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Sunday, February 24, 2013

#49 Tony O'Neill

20 Questions with Mourning Goats
Tony O'Neill

I've been reading and recommending this guy for years, but never did the research about him as a person...found out he's awesome. He's been to hell and back and once he landed he wrote some amazing books. Down and Out on Murder Mile is one of my favorite 'novels' and I couldn't be happier to have Tony here with the goat!  

ALSO! He will be doing a reading on Sunday, March 3rd, in Brooklyn! There may be a goat there...Get tickets, here!

1.    What comes to mind when you hear, "Mourning Goats?"

MOURNING GOATS (1999-2003) were a Doom-Metal band from Bergen, Norway.  Formed out of the ashes of the punk-metal outfit TESTICULAR CANCER and black metal legends GLORYHOLE INFECTION, they are perhaps best known for their involvement with a spate of church burnings in 2002, which eventually lead to the arrest of lead guitarist Animal De Gilles.  Their single, “Drunk of the Blood of Christ” appeared on the soundtrack of the 2008 Jennifer Aniston movie, “Marley and Me”.

2.    You have one of my favorite openers of any book in Down and Out on Murder Mile, please tell me that that really happened.

Yeah, it happened.  Everything in “Down and Out” and “Digging the Vein” was basically pulled from real life.  I presented them as novels because I hate the memoir genre.  It’s so associated with Oprah-endorsed slush.  All I did was change names and alter the time line a bit to keep the narrative moving. 

3.    How do you go from writing about heroin and crack to writing a memoir about an NFL player?

Ah well he was a crack smoking, heroin using NFL player, so that was the connection.  He had an NY Times sportswriter who knew nothing about drugs interested in the story, but Jason read some of my books and I won out.  I guess he figured teaching a limey about American football might be easier than teaching an NY Times sport journo about smoking crack.

4.    What's it like co-writing a book? You've done two, Hero of the Underground and Neon Angel.

It can be a challenge, depending on your subject.  It’s nice to get away from your own work for a while and go live in someone else’s head for a while.  The deadlines are usually insane.  Six months to write and edit a book.  You got the subject on one hand who wants the story presented a certain way, and then the publisher on the other, and in some cases the subject’s agent screaming their demands at you.  But you take the check, you know?  Its keeps money coming in while you’re working on your next novel, without having to go out and get s straight job.  And then six months later the book comes out and you see it on the bestseller charts and you don’t have a pot to piss in because you spent the advance paying off your debts, ha.  I’ve co written three books.  One got tied up in some kinda legal mess but is apparently coming out.  I was going to do one with a well-known guy from the punk scene, but I had one phone call with the guy and he was a complete pain in the ass.  A nightmare, ranting drunken queen from hell. I told him I had to get off the phone and he says, “You’re hanging up on ME?  Who do you think you are?  Oscar Wilde?”  So I called up the people who’d pitched the book and said, “I need at least three times as much money to work with this guy” and it didn’t happen.  Shame, the guy was a maniac but I always admired his work. Ships that pass, and all that.  Still friendly with Jason though.  Weird that I would end up liking a football player so much, especially given my lack of interest in sports.

5.    I read that you ended up in LA after your tour with Kenickie [late 90's British indie band], but how did you end up in NY from LA from

Well the brief version is I ended up in LA because I married this girl in Vegas on a meth binge, and when I got back to London it was raining, and snowing and forty below zero and I just thought ‘fuck this’ and decided to bail to California.  Then two marriages later I was strung out on heroin real bad, and owed a lot of money to drug dealers, and the cops were looking for my old lady over some fraud beef so we high tailed it to London to get on the free methadone program.  Then I got clean in London and met my wife Vanessa and, well I started writing the first novel and she was pregnant and we decided to go to New York because that’s her hometown and I just felt I couldn’t stay in London.  Too many memories, too many temptations.  Wanted to do be a good father, you know?  And you need family around you when you have a newborn.  I have family in England, up in the northwest, little cotton-mill town near Manchester but there was nothing for us there.  We went up for a few months and I worked at a liquor store.  Made so little money, it was a joke.  Eight in the morning all these men with faces like the inside of Bowery flophouses staggering in to buy liters of cider with a handful of greasy coins.  It was a total death trip.  I go back now and I find a lot to love in that town though, but at the time it just wasn’t the right place for me.  I was too fragile emotionally, fresh off junk, newborn baby, living at my parents’ house with a manuscript I was trying to get published that nobody wanted to read.  I would have relapsed, no doubt about it. It wasn’t until I moved to NY that I was able to get my book past the door of an indie press, so yeah, NY has been good to me.

