Tony O’Neill :: Sick City (VO)

Could you tell us about your childhood and about how you started to write crime literature ?
I had a happy childhood, a fairly typical working class Irish upbringing in a small town in the north of England. I didn’t come from an environment that really valued books or reading very much. My parents didn’t read for pleasure, nor did my peers. I suppose because of that I regarded books as a mark of rebellion. I started reading voraciously very young, collecting books. I didn’t really differentiate between so-called ‘highbrow’ literature and pop writing. I think the book that really changed the way I thought about writing and reading was Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch” It left a huge impression on me. As for crime literature, I don’t think there was a conscious decision to move in that direction. I had always written fiction, and I have always valued a strong storyline over pretty writing. Most modern American ‘literary fiction’ leaves me cold. Give me Jim Thompson or Donald Goines over Johnathan Franzen any day. Writing was something I was always good at and something I was encouraged to do at school, probably because I read so much. Much of it was just me imitating writers iI admired. But it wasn’t until I was recovering from a serious drug addiction in my twenties that I really found my own voice and started taking it seriously.

In your novel, Sick city, published in French by 13ième note édition, you drag us into the underwaters of addiction, how did you lead your investigations for this novel ?
I was addicted to heroin, speed, cocaine and methadone for seven years. I was homeless, in and out of treatment centers, desperate, someone who overdosed many times and yet survived. I was married three times during that period, which was spent mostly in Los Angeles but also in London. I suppose a psychiatrist would come up with many reasons why I was that way, but I honestly think that I just loved the junkie lifestyle and I had no strong pull in any other direction. When I’ve sat down to write any of my books, Sick City included, that period of my life is something that features very heavily in what I create. For all of the misery and pain I went through there was also something terribly honest about my existence then. When you are that far down, you really get to see humanity as it is, without the veil of polite society over it. It was a very profound and significant period for me and one that still influences the way I think and the way I write.

I love two of your characters in Sick City, Jeffrey and Randall, could you tell us about them ?
All of my characters are as much a reflection of myself as they are works of fiction. In Randal and Jeffrey I wanted to create two people who were by most people’s standards ‘degenerates’ – drug addicts, hustlers, fuck ups – but who were also good people at their core, possessed of a certain « soul »… innocents even. Randal – in his physical appearance and mannerisms – is based upon a friend I knew in Los Angeles who died young, a guy who’s friendship left a big mark upon me. He was a friend, a rival, a drug buddy. In creating them I knew I needed the reader to root for them, no matter what kind of preconception the reader brings to the book about the morality of drug addiction. They had to want them to succeed, no matter how much they mess up, no matter what they do. I wanted them to be more likeable and real than any of the so-called ‘respectable’ characters in the novel. They are, after all, the heart of the book.

Is it hard to quit drugs ? Both your characters try to get a detox but finally get back to drugs, could you tell us about your own experience of it ?
I don’t have a black and white view on this. I tried to get clean the Alcoholics Anonymous way and couldn’t do it. I still drink, I still smoke weed, I still do drugs…. Some drugs. I have had to modify my behavior to remain functional, to be a good husband and father, and also to be a writer. I don’t inject drugs any more. There are certain drugs I just won’t touch anymore because I know I can’t control my intake of them. But for me addiction is a grey area, a lot more complex than most drug programs are willing to acknowledge. That is the crux of a lot of my writing. If you try and force a drug addict into giving up everything then you are setting him or her up for failure. There are many people like me, people who are able to alter their behavior just enough to recover, without the whole ‘either-or’ choice of total abstinence or destructive addiction. But our stories are rarely heard, because it’s a difficult concept to explain to most people. The idea of ‘once an addict, always an addict’ is very strong in our culture, unfortunately.

Will there be a sequel to this wonderful novel ?
Yes. I have written a sequel called Black Neon, which follows some of the characters from Sick City a year on. That book is already coming out in Germany where Sick City found a really enthusiastic audience, and will probably come out in France in the near future. Now I am working on a new novel, a thriller, completely unrelated to the last two books. It’s too early to say how it will play out, but at the moment I am enjoying writing this one a great deal, and that’s a good sign for me.

What are your writing habits ? (in the morning, the evening, at a desk …)
I am a morning writer. I get my best work done before noon. I like to edit in the evenings after a few beers when I am feeling looser. I have an old battered desk I bought many years ago which brings me luck. But my routine is flexible. I write a lot my hand, in notebooks, on buses and trains. The truth is I can write anywhere. I wrote my short story collection, “Notre Dame du Vide” sitting in a coffee shop in Queens, NY when we were between apartments. I wrote the majority of my early poems when I was still strung out on heroin, in blood-spattered notebooks in bathroom stalls all over east Hollywood.

