Reality Is Absurd: Talking with Ted O’Connell
Ted O’Connell’s first book, K: A Novel, follows Francis Kauffman, an English teacher in China who gets thrown in prison after being accused of inciting rebellious activity among some of his students. The book is partially a literary thriller about how Francis ended up in prison and his struggle to survive once he’s there, but it’s also a story about the loneliness of expat life, the nature of capitalism in modern China, and the struggle to create meaningful art.
Ted and I met at AWP in San Antonio this past March, at the emptier-than-usual book fair. In our conversation below, we discuss Ted’s inspirations for his debut novel, his writing process, details from his time living in China, and broader questions about capitalism and art.
The Rumpus: I know autobiographical questions can be annoying, but when we met at AWP I remember you mentioned you’d taught in China, and the book has a level of detail and insight that makes it unquestionably the work of someone familiar with the country—so I have to ask, did you actually end up in prison in China?
Ted O’Connell: I know it’s not hip to say you got the idea for your book from NPR, but it’s true in a roundabout way. I lived and taught in China twice—the first time in 2010 for about five months, then in 2012–2013 for nine months. At some point between tours I remember hearing a story on the radio about a Westerner who was living in China who somehow got into a street fight. It was something really random, like he accidentally punted a rock or a soccer ball that hit somebody or their car. Anyway, he ended up spending a fair amount of time in a special kind of Chinese prison. From what I remember, he couldn’t speak much Chinese, and the conditions were miserable, but somehow he ended up bonding with his cellmates. And the thing that stuck with me about that story was the guy saying that he and his cellmates found ways to laugh.
And I often think about Tim O’Brien writing about how during wartime laughter is weirdly more delicious. Well, late one night in Beijing I was having a really tough time catching a cab to get my family back to campus, which was a good half hour away in that vast city. Cabbie after cabbie refused to give us a ride because it was too late and too far. It was raining. My kid was cranky. I was under some kind of stress for some other stuff, and like the uppity privileged Westerner that I was (and invoking my father’s Irish temper) I slammed the door on one of those VW cabs. I felt a rush of shame and anger and fear: one of those out-of-your-mind moments where you feel like somebody else, where you’re acting exactly the opposite of the person you want to be. If the driver had fought back or a security official had seen me, I could have been hauled off. That total loss of control made me think of that guy in the NPR story and how capricious life can be, how quickly any human anywhere can go from freedom to imprisonment. Or from good father to total asshole.
To answer your question, the closest thing to jail I’ve ever experienced is the drunk tank in Chicago.
Rumpus: Well, you did a great job detailing the experience of your main character Francis being in a prison, from the conditions inside the cell to the camaraderie amongst the prisoners to one of my favorite scenes, the section where a group of them are sent to work mining plastic and other recyclables from trash heaps. What was it like doing research for these sections of the book? Is Kun Chong based on a real prison, or is it more of an amalgamation?
O’Connell: I actually love to do research, but in this case I stayed away. I made a decision early in the process not to do any reading on prisons or Chinese labor camps. I wanted everything to come from the imagination and not have the feel of sociology in any way. The human experience is so strange and varied and wicked, I think we actually capture more of the true feeling of that wickedness when we make it up. I was also concerned, I think, that if I went into the drafting with a bunch of research that I’d be looking over my shoulder the whole time, worried about “getting it right.”
At some point, around a full second draft, I know that I looked at photographs of some of the world’s most notorious landfills, and, okay, for those scenes I did try to describe to a T this beast called a Crawler, which is used in strip mining. It’s one of those otherworldly-sized hulks of machinery. I love that shit. I named the apocalyptic garbage heap “Area 44” partly because I lived in Nevada for a time, where we had Area 51, and partly because saying “four-four” in Chinese sounds exactly like “death-death.” Maybe that’s heavy-handed, but I try to cover myself by having Kauffman call our attention to it. Kun Chong is not based on any real place.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about Francis Kauffman a little. You’ve given him an interesting backstory. Born in Germany, immigrated to the United States as a child, studies in China as a kind of escape before ending up trapped in a corporate job there after the company saves his father’s failing business. In a way, he often feels emotionally trapped by a lot of circumstances and expectations of his life even before he ends up in prison. What was it like crafting his backstory and what were some of your goals as you developed his character?