6. In one of your interviews, it sounds like you're almost angry that the places that used to be seedy in LA are now filled with million-dollar apartments, any truth to that?

Yeah, of course.  You only really meet real human beings in alleyways.  I might have stolen that line from Genet.  But hell, LA isn’t as bad as New York.  Giuliani and Bloomberg have killed NY stone dead.  That’s why most NY literature is so fucking bloodless and dull.  25 years ago you could go to Times Square and buy drugs, pussy, weapons, fake IDs, it was a free for all.  Now you can’t even smoke a cigarette there.  You’re seeing the future of America, the future of the whole world right here in NY.  A crypto fascist police state run by oligarchs obsessed by regulating your sugar intake.  Makes you wanna puke.  LA…  well it’s happening there, but the skuzzy places are still holding on like a stubborn roach infestation.  I guess I have more of an emotional connection to seedy LA so each closing really feels personal.  Old New York was already gone by the time I landed here.  But yeah, the day they closed The Spot Light was a sad one.  It was a great gay hustler bar in Hollywood, opened at 6am.  You’d see all kinds of life in there, man it was so inspiring. 

There’s nothing inspiring about 20 million dollar condos is there?

7. Jerry Stahl is a big supporter of yours, how did that come about? Have you met?

Jerry is such a cool guy.  I just always loved his writing and I can’t remember how the initial introduction came about but it may have been via my old agent, and he was very nice about my second novel.  I just got a story published in The Heroin Chronicles, which he edited.  I was in LA when the second novel came out and I met him at some weird party taking place at the 20th Century Fox studios.  What a freak show.  Dr Drew was there.  Jerry was there.  Mariel Hemingway, some guy from SNL and all of these odd Hollywood freaks.  It was like being on acid.  I was talking to Jerry and he points out a toilet off up the way – we’re standing in an exact reproduction of 70s era Little Italy by the way – and he says, “I useta shoot up in there while I was writing ALF, heh heh.”  I tried to give Dr Drew a piece of my mind, hate that guy, but his handler pulled him away.  Vanessa and I ended up at some party in the Valley with Ron Jeremy.  Really sweet guy.  Tried to fuck my wife, but what the hell - he’s Ron Jeremy of course he’s gonna try it, you know?  Its like shaking hands to him. I was sad to hear he ended up in hospital.  Not surprised though.  Everywhere he goes these women just run up to him and pull their tits out.  Happened at the party about 2 dozen times, and then we were at the Rainbow on Sunset and it happened all night.  I was with him for like 6 hours and I nearly had heart failure just seeing it.  Imagine that for like 30 years straight.  Ron and I danced to “Sweet Home Alabama” at one point.  It was a fun night.

8. One of the funniest things I read about you is your fear for others if you were behind the wheel of a car. Still the case?

Yup.  We recently moved to a little town just outside of NY and I still don’t drive.  I’m easily distracted.  I guess I gotta learn but hell I lived in LA for years and didn’t drive.  A girl tried to teach me once.  Took me driving up Sunset boulevard and within ten minutes the cops had pulled me over assuming I was drunk because I was veering so wildly.  She told them, “He’s not drunk, he’s English.”  I did my best confused “Hugh Grant Englishman abroad” thing and they let it go.  That was, shit, 13 years ago?  Haven’t been behind the wheel of a car since. 

