Just by Looking at Him: Ryan O’Connell Trust-Falls into Novel Writing

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I first met Ryan O’Connell over five years ago at Akbar, the premiere LA gay bar for literary types and nerds. Ryan is a firecracker artist, from his pioneering work on Thought Catalog, to his writing on TV shows like Awkward and Will and Grace, to creating and starring in the groundbreaking Netflix show, Special, which was nominated for four Emmy awards and earned numerous rave reviews (The Guardian called it “bracingly frank”).

His new novel, Just by Looking at Him, is out now. Like Elliot, the book’s protagonist, O’Connell also has cerebral palsy. It’s been a subject of his since his first book, I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves, and it’s what he tackles so deftly on his TV show, Special. But never before have I seen O’Connell write so candidly about what cerebral-lolsy (as he calls it) means for him. Between being infantilized by his boyfriend and pitied by passersby who offer him rides on their golf carts, Elliott decides to enter into a very adult situation that requires careful navigating as it takes him, through this book’s brisk three hundred pages, to a very dark night of the soul.

I was eager to talk to O’Connell, not just about the emotions that led him to write this book, but also about his craft. Because O’Connell, to the righteous anger of his closest friends (myself included), makes everything look so easy. “Oh, I just sold a novel,” he’ll casually say over dinner. But how exactly does he do it? You’ll hear him shrug it off in this interview, which only leads me to press the issue further.

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The Rumpus: There were lots of things that surprised me reading this book, but I’m curious what surprised you the most writing it?

Ryan O’Connell: It surprised me because I didn’t set out to write a novel. This started when Special got shut down and COVID-19 hit. So, this was in March/April 2020, obviously a very dark time. And I felt very unstable and very manic panic vibes. I just started writing a thousand words a day, with no intention of writing a novel whatsoever. I had no idea where it was going, and I liked it because I dedicated a few hours to it each day, to occupying a different world, and I needed that. I needed that form of escapism because I was so miserable and this was something that I could control. I could build a world from scratch, and that’s where I wanted to live. I also had a lot of things to work through that I kind of knew that I needed to work through.

Number one was my drinking, which at the time had become very, very unmanageable. And the pandemic intensified that, obviously, and I had been honest with myself about my drinking, sort of. But I knew that once I wrote things down and put these feelings into a character, that once I saw it, I couldn’t unsee it. And I kind of knew that if I did that, I would probably be forced to get sober. And I did, I got sober halfway through writing the first draft of the book.

Rumpus: Was there anything that you now think you were unconsciously trying to work through?

O’Connell: Well there was a period of my life where I was working at a really horrible job. I would say that inspired some of the stuff that happened at the workplace in the book.

And then during that period of time, I was getting a lot of erotic massages. Though I’ve never used sex workers for penetrative sex, I would get a lot of happy endings and whatnot. At first it was a healthy space for me to explore myself sexually, which is something that I’ve never had a real chance to do. I was celibate for all of my twenties pretty much. And then I met my boyfriend, Jonathan, and that was that. So, I never really got to sow my wild oats the way that most people do.

The Rumpus: The great switcheroo of the story is that when it starts out the reader thinks it’s all about sex and Elliott’s racy affair with a sex worker, but to me what’s so startling and moving about the book is that it’s more about Elliott making peace with his disability through how he engages with the character Jonas, who also has cerebral palsy. Can you talk about what Elliot’s journey of going from repulsion to love for Jonas was about for you as you were writing it?

Ryan O’Connell: Well, I had a lot of internalized ableism growing up. I remember very vividly, in high school, after my boyfriend broke up with me, there was a deaf guy at school. He was really hot. And he asked me out on MySpace and I remember being so revolted and thinking: “As if, freak!” Like: I would never date a deaf person, and I was not even cognizant of what that meant for me. I mean, obviously it was my disability. It’s so sad. I just wanted to scrub my disability off of me.

So, the character of Jonas is someone who is a vehicle for . . . I mean, to love Jonas is by extension being able to love himself. I’ve never dated someone who’s disabled and if all things go according to plan with my boyfriend, I never will. The character of Jonas, I think, is sort of wish fulfillment in a way. I wish I could meet someone like Jonas and be a part of their lives in a meaningful way, you know?

Rumpus: Everything you’re saying makes me think about your title, Just by Looking at Him. How and when did you come up with it?

O’Connell: I came up with it really early on. It’s so weird because I didn’t even know what I was really writing. I just knew I wanted to write about how we present ourselves to people, how people perceive us, and how people like to announce themselves via sex. Those were all of the things that I was circling and that I knew I wanted to explore. Also, the amount of snap judgments that I get from people every single day just having a limp, being physically disabled, is just wild. And the judgments that I make on people who are beautiful. Being desired or not being desired, the absence of desire, the excess of desire. Being seen and how you are seen and how you see yourself, [the title] just seemed like the perfect fit, you know?

