Interview: Scott O’Connor

D.M. Hedlund published her first novel, Threads of Deception, at the age of eighteen. Experiencing the difficulties of breaking into the market, she founded TBL in 2007 to help other new writers perfect and publish their works. Offering free writing coaching, editing, and publishing guidance, Hedlund expanded TBL into a global community of writers, editors, and artists. In 2010, she pushed the company to new heights, creating TBL’s literary journal, Tethered by Letters Quarterly Literary Journal which has since evolved into F(r)iction Series (published by Sheridan Press), a literary and art collection that pushes the boundaries of conventional storytelling.

When not working with the TBL staff, Hedlund spends her days writing, consuming an ungodly amount of caffeine, and binge reading comics.

Touching the Untouchable: An Interview with Scott O’Connor

by D.M. Hedlund

Scott O’Connor’s debut novel is, on the surface, a tale of a father and son coping with grief, quietly struggling to survive. There are no dangerous chase scenes, drama-drenched romances, or Hollywood explosions.  Rather, it is Untouchable’s subtlety that makes it brilliant. Caught between the frantic beat of the impending Y2K crisis and the slow drone of the main characters’ survival, O’Connor invites us to witness the mystery of two people lives unfolding.

so bcThe story opens as David Darby, a trauma-site cleanup technician, and his son, The Kid, try to come to terms with the loss of a loved one. But despite their efforts to revert back to the world before, each carries a constant reminder of that pain: The Kid with his vow to remain voiceless until his mother’s unlikely return, and Darby, constantly forced to witness the manifest blood and gore reminiscent of what he had lost. With each passing day, the two grow further apart, separated by the different realities grief has driven them to trust. But these contrasting worlds collide when, confronted with the constant remains of suicides and murders, Darby becomes obsessed with the need to contain the filth and purge himself of the shame of surviving his wife’s death. As his mind becomes infected with the truth he hopes to sanitize, his protection of The Kid dwindles, hurling the novel into a thrilling crescendo that will surely have you gripping the sides of the book, your eyes torn between the need to keep reading and the desperate desire to look away.

It is a great honor for Tethered by Letters to recommend O’Connor’s Untouchable. For anyone who believes in the power of the written word, O’Connor’s novel will surely deliver what we seek most: prose so potent that it transports us, teaches us to see the world in an entirely new way. Once the spine of the book has been cracked, O’Connor fixates and sharpens your vision in on a much harsher, grittier world, where the characters tip-toe around their delusions and death leaves its mark on every surface.

Propelled by an uncomfortably close narrative, strangely morbid settings, and delicate mysteries, Untouchable is a rare find among modern novels: a pageturner inspired not by action-packed drama but rather the mystery of humanity.

O’Connor on Untouchable:

When asked what inspired him to begin work on Untouchable, O’Connor told TBL that it began as a research endeavor for another project. The characters, rather than theme, setting, or plot, revealed themselves to him first. The character of Whitley Darby, or rather “The Kid,” and his father had been in the back of O’Connor’s mind, begging him for their own tale. Trying first to write them into a short story, he soon discovered that there was more to tell with each wanting revision.

As O’Connor focused on developing the two main characters’ voices—“85% of the story is getting the voices just right,” he told TBL—a story fell into place around them: subtle connections forming that eventually led him to discover the gripping climax that concludes the book. O’Connor admits that originally he had based his characters in modern times; however, the essential background of the Y2K hysteria was added after the character of “The Kid” was fully understood—a boy that smart and inquisitive would certainly uncover many of the mysteries early on if he had access to the Internet. Upon reflection, O’Connor decided that the post-Cold-War anxiety would be the perfect setting to mirror the uncertainty and disquiet overtaking his characters’ lives.

It is in this same vein that the most incredible elements of the story formed: the gripping symbolism, the quiet undertones of religion, and the mystery of the mind’s attempts to protect us. As O’Connor informed us, he worked diligently to outline the plot, arduously depicting its flow on note cards.  With a soft laugh he confessed that not a single scene he originally scrawled down made it into the final copy. “You have to give yourself the freedom to follow your story wherever it goes,” O’Connor advised, stating that all the ideas he tried to force into the novel were ones that blatantly contrasted the true theme of the story and were eventually removed. In contrast, the subtle connections he found and nourished in the revision process were the ideas that propelled the plot forward. Even entire characters, like Michelle Mustache, were mere afterthoughts of the writing process that O’Connor had the prudence to cultivate.

