The Sunday Rumpus Interview: Patrick O’Neil

By

There aren’t many books that when you finish them leave you silent and unable to reenter the world for a while—and Patrick O’Neil’s debut memoir Gun Needle Spoon is one of them. This is a life recorded that no one in their right mind would want—but it’s a sharp and precise look back by someone now in his right mind trying to make sense of a past that went well off its rails. Gun Needle Spoon grabs the reader from page one and doesn’t let up until you’ve turned the last page and are left moved, disturbed and a little out of breath.

I first met O’Neil, who is also a musician and filmmaker, seven or eight years ago, while he was getting his MFA in creative writing at Antioch in Los Angeles. Over the years, I’ve followed his writing in journals, on-line sites and on his blog, and have always been struck by the candor and honesty in his work. I interviewed him via email on the occasion of the recent release of Gun Needle Spoon.

***

The Rumpus: Gun Needle Spoon was originally published in France in a somewhat different form with, as is common, a different title. Can you take us through the process of the two different versions?

Patrick O’Neil: Dude, I’m BIG in France—uh huh, right? I was at the LA Times Festival of Books schmoozing on the free food in the greenroom and whining to Jerry Stahl about how hard it was trying to get my memoir published. And Stahl, being as gracious as always, said he might have a lead for me overseas. Then he introduced me to Eric Vieljeux and his press 13e Note Editions in Paris. Eric loved my book and said they wanted to publish it, except… the memoir is in two parts, the first half is my downward cycle into heroin addiction and crime. The second part is me trying to come to grips with life eight years later drug free. And the French weren’t interested in the “redemption” part of the book; they only wanted the down and dirty crime-ridden first part. It’s like some noir thing. They don’t want happy endings. In fact my editor at 13e Note, Patrice Carrer, asked “why would you shoot yourself in the foot with this part two nonsense?” And I was all “but this is my life!” Which is always a problem when editing memoir. Writers can get a little touchy when an editor wants to lob off huge “meaningful” chunks of their past. So being a little more than touchy I said no, and took my ball back and went home. Segue to nine months later and Eric sends me an email saying he still really LOVES my book and wants to publish it, and maybe I could stop being such a dumbass and let’s do this thing. Sadly 13e Note isn’t around any more, but if you had seen their roster: Jerry Stahl, Dan Fante, Charles Bukowski, Tim O’Brien, Mark SaFranco, James Brown, you, Nelson Algren—it was obvious what an awesome press they were. Plus they had this very French sense of design, and I just wanted to be a part of all that. So I worked with Patrice Carrer and edited my book to a lean quick-paced first part and revised some flashback sections to present tense and yeah, the final result was Hold-Up. A book I am very proud of, as essentially it is my first book, although it was published in a language I can’t read and no one in America knew about it. I really wish 13e Note had weathered France’s financial downtrend. They were good people, and very supportive of their authors.

Rumpus: You’re also a teacher who teaches, among other things, a seminar/class on writing through trauma. It’s such an interesting topic, for both memoir and fiction writers. How did the experience of this book prepare you for deciding to teach such a class? Can you describe how you help others in writing through their personal trauma?

O’Neil: When I was neck deep in my addiction I never thought about how traumatic that “lifestyle” actually was. I just sort of took for granted everyone had experienced hard times and that endless cold-turkey withdrawals, or getting stabbed, or having the cops kick the shit out of you, or all your close friends dying OD’ing was normal. Like it was routine to overdose on heroin, at least once in a while, and the stress of incarceration was part of doing business. That was just how I lived then. Yet years later I’m haunted by all those memories and I’m in rehab talking to a therapist and he’s telling me I suffer from PTSD and survivor guilt syndrome. I thought only soldiers in war and victims of horrendously violent crimes had PTSD. Yet I had all the symptoms, and put in the context that: no, all that shit was not normal, it suddenly made sense. Then there I was a few years further down the road writing my memoir, reliving all those memories, and triggering all those old emotions again, and it was rough.

But what I eventually discovered was once I actually wrote them out, examining what really happened, while accepting my part in them, I was able to come to a better understanding of why they were still affecting me. And after a lot of deep internal work on myself I was able to take full responsibility for my actions, while also realizing that some events I had no control over. I could either be a victim or forgive those that had wronged me and move on. It was a total cathartic experience. An experience that I wanted to share. I put together a Writing Through Trauma workshop where I help writers work through their traumatic memories using the same method that I used. I’ve taught this as a course online, I’ve held seminars and given lectures, and worked one-on-one with individual authors. The results have been really rewarding.

