How to Become a Writer: Ryan O’Neill

Ryan-ONeill_0My guest on this edition of How to Become a Writer* is the inimitable Ryan O’Neill, who found his way to writing via a love of reading, a noisy electric typewriter, and travels in Europe, Africa and Asia.

I first discovered Ryan through his pun-tastic tweets, and was later tricked into reading several of his short stories, which were disguised in other forms! Most recently, I had the pleasure of reading his fake biographical novel-in-stories Their Brilliant Careers. I think he’s one of the funniest and most innovative contemporary Australian writers and I’m so pleased to share his journey to writing:

My first thought on answering the question, “How to become a writer” was “I wish I knew” as a small but persistent part of me still insists I’m not a writer. But my struggles with imposter syndrome are a story for another day. Here are some of the things that led to me getting published.

My parents

I am grateful to my parents for their enormous love, but just as important were the neuroses they gifted me, without either of which I would never have become a writer.

One of my fondest memories of childhood is returning home from school to find that my parents had bought me an electric typewriter after seeing me writing out stories out in longhand. Awkward and deafening as it was to work on, seeing words typed on the page instead of messily handwritten made my ambition of writing somehow more real, and attainable. Just as importantly, my parents let me read for hours on end when I was a child, and took me on countless trips to the local library.

Travel

After studying Literature and History at university, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, and I spent the next several years teaching English language in Lithuania, Rwanda and China. This wasn’t a deliberate strategy to gain writing experience, as in the case of someone like Graham Greene. In fact, I hardly wrote anything while living abroad, though I would sometimes spend twelve hours a day reading. (I had no TV, no radio, no computer, no internet, and for long periods in Africa, no electricity or water).

It was only after living in Australia for a couple of years that I thought of writing stories set in the countries I visited. I ended up writing several about Rwanda, a couple about Lithuania, and one about China. (How happy I was in the country was inversely proportional to how many stories I wrote about it.) If I hadn’t travelled, I would never have met my wife in Vietnam, and would never have come to Australia. And I’m not sure if I would have ever been published.

Best Australian Stories

I came to Australia in 2004, and almost immediately had a story published in Meanjin. I was so ignorant about Australian literature at that time that I never realized how important Meanjin was. (As the great Frank Moorhouse line goes, Meanjin is an Aboriginal word for “rejected by the New Yorker”). There was a long dry spell after that, before one of my stories “July the Firsts” was picked up for Best Australian Stories 2007, which also featured two other Novocastrian writers that year, Patrick Cullen and Karen Hitchcock. The great Helen Garner launched the anthology in Newcastle, and said several lovely things about each story before the authors read an excerpt. I remember being surprised she called my story “hilarious” as it was meant to be really depressing, but when I read part of it aloud, the audience laughed too. This was the first time I thought my writing might be funny, even if unintentionally. Before that, I had been trying (and often failing) to be darkly profound.

I remember being surprised she called my story “hilarious” as it was meant to be really depressing, but when I read part of it aloud, the audience laughed too. This was the first time I thought my writing might be funny, even if unintentionally. Before that, I had been trying (and often failing) to be darkly profound.

In 2010, Cate Kennedy selected my story “The Eunuch in the Harem” for Best Australian Stories. This is the story of mine that I am most proud of, and one of the few occasions where I felt the finished work was as good as the initial idea, a story told through book reviews. Shortly afterwards an editor at Black Inc contacted me to ask if I had anything else they could look at. (I think they were secretly hoping for a novel). I did have a short story collection, but it had been rejected by just about every publisher in the country, and in my reply I almost tried to talk Black Inc out of looking at it, so sure was I of being rejected again. Finally, I sent off the manuscript without even looking at it again; I thought it wasn’t worth the trouble, as it would only be rejected. But to my surprise and delight, Black Inc decided to publish my collection, to be titled The Weight of a Human Heart.

A Publisher Willing to Take Risks

TWOAHHIn Australia a few years ago, not many publishers would touch short story collections. (It’s different now, thankfully.) Black Inc not only published short story collections, but collections that differed from the literary realism that has always dominated Australian short fiction. Among these more experimental collections were Thought Crimes by Tim Richards and Reading Madame Bovary by Amanda Lohrey. Black Inc were very supportive of an odd book that included a word search, diagrams, charts, footnotes and doodles. They embraced the weirdness of TWOAHH where another publisher would have shied away from it. They even went through an unbelievable eight cover designs until they found one that I loved. (I had no idea how lucky I was in this. I’ve heard some horror stories about covers and editing from other writers working with other publishers). TWOAHH was later shortlisted for a couple of awards, and published in the US and the UK, a fact which still causes me to pinch myself sometimes.

The Canary Press and Lost in Track Changes

After TWOAHH I continued to write short stories, and I was fortunate to have quite a few published in journals and anthologies. Eventually, I had more than enough stories for another collection, and so I put one together. However, when I looked at the collection, I thought it resembled TWOAHH too much. There were a few stories set abroad, there were some realist stories, there was some metafiction, and there were some stories that played with form. Obviously every writer has themes they will always return to, but I didn’t want a new book just to be more of the same, so I decided not to attempt to get another collection published until I had written something that wasn’t so similar to TWOAHH. But no ideas for such a book were forthcoming.

A couple of years ago, the fantastic literary journal The Canary Press got in touch to ask if I’d like to take part in a fun project; they had asked some children to write short stories, and they wanted some writers to take these stories and use them as a jumping off point for their own. I loved the concept, and the story I received was a lovely little one about some pencils and an eraser. From this I took the theme of erasure, and jotted down some ideas about this in its various forms. One of these ideas was a fake biography about Marcus Steele, universally considered to be Australia’s greatest writer, despite the fact all of his work had been lost. I wrote the invented bio, but in the end it wasn’t used in the story that appeared in in The Canary Press. Still, I liked the idea, and I thought it might be fun to write a series of fake biographies of Australian writers. Later, when I was asked to take part in the literary experiment Lost in Track Changes by if:book Australia, I returned to this idea, and wrote a fake biography of a right-wing science fiction writer called Rand Washington. It was something that I really enjoyed writing, and convinced me there was mileage in the idea.

I live in a constant state of surprise when it comes to publication

In 2015, when Black Inc asked me if I had any work in progress, I showed them the pieces and told them my plans to write a book of these invented biographies. To my surprise (I live in a constant state of surprise when it comes to publication) they wanted to publish it.

And now, eighteen months later, Their Brilliant Careers: The Fantastic Lives of Sixteen Extraordinary Australian Writers is about to appear in bookshops.

Brilliant Careers

*How to Become a Writer is a monthly-ish series in which writers share their often roundabout journeys to publication, inspired by the Lorrie Moore short story of the same name.

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5 thoughts on “How to Become a Writer: Ryan O’Neill

  1. So, on the face of things, here’s how Ryan became a writer: Parents who actively supported writing, a degree in lit, travel to far-flung places, and being brilliant. (That last point is deduced from him getting repeated acceptances from publishers.)
    It’s a great story, though not all that encouraging to those of us who can’t tick all the above boxes. Thank goodness Annabel’s series shows there are many paths to authordom.

    1. I can see that from some perspectives it might look like a dream run! But as you say, there are lots of people who get there without these things.

  2. Ryan O’Neill is indeed brilliant. I’m looking forward to reading more of his work.

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