Friday, November 24, 2017

Timothy O'Leary Weaves Fact Into Fiction

In the 33rd in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Timothy O'Leary, author of Dick Cheney Shot Me in the Face (Unsolicited Press), discusses his ideas for stories and how he gets himself back on track.

How does a story begin for you?
Voyeuristically. I’ve always been fascinated by the often overlooked occurring around me. It might be the tension of a couple arguing three tables away in a restaurant, or the particular arrangement of bumper stickers on a car. It makes me wonder “why,” and “what if.” Right now I’m working on a story inspired by a particularly engaging sommelier I encountered—whose life I intend to make much more interesting than the one he probably lives. I feel compelled to take a little piece of fact and weave it into fiction I find entertaining.

All my stories begin with a real event. I began to formulate the title story of my collection, Dick Cheney Shot Me in the Face, when I ran into Dick Cheney at a fly fishing tournament in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. He was in his home state, comfortable with the crowd, and it was interesting to watch him interact. I knew I wanted to write about that aspect of Cheney. I did a lot of research on the man, talked to a lot of people that had interfaced with him, and formed the story around the following premise: We all know Dick Cheney shot one man in the face, but what if there were more?

My story "One Star" began after I gave a restaurant in Aspen a poor review. The owner of the establishment literally tracked me down at my hotel, came to see me, and begged me to take down the entry. It got me thinking about the enormous online power each of us now has, and the much bigger “what if.”

My story "First Kill" began with a gun. When I was a kid I went hunting with relatives, who insisted I shoot my first deer with an old buffalo gun. It was a frightening and exhilarating experience for a twelve-year-old that I never forgot, and I knew I had to write a story based on that rifle, which eventually took me to a much darker place.

Sometimes it’s an old emotion I can’t get out of my head. The opening scene of my story "Impala" takes place in a bowling alley where I grew up. I always found the establishment delightfully sinister and frightening. It borders a graveyard and was a scary place to leave after dark.

The more I write, the more I search for snippets of real stories that I can make my own. I type cryptic notes into my phone when I notice something unusual in public, or hear an interesting story from a friend. Often someone begins to tell me a story, and I find myself rudely allowing my mind to wander, envisioning a much more dramatic end to the tale they are relating.

The physical practices that help me write.
Going Gaga: Set the mood
I begin every day with a long walk and a soundtrack for the day. With dog on leash, I walk for at least an hour as I try to work out an idea. Sometimes I am concentrating on language—trying to work out a passage. Sometimes I am contemplating a story arc. In any case, I find the perfect playlist to facilitate the work, that could range from 1970’s rock to Lady Gaga, to Willie Nelson. If the walk has gone well, I will have undergone some kind of emotional transition. Music often becomes the mood board for a story; a way to insert me back into the mindset I was in when I first decided an idea was worth writing about.

I started my career writing advertising and for television, and that certainly influences my work. I tend to “cast” my stories—choosing one or two actors that I am writing for—and I find that sometimes helps—especially when writing dialogue.

What to do when the writing isn’t going well.
First, I try to wean myself away from the distractions. Fast access to the Internet is incredible when I am researching or exploring, but it is deadly when I need to concentrate. When I am really writing I don’t open my email account or anything else that could pull me from the page.

When the inevitable writer’s block visits, I go to the movies or read less challenging books that I can move through quickly. I want to experience a velocity of ideas for a kick-start.

When my writing is in a difficult place it is often a function of boredom or laziness. Perhaps I have written myself into a bit of a corner that I need to escape, and there is no replacement for enduring the pain of that place until you have written yourself into a more pleasant setting. It is easy to put that off. Perhaps I am writing necessary scenes that are much less interesting to me than the core of the story, but I need to move through them.