Thursday, April 17, 2008

21 Questions With Author Erin O'Brien

Process, Part Four


Introduction: My friend, Chris, and I had been talking about going to see this movie that was getting a lot of buzz. It was called Leaving Las Vegas. Nic Cage was starring, and Elisabeth Shue, a favorite young actress of ours, was in the film too -- an added bonus. It was 1995. Neither of us had ever heard of John O'Brien, who wrote the novel that became the movie. It was some time later that Rolling Stone magazine printed a long article about the young writer, the people he was friends with, his battle with alcoholism that mirrored the book and film, and the sad fact of his suicide. The surface story of John O'Brien seemed perfect for the movies, but maybe that was part of the point of Leaving Las Vegas, and what made it so poignant. There was lots of sensationalism in the Rolling Stone article -- lots of blame, and "what-ifs," and the usual sort of thing with these investigative pieces.

When Chris and I left the movie theatre, we each had the same thought. "Let's go get a drink somewhere." That probably sounds strange -- but such was the impact of the film. It did not glamorize drinking or being drunk or killing yourself through drinking in any way. Just the opposite, of course. And yet, we were so numbed, we didn't know what else to say, or do, other than be thinking about a drink. (In fact, we did not get a drink. The thought was enough.)

Some years later, I was living in Chicago, and another good friend of mine was telling
me abut her favorite movies. Leaving Las Vegas was near the top of the list. Her reason for liking it so much had little to do with entertainment. Her husband had an addiction. He wasn't an alcoholic, but in Ben Sanderson, the lead character, she recognized her own husband, and his demons that she was unable to fully understand. Somehow, the fact that Ben Sanderson was so sick that he ended up dying gave her hope that her husband might get better. Nobody could be that bad off. Clearly, this was a classic work of really great fiction, and though reflective of real life, just a made-up story.

About a month ago, an aspiring screenwriter living in a small Ohio town emailed me. He said he was reading a book by John O'Brien, and had I heard of O'Brien, because he was supposed to be some kind of genius who died way too young. Well, yes, I had heard of John O'Brien, I said. In fact, I was quite familiar with his work, as well as the film made from his first novel. And then I began to do some further research. I came across Erin O'Brien's blog. Erin, also a writer, is John's younger sister. I was curious. No -- more than curious. Leaving Las Vegas had been a part of my life for more than 12 years, and at times when perhaps I needed to see or read the story again -- times when I was at my personal low points -- John O'Brien's work lifted me back up. And it has lifted up friends of mine during their own struggles.

A lot has been written about John O'Brien, but certainly not enough.

And Erin O'Brien is writing these wonderful new words each day.

There's something to this "O'Brien family," I thought. And I contacted Erin, and asked if she'd be willing to answer a few questions about the creative process -- hers and John's. Erin said okay, almost immediately.

The interview below barely scratches the surface of the "Amazing, Incredible O'Briens." But if you read my interview with Erin, and then visit all of the links she's provided, you'll get a clearer view of a whole lot of things.

If I had to choose one word to describe what you're about to experience, if you choose to go all the way that is, and this means reading beyond this site -- that word would be "humanity." The creative process is all about humanity -- and how the words on the page, or the pictures on the walls, or the images on the big screen ... it's how all of these help us to see ourselves better.

Most of us will survive and grow and evolve and (we hope) live long, eventful existences. But those who don't survive, like John, they indeed do make a difference (present tense intended), and in ways they could have never known, nor imagined.

This has to be, then, the best result of what we term "art."
-- Geoff Schutt

P.S. I gave Erin 21 questions -- some with multiple parts. She was kind enough to answer 17, including one via YouTube. I then thought of one additional question, which she also answered. I kind of like the idea of three or four missing questions -- and yet you'll find everything answered through Erin's links to other material.


This Side of Paradise: When you were growing up, what was it like in your household -- especially with an older brother and a five-year age difference -- did you look up to John as a younger sister to older brother, or was there any competition?

Erin O'Brien: John always used to call me "Dad's last hope." I was sort of popular and had very good grades, tons of dates and boyfriends. John was brilliant and excelled where he chose to. But he was also very rebellious, refusing to attend his high school graduation or go to college. Although I never felt competition between us, John may have.

John left home at 18 and got married at 19 when I was still a young teen. He and wife Lisa took off to follow their wanderlust, which led them around the country and eventually to the West Coast. So by the time I was really paying attention, he was gone. Strangely, my relationship with him has grown much since his death. My window into his life is the work he left behind. It is unfair though, I age and mature and he stays the same.

