Patrick O’Leary Interview + Door Number Three Review

Behind Door Number Three is The Gift of The Impossible Bird…

When I decided to re-read Patrick O’Leary’s novels to see if they were as good as I remembered them to be I also set out to track him down. I wanted to see if he was still writing and if he had anything coming out as it had been awhile since we heard from him. I hoped that his pen wasn’t silent. After some digging around I heard from him and he agreed to talk to me and luckily he’s still writing. What follows is most of our discussion.

Brian Lindenmuth – Thanks for taking the time to talk to me; you had practically become this mythically reclusive publishing creature like a Pynchon or Salinger.

I was doing some prep work for another interview but temporarily placed that on hold. I’m afraid that you’re going to going away again!

I think that you’re interview with Nick Gevers from 2000 was pretty complete and in depth in what was covered so there’s no need to cover certain topics like influences et al. So let’s keep it short and sweet.

I’ve got to ask, is it that pesky day job that’s been keeping you away from us?

Patrick O’Leary – I write advertising for Chevy. But your next questions indicates you knew that:)

Brian Lindenmuth – Given its popularity I would be remiss not to touch briefly on it. The Tahoe commercial. I was pleasantly surprised when I found out you had written the poem. If I may, let me recount for you what happened in my family. My aunt said she liked the commercial, so I went and got my copy of Door Number Three and said “the guy, who wrote this book wrote that poem, isn’t that cool.” She said “…but there’s a naked woman on the cover that cant be right…” Did the run away success of that spot surprise you? Are there any other popular ads that have your fingerprints on them?

Patrick O’Leary – There’s a thorough run down about my reaction to the spot and its popularity on my website. Feel free to quote from it liberally.

Yeah my aunt said the same thing about Door Number Three cover–she threw it in the trash.

The success of the spot astonished all of us. I’ve had good responses to spots before but nothing like that before or since. It was so out of proportion to the intentions (make a beautiful spot and sell some Tahoe’s) that it felt like it had nothing to do with the poem itself. You know that quote from George Harrison about the Beatles? “We just played songs and the world took it as an excuse to go mad.” It was something like that. Extremely flattering yet almost a disembodied experience that has nothing to do with yourself. Lightning chose to strike me that day. It was just my turn.

Brian LindenmuthThe Gift and Door Number Three took 22 years and 7 1/2 years respectively to write, though presumably not full time, when it came to the publication of them did you have a sense of completion or were they still works in progress that you begrudgingly set free?

Patrick O’Leary – No, they were done. They’re done when I send them in–though I have revised (sometimes generously) to feedback from my editor, David G. Hartwell. He can be very demanding:)

I have been known to do 50 drafts of one page. I am SO ready to move on and let them go.

There was a great sense of accomplishment to have, firstly, completed them, and secondly to have them accepted for publication. It was and is a dream come true. Most writers feel that way I suspect. No one can take those books away. I did them and they are out there gathering dust and winning new fans.

Brian Lindenmuth – After spending so much time with them did you a feel a bit of the “empty nest syndrome”?

Patrick O’Leary – I’ve had some experience with being an empty nester having raised two sons and watched them move out of state (Sob!). But I don’t miss the books. They, like my sons, I suppose, do not belong to me anymore. They’re out in the world, cracking jokes and breaking hearts and looking for love–as they should be. See, the whole point is to make something good and useful and let it go.

Brian Lindenmuth – My own empty nest syndrome is far far away; my children are only 5 & 4. But I imagine its tough moving on to that new level of hands-off parenting.

Patrick O’Leary – Enjoy what you have. And pay attention. It goes SO so fast.

Brian Lindenmuth – I know that you’re an active reader. Do you still read SF/F?

Patrick O’Leary – Sure. It’s my preferred genre. Tho I just finished a few bios: Steve Jobs and David Crosby.

Brian Lindenmuth – In an interview for Fantastic Metropolis Paul Witcover said the following. “If Sturgeon were alive and reviewing today, he would have to up his percentage of crap considerably.” What is your take on the current landscape, is he right?

