I recently mentioned Walking, Sean O’Leary’s second short fiction collection, as one of two books I’d been working on in recent months. I’ve since conducted an interview-by-email with Sean, which I’ll present below.
1. Your biography makes it clear that you’ve lived in many different parts of Australia, and your story settings are similarly far-flung across the country. To what extent are your literary stories informed by personal experience?
Quite a lot. Mainly because it’s easier to set stories where you’ve been and I was itinerant for quite a while. Trying to find my place in the world. But I worked in five star hotels and places like the YMCA Hostel in Darwin so, I had a look at the world from both sides of the street. At times because of my ‘habits’ I might have been having breakfast at the Salvos and then turning up to work in a shirt and tie on the reception desk of a five star hotel.
2. You’re open in your fiction about the impact schizophrenia has had on your life; in Walking, both the title story and ‘Slipping Away’ speak to this impact. Aside from its relevance as subject matter, how has schizophrenia shaped you as a writer?
I’ve never quite experienced exactly what went on in ‘Slipping Away’ but there have been times in my life when schizophrenia or its effects on me have made me frozen in fear or literally bolting down the street away from some imagined happening. I have found that at times my whole day to day living has been so heightened it is either scarily brilliant or scarily too awful to ever want to go there again. I have been hospitalised three times due to schizophrenia for a variety of reasons but having said that I’ve been happy and healthy for a couple of years now with no incidents.
3. Several of your stories veer strongly into ‘noir’ territory. What attracts you to this style of writing? And what authors would you cite as influences for these stories?
Everyone likes ‘noir’ don’t they? I am a big fan of Ian Rankin and the Rebus books, which are quite dark. I actually think the Rebus TV series, in parts, may be even darker than the books. But I really like American author George Pelecanos and his crime fiction set in Washington. Pelecanos was a writer on The Wire too, a brilliant crime fiction TV series. And I think a lot of the very great crime fiction these days is also in TV series. Starting with The Wire and The Sopranos through to Dexter and Breaking Bad. So, if you can write both like Pelecanos can, then you’re something special.
I am also a huge fan of Arnaldur Indridason, who is a crime fiction writer from Iceland and the stories are set in Iceland, mostly in Reykjavik featuring his detective, Erlendur. Very dark and very bleak.
4. Various stories in Walking have either a literary or a crime-fiction flavour, and in some cases the two overlap quite strongly. There’s also an element of SF in some of your stories. If you had to focus on just one style of writing, which would it be, and why?
I couldn’t separate literary and crime. I love them both. And I think they sit quite well together. I really respect writers like Garry Disher and Peter Temple. You could say their novels were literary crime novels. Peter Temple won the Miles Franklin Award for his novel, Truth.
John Burdett is a an English writer who spends most of his time in Asia and writes brilliant novels set in Bangkok, which has to be the greatest place on earth to set a crime novel.
And sci-fi is great. I have read the John Christopher trilogy that included The City of Gold and Lead and I have to say I really loved the Hunger Games trilogy. And I read The Day of the Triffids and Chocky by John Wyndham. But once again I think movies and TV do it well too. The Twilight Zone is amazing still today and the Alien movies are unreal and my story ‘Proktor Man’ gets its inspiration from Blade Runner.
I love this quote I read from some sci-fi magazine submission guidelines. It says, All fiction is written to examine or illuminate some aspect of human existence but in science fiction the backdrop you work against is the size of the universe.
5.‘Connections’, the longest story in Walking, hovers around the 7500-word mark, on the borderland between ‘short story’ and ‘novelette’. Do you see yourself as continuing solely or predominantly with short fiction, or do you have an ambition to produce longer works, such as novels? What are your plans for the future?
I am writing a crime fiction novel right now set in Sydney in 1990/91. I lived in Sydney for more than a few years around that time also so once again I think I have the locations down and I worked a lot in Kings Cross, mostly at night so I really did see both sides of the street. I lived in Bondi and Leichhardt and Coogee, the North Shore too so … I have my fingers crossed I can write a cool noir crime novel.
If you’re interested to learn more about Sean’s writing, a great place to start is Walking. You can find the details here, on the Peggy Bright Books website.