate their writing and make them less original, when in fact the best way to develop your own voice is to read as much as you can. Let all the great books you read mulch in your subconscious, and when you come to write your own stuff, it will be better from having drawn from that mulch.
“Write: If you want to be a writer, you have to actually sit down and write. Do whatever works for you. Write for half an hour a day. Write 3000 words a day. Write 50 words a day. Write first thing in the morning. Write last thing at night. Write standing on your head. Write in bed. Write in the cafe. Write in the bath (probably not on a laptop though). However you do it, write. Don’t blog about writing, don’t talk about writing, don’t tweet #amwriting. That isn’t writing. Sit down and write.
“Be resilient: Your book will (unless you are a genius, or incredibly lucky) be rejected. Perhaps many times. This happens to all writers. But the ones who get published don’t give up. They extract anything useful they can from the rejection, they revise and they resubmit. Or they move on to something else. I primarily write short stories and over the years I’ve racked up hundreds of rejections. They are never pleasant, but they are an inevitable part of writing. You have to be resilient. Take the hit, pick yourself up, and try again.”
We like this advice very much. Thanks for the chat Ryan, and good luck with your own brilliant career.