Patrick O’Leary – Well, I’m not very current. But I don’t see an awful lot of stuff that looks good. Perhaps I better hush up until I actually read the stuff. The New Gene Wolfe SOLDIER OF SIDON is excellent. His chapbook of two stories inspired by the art of Lisa Snellings Clarke is called Two Birds. It is Superb.

Brian Lindenmuth – Regardless of genre what have you read recently that you loved?

Patrick O’Leary – Didn’t I just answer this?:)

Brian Lindenmuth – Oh sure give a guy a hard time for being redundant. 🙂 Who deserves more attention?

Patrick O’Leary – All writers desire more attention. But you said “deserve.”

Andy Duncan, Brett Cox, Jeffrey Ford, Neil Williamson, Graham Joyce, John Kessel, Eileen Gunn and of course, Howard Waldrop.

Ono No Komachi deserves more attention.

The artist Mike Dringenberg (He did the original Sandman books) and I are collaborating on an illustrated chapbook of 30 of her erotic poems. She’s a real genius that I discovered and fell in love with in summer of 05. I hated the translations so much–they seemed like garbled radio transmissions–you know the static you get on your cell phone when the airlines put you on hold and you’re trying to book a flight through Memphis and you’re listening to a tortured musak rendition of Aretha Franklin’s Spirit In The Dark and you just want to scream? That’s how I felt. So I worked at translating them. O they are treasures.

Brian Lindenmuth – I learned something new; I didn’t know that you spoke Japanese.

Patrick O’Leary – I don’t speak a word. This I’ve learned is not entirely unheard of. I got the literal translations and studied many different translations in order to make mine.

Brian Lindenmuth – You have a very perceptive and critical take on writing , movies and music. In this age of active blogging have you ever considered starting one?

Patrick O’Leary – Thanks. I had a blog for about a month. I was newly separated and lonely. That might also explain the Komachi. I find many writers to be very articulate about lots of different arts. But I’ll never get movies as well as Pauline Kael or Roger Ebert or Science Fiction as well as John Clute or Nick Gevers. So what’s the point?

Brian Lindenmuth – One of the things that I appreciate about your novels is the warts and all approach that you have when it comes to describing families; the way that they interact differently with each other, the grudges that they hold. No family is the Cleavers and quite frankly I’m suspect of those that are presented that way. I recently saw an interview with Hugh Laurie in which he spoke at length about the deteriorated relationship that he had with his mother and how she has been dead for 5 years and he has never cried once for her. It struck me as a profoundly honest moment in the interview. Do you set out to be as honest as possible when creating these characters and their families? Is that “warts and all” approach intentional from the outset or does it happen organically.

Patrick O’Leary – I guess I’d say I try to be honest. When a writer portrays his characters candidly it can be very moving. As if a veil of persona has been pulled back and we are given glimpses of the human soul. Which is both a gift and a horror depending on what we see. Often I find honesty and vulnerability to be great gifts–from people as well as from literature.

Brian Lindenmuth – Of all the family dynamics your main focus seems to be on the relationship between brothers. I have two brothers myself. Since you stick the landing so well it begs the question, do you have a brother?

Patrick O’Leary – I have two brothers–I come from a big family. I had an older brother–now deceased–our troublesome relationship over the years became an impetus of sorts for The Impossible Bird. A chance to fictionally resolve what could not be done in live, perhaps. Brothers figure as well in Door Number Three. Who knows why?

Brian Lindenmuth – Your style is very visual in nature, though I don’t think the novels would translate well to the screen due to the complexity of the plots; does that come from being a movie fan or from being in the advertising business?

Patrick O’Leary – I consider my writing to be a visual art. I always follow the image. Everything else is secondary.

This is personal as well as practical. Images are much more memorable (at least to me) than words.

And I believe they are truer, too. It is difficult for an image to lie. It either moves us or it doesn’t.
The ear can be fooled by the music of writing. But an image springs up unbidden from the unconscious,
calling attention to itself. Compelling us to face something true. That is its modus operandi. It happens
because it needs to. So I always follow the image.

Brian Lindenmuth – Do you find creative satisfaction from your job?

Patrick O’Leary – Yes, it can be very satisfying. But it’s a job as well so it ain’t all fairies and cake.