O’Connor on Writing:

O’Connor admits that he finds his writing process completely inefficient: content pours relatively easily, but ends up being chopped in the revision process. Tireless hours spent bent over his writing desk would only occasionally produce effective material, but he found disciplining himself to dedicate those hours regardless, five days a week, to be indispensable in completing his novel. Taking advice from esteemed writer, Flannery O’Connor, he stated how important it was to be accountable to your work. The more time you allow yourself to write, the more your work will evolve into something that “must be completed.”

When asked how he dealt with the hardships of writing, O’Connor confessed that there were always those moments of self-doubt. With eyes downcast, he reminded us of that nagging voice in the back of each writer’s mind, telling him he was crazy to undertake something as harrowing as a novel. But soon a smile split his lips and he added, “but if you are sitting there every day, listening to those voices, you obviously want to be there.” This realization allowed O’Connor to power through these moments of uncertainty and complete his manuscript.

In addition to disciplined hours of writing, O’Connor stated that one of the most essential tips used when working on his novel was to write a three to five page summary every so often, describing the flow of the book without referring to any notes or drafts—a tip he credits to The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop by Stephen Koch. This process revealed the most important aspects of the story, shining imperative light on moments he had yet to include while also revealing tangents he should have completely removed. This summary can also show a writer how powerful his or her work will be when finished, inspiring writers like O’Connor to complete even the most complicated of novels.

Excerpt from Untouchable:

The trick of the job is to forget what had happened. The trick of the job is to acquire as little information as possible about the site, the former occupants, the current occupants, the thing that happened there, and then to forget that information. Not to see the big picture, the whole story. There is no big picture, there is no whole story. There are only details that need to be sprayed, scrubbed, bagged, disposed of.

The trick of the job is to use an alternate vocabulary for these details, a list of terms developed over the years by the technicians, sanitized for their own protection. Once inside the room, there is no blood, or skin, of hair, or teeth, or chunks of brain, heart, lung, stomach. This is no evidence of violent death, self-inflected or otherwise. There is no detritus of human body left to decompose for days or weeks. There is only fluid and matter; there are only spots, stains, leakage.

The tick of the job is not to listen to the people who are waiting in the doorway, in the driveway, in the parking lot when the vans arrive. Often they will have a lot to say, a lot to explain. It is important to understand what those people do not: that there is nothing to explain. There is just fluid and matter. There are just spots and stains. There is only a mess that needs to be cleaned up.

Remember those things, understand those things, and the job is possible. The room can be cleaned, finished, set right. Remember those things and the picture taken once the job is complete, the After photograph, will show evidence that the trick is more than a trick. It will show what has been achieved through hours of spraying and scrubbing and scraping and bagging, what future occupants of the site will believe, safe and unsuspecting. That the trick of the job is now the new truth of the room:

Nothing happened.

About the Author:

Scott O’Connor grew up with a reputation as the kid who was always telling stories, but it wasn’t until his early twenties that he began his professional writing aspirations. Drawn first to the burgeoning film industry, he soon discovered that the scripts he wrote had moved beyond the limitations of low-budget film making, leaving them unfulfilled without the camera to tell the other half of the story. It was at this point that he decided to take complete control of his creations, propelling his career into the world of literature. From that decision was born his first major project, the novella Among Wolves, which not only opened his world to professional writing but also, as he told TBL, fooled him into thinking he could write a novel. And so it was that seven years later, O’Connor’s debut hit the shelves, generating a flood of positive criticism and the desperate hope that his readers will not have to wait so long for his next book. Luckily, a new novel is currently in production, promising things unknown—since, even after desperate pleas, O’Connor refuses to slake our curiosity—but if Untouchable is any indication, it will be well worth the mysterious wait.