O’Connell: A writer friend of mine who read K kept sending me notes every couple of days with cool observations. When she wrote that it got even better in the second half I was happy to read that, just as my insecure self was like, What was wrong with the first half? I bring this up because fairly late in the process, after I had sent the manuscript around a bit, I realized I hadn’t dug deeply enough into Kauffman’s emotional dark space, and yet it was waiting for me the whole time: the troubled relationship with his father.
The only really good story I ever wrote, which won the Tobias Wolff Award in Fiction (the only award I’ve ever been given after college) goes deep into a very hard relationship between a gay son and his overbearing, outdoorsman father. I thought, Well, I did that once, I can do it again. I didn’t take any details verbatim from that story, but I just learned from myself to do the same damn thing. In my mind, that story was done and old, but to new readers of K, a variation on an old theme would serve them well. Arguably, it saved the manuscript.
Rumpus: Yeah, the relationship between Francis and his father is really nuanced and interesting, especially the fact that Francis takes the job at the company in China as part of the deal that will save his father’s failing insurance business. Beyond the psychological elements of Francis feeling responsible for doing this for his father, I think that part of the book says a lot of interesting things about capitalism. I especially enjoyed the subplot about Epicuria, the failed tower mall project that the company is trying to build. Can you talk a little bit about what you’re trying to say about the nature of capitalism in China?
O’Connell: And here we arrive at the moment in the interview where Mr. Writer tries to sound smart about capitalism. It’s hard to spend time in China and not notice how explosive the economy is. I am no entrepreneur, but even I used to walk around crowded streets in Beijing and fantasize about ways to make money. You know, if they opened a few Grease Monkeys here…? There are a lot of really opulent malls. And they build tall buildings super fast. Everything is bigger, faster, cheaper. There’s a whole kind of carnival feeling to capitalism in China. Ambition can make you a billionaire, and it can get you in trouble. I remember going to dinner with a very wealthy man who owned a concrete company. In China. Can you imagine? Reality is absurd, and that’s why Epicuria is so dreamy.
Rumpus: Right, there’s something about “concrete company” that sounds so simple. In the US, I guess we associate wealth with other professions, like the finance industry. What are some other experiences or insights from your time in China that made their way in some form into the novel?
O’Connell: The putrid smell of durian. Belt fish. Mops everywhere. Old ladies slapping themselves on the arms to improve circulation. Thank God I wrote the story in country because my memory is not that good. I know it’s cliché to say that when you go to another country your senses awaken, but I really feel that’s true. My antennae were pretty damn keen then. There were a lot of creative spellings of English words (trust me, I mangled Chinese even worse) and one of them was a dude wearing a satin “Palyboy” jacket. I dressed one of my characters, a secret policemen, in that Palyboy jacket.
That concrete magnate? Dinner with him got set up because I wanted to interview this guy I knew who was an investment banker. I needed to educate myself on the modern economy. But this man was so nice he insisted on inviting me to a very fancy restaurant with his wealthy friends. We drank loads of bai jiu (white liquor), they gave me a vase, and I remember feeling bummed out that I didn’t really “get the facts” I needed about mergers and state-owned enterprises (SOEs). That’s the frustrating and glorious thing about living through the draft of a novel: what I thought was a waste of time ended up being the raw material for a new scene.
Rumpus: That’s a great way to put it—you never know what details might end up being relevant or fitting in. On that note, let’s talk about writing and art; Francis is a writer struggling to find time and space to write, both outside prison where he’s balancing different responsibilities, and then eventually in prison where he has no pen and paper and has to compose sentences in his head. There’s also that wonderful scene towards the end of the book about his grandfather, a stained-glass artisan who was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. Can you talk about the way art and the struggle to create art figures in this book?