Brian Lindenmuth – I do have one specific question if you’ll indulge me. On page 242 of The Gift there is the following quote “Albino mermen who constructed entire cities of glowing green bubbles on the ocean floor and had so perfected their diet that they only ate each other.” Is this a reference to Door Number Three?

Patrick O’Leary – Yes

Brian Lindenmuth – I love the Lucinda Williams reference in The Impossible Bird, what did you think of Live @ The Fillmore? I’ve listened to her for years and I think that it might be my favorite of her albums (listening to it now as a matter of fact).

Patrick O’Leary – I like Car wheels better. But it is a great live album. I’ve seen her twice in concert. She rocks.

Brian LindenmuthDoor Number Three and The Gift are ostensibly science fiction and fantasy respectively. Though it certainly has SF overtones, I’m wondering if The Impossible Bird isn’t meant to be read as a thriller. Do you consider it a thriller? Daniel sure seems to make enough references to being a character in a mystery story.

Patrick O’Leary – Yeah, it’s a science fiction thriller:) A self-conscious, metafictional mystery sf thriller. A postmodern, medium hard science fictional, murder mystery thriller. Repeat as necessary.

Brian Lindenmuth – I know you’re a fan of Octavia Butlers work. How did her death affect you? For me she had kind of fallen off of the radar screen and it gave me a chance to revisit some of her work.

Patrick O’Leary – I just felt bad that a great artist couldn’t enjoy the prolonged fruits of her labor. I met her once. Or rather I stood next to her for 5 minutes. I couldn’t speak I was so in awe. I thought The Fledgling was a very fine vampire novel. Couldn’t ever get into her earthseed (Parable) books tho…

The only other artist I’ve been as intimidated by was Gene Wofe. I literally stood next to him for 20 minutes smiling dumbly. Ten years.

Now I have to go answer an email by him. Want me to say anything?

Brian Lindenmuth – Just that I appreciate his work immensely. Over on our forums we’ve been successful in getting some people to read his books for the first time and that’s always a unique experience to watch, someone reading those books for the first time. I made a joke to someone about whether or not there would ever be an annotated Book of the New Sun published, kind of like the annotated Lolita. It sparked a friendly debate as to whether or not we would actually buy it.

Patrick O’Leary – I passed your words on to Gene.

Brian Lindenmuth – I always thought that the cover art for your books were tremendous, intriguing and compelling images that made one profoundly curious to know what was inside as opposed to cheesy genre images. As someone whose business is advertising were you happy with the images that were selected?

Patrick O’Leary – I was delighted and was happy to tell the artists so. I’ve been very lucky with my covers. And I had zero input.

Brian Lindenmuth – We spoke before about resonance’s vs. influences. What writers in the genre have had the greatest influence on you, Door Number Three has a Philip Dick vibe? What writers outside of genre have had the most influence?

Patrick O’Leary – I give a pretty thorough run down in that online interview. And my favorite books page covers the genre thoroughly.

Mostly the usual suspect: Dick, Le Guin, Wolfe. Outside the genre–how much time do you have? Graham Greene. salinger. Laura Ingals Wilder. Evelyn Waugh. Muril Spark. Jim Harrison. etc etc

Brian Lindenmuth – And finally, for a few years there you had quite the flurry of publishing activity. When I first sent you the email you said that you had a story collection coming out from PS publishing in 2008. Is that the Ono No Komachi collection, or will it be other material?

Patrick O’Leary – It’s a collection of all my newest stories from about 2001 on. The Ono poems The Black Gown will be a separate thing. I’ve started a new story and hope to get back to novels soon. We’ll see. Hope these helps Brian. Feel free to make any follows you need to.

Brian Lindenmuth – Patrick thanks for taking the time to talk with me I do appreciate it. It was a pleasure to talk to you. Keep up the good work. I look forward to reading your upcoming collections.

Patrick O’Leary – Thanks, Brian. Good luck with it.

 Patrick O'Leary

Door Number Three is a book that not only requires but demands to be read a second time. In fact, the desire to immediately start reading it again hits you as soon as you finish it. Embedded in the text are references to and even jokes about the story at hand. Multiple readings, while necessary, are never tedious. It is a puzzle box of a novel that proves to be challenging to open, a delight to read and rewarding once opened.