9. Did I read correctly that a lot of the stuff from the first two books is pulled from your life? Some of that stuff is pretty rough...

Yeah.  I wonder how I survived sometimes.  You’re a maniac when you’re in your early twenties, aren’t you?  You just don’t think you can die.  And even when people start popping off all around you, you still think it can’t touch you.  I had people wipe out in drunken car crashes, OD’s, suicides the works.  But I always figured I was invincible.  To me I guess I kept going because I knew that no matter how bad it got it was a hell of a lot more interesting than just getting a job.  I had that kind of conformity drilled into me as a kid.  You grew up in my town, and you went to college and you got a decent job with a pension, and you settled down with a girl, and you popped out some kids.  Then at the weekends you got as drunk as possible, and started all over again on Monday.  If felt like soul death to me.  I just ran, as soon as I could.  Music was an escape.  Drugs were an escape.  Relationships with crazy bipolar girls were an escape.  As long as I was totally miserable, and in total chaos at least I knew I was alive, you know?  Until I looked around one day and I realized I was dying.  My teeth started falling out.  I couldn’t find working veins any more.  I mean, Jesus I was a mess.

10. Best line in an interview ever, "Thank god drugs came along because I probably would have been an alcoholic." Is it really strange going back to your hometown?

Yeah and no.  Like I said earlier as a teen I just wanted out of there.  Felt trapped by it.  As I get older I look back on it more nostalgically I guess.  I don’t know any of my old friends, I don’t know if I would have anything to say to them.  Our lives just went on completely different courses.  But I went back recently and it was nice, you know?  Just walking around places that I remembered from my childhood.  After a while it gets draining, you know, not having roots.  You spend so long running away, terrified of being trapped by people or geography that you end up a kind of non-person.  I realized I was completely amputated from my past and it scared me.  Just going back, touching the same piece of wall I touched as a kid, waiting at the same bus top… I don’t know.  It was powerful.  Strange, for sure.  But comforting.

11. Do you think that being a musician helps you write, vice versa?

I think the discipline you learn certainly helps.  An undisciplined musician will get nowhere, and ditto with a writer.  There’s no-one standing over you telling you to produce.  And you have to learn to take rejection, to take knocks, to be told you’re a worthless piece of shit that what you’re doing will not amount to anything.  If you cant handle that then you have no business in the arts, honest to Christ.  If a bad review upsets you, or people talking shit about you anonymously on the Internet, or bitchy blog comments, or endless rejection is too much for you then this business will drive you over the edge.  Your job is to keep moving forward, to create. 
You also have to get used to being broke. That’s another way in which music preps you.  I remember when we did Top of the Pops with Kenickie….  I was living in a house share with a bunch of drunken French backpackers and some Canadian hippies in Chelsea.  Picked up by a limo, driven to the studio, we record us miming along to the single.  Like being in an episode of the Monkees or something all these teenage girls screaming and dancing.  Then the limo drops me home.  I go to the ATM and I’m negative 300 quid.  I walk to the house and all I have to my name is a bottle of cheap brandy and a tin of tuna.  So I drank the brandy and ate the tuna.  Talk about a come down.

12. You've done it all, short stories, poetry, novels, memoir, music; what's your favorite focus, now?

You just got to go where your instinct is.  I’m in the middle of a novel at the moment.  Working on some screenplays.  I do a bit of non-fiction for money.  For me so long as I’m in front of the screen and typing, I feel okay with myself.  As long as I’m producing something, anything. 

13. Two agents? Joel Gotler and Carrie Kania. How did that happen?

Well Joel helped me negotiate the deal when a screenwriter optioned the rights to SICK CITY.  He liked my stuff and he’s mostly a book-to-movie guy. I liked him straight away.  He’s got a no bullshit thing that appeals to me.  And he makes deals.  Carrie used to run Harper Perennial, and then she decided to move to London to become an agent.  It just felt natural that we’d continue to work together because she has supported me since the beginning and you know, I just know she has my best interests at heart.  I don’t know how unusual a set up it is – Joel has people he works with in Europe, etc already and I just said that I wanted Carrie to be that person.  Of course he knew Carrie so it was a bit of a no brainer – she’s an incredibly smart lady. I feel lucky to have both of them on my team.