(For more on this topic, see this essay:

2. You and John both became writers. At what age did you begin writing, and did John or your parents or anyone else encourage you to continue writing? At what age did you know that you were a good (or better than good) writer?

--I am still waiting for the age when I know I am a "better than good" writer.

I've been writing all my life. Everyone has. I always tell kids that when I speak at schools. Everyone writes all the time. We are all writers. Some of us elevate it to a craft, which is what I try to do. I started writing in earnest in 1995--about a year after John died. That's when I abandoned my career as an electrical engineer in order to immerse myself in learning to write. I've never looked back. But if your readers would like to, here is a glimpse at some of my earliest writing:

3. When we talk about the creative process, I know that every writer is different. Many of your topics may begin as seemingly mundane -- or the everyday life stories that are common to all of us, and yet you have a way of turning these experiences into not only entertainment, but art. Before we get to the writing itself, tell me what your morning routine is like, if you have a routine.

--If my husband has the day off and my kid has school, we screw our brains out for about a half hour. Then maybe some coffee as I poke around my computer. Then I pull up whatever I'm working on and start poking at it. Eventually, the momentum picks up and I'm working at a good clip.

Maybe that's a bit too much information, but it's also truth. I detest it when writers act all artsy-fartsy and self-important, talking how they work on Their Work in Total Silence for solid eight-hour blocks. I'm like anyone else at their job, except I do mine at home and that has certain (ahem) diversions like the one I cited above as well as the laundry, the unfinished jigsaw puzzle, and that pot of chicken stock simmering on the stove. The sweet call of "mmmoooOOOOoooOOOOooommmmmm" is yet another distraction.

However, if I am under deadline or working on something hairy, I do nothing but work. I don't cook or clean or anything. I just work with disturbing intensity. Those are strange days, but wonderful too. When my kid asks what's for dinner, "Self serve," is my answer. Oh well. She's pretty good about it too. When she was little, if the pimento light in the big olive in Mom's martini glass lamp was on and glowing red, it meant no interruptions unless it was serious business. Now she is 11 and pretty good about respecting my work time. Sometimes she'll come in and watch me just like I used to watch my dad tooling away in his machine shop when I was a kid.

4. Is your husband a writer? If so, or if not -- how does he "support" your "habit?" I like the word "habit" in this sense -- that writers feel the "need" to write, rather than it being just another profession. But you may disagree with that assumption.

--I don't think of it as a habit, but more of a complex compulsion. Writing is mathematical process for me. It starts with a single word or idea. Add a pound of work, and you get a 10-percent draft, add another pound and you're up to 20 percent and so on. I HATE it when I know I must turn something in under deadline that I don't think is properly drafted. Knowing there is more in the material that I haven't fleshed out drives me up a wall. I will work ceaselessly to avoid it. When I do publish something that isn't quite done, it's usually on my blog because I am battling another compulsion: the need to update.

My husband is a Sports Illustrated sort of guy. I cannot assign enough gratitude to his support. I am really weird sometimes, but he tolerates it all. He knows that I must write or I will fuck up in the worst way. We've been through a great deal of tragedy and we have deep appreciation for our lives. That sounds trite, but it's not. I am so thankful for a Tuesday meatloaf dinner with my family that I could weep. I would choose that over a bucket full of diamonds without one moment's hesitation.

5. You've written about your "favorite, magic hat." I create little mojo bags. It seems to me that writers, the good ones at least, seem to have their share of eccentricities (eccentric as viewed by the rest of the world). With my mojo bags, I try to channel positive energy. It's not witchcraft, as you noted in a column about your hat (see: I think it's more about how we use or recognize this positive energy and turn it into words on the page, or how anybody can channel positive energy for good in their life. Have you found a replacement hat for the one that was stolen?

--It's funny that you ask about the "Wear it Well" column, which was immensely popular. People loved it. And yes, someone did send me a hat.

And now that I wrote it and saw the way it spilled out over everyone, I think it was magic--real magic. It was so sincere and so non-fictional. I set out to write a funny short blog entry bitching out whomever stole my hat. Then I stopped and thought, that's really not who I am or who I want to be. Then I thought of that dumb Frosty cartoon and the energy and the good will I felt right then was palpable. I was just thankful that I was able to successfully articulate it.