Rumpus: While you’re primarily a nonfiction/memoir writer, you have published some fiction. How do the genres differ for you?

O’Neil: My memoir is “creative” nonfiction, with an emphasis on creative. I use scene, structure, and dialogue to recreate the memories. Now do I remember conversations verbatim? Hell no; I was loaded most of the time! But I remember the gist of the conversation, I remember how certain people talked, the language they used and I incorporate that to recreate an atmosphere of similarity. So obviously that is an area where the creative part comes into play. But I’m not making shit up; I’m writing from whatever memories I do possess, and my jobGun Needle Spoon is to convey every detail about that memory as clearly as possible to the reader. Yet unlike fiction I know the “characters” inside and out. I don’t need to envision what they would do and say. I already have that information. So my “characters” are already firmly in my mind, and the “scenes” have happened. I’m not changing the outcome of what has already transpired. My “story” is already in place. I just have to get it down into words. Now with fiction I may have a character and setting, but I have no idea what they’re going to do until I start them doing something—well hold on, I have a general idea, I mean I’m not sitting down to write without a plot in mind. But I have a freedom that I don’t have with memoir, I can just make shit up. Although all of my fiction is based on people and places that I know, or at least have witnessed. Especially dialogue, I am always stealing stuff I hear people say in real life and using it for a character, or even using a line of dialogue as basis for a character. Because you get a sense about a person if they are capable of saying whatever weird shit they just said, like wow, that person sounds like a sociopathic killer and she’d make a great character. But yeah, that’s just how I roll. I just hope I don’t sound pretentious or naive yammering on about fiction vs. nonfiction with such obvious observations. But writing fiction is rather new to me and although I like it, I do not feel as well-versed in it as nonfiction.

Rumpus: Perhaps an extension of the previous question: what do you find unique about nonfiction writing in general, and memoir, specifically? Are their issues of personal experience, or perhaps ethical questions that come into place when writing about experience that include the life experience of other people who happen to be a part of your life’s narrative?

O’Neil: Early on I heard “write like everyone you know is dead.” Which I think is incredibly good advice. I can’t write about a situation involving others if I am worrying about what or how that other person will come off. It’d be like my mom looking over my shoulder while I type saying, “honey, I did the best I could, stop making me look bad.” NOT that I am trying to make my mom look bad. Thank god she won’t be reading this. Well, I hope she won’t be reading this—ha! See, that’s what I’m talking about. And if you were to ask my girlfriend Jenn, she would tell you that there is nothing off limits, I’ll write about any and everything. I wrote about a particularly cringe-worthy moment where I got hurt while having sex—and I mean really hurt—and it involved a former girlfriend. Then I read it at LitCrawl in San Francisco and Jenn was in the audience and afterwards everyone was asking if that was her in the story. Uh huh, yeah, that went over well. Plus it was published online and members of Jenn’s family read it and yes, my future mother-in-law now knows more about my private parts then she probably needs to.

But on a more serious note, for Gun Needle Spoon, I changed the names of everyone involved, unless they were dead, because I’m admitting to crimes and drug use. But ethically it is not okay to implicate someone else without their permission. And a lot of the people I knew then I am no longer in contact with, or I do still know and like me they’ve moved on with their lives, and they’re not writing a book about it, so I gave them the anonymity of a pseudonym. Yet the underlining “ethical” question is what exactly are my motives when I write about someone and what they did. Because much like working through my trauma I have to check to make sure I’m not coming from a place of distorted memories. Like if I’m still holding a grudge or have resentments, then I need to work through those emotions until I can write from a better perspective. Otherwise it is obvious, and it’s never pretty to read an angry diatribe of unresolved resentments where the author is seeking revenge or their intent is to shame.

Rumpus: Can you give us some sense of the history of how GNS came to be? When you started it? The various incarnations it went through prior to publication?

O’Neil: A good sixty percent of the first half of Gun Needle Spoon was my thesis for grad school. I began my MFA studies with a definite vision of the book I wanted to write and I concentrated on completing it. The first manuscript was horribly titled, Opacity, because I was playing with the concept of the density of memories and how sometimes they are unclear and elude us. Hence the reference to them being “opaque”—but it was one of those words you have to explain and really do you want your book title to be something that most people have to look up in the dictionary? Ah, no. But that still didn’t deter me from keeping it. So then my final manuscript was a slightly shorter version of what would ultimately become Hold-Up, and for the next year after grad school I wrote the “part two” that the French so hated, and eventually began submitting it to presses and agents. I had no idea what I was doing. I wrote clumsy cold query letters that I sent out in small batches of five, and then I’d wait for the rejections. It was pretty dismal. But I kept at it.