14. It looks like you release one novel every 2 years (2006, 2008, 2010, 2012), are you expecting to continue this output?

Wow, I never looked at it like that.  But yeah, I’m about ½ way done on a new novel so 2014 wouldn’t be bad. I’d like to see it out sooner.  They take as long as they take.  I feel a year is long enough.  If you work on something for more than a year you start to hate it, I feel.  You can't be objective any more.  Once the initial spark of enthusiasm fades it becomes really hard to sustain work on a novel.  Then it becomes like a day job, slogging forwards, putting a word here, a sentence there.  Writing a novel to me is just a painful process.  You think you’re going mad.  Always at the midway point I am gripped by incredible amounts of self-loathing.  I hate every word I’ve written.  Then you push through the last half thinking that you’re all washed up.  Not until you type the last line can you really get a sense of it. 

15. That being said, what's your process like? Are you an every day writer?

Every day.  I try to keep a regimen.  Start at 8am, finish at 2pm.  After 3 o clock, I gotta be a dad.  I get dressed.  Put on my clothes, like I’m going out to see people.  You can’t write in your pajamas.  That’s death right there.  Encourages laziness.  I have to treat it like a job, create a routine.  Every morning when you sit down to type it's like preparing for battle.

16. In one of your most recent posts on your blog, you said, "For me a writer's job should be producing books, not boring everyone to death about what they had for breakfast or what they watched on TV or thought of so and so's book.  There's plenty of writers out there who can't write for shit but they're really good at self-promotion.  Good for them,  Hell, if the writing thing doesn't work out in the long term they can always get a job in PR." In these times, do you think that it's up to the author to promote or should the work just speak for itself?

I just hate all of that.  I hate facebook, twitter, I like when writers had mystique. I mean even calling that thing I wrote a blog is overstating it.  Every so often I just write something on my website to remind people I’m not dead.  Six months can go by.  That’s the problem with a society in which everybody is telling you their innermost thoughts.  It makes you sick.  Most writers are boring people.  Catty, dull, awful, awful people.  Who gives a shit what they think?  Show me the book and shut up.  I hate most people’s opinions.  PR departments crack me up.  You have a book ready to go and you get a PR person assigned, and you ask them – so what’s the plan? And the plan usually involves them talking you into writing some stupid blog about something vaguely current.  I mean have you ever picked up someone’s book because you read some stupid blog they wrote about Lindsey Lohan?  It’s madness.  But that’s the way things are. 

Or they say, “reach out to your followers on Facebook”.  When I tell them I’m not on it they look at me like I’m some kind of fucking Neanderthal man who just thawed out.  “You’re not on FACEBOOK?” Jesus Christ.  I mean what happened to sending the book to the New York Times? Blowing some people, or threatening them to make them look at the book?  When did everybody get so passive?  Peter Grant… he was dangling people out of windows when they tried to screw Led Zeppelin out of their money.  We need more of that.  People are too nice these days. “Oh start a blog….” Fuck off.

I prefer to do my interacting face to face, preferably over drinks.  I mean, I DO promote my books.  I give interviews, I hit the road, and I read. I present the book – here you go, hope you like it.  But I’m not going to spend the next twelve months on some fucking charm offensive boring people with the mundanities of my existence. But I see the writers who came up after me and they spend as much time blogging and tweeting as they do writing.  I mean in between all of the blogging and tweeting, and then producing their work, when do they get a chance to live?  They don’t!  That’s why their books are so boring.  They don’t get out there and experience life.  They’re too busy updating their profiles.

17. You've done readings all over the world, what's the biggest difference you see between the U.S. and readings in Europe?