O’Connell: When you’re someone like me who’s worked so hard, and for so many years (twenty-plus), to get a debut novel to market, it’s really gratifying when an intelligent reader makes those connections. I can’t remember how I got the idea to have the grandfather be a stained-glass artisan. I know I was flailing, experimenting, and now it seems so inevitable and neatly packaged. Same thing happens when I write a song. If it’s done well, all the images have what Flannery O’Connor called “the meaning in the muscle,” but in the creative process there was doubt, doubt, doubt. I experienced a lot of rejection over the past two decades with respect to publishing, and just enough success and faith to keep going. So it’s no surprise that my character Kauffman is a) neurotic about his failure and b) relentlessly creating art that will never be formally published. Human beings are going to make and/or consume art under almost any circumstance.
Rumpus: The novel has quite a few references to that human desire to make and consume art: the way it’s forbidden in the prison, but then also the murals Kaufmann sees at the end on the ceiling. To talk very briefly about the ending without giving it away, did you know where the novel was going as you were writing it, or did that ending come to you during the process?
O’Connell: Late one night fairly early in the process (maybe month two?) I wrote a passage that I knew was going to be the last page in the book. I’m a ridiculously avid reviser, mostly because I’m not Oscar Wilde, but that scene has hardly been touched. One of those gifts, I guess. It made it easier to finish the project, knowing where I was headed.
Rumpus: How long did the novel take you to write? And given that you were writing about a country that changes a lot year to year, did you feel you had to stay current with the ways China was developing or did you stick with a more settled idea of Beijing in mind as your setting, one based on the years you were there?
O’Connell: The first big push came in a five-week period during the long Chinese New Year in 2013, when my family was back in the states tending to loved ones. Xi Jinping was newly minted as leader of the PRC. I wrote longhand for more than ten hours a day, until my hand cramped. Then I got busy with a job, a family, two bands, and a previous novel, and all told the book took about five years working off and on. There’s a reason I call the city “Cap City” (Beijing literally means “north capital”) and a reason there’s no reference to dates, though a nerdy person can figure it out. Originally, I imagined the book as a futuristic tale set in 2025 or thereabouts, then discovered that I was no Chang-rae Lee or George Orwell. Things have changed under Xi. Way more surveillance. Much less freedom of speech. My Chinese friends are much more afraid to say anything sensitive over email.
A very literal, essentialist reader might read the book and say that Ted O’Connell “got this right” but “got that wrong”—but that’s where working in the surreal realm saves the writer and (hopefully) the art. My intention is not to predict the future. And who gives a shit about my intention anyway? Better to say that I have a job to do and that job is to create a world that is timeless.
Rumpus: So what’s next then?
O’Connell: I’m going to wash my hands, keep my distance, keep perspective, and try to find ways to connect with people who love to read. Like so many authors with a spring 2020 release, I’ve had to put the book tour on hold. A friend who’s been in the business for two decades said that book sales in March were “catastrophic”—so I’m coping covidly like everyone else. I am lucky in so many ways. I really can’t complain. I’m in three bands (which sounds crazier than it is) and I had some really fun shows get cancelled, so yeah, it sucks, but my point is that things are so much worse for the owners and employees of these venues. And things are much worse for musicians whose full-time work is gigging and lessons. Like most music communities, there’s a mixture of players who are semi-pro, like me, and full-time musicians who need the gig money and the free beer and the comped meal.
I have a tenured job at a community college. I’m going to get money from the government I don’t even need. Hell, I’m going to save money during this pandemic. Most important, I am healthy and so is my family. But to get back to the debut novel I waited twenty years to birth, I now find myself making silly promo videos and scheming virtual ways to share the work in any way that I can. It’s amazing the skillsets that authors have to acquire these days. I’ve had to do web design, publicity, videography, graphic design, sound mixing, social media advertising, and much to the chagrin of my daughter, acting. No wonder the bottle of wine I opened last night had the words “Drink Me” printed on the cork. Beside it stood a spray bottle of Lysol disinfectant.
Photograph of Ted O’Connell by Julie Sargent.