Interview with Richard J. O’Brien
His horror novel, The Garden of Fragile Things, releases today from Dark Alley Press, an imprint of Vagabondage Press.
Richard, what was your inspiration for The Garden of Fragile Things?
The inspiration for this novel came from a dream. I was a boy again hanging out with some friends I had, and one of them had a hole in his chest. In my dream, my friend lifted his shirt to show me. He told me he could never go home again. That’s where this tale began.
What inspired the title?
For many years, owing to my Irish heritage, I was enthralled with old fairy stories. In Irish folk legends, things sometimes turned out bad for humans who experienced a brush with the fairy realm. The title for this novel came from thinking about a garden in which eldritch creatures were not kind to children.
How much of yourself and your childhood is represented by the main character?
The main character in this story is more a portrait of many boys I knew. Throughout the novel there are many violent scenes. As a child, I did not like violence in any of its permutations—physical, verbal, mental, or otherwise. In many ways, I am a bit like Joe Godwin and a bit like Bobby McMahon. Both characters share a thirst for knowledge to some degree or another. And like them I learned at an early age that there was power in books.
These four friends tend to get themselves into trouble now and then on their adventures. Did you have similar experiences with your friends growing up? If so, can you share a story with us?
Growing up, I got into trouble now and again the way most boys did. There were a host of people in my old town that we developed stories for the way the Swansons brothers in my novel did Mr. Von Braun. Also, the scene in which Joe takes Jack to a Catholic mass one Saturday afternoon was based on a true event that happened to me. I took a friend to mass when I was a boy. There were no cell phones. And everyone’s phone numbers were listed. So by the time I got home that Saturday afternoon my father had heard all about it. In those days, part of good parenting was maintaining a loyal ring of spies. My father didn’t raise hell over what had happened. He just told me that I would never take that friend to church again.
What was your favorite scene in The Garden of Fragile Things to write and why?
It’s a relatively short scene, but in the beginning Marcella and her friends follow the boys to the dock on Granny Swanson’s property. Granny Swanson in no uncertain terms lets the girls know what she thinks of them. The response Marcella’s friend Annie gives to Granny Swanson’s accusation is one that I could hear some girls from my old neighborhood saying.
Which was the most difficult and why?
The most difficult scene for me to write was when Bobby realizes his fate, and afterward Adele leads the other boys to the garden behind the mansion. What happens to the Swanson brothers there in the garden still haunts me.
What sort of research, if any, did you do for The Garden of Fragile Things?
A good amount research for this book had to do with the forest. I was born in Camden, NJ. I don’t think I spent any length of time in the woods until I joined the army. What I spent most of the time researching for this novel was the mansion the boys find and ancient belief systems concerning birds and the souls of the dead.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
My earliest memory of making things up was when I was sitting on the stairs in my old house. My mother came into the hallway and asked me if I was talking to someone. I was, of course; though I never had a name for my imaginary friend. I began making up stories based on comic books when I was a little boy. Then I got my first library card. By the eighth grade, I was heavy into science fiction and fantasy and horror as well. I started writing stories around that time. It seemed healthier than maintaining a relationship with an imaginary friend. That sort of thing was frowned up, I guess. As children grow up, they are not allowed to have imaginary friends past a certain age. Personally, I always liked their company. So I created characters in stories.
Why do you write?
I write because I love language. I love how characters act and react. I love that in real life and in stories people have all kinds of faults, and, for the most part, they endure no matter the hardship. But most of all I love creating a reality based on a premise or a situation, or even one particular character.
Is being a writer anything like you imagined it would be?
It’s better than I imagined it. There’s a certain amount of rejection that comes with writing if you put your work out there. A writer has to be thick-skinned if they are going to submit their work for possible publication. One thing I have little tolerance for is hanging around with other writers for too long. It can be depressing. People think actors are fickle. Try joining a writers’ group.
What do you think makes a good story?
A good story stays with you. It is a dialogue between the writer and the reader. We hear about ‘voice’ all the time in fiction. An authentic voice lends itself well to a good story. We know it when we read it. It’s like when someone tells you a fantastic story. The story is so good you don’t worry or wonder if it is at all true. The way a story is told makes it sound true. That helps to make a good story.
What’s your favorite genre to read?
I don’t have a particularly favorite genre. There’s good writing and there’s bad writing. The writer’s job is to read both over time so he or she learns the difference. As a teen I lived on science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Then when I got to college I had professors who more or less told me that those genres are not worthwhile pursuits if I wanted to be a serious writer. Never mind that these same professors taught Frankenstein or Fahrenheit 451, The Turn of the Screw or The Picture of Dorian Gray. It took a long time for me to come back around. I write stories and novels that satisfy me. If they are scary, so be it. If they are not, then that’s fine.