Rumpus: In terms of what drives the story, it seems like what Elliott wants more than anything is autonomy. He’s trying to do something that’s his to control. I’m curious if autonomy was something that you were thinking about when you were writing the book?

O’Connell: I always say about myself: Where does my CP end and my learned helplessness begin? I have been infantilized since . . . I was an infant! And I have both resented and enjoyed being infantilized in equal measures. I’ve enjoyed it because it means that I’ve gotten out of learning a lot of annoying life skills. I’ve had people do things for me and then I’ve resented it because it puts a spotlight on the parts of myself that I don’t like. It makes me feel inept, it makes me feel less than. But both are true and they exist simultaneously. And honestly, that hasn’t changed. I mean, I think now I just throw money at my problems. I have a lot of gaps in my life knowledge and now that I have money, I don’t see it changing.

Rumpus: Money is actually a big theme in this book. Were you hesitant at all to write about money from the perspective of someone who now has it?

O’Connell: I love talking about money! Money is like the last taboo. I mean truly: People are very, very, very skittish about money. So, I welcome any conversations about money.

Here’s the deal: I grew up pretty blue collar in Ventura, California. I was like the Lady Bird of my private school; I was there on scholarship. Everyone was richer than me. That was very much my adolescence: Why can’t I have the nice things? Why can’t we do this? And my parents filed for bankruptcy when I was eight. I lived in a walk-in closet. I also had a father who was pathologically cheap—I mean, in a way that I think traumatized me, which I know feels kind of silly, but I think it’s definitely why I spend a lot of money and why I’m very generous with money.

And I think, in a way, it’s probably stupid. I mean, I’ve been living in a hotel for four months [in New Orleans, where he’s shooting Queer as Folk]. I’m not saying I have a firm handle on money whatsoever. I think a lot of that is a reaction to feeling constricted. You hit the nail on the head about autonomy because so much of being disabled is feeling restricted. It’s feeling boxed in. It’s almost claustrophobic. And I talk about that in the section where my character jumps into a lake and almost drowns. And that actually happened to me. I did that when I was eight and it’s because I was so tired of being put under the microscope. I was so tired of being told what would happen to me.

It felt like my life was preordained. It felt like it was just destined. This was what my life was going to be like as a person who’s disabled. And I so, so deeply resented that and it made me feel insane. It made my skin crawl. And I felt like when I jumped into that lake, I wasn’t trying to die, but I was trying to just do something on my own terms—and also as a fuck you to everyone else who had been trying to control me.

You don’t meet many rich, disabled people and that’s because our country is rigged in a way that keeps disabled people poor. In order to qualify for disability you need to make x-amount of money, which is not very much. And if you ever make more than that, which is nothing still, then you’re kicked off. So, it keeps you in a cycle of poverty. To even have money and be disabled is like this rarefied existence already. I just thought that I couldn’t talk about Elliott’s life without speaking about money and the fact that he had money and how privileged he was. And how it gave him autonomy. That’s a very correct assessment of what I was trying to do. I love that you understand!

Rumpus: One big part of the book that we haven’t really talked about yet is the character of Elliott’s boss, Ethan, a showrunner who terrorizes Elliott in the writer’s room but eventually starts to favor him more than the other writers. How does the Ethan story fit into the larger story you’re telling here?

O’Connell: So Ethan is another person that Elliot wants validation and approval from. He wants acceptance from Ethan. And when he doesn’t get that, he’s deflated because so much of Elliott’s superpower, moving through the world, is being disarming and charming, for people to be obsessed with him and being the most palatable version of disability. And Ethan sees that and doesn’t take the bait so it’s very, very, very destabilizing. And I think with Ethan, Elliott doesn’t get what he needs.

Ethan’s also sort of a cautionary tale—what Elliott’s life could end up like, if he’s not careful. You know what I mean? Because Elliott’s not following his bliss. Growing up disabled, it’s incredible that I even had the goal to want so much, that I had the actual audacity to be ambitious.

So, when Elliott lands a job writing on a shitty multi-cam [sitcom], it’s sort of like the best-case scenario that he would aspire to. And I think through the course of the book, Elliott is sort of like: “Oh, okay. That’s not really what I want. Why am I seeking his approval?”

Rumpus: You just mentioned your character being “disarming and charming” and I’m curious: with all of the jokes and comedy peppered throughout the book, did you ever think you were using the comedy as a mask the way your character does? Did you eventually have to pull it back?