Tell us about your passion for music. I read that you were the piano player for Marc Almon and Kenickie ?
Yes, playing music has always bee a great love of mine. It got me out of the north of England and down to London… it was an exciting time, Britpop was still in full swing, and I got to meet many interesting and inspiring people. By the time I landed in Los Angeles in the late 90’s however I had developed my crippling addiction to heroin and my music career fell apart. However music still inspires the way I write. I think about writing in very musical terms. To me, the goal is always to produce something with the propulsion and directness of a Ramones song. Good writing should be really close to great rock and roll, in my opinion.

In 2006 you founded , on line, with Ben Myers et Adellle Stripe, the collective called « the brutalists » defending a rawer form of litterature. Could you tell us more about it ?
Well a lot of young writers were coming up at the same time, publishing in the same online journals, and the press were starting to attribute names to us – ‘the offbeat generation,’ a bunch of other labels as well…. The Brutalists was an attempt to differentiate ourselves from the majority of the writers who we considered to be rather safe and academic and dull. I mean ‘brutalism’ was a very loose concept, rather link ‘punk’ is a loose concept. It was about simplicity of language, and a kind of aggressive directness. We were very inspired by the ‘meat poets’, kitchen sink drama, punk rock, 70’s NYC… plus we were all children of Thatcher’s Britain who came of age in the north of England in the 80s. Beyond that though… we were never very slavish about sticking to a particular style. It was a very loose concept. Brutalism was as much a prank, and an attempt to annoy the literary establishment as it was a serious movement.

You have a talent for another litterary form : you wrote two poetry books. Could you tell us about them ?
Poetry was the first form of writing I gravitated to. I loved the directness of Bukowski, and especially when I was strung out on drugs and on the streets I didn’t have the focus to produce long form works. But poetry was something instant, and quick… rather like smoking crack. In many ways “Songs From the Shooting Gallery” is a favorite of my own books, but it’s difficult for me to look back and re-read it because it’s a travelogue of one of the worst times of my life. Its a weird, depressing work but has an essential truth to it.

In Sick City, a sentence struck me. Is the story about the movie in which Jerry Lewis performed the role of a clown conducting children to the gas chamber in Auschwitz true ?
Yes, apparently so. It’s a suppressed movie, I’ve heard that the Jerry Lewis estate will never allow it to be seen. He bought up the master reels and put them in a vault. I love these kinds of Hollywood legends. LA is really an unreal place, a place of dark magic, the unique environment where strange things tend to happen.

What topic in the international news makes you angry ? And what topic makes you laugh ?
Oh Jesus, well living in America politics makes me angry full stop. Mitt Romney’s stupid face on my Tv makes me angry. American politics are sick, twisted. I suppose the biggest problem I have with the word on a day-to-day basis is the drug laws – the absurdity of making drugs illegal is something that constantly baffles me. But trust me, you don’t have enough time to hear me complain about all of the things that drive me crazy. There are simply too many. What makes me laugh? Hm, I don’t laugh. I’m terribly serious all the time…

What book would you take with you on a desert island ?
Naked Lunch. It’s the one book I can read, and re-read and still get something new from.

You came to the international festival of crime litterature in Frontignan, what did you think of it ? And about your french readers who came to meet you ?
Frontignan was beautiful, a gorgeous part of the world and a wonderful festival run by people who really care about the art form. I was very sad when I had to leave. And this is the thing – whenever I come to France I feel that my readers there understand my writing in a way that doesn’t happen so often in America. There is a sense in France that writing is truly regarded as an art form. it’s taken much more seriously there, people care about words more. I have always said that if I had the means I would move back to Europe. I’ve been lucky that in France I have a wonderful publisher in 13e Note. Eric Vieljeux is a very unique guy in the publishing word, a dear friend and an incredibly smart, compassionate fellow. I have also been lucky enough to work with amazing translators. Patrice Carrer, who translated Notre Dame du Vide and who has overseen the translations of my other books is someone I have a very special relationship with. It’s almost like a collaboration. I feel that in many ways he completes the books when he works on them. I feel that in another life Patrice and I could have been brothers.

Which are your favourite movies ?
Drugstore Cowboy, by Gus Van Sant. David Lynch’s Eraserhead. Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond. George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. The William Dieterle version of the Hunchback of Notre Dame (from 1939). Nil By Mouth (Gary Oldman). The Wizard of Oz. I’m a movie fan. It’s a list that constantly changes as I discover new favorites.

What will be your final word ?
Read Trocchi. Alexander Trocchi is a favorite author of mine, and one who is criminally undervalued these days. I’d advise anyone to pick up one of his novels and give him a spin. After they read my books, of course !