An Interview with writer/poet/survivor Tony O’Neill by Stephen J. Golds

Punk Noir Magazine

Few people have lived the crazy life of a rockstar and lived to tell the tale.

Tony O’Neill is truly one of the few. Poverty, crime, addiction and mental illness. He didn’t just survive the life to tell it. He put down some of the most scorching poetry and prose about it all.

Like Mark SaFranko and Dan Fante, I came across O’Neill’s work in the early 2000s when I was just a broke kid in North London trying to write something honest. I loved how O’Neill wrote about places I knew like Brixton (well on the way to gentrification by the time I drank in its pubs). But more than that I admired how brutally honest O’Neill was in his words. There was nothing this guy hadn’t lived through that was too taboo or too private for the page. Lyrically beautiful prose mixed into a cocktail of down and out truths was and still is completely inspiring to me as a writer and I’ll always be grateful to O’Neill for teaching me that if you’re not going to be honest in your writing than don’t bother. It’s not for you.

In my opinion O’Neill is a legend in his own right and I was stoked when he agreed to do the interview with me for Punk Noir Magazine.

Hi Tony, Thanks for agreeing to talk with Punk Noir Magazine today. We’ve been massive fans of yours since you first burst out on the indie scene with Dan Fante and Mark SaFranko back in the early 2000s.

 

Can you tell our readers a little bit about how you got started in the Literature scene?

I started writing Digging the Vein back in 2003-ish after getting clean from heroin and needing some constructive place to put my energies in the aftermath of all that. I had always been a big reader and despite my life taking me in a different direction – I became a professional musician at 18 and wound up in London and then Los Angeles pursuing that – it had always been an ambition of mine to write something that could stand up alongside the writers I loved – Burroughs, Bukowski, Trocchi, Fante… Up until that point in my life I suppose I’d always felt that I had nothing I wanted to say badly enough that it warranted a novel, you know? Just mentally processing the previous years of addiction and all of the related highs and lows turned out to be the impetus I needed to write that book I’d always fantasized about.

You’re best known for your novel Sick City. How did that novel come into fruition and what were your inspirations for that story?

After my second novel, Down and Out on Murder Mile, I was living in New York and had a deal with Harper Perennial, who really seemed to get who I was as an author. At that point I had written two books based pretty closely upon my own life and left that I had to break away from writing autobiographically at the risk of painting myself into a corner. Sick City was just a combination of all the things I loved – drug literature, a caper novel, LA-set neo-noir, black comedy… many of the characters and locations were places that I’d taken from my own life: Randal was based on a good friend of mine who’d passed away during the writing of Digging the Vein…. Pat, the psychotic meth dealer was based upon one of my own speed dealers in Hollywood. The rehab was based upon the place I wound up in, Cri Help in Hollywood. So, it was fun taking all of these people and places I had in my head and mixing them up, reconfiguring them into a fictional story. Like everything I’ve ever written, it wasn’t planned out. Not really. I had a vague idea of what I wanted to do and just plowed ahead…. It was one of those books that just came out right first time around. The first draft wasn’t massively different from the version that came out in bookstores… sometimes they’re like that, thank Christ.

How did you go from Indie author to celebrated author? What was that process like?

Well, it’s never really felt that way for me. Not really. You can’t think about things like mass-market success or any of that stuff, because it’ll kill your creative drive. I’ve always felt like I was on the outside, even when I’ve been on the roster of a major like HarperCollins. It always felt like they’d let me in the club by accident, a little bit. I’m a self-taught writer, a working-class kid from the north of England, ex-junkie, ex-musician… I really didn’t fit in with a lot of the other writers I was being promoted alongside, put it that way. It was always just putting one foot in front of the other… This book led to this publisher, which led to this book and so on. The last few years I’ve been working on screenplays and had the opportunity to work with some really cool people along the way. The TV adaptation of Sick City has been ongoing for a while and keeps edging closer to reality. There are two other projects I’ve written and we’re just trying to get the right people involved. I’m finally working on finishing the next book, after taking a few years off from straight fiction. For me it’s always about the next project… there’s never been a game plan.

What advice would you give to up-and-coming indie authors?

Take care of your mental health. Seriously. Writing is tough, it’s a lot of strain on the mind if you get to the stage where you’re dealing with publishers or TV and movie studios, and people in suits are promising you the world and offering you money and cranking up the pressure, suddenly you’re dealing with deadlines and other people’s expectations… It’s really easy to get burnt out if you forget that the brain is a delicate fucking machine and if you put too much strain on it without taking the time to make sure that it’s ticking over properly, the day is going to come when you sit down to write, and nothing comes out.