O’Connell: I don’t really think about that. Actually, I just kind of write whatever I want to write. The thing that I do in my revision process is that I definitely go deeper. I think that’s the thing I always need to do is to go deeper. It’s so funny because I just finished writing the film version of this book, and in a way it was this cruel writing exercise because I feel like, adapting it into a movie, I was able to see all of the flaws in the novel that I wanted to deepen with the movie a little bit.

Rumpus: Can you give us an example?

O’Connell: I think the medium of film, it’s like, you want a more complete ending with the characters. You don’t want things tied up with a bow, but you do want a sense of completion. I’ll give you an example. In the book Elliott’s like, “I want to quit. I want to leave,” and Ethan’s like, “Okay.” And that’s it. He’s like, “What do you want me to say?”

In the movie though, I took it just a step farther, just one little step farther where Ethan does say something a little sweet. Not too sweet, just a little sweet. And then, at the end of that scene, he walks past Elliot and Elliot goes to hug him. And it’s like a non-consensual hug, but then Ethan softens and lets him hug him, which is a big thing for him.

Rumpus: You talked about writing the book as almost like a fever dream. Like it all came pouring out of you. And then when you’re adapting it for a screenplay, I imagine it’s a much more conscious act: looking at the story, looking at the bones, looking at the…

O’Connell: Oh my God: structure, structure, structure.

I started writing the outline for the movie a year ago when I had just finished edits on my book. I maybe even had one more round of edits. It was really strange. Sometimes I’d forget which version I was in and I was like, “Wait, what happened? Oh, that happened in the movie.” It’s very scrambled eggs brain, but it’s been really nice.

I love TV and film, I’ve been working in both for a long time, but sometimes the medium—it feels like solving a math problem and it’s so structure dependent and it’s so one plus one equals two and there’s something about the novel that felt so freeing and liberating because you could just kind of do whatever you want. I mean, obviously there’s story structure, but a novel’s not beholden to really anything. Also, the only people you work with are your agent and your editor—two people. So, it’s a very pure expression of self. Whereas with a movie or a TV show it’s a true collaboration.

Rumpus: But to talk about craft and structure, there are specific elements of the book that are so well crafted and so well structured. Like, for example, the idea of the secret that Elliott’s keeping from his boyfriend, then holding on to that and then building to the moment where it’s revealed. And the way that you weave Jonas’s character through the story, paying it off later. Was that really all just happenstance? Didn’t you map any of that out?

O’Connell: I would say most of it happened that way. I never used a map. I threw up the whole thing, I just wrote a thousand words a day, and then I had a full thing. Then I would go back and edit and revise.

I’ve been working steadily in TV for the last few years, and I’ve been breaking stories nonstop as part of my job. So, I just feel like a story machine; I almost feel like I need to de-program myself a little bit. With the novel, sometimes I was like, “This is so paced like a movie.” The turns, the turns, the turns! And that’s why I like the little chapters that are kind of not related to the plot. One of my favorite chapters is when Elliott talks about dating that boy in college. And it’s just like his experience of dating a boy in college for a summer and how that made him feel. I liked those because those felt like nice little side strolls.

Rumpus: I forget who said this quote, but it’s something like: “Everything in a book or a story should either move the plot forward or build character.” And so, in these asides, we’re learning more about Elliott and it’s going deeper, in a way that’s specific to the novel.

O’Connell: I started writing professionally at twenty-four. I was all voice, no structure. I didn’t know how to do anything. I first started writing these second person essays because second person was the easiest thing to do. You don’t need to know structure. You just say a sentence. So, when I got my first book, I had no idea how to sculpt the narrative of my life. I had no idea. And so all I see from that book is, “Oh my God, I was not ready to do this.” And I did it. And I’m glad I did because it brought me so many other things. But this book is where I’m at as a writer. And this is much more of what I wanted to do.

Rumpus: Do you want to write another novel?

O’Connell: It’s so funny because after I finished my first book, I was like, “I’m never writing a book again,” because that process was so miserable. But now that I’ve written this novel . . . yeah.

I never would have written this if it wasn’t for the pandemic and because it’s so nerve-wracking, that’s why I had to trick myself: “This isn’t a novel, it’s a writing exercise.” And so, I think the way I’ll do it next time will be the same because I think I freak out when I plan too much and I just need to kind of parachute in and trust-fall into it. It’s also just more fun that way.

 

 

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Author photo by Aaron Jay Young


Adam Roberts is the author of two books, The Amateur Gourmet and Secrets of the Best Chefs, and his latest, Give My Swiss Chards to Broadway: The Broadway Lover’s Cookbook (which he co-wrote with actor Gideon Glick) arrives on shelves this October. Twice a week, Roberts writes a Substack newsletter, also called The Amateur Gourmet, and his latest podcast, The Amateur Gourmet Podcast, involves interviews with chefs, authors, actors, musicians, and anyone else who loves to cook and eat. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @amateurgourmet. More from this author →