I could never have summoned that column. It had to be born in the most organic sense. And when it was, it was one of the moments that make all the miserable parts of being a writer just fade away. I have to note here, though, that I was not confident about that column at all. I thought, who the hell wants to read about my dumb-ass hat? And when my editor said that he loved it, it was the greatest feeling.

6. Your brother was an alcoholic, and committed suicide. That's a blunt statement, but you've addressed this in other interviews. I'm one of those many people who were introduced to John's work first through the film version of Leaving Las Vegas, and then I think I read a Rolling Stone article that had all kinds of "conspiracy" theories among his friends about "who" might have been responsible for his killing himself. But when it comes right down to it, John had sold Leaving Las Vegas and the film was in production, and most writers would say, "Hey, with this money (however much it was), I'm set for a while to keep on writing." And yet that didn't happen with John. In fact he left an unfinished manuscript that you completed. Was he in contact with your family in the days before he died? Did he realize that he'd already created a legacy for himself? To make this a three-part question, how did John feel in general about his writing, and its acceptance (or rejection)?

--John was very proud of his work and humble successes. He was not good with rejection or being edited. He surely held grudges. He was furious over the edits that were done to Rugrats episode #37 "Toys in the Attic," which he authored under the name Carroll Mine (the main character in Stripper Lessons) because he didn't want his name associated with the edited version. But when I read John's original script and compared it to what eventually ran, I thought the edits were completely appropriate. In fact, they had to be done in order to fit run-time constraints. But John sure saw it differently.

Although Leaving Las Vegas wasn't quite in production when John died (that "production was stopped temporarily" when John died is a Wiki/Internet myth), he had signed over the rights about two weeks before his suicide. I guess it just didn't matter to him at that point. As far as conspiracies, that's just bunk. John put the bottle to his lips. John put the gun in his mouth. I'll always have guilt and regret, but in the end, I know these things are true.

7. We know of lots of stories of artists who suffered (or continue to suffer) from alcoholism, or other illnesses. If John had suddenly decided to stop drinking, what do you think this might have meant for his writing? Did the alcohol and writing go hand-in-hand for him? As something to compare this to, in terms of the creative process, what would have happened if Van Gogh, for example, would have been "cured?" (Such an easy word to use.) Do some artists "need" to be tormented in order to create?

--John's novel Stripper Lessons is booze-free. It is a funny, sweet, wonderful piece of work and I imagine the world would have seen more of that side of John had he successfully kicked the bottle.

Of course, that is just conjecture. What's so hard for me is that I've continued to grow and mature in the craft, yet John is frozen in time. It makes me so sad to think of all he missed out on.

8. How difficult was it for you to complete John's last novel -- and was it your idea to complete it?

--That was so many years ago. I guess it was part of the grieving process. I absolutely hate my contributions, but what's done is done. Yes, it was my idea. I remember feeling utterly drawn into doing it and studying the book. Tony's means a great deal more to me than probably anyone else in the world. I see things and details others do not. I wrote extensively about it here:

9. How do you think John would like to be remembered? (If he could write his own epitaph, after finding his peace, what do you think he would say about himself?) And how do you remember John -- what qualities come to mind first? What kind of person was he to his friends, wife, and other loved ones?

--I remember John was talking about his book (Leaving Las Vegas), specifically the copyright page and the "Library of Congress" text, which at the time included this line:

O'Brien, John, 1960-

He thought that was so funny--that the birth year was followed by a hyphen, as if filling in the year of death was unfinished business. "I wonder if it's some guy's job," John said to me. "I wonder if he's sitting at a dusty desk in the back of the Library of Congress with my file open in front of him. He's probably yelling over to another guy who looks just like him and asking, 'Hey, Crocker, anybody know if this O'Brien guy kicked yet?'"

That doesn't answer your question, but it's what I thought of when I read it.

10. As a follow-up, how would you like to be remembered?

--We once lost power for four days, but I managed to keep the kitchen going with coolers and our gas stovetop. I told my husband that my headstone should read:

Here lies Erin. She kept the beer cold.

11. You discuss John as a writer who didn't need the "alcohol" to write. As we're discussing process, and you've talked about your own process, do you know what John's writing process was? For example, did he carry around little notebooks, was he always scribbling dialogue, did he have set times he wrote best -- or something completely different? Did he talk about his work-in-progress as he was writing?