Coming into this I wasn’t a bastion of mental health – what heroin addict is? But after Sick City… I stopped and looked around and saw that whatever I did next was going to be pivotal. And the fear set in. Soon after that, Sebastian Horsley died. He was a friend and a fellow writer, someone also published via HarperCollins and we’d been corresponding throughout his whole last few years. I knew he’d started using again and then the day after he wrote his last email to me he was found dead of an overdose. It shook me up and, in retrospect, it didn’t help my state of mind. During the writing of Black Neon, the wheels really came off for me. It started with my getting hit by a car – that was the inciting incident, I guess – but things were already coming to a head and that just gave things the push they needed. After that, there was a long period when I just couldn’t write: I was clinically depressed, drinking alcoholically and eventually started using heroin again. I hated myself. Really, really hated myself. In the middle of it I lost another friend and my literary mentor, Dan Fante. The last thing we talked about was him telling me I needed to get back into AA or go to treatment, because he was worried about me. It was just something casual, like “Jesus Tony, you really need to get to a meeting.” It was coming from a caring place but, like an asshole, I got mad and defensive about it and did not write back to him. We didn’t speak for a few months because I was lost in my own bullshit.. and then suddenly he was gone.

I was in a dark, dark place and it took me quite a while to claw myself out of it. I’ve seen plenty of writers who seem to be getting somewhere and then they just drop off – total radio silence. Some of them never manage to get things back in order. I’m lucky that I’m clean and sober again, writing more than ever, looking after myself and most of all – there are people who were patient with me and who wanted to work with me again once I was in the mental shape to write again. I came real fucking close to just walking away from it. I’ve had people ask me “why has it been so long since your last book” – well, there’s your answer.

The other stuff – where to put a comma, and how to get an agent and all the rest of it… you can figure that shit out. That information is all out there if you look for it. But that stuff is definitely not the most important aspect of writing for a living… However, keeping yourself well enough to write is critical.

What novel are you reading now?

I’m actually in the middle of a non-fiction book at the moment – Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki which is a total mindfuck and probably the best how-to book ever when it comes to writing, not that it was intended that way. I recently finished Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra, by John Szwed, which I enjoyed a great deal. I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction lately. The last work of fiction I read was A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James which was a trip because it came out of the gates swinging – the first third of the book is absolutely brilliant, I loved it… but then it just ran out of steam. It was a real slog to finish… and it won the Booker Prize in 2015. I mean, I loved his style, I loved the subject matter… but the thing just fucking dragged toward the end. Like he didn’t know how to finish it but decided to go on for another 200 pages anyway. Ben Myers’ shot story collection “Male Tears” was absolutely fucking brilliant, though. I’m very fond of Ben, both as a person and as a writer so it always makes me smile to see him getting the recognition that he deserves.

What music are you listening to now?

There are some really great bands putting out stuff at the moment. It’s always the way, isn’t it? When society is in the shitter, music gets really good. The Fat White Family, Warmduscher, Black Midi, Vacant Lots, Fontaines DC, Crack Cloud, Khruangbin and Idles have all put out great albums in the last few years. As for my ‘all time classics’ The Kinks, “Village Green Preservation Society,’ Prince Far I, ‘Under Heavy Manners,’ Brian Eno ‘Another Green World,’ Morrissey ‘Your Arsenal’ and Can “Tago Mago’ always help get me through the day.

Tony O’Neill

Tony O’Neill is a writer, born in Blackburn and living in the USA.  In a previous life he was a musician, playing with acts like Marc Almond, Kenickie, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, and Kelli Ali. His debut novel, Digging the Vein, was published in 2005 via Contemporary Press in the US and Wrecking Ball Press in the UK. 

His subsequent novels Down and Out on Murder Mile, Sick City and Black Neon were published via Harper Collins and Bluemoose Press, and have been translated into several languages. A television adaptation of Sick City is currently in development, with the involvement of Bret Easton Ellis. You can find him on Twitter @IAmTonyONeill or via www.tonyoneill.net

Stephen J. Golds

Stephen J. Golds was born in North London, U.K, but has lived in Japan for most of his adult life.

He writes primarily in the noir and dirty realism genres and is the co-editor of Punk Noir Magazine.

He enjoys spending time with his daughters, reading books, traveling the world, boxing and listening to old Soul LPs. His books are Say Goodbye When I’m Gone, I’ll Pray When I’m Dying, Always the Dead, Poems for Ghosts in Empty Tenement Windows I Thought I Saw Once, Cut-throat & Tongue-tied, Bullet Riddled & Gun Shy and the story and poetry collection Love Like Bleeding Out With an Empty Gun in Your Hand.