One of the presses I submitted the manuscript to was MacAdam/Cage in San Francisco. I was thinking my book is primarily set in SF, I live in SF, this should work out, although it hadn’t for City Lights, so why I thought that is a mystery. But yeah, my “unsolicited” manuscript of course got dumped in the slush pile and sat there until my editor, Guy Intoci dug it out, read it, and got in touch with me saying he liked it and was working to get it accepted. Then MacAdam/Cage went under and that was it, or so I thought. A few years later while I’m in talks with 13e Note, Guy is now Editor-in-Chief for MP Publishing and he pitched my book again to them, but they weren’t doing memoirs, or at least they weren’t doing my memoir, so that didn’t happen. Then I agreed to publish the revised first half with 13e Note and I liked Patrice’s edits so much that I used them on the original full manuscript and began sending it out again this time saying, “hey, this is being published in France, you should publish it too!” But I couldn’t really use Hold-Up as the title, and Opacity sucked. Rob, I don’t know if you remember this or not, but one day you and I were sitting in your car in a gas station parking lot talking about possible titles and you said, “so what would you say the book is really about?” And I said, “guns, needles, spoons, heroin, and armed robbery?” And you said, “gun needle spoon, that’s the title.” Thanks, Rob!

So by then it’s been about five years I’ve been trying to get it published in the US and Guy Intoci is now Editor-in-Chief at Dzanc Books and once again he’s backing my memoir and Dzanc accepts and we sign a contract, and Guy and I go into revisions. Now like I said I wrote Gun Needle Spoon five years earlier and I’m a better writer now, well at least I’d like to think I am, and I’m going over the manuscript and Guy has major edits, and I just want to rewrite the whole damn thing. Yet somewhere in the middle of it all I agree to a majority of Guy’s suggestions and delete at least 60 pages, and then I wrote another 25 new pages, and then Guy finds the ending that I had written past, and Gun Needle Spoon is a go. Yet what’s really cool about all this was that during all the years I struggled to get my memoir out there, Guy was constantly working to get it published, even when I didn’t know he was, and there were times where I was ready to just give up and move to France. But then gluten-free non-smoking sober vegetarians like myself don’t really fit in there—it sort of goes against everything the French hold sacred—well, that and happy endings.

Rumpus: What are your favorite books in the drug/recovery genre?

O’Neil: Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X was the first book that I ever read in the sense that it was the first book that I actually wanted to read. I was about 12 years old and it set the bar very high. William S. Burroughs’s Junky was the first “drug addict” book I ever read, and I was taking notes for future reference. Piri Thomas’s Down These Mean Streets totally blew my mind. Jerry Stahl’s Permanent Midnight is the book I wanted to write. Although it is not a drug addict memoir it is a recovery book of sorts, Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle is one I continually refer to. Michelle Tea’s Valencia totally rocks. Jim Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries for its rawness. James Brown writes beautiful haunting prose in The Los Angeles Diaries, and This River. The starkness of Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promise Land. For the cringe factor alone Tom Hansen’s American Junkie. Danny Bland’s “fictionalized” In Case We Die, as well as Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson. And of course Dry by Augusten Burroughs.

Rumpus: What are you working on now?

O’Neil: For the last few years I have been writing another memoir, a precursor to Gun Needle Spoon, about back in the eighties when I worked as a roadie, and then a tour manager for the punk bands Dead Kennedys, Flipper, Subhumans, and T.S.O.L. It’s a wholesome family oriented story about a punk rock heroin addict let lose on the highways, cheap motels, and music venues of America, and I am really hoping that when I’m done promoting GNS I can get back to writing it. I also have a collection of linked essays on sex, such as the aforementioned “ex-girlfriend/hurting myself” essay that I’m writing and compiling into something, although I am not sure what it is yet. And I’m a regular contributor to AfterPartyMagazine, a recovery website that lets me write about all my craziness, former bad behaviors, and fears.


Rob Roberge is the author of four books of fiction, most recently The Cost of Living. His memoir, Liar, will be published by Crown in February, 2016. He can be found online at robroberge.com. More from this author →