The L: For our readers who may not be familiar with your work, what’s the most accurate thing someone else has said about it?
O’Conner: One of the things that I have found most gratifying about the way my book has been represented by reviewers and blurbists so far is that every single one of them has commented both on the highly imaginative nature of my stories, and on what Karen Russell called their “core of genuine emotion.” As much as I love to play with language and ideas, it is consummately important to me that my readers feel my stories are honest and moving.
The L: What have you read/watched/listened to/looked at/ate recently that will permanently change our readers’ lives for the better?
O’Conner: It would be nice if any one work of art could permanently alter a person’s life—let alone for the better!—but I am not sure that is possible. I think we change constantly throughout life, and that no work of art, no matter how brilliant, is sure to make anyone a better person. I hope that reading Kafka, Tolstoy and Shakespeare has made me a better writer. Recently I have been reading a lot of Wallace Stevens, whom I hope is having a similar effect. But being a better writer is not at all the same as being a better person. I suppose that I think the best qualities in my character have been brought out by the people whom I love and who have loved me. Art is immensely important in life, but, obviously, it is not the most important thing.
The L: Whose ghostwritten celebrity tell-all (or novel) would you sprint to the store to buy (along with a copy of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, to balance it out)?
O’Conner: I hope this doesn’t sound snotty, but I would not rush to the store to buy any celebrity memoir or novel, especially one written by a ghostwriter. Life is too short to waste hours or days on any book that is not the result of passion, brilliance and original vision. Perhaps I feel this way because I am a very slow reader!
The L: Have you ever been a Starving Artist, and did it make you brilliant, or just hungry?
O’Conner: I’ve never starved, but I have certainly spent many years writing without knowing where my next rent check would come from. Mostly, I think, financial anxiety hurt my writing, because I felt so guilty about devoting so much time to something so unlikely to bring in cash, and because my anxiety in general made it hard for me to concentrate on my work. But it is true that penury was a sort of test. The fact that I couldn’t stop writing even under such circumstances told me a great deal about the seriousness of my desire to write, and so, in a certain way, ultimately made it easier for me to commit to the craft. It also helped me understand what a luxury it was to have the money/time (synonyms!) to write, and so made me determined to make the best use of every penny and moment I could.
The L: What would you characterize as an ideal interaction with a reader?
O’Conner: With my every image, sentence, paragraph and narrative turn, as well as with the story as a whole, I aim to get my reader to think, “Hunh?” and then, “Wow!” I want to present them with something they don’t quite understand at first, but are still intrigued by, and then I want to surprise them with the truth and/or beauty of that thing. If every element of a story allows the reader to understand the meaning or beauty of something that had once seemed obscure, then the story as a whole will just seem one long revelation and, I hope, a delight for the reader.
The L: Have you ever written anything that you’d like to take back?
O’Conner: It is my great good fortune that none of the miserable, dishonest, stupid and cliched writing that I have produced over my lifetime has ever found its way into print. Had any of it, I would probably have to spend the rest of my life on a desert island, wearing a false beard, sunglasses and an enormous hat.