It’s a massive, massive difference.  In the US there’s a small, but fanatical following.  People either really, really dig what I do or its complete indifference.  In the US it’s only ‘book people’ who show up to readings, and there’s less and less ‘book people’ as time goes on. That’s why a publisher like Harper Perennial seems like such an anomaly.  Feels like most US publishers are only interested in putting out celebrity dross, and mainstream shit.  Perennial on the other hand have a really oddball roster of writers, but to me some of the best working in the US today.  They’re like a really cool indie, except they’re not.  They actually get your books into bookstores. France has been very good to me.  Germany too.  I just got published in Italy and I’m hoping to work more with them in the future.  The people who read my books in France… man, they just really GET it.  Its beautiful, they see the poetry in there it’s not just “oh drugs and sadism and whatever” you know? They get it. I always joke that its because I’ve got wonderful translators.  I think they’re slipping all of the poetry in there, ha. I have a great publisher in France.  13e Note editions.  They’ve published every single one of my books, including books that never found a US publisher.  They really believe in me, get what I’m doing, and support me all the way.  The Germans, likewise, have been exceptionally good to me.  Produced beautiful hardback editions of the books, with illustrations, the whole bit.  On that first German tour you’d have 200 people at the venue with is just unheard of for a debut author in the states.  It was a madhouse.  People lining up afterwards to say hello, give me wine, smoke a joint with me.  I didn’t want to come back.

18. Were you always interested in writing or did it come as a result of what you've lived?

I was always a big reader. Teachers always said I could write.  One short story I wrote in an exam – a kind of post apocalyptic thing with people reduced to eating the corpses of the dead  - came back with an A, and a note that said “is everything all right at home?” Wrote a pulp kind of novel when I was 15 or 16 trying to impress a girl.  When I read it back it was so awful, so deliriously bad that I stopped writing for years.  Threw myself into music but just read continuously.  That’s the best education a writer can have – read the good ones.  Jim Thompson, Herbert Huncke, Alexander Trocchi, Dan Fante, Anna Kavan, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Burroughs, Thompson, etc etc.  Teaches you more than any MFA can.  And it’s free.  The thing was I was only really able to write something good when I finally had something to say.  Up until then, it was like learning to play an instrument by imitating your favorite records.  I learn the hard way.  Life had to knock several rounds of shit out of me before I found my voice.

19. It feels like you're writing is a way to get it out of your brain, so it doesn't keep driving you mad. What do you think you would be doing now if you never got into that scene?

I’d probably be dead.  An OD or maybe shot over a drug deal.  My luck was bound to run out, I think I jumped ship just in time.   Really I don’t fit in most places.  I wish it were different, but I don’t play well with others.  I’ve hated every job I had.  My favorite job was when I was out in Queens, NY painting iron railings.  We’d just roll up to these factories or private houses and lay the concrete and put the railings in and then my job was to slap on the primer and then paint ‘em black.  We’d do it in the dead of winter, up on top of an Indian food factory in Bushwick, the place covered with ice, people doing crack deals in the house across the road.  The guy I worked with a tall German, stinking hung over, he used to chew garlic bulbs to hide the smell of booze from the clients.  I loved that job because it was a chance to just think.  No small talk, no customers, just slap the paint on and daydream.  I used to run home and write stories, I'd have so many ideas.  But most jobs… they don’t give you that space to daydream.  You’re on the phone, or you're selling shit, or you have some maniac chattering bullshit into your ear all day long.  They expect you to care, and of course you don’t. I couldn’t last like that.  I’d have been back on the needle for my own sanity.

20. What's next for Tony O'Neill?

Another book.  And then another…  I’ll keep writing them so long as people keep wanting to read them.  I’m working on a screenplay with a director and I’d love for it to get made.  But there’s no game plan, there’s no point because nothing you plan out works anyway.  I didn’t have a career path.  It’s just a case of one situation leading onto another and another.  I just take whatever doors are open to me and hope for the best.

Thank you!

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