--During his most fertile writing years, John was in Los Angeles and I was in Cleveland, so I can't really comment first-hand on his routine. I do remember reading something a friend of his wrote that indicated John was diligent and regimented. He said something about how he struggled with every handful of words while he watched on with amazement as John put out 10 pages of pristine prose a day.

I have wondered for years about how John balanced the booze and the writing. I have no idea if he kept the two completely separate or if they sometimes flowed together.

12. You've already written one novel, and you're writing all the time, it seems -- on your blog, for your newspaper column, and speaking on issues related to "process." When you wrote your first novel, were you afraid at all that it would be compared to John's work? That said, are you working on a new novel?

--For years I was worried people wouldn't see my writing because of John's shadow. That doesn't bother me anymore. I've paid my dues and have the scars to prove it.

I am not writing any long fiction these days. I want to write a memoir or a collection of essays. I do still write the occasional short story. (see:

13. Do you keep notebooks filled with ideas for your columns and blog entries, or do you find that writing is a spontaneous kind of process for you? I'm wondering if the discipline of writing each day feeds you ideas on its own -- just by existing -- living another day.

--I do carry a notebook and jot ideas when they come to me. Some flesh out, others fizzle. Some pieces are long in the making, with much external research others are about me or something in my life and are therefore internal, although external research is always required. In "Wear it Well," for instance, I had to fish around and make sure I was getting the details from Frosty the Snowman correct.

Here is an example of what I consider to be an externally driven column regarding research/preparation, but it was also personal and internal. It has a few subtle nods to John and was a real mother to write:

14. What is one book by another author you wish you could have written (or books), and why?

--Um … The Bible?

Okay seriously now, I am not envious or even desirous of other writers' works, but I do get disgusted at the insider business of publication for all of it's pretentious sniffing, who-you-knowness and incestuous connections. My novel Harvey & Eck was a good book. It was worthy of more attention than it got.

15. When you write, do you listen to music -- do you require silence -- how do you get into that "zone" that writers/artists often experience? This is more a question about preparation than anything else.

--I need quiet. I am susceptible to distractions and try to avoid them by turning off all email alerts when I'm hard at work. I often shut my office door.

16. What is your favorite food? An weird question to ask, but it beats favorite color, unless you want to disclose that as well.


17. Where do you see your own writing career 10-20 years from now, figuring in as well your domestic life?

--No way to tell. I find the path as I travel it.

18. The writers I know are filled with passion for their craft/art, and this can lead to moments of mania as well as depression (without being clinically manic-depressive). How do you deal with a down day -- or is it easier to deal with a down day than an up day (for example, is writing a kind of therapy, as it is with me)?

--It's great when writing feels good. But writing is also my work. I am very fortunate to be a columnist and get paid to write what I want, but it's still work. To that end, there are days when it just feels like work--but always work that I love.

I roll through the bad days as best I can. Sometimes a rejection evokes only a heavy sigh, sometimes an emphatic string of profanity, other times it will put me down for days. In such a case, I just try to get through it.

Actually, I have a whole website dedicated to this topic, "The sad writing chronicles of Erin O'Brien," which is sort of a big, bad YouTube self-pity party.

A Note From Erin:
I know I haven't answered all your questions and for that I apologize. Sometimes I'm not very good at following directions. For Everything Erin, though, I invite your readers to visit

I also referred to my April 16, 2008 feature in the Cleveland Free Times a couple of times herein. I wasn't trying to pass anything off, but I didn't want to repeat myself. By way of introducing that article, I posted an elaborate blog entry with many photos and links to things I've written about John. I invite your readers to stop by here if they're interested in reading more:


PHOTO CREDITS: Top, John and Erin (1968). Middle two, Erin and John (1986). Photographs used with the permission of Erin O'Brien, and may not be otherwise reproduced without her written permission.

INTERVIEW CREDIT: Copyright Erin O'Brien and Geoff Schutt, April 2008


JsnRchr said...

Geoff and Erin, thanks for the interview. Well done.

Erin O'Brien said...

Thanks for having me Geoff! It was a lot of fun (especially answering #16).

ELEANOR says: "Please turn the page. Keep reading."

For more of Eleanor and her Biographer -- as well as the work of our many guest artists -- check out the older postings. "Everything is part of the process, and the process is the journey," Eleanor says.

"The Little Room," Olive Thomas In Background

"The Little Room," Olive Thomas In Background