I’ve decided to embark on an experiment of sorts. Over the years I’ve been a fairly prolific reader and over that time I have come across a number of books that, for various reasons, became favorites of mine or 10’s if you will. But since I’m always on the look out for something that I haven’t read before, I never really have the chance to reread them. I intend to go back and reread some of my 10’s to see if they are as good as I remembered them to be, to see if they hold up to another dip, to see if I remember them and most importantly to see if they will still be a 10 at the end of the day. Regardless of the format: music, TV, movies or books. If something is great it should hold up to repeated visits. Hopefully we’ll bring some great fiction to the light.

Personal 10’s – part one

“We burned the Time Machine in Hollywood.”

The prologue is phenomenal. It sets the tone for the book and I would argue most shows his Wolfean influences in the way that a lot if not all of what will happen in the novel is there in the opening chapter. Of course you don’t know that until afterwards.

As strange as the opening is the first chapter begins on a much more human scale.

“When we were still on speaking terms my mother once asked me, ‘How on earth will you ever know if you’ve ever cured anyone?’ It was a loaded question to ask a psychology major. It encompassed entire realms of potential disapproval: A sly challenge to my pride, a devout Catholic’s skepticism for any form of secular salvation, an implied reprimand for my abandoning of my “vocation” – I had just left the seminary – and, of course, an Irish mistrust of a world without suffering.”

More themes that will be explored are introduced in that passage as well. In fact the book is so jam packed with ideas and themes that it would be an exercise to list them here. Everything from a variety pack of SF ideas to deeper explorations of relationships; Man/woman, husband/wife, brother/brother, mother/son, mother/father, father/son and much more.

The main character, John Donnely, takes on a new patient, Laura. In her first session she demands full secrecy, then after he reluctantly agrees, tells him

“They gave me one year. In that one year I have to convince one person that I’m telling the truth. If I can do that…I can stay.”

Donnelly of course believes her to be delusional and agrees to continue the weekly therapy sessions.

“She did not answer, but her eyes shivered slightly as they pleaded and spoke words too full of longing for language.”

One thing that is readily apparent is how polished and clean the writing style is. There aren’t any indications that this is a first novel, in fact it was 7 ½ years in the making. It was kind of like when you read The Troika for the first time (the 100 of us who did) and you knew that a lot of time and energy went into it (which may be more of an apt comparison then I realize since I also wonder if/when we will get another book from Chapman). A phenomenal accomplishment.

In mystery novels there is an old saw that says when the plot starts getting slow, kill someone. In other words, shake it up, a lot. This novel almost reminds me of a popcorn popper in the way that the kernels start to pop slowly, then more rapidly, and then all popping at once and finally they wind down. It seems like every 5 pages or so a new idea is introduced and miraculously he not only walks the tight rope but rides a unicycle, does a flip while juggling flaming folding chairs and safely makes it to the other side.

“Our lives had shrunk into a private orbit. The pitiful world creaked on around us like a grandfather clock in the corner, unnoticed and unnecessary.”

Something that I didn’t notice then was how much this novel reminded me of Jonathan Carroll, probably because I’ve read more Carroll since then. Don’t misunderstand me, Mr. O’Leary’s voice is unique, but I had a nagging feeling that the two are distant relatives of each other. They both make the exploration of the human experience their primary goal, first and foremost and more important then anything fantastical or out of the ordinary. They both feature sufficiently weird scenes that are taken in stride by the characters. For example at one point early on Donnelley goes to bed and wakes up inside of his dream. His goal is to confront someone who is always appearing in his dreams in the periphery, a 10 year old boy in a red sweater. He catches the boy and discovers that the boy is his future son that he hasn’t had yet. He accepts this and they have a long discussion in which it is revealed that the boy doesn’t want to be born. You know how Carroll’s novels are categorized as Fantasy? Did you ever wonder what a Carroll novel written as Science Fiction would be like? Here’s your chance.

As further proof of Mr. O’Leary’s desire to make the human more important then the fantastic and to use the fantastic to explore the human I would like to leave you with an extended quote. It is heartbreaking and quite possibly one of the saddest things I’ve ever read.

