A.J. O’Connell is a freelance journalist and teacher living in Connecticut. She has an MFA in creative writing and has previously published two pieces of short fiction. Her first novella, Beware the Hawk, is being released today by Vagabondage Press.
When did you first start writing?
I started writing poetry as a little kid (and my mother tells me I was making up stories long before I knew how to write) but I wrote my first novel at 15. It was the worst novel ever written, because I was a pretty sheltered kid, but the novel was about sex, drugs and drinking. Which I knew nothing about. So the main character would have one beer, and then she would fall down drunk and throw up. And then she would make a lot of bad choices. And then the other central character would come in and judge her. It was like a turn-of-the-last-century morality play. I should have named it the Virtues of Temperance or something. Actually, now that I think of it, it’s not so different from Beware the Hawk in that one central character is a drunk and the other judges him. Oh dear. I have a pattern.
What was the first book you fell in love with?
I’ve loved a lot of books – Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, A Wrinkle in Time, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, this crazy book called Baby Island – but I really fell in love with The Hobbit. I was maybe in the second or third grade. We were visiting my dad’s best friend – my Uncle Tom – on Christmas. Before we left, my uncle, who knew I liked to read, disappeared into another room and reappeared carrying four books: his 1966 edition of The Hobbit and the 1967 editions of the Lord of the Rings books. I remember being wary for about the first three pages of The Hobbit and then I was sucked in. I read those books so many times. I read them until the covers fell off, and the pages disintegrated, and then I bought new 1967 editions at a book sale and started reading those. The old ones are carefully wrapped in a box upstairs.
What is your writing process like?
I have the process of a child with a short attention span and a box of Legos. I’m struck by inspiration and I become obsessed. Then one day, I get bored with my creation and I wander away, leaving it and a pile of leftover Legos in the middle of the living room carpet. That’s where my writing groups come in. They either tell me to scrap the project and clean up after myself or that it’s good, I should keep working and they’ll expect more soon. If I didn’t have my writers’ groups, I would never finish anything.
When and where do you write?
I try to write in my office, during a set period of time during the day, but it depends on what I’m doing. If I’m revising, I work best in my office, between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. If I’m creating a lot of new material, I do better if it’s really late at night, between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. Although sometimes I just write in the shower. No joke. I have a scuba slate in there.
How is writing fiction different from journalism? Was it easier than you expected to make the transition, or harder?
Both fiction and journalism require some of the same skills – storytelling, having an ear for good bits of dialogue and an eye for detail – but they also require completely different mindsets. Fiction writers build worlds that don’t exist; journalists interpret the world that does.
I still work as a freelance reporter, and I find that it’s very difficult for me to do both kinds of writing in one day, so I set aside days when I work on fiction and days when I work on articles.
How difficult was it to find a publisher?
I was very lucky there. One of the editors of Vagabondage Press was a member of my very first writing group and remembers when I was first working on Beware the Hawk ten years ago. We became friends and had worked on several other projects together. She contacted me about Beware the Hawk this summer.
What was the process of getting published like?
So far it’s been overwhelming. I’m not gonna lie – the self-promotion has been a little rough. But maybe the most overwhelming thing has been the amount of support I’ve been getting. People have been so kind and so generous. They’ve shared my book information on their blogs, on their Facebook walls, they’ve clicked “like” buttons and sent emails and bought books. People have just been awesome.
What are your future plans/writing goals?
I am currently trying to finish the second draft of a full novel. It’s about Shakespeare and drag queens and cancer and family and it was my creative thesis when I graduated from my MFA program. Then I hope to land an agent and get published again.
What is your best advice for other writers?
Writers, give yourself permission to think of yourselves as legitimate authors.
What’s the worst writing advice you’ve received?
“Oh my god, you should put this in your book.”