Website Interview…Ask the Author!
Q: What is your favorite childhood book?
A: I have two, actually. The Phantom Tollbooth, and A Wrinkle in Time. Both completely blew my mind. I still have several dog-eared copies of Wrinkle, and my copy of Phantom is almost unrecognizable.
Q: Did you ever consider writing under a pseudonym?
A: Never. “O’Brien” became my last name two or three years before I started writing. I’ve never wanted to use anything else. Quite the sore subject for my husband.
Q: How long on average does it take you to write a book?
A: I’d be afraid to average it out. I wrote my first novel, The Ties That Bind, in about eight or nine months. Much later, I wrote the second book in the series, Embers From Ash and Ruin, in six weeks. The third book has taken years. It depends on what’s happening and how much time I can dedicate to sitting there and doing it. Family time, day jobs, they all affect the process. The series contains many nuances that require absolutely concentration. If I don’t have the proper solitude, I may overlook some detail. So I guess averaging the writing of the series would scare me. I like to use Embers as the litmus test, because it reminds me what I’m capable of under the ideal circumstances.
Q: Have you ever had writer’s block?
A: Yes and no. I don’t believe in writer’s block, per se. I learned early on not to get sucked into that myth. I write through it, even if it’s gibberish. Eventually, it’ll start flowing again. You can always go back and edit out whatever didn’t work once you’re back in the zone. I have, however, experienced periods where I felt unable to write. Ideas were there, but sitting down to write them has been impossible. I’ve struggle with that for various reasons. I actually hate one of my characters so much, it prevented me from moving forward for a long time. She and I had nothing to say to each other.
Q: What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
A: Research is a fluid thing for me. It may or may not begin before I start writing. The time I spend depends on what I’m writing about, and how much I know about the subject going in. For example, I have a musical background, but not to the level seen in the Ties That Bind saga. I knew enough to start writing, but did a great deal of research as I went along—details about the music business, its history, and the challenges faced by those who’ve reached its highest echelon. Some research topics are identified right away; some I don’t know about until I need them. I’m big on research, though. Probably to an obsessive level. I can spend hours researching a topic just to add one well-placed sentence. In Ties, I found myself researching Key Biscayne weather from February of 1991, as well as the exact locations of its phone booths. Trust me. There’s a line to be drawn. I routinely cross it.
Q: What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
A: I don’t know about the term “pilgrimage,” but a personal journey of mine in January 1988 resulted in the beginning of my writing career a year later.
Q: Does writing energize or exhaust you?
A: Yes. Yes, it does.
Q: How many hours a day do you write?
A: When left to my own, I start writing first thing in the morning and go into the night. Time doesn’t register when I’m writing. But don’t let that fool you. I’m rarely left to my own. There are many distractions in my household. If I can’t get my coffee and start first thing, I struggle to get into the groove. Four or five hours a day would satisfy me, but I’d fight for more. I’m happiest when I’m writing.
Q: How many unwritten and half-finished books do you have?
A: Dozens. I’ll never be able to finish them all. Outside of the Ties That Bind saga, there are a several I’m dying to pursue. Two in particular. And recently, another series came to me. I’d like to see that through. As I mature, I’m discovering exactly what “type” of author I am. What I enjoy the most. Most my ideas will likely never translate to written form. Makes me sort of sad.
Q: What does literary success look like to you?
A: When a reader contacts me and says they loved one of my books, I’m thrilled. I don’t know if success can be measured any other way. To make a connection with someone over a story in your head, to have them moved by the fictional tale of fictional characters…what could be better than that? I mean, sure, there’s the practical piece of success. There are reviews, and money. No honest writer would tell you those things don’t matter. Of course they do. But the raw connection? That’s success to me.
Q: Does a big ego help or hurt writers?
A: Both, I think. You have to be confident enough to do the work and put it out there. But if a writer thinks they have it all figured out and can’t take direction—or constructive criticism—they’re harming themselves. Probably irreparably.
Q: Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?
A: I think anyone who can string sentences together into cohesive order can be a writer, technically. There are all sorts of writers out there. Some better than others. As for whether they need to “feel” their emotions strongly, I couldn’t answer for everyone. I know, for me, it helps when I’m writing an intense scene. There’s a line, though, writers need to be mindful of. Lots of pits to land in with high emotions. I have the scars to prove it.
Q: What is the first book that made you cry?
A: I think it was Where the Red Fern Grows. It broke my heart. Just loved Old Dan and Little Ann.
Q: What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
A: My best friend in sixth grade started hanging out with another friend more than with me. I was hurt, which manifested itself as anger. I created this hand-made card and gave it to her at recess. The cover read, “You are cordially invited to ‘Two Friends in a Fight.’” I never lived it down. Most my schoolmates called me “Miss Big Words” from then on, so the whole thing backfired. I didn’t think “cordially” was that big a word. Guess I was wrong.
Q: Does your family support your career as a writer?
A: That’s a complicated question. They say they do, but it’s probably more difficult for them than they let on. I prefer to be alone. That preference can make those close to me feel they are unimportant or like I’d rather not be around them, which isn’t true.
Q: How long were you a part-time writer before you became a full-time one?
A: Nearly twenty-seven years. I was a single mom and the sole support of my family. Most my “part time” writing wasn’t writing at all. I’m blessed now with an understanding husband who gave me the gift of time.
Q: What are common traps for aspiring writers?
A: Most traps for aspiring writers have to do with the culture we live in, I think. People don’t seem to want to do the work, or recognize how hard it is to create a well-written, interesting tale. One trap lies within the lure of the business itself. Self-publishing is a wonderful breakthrough for many, but it nurtures the belief that “anyone” can be a writer. Most people can’t be writers, and shouldn’t be. That sounds harsh, but it’s true. A writer who won’t do the work, resists hiring a good editor, or lets their ego dictate their course is bound for failure. A writer who isn’t driven to improve is a hack. Sure, anyone can push that “submit” box on their chosen distributor’s site and upload their book, but that doesn’t mean their product is well written or compelling. Maybe the biggest trap is the delusion that having a book out there will hand them a million dollar career despite minimal effort.
Q: Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?
A: Neither. My circle of author friends have heard my writing mantra many times: the story is the story is the story. I don’t owe anyone—not readers, editors, publishers or even myself—anything. I think writers who try to mold and shape and wrestle their characters or plots into submission for the sake of what’s “in” or what’s “acceptable” or what’s “politically correct” or whatever do their stories a disservice. That’s my philosophy. If I worried about whether my story was original enough, or whether I’d appeal to enough readers—or, in this day and age, whether I’d “offend” anyone—I’d never finish a story. The characters tell me what to write. I owe them, not anyone else.
Q: What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters?
A: It depends on whether they’re good characters or bad ones. The bad ones deserve what they get. Probably worse, actually. I’ve neglected to kill off folks who I’d planned to, and I’ve failed to paint bad characters as evil as how I see them in real life. Like I said before: the story is the story is the story. So some have gotten off easy. But the good ones? The ones I love? The ones behind my writing in the first place? I owe them their legacy, even if I’m the only one who ever realizes who they are or were. It’s my way of keeping them with me, even if they’re gone.
Q: Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find?
A: You’d better believe it. That goes for the story and my covers. I work with an amazing artist who does my covers, my website, the trailers, and other marketing materials. We’ve hidden a lot of things within the brand itself, and I tend to do the same in the stories. It’s almost a subconscious thing at this point. That’s an added bonus when I talk with readers. They love to hear the insider gossip!