Who is your favorite author or poet?
Like most writers, I have many favorites. But if I had to make a list I would include Salman Rushdie, William Faulkner, Shirley Jackson, Jonathan Carroll, Toni Morrison, J.D. Salinger, Angela Carter, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Vladimir Nabokov, Thomas Pynchon…the list could go on and on.
What books or stories have most influenced you the most as a writer?
The summer after I left the army I read Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. That was the first time I thought seriously about writing a novel. There’s something about the way that Hemingway put that novel together that made it seem so effortless. And of course I fell into the trap of thinking novel-writing would be easy. Before that, in my early teens, some of the old fantasy novels I had read like Michael Moorcock’s Elric Saga and others like it moved me as a writer. Likewise, much of the early Stephen King novels (Cujo, The Stand, and the like) kept me enthralled. One book I return to almost every year since I had first read it is Boy’s Life by Robert McCammon. People either hate it, or they love it. I am among the latter of those two categories.
What books or stories have most influenced you as a person?
When I read Nabokov’s Lolita the first time I knew that I had so much to learn about writing. Thomas Pynchon’s novels are the same way. Some people can make heads or tails out of Pynchon. For me, especially in Against the Day, there are few who can construct a sentence like him. Salman Rushdie was another writer who influenced me as a person. His Satanic Verses was such a work of the imagination. And Octavia’s Butler’s Kindred kept me awake for weeks after I read that novel.
Where/how do you find the most inspiration?
Inspiration can come from anywhere. This particular novel’s initial spark came in a dream. Sometimes I eavesdrop on people and just listen. The way other people construct sentences in their everyday speech is enough to inspire me. Other times I will read something in a magazine and think ‘what if…’ And still more often than not I hear voices as I am falling sleep. I find it best to let stories stew a bit before I put them down on paper.
What does your family think of your writing?
My wife is supportive. Growing up, my parents loved to read. But it was other people who wrote, who painted, who composed songs, and such. My father always said find something practical (read: pay-worthy) to do with your life. I was never much for following advice of that kind. My brother once asked me long ago if I was going to be one of those guys with a closetful of manuscripts when I die. If there’s a God, maybe.
What is your work schedule like when you’re writing?
I try to write every day. And when I do it’s mostly at night. All writers have different schedules. For me, as long as I am working every day on something then I know I am doing something write.
Do you have any writing quirks or rituals?
I don’t like people reading over my shoulder when I write. Also, I write everything longhand first. Then I transcribe handwritten pages onto the computer. And I have favorite pens. I am superstitious about letting anyone else write with them.
Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
At times I find myself wanting to write big sprawling novels with a thousand characters in them. That can be a challenge. Also, research for a particular story can be challenging to me. At the same time it is rewarding…if that makes sense.
What are your current projects?
Right now I am reworking a novel that concerns a man who pursues a young woman that might be purely a figment of his imagination after he’s diagnosed with brain cancer.
What are you planning for future projects?
Some of my future projects a novel about a university professor and the author he admires most, and how their worlds intertwine with each other, even though nearly a century separates them, when a series of strange events tear rents in the space-time continuum.
I might also revisit Franklin Forest depicted in The Garden of Fragile Things. Since I have completed this novel, I have been thinking about the girl Adele the boys meet at the mansion in the woods. I would like to write her story. And I would like to set another novel completely within the mansion in Franklin Forest…perhaps reveal the person who made the mansion and populated it with so many books and other curios.
Also, my wife recently challenged me to write a novel about aliens who abduct a heroin-addicted vampire and what might happen to a vampire in throes of addiction on a planet where none of its inhabitants have blood flowing through their veins, or even possess veins for that matter. It could be fun…
Do you have any advice for other writers?
Write for yourself. It sounds like bullshit you’d read in a writing magazine, but it’s true. And I would echo people like John Gardner and Toni Morrison when I say write the stories and the novels you would want to read. Another important thing to remember is to write every day. Always be working. Lastly, accept the fact that some works may shine while others are going to not as good. Whatever the case, never throw anything away. A character in one failed story may end up saving the day in another.
Where else can we find your work?
My stories have appeared over the years online and in print at various magazines. And I am eager to publish my next novel. In the meantime, the best way to keep up with my writing pursuits is to visit me at obrienwriter.com or look for me on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/richard.j.obrien.904) and Twitter (@obrienwriter).
The Garden of Fragile Things is a literary dark tale that chronicles four boys’ coming of age against paranormal forces that operate between two worlds.
Read an except here. The Garden of Fragile Things is available at Amazon, B&N, and other fine book retailers.