“You Ok”

I looked at him. “I was remembering something I hadn’t thought of in years.”

“Yeah. Time-blipping does that to ya. Scrapes the barnacles off yer hull”

“It’s like it happened yesterday.”

“I know. A cruddy memory?”

I nodded. “I was eighteen. Sitting in the den watching a fire. My dad came home early, or I was up late. Anyway, he didn’t expect to see me. And he did the strangest thing. He sat down next to me on the couch. Started telling me these” – I swallowed – “things. Like how proud he was of me. How he bragged about me all the time at the dealership. He said he called me his ‘Smart Boy’. He said he was glad at least one of his boys was going to finish college.”

Saul cocked an eyebrow at me. “What’s so cruddy about that?”

“You don’t understand. I could smell the gin on his breath.”

The little man shrugged. “Wouldn’t be the first time a guy hadta get juiced to, you know…”

“No”, I said. “That’s not it. He was nervous. Guilty. He was taking me into his confidence. So I wouldn’t be tempted to tell my mother.” I saw I wasn’t making sense. “He’d been sober for five years. She’d threatened to leave him if he took another drink. He was buying me off.”

“Oh.”

“He told me everything a son wants to hear from his father and he didn’t mean a word.”

We looked at the flames for a moment, I didn’t know about the things fathers find impossible to say, the tragedy of the things they leave unsaid; I do now

Door Number Three is a book that not only requires but demands to be read a second time. In fact, the desire to immediately start reading it again hits you as soon as you finish it. Embedded in the text are references to and even jokes about the story at hand. Multiple readings, while necessary, are never tedious. It is a puzzle box of a novel that proves to be challenging to open, a delight to read and rewarding once opened.

Mr. O’Leary published his first novel, Door Number Three, in 1995. Then in 1998 his second novel, The Gift, was published and was nominated for the World Fantasy Award. His next book was Other Voices, Other Doors a collection of poetry, essays and short fiction was in 2000. His last (I refuse to use the word final) was The Impossible Bird, out in 2002. He also received a near unprecedented amount of broad popular appeal and some would say created a cultural phenomenon when he penned the poem “Nobody Knows it but Me” that was narrated by James Garner and featured prominently in a Chevy Tahoe commercial.

He was also a prominent Wolfean scholar, actively participating in the Gene Wolfe discussion board at its peak (which was one hell of a peak, unrivaled since then in terms of discussing a work). As I recall he contributed at least one major discovery to the Wolfe field of studies.

Then poof, nothing.

Ah, but I hear what your thinking, “isn’t it normal for an author to have some time between books, even years some times.” Yes, you’re right, it is normal. But in this case Mr. O’Leary has practically fallen off the face of the Earth, which quite frankly in this day and age is hard to do. Most writers between releases do various things to keep their name in the mix. Attend cons, do interviews, write essays or reviews, maintain a blog. Until very recently he maintained a woefully outdated web site, then one day I ran a search on his name to see if he had anything coming up. Buried late in the Google results was a new blog that featured family pictures and anecdotes. As I was cruising my arrow to back out of it I noticed the picture and I’ll be damned if it wasn’t him. Head to the site and the bulk of the entries are still about his family with one page devoted to his books. The page is static though, showing only cover shots and review blurbs, basically the same information as his old site. There isn’t even a way to contact him.

So now, with all attempts at private communication failed, I take my plea to the public.

Mr. O’Leary, I sincerely hope that you are working on another novel. Your career will be a long one if you choose to make it so. Your stories so far have exhibited a prodigious story telling talent. If there are no more stories to be told then rest assured your voice will be missed. The shadow that your imagination cast was long and will provide future respite from the banalities of mere ordinary storytelling. I envy those future readers who discover your work and seek out your novels and read them for the first time. Good luck and don’t be a stranger.

To you, future reader, I say simply this. Enjoy!

Mr. Vandermeer, sadly you have another author to add to your infamous Shadow Cabinet. I wish that such a list didn’t exist, but sadly it does.

Brian loves both kinds of books — fiction and non-fiction. He is an all around book john and reviewing roustabout.