Interview – Susan O’Neill, author of Don’t Mean Nothing: Short Stories of Vietnam
Self-Publisher’s Showcase: Today we are joined by Susan O’Neill, author of Don’t Mean Nothing: Short Stories of Vietnam. Welcome to the Showcase, Susan.
Susan O’Neill: Thanks. Pleasure’s mine.
SPS: For any of our readers that haven’t come across your work previously, can you take a moment to tell us all a little about yourself?
SO: I sort of slid sideways into the craft of writing. I always had a knack for it—in fact, my high school freshman English teacher gave my first essay in his class an F because he figured it was so good that I must have plaigerized it, even though it was an autobiography—but in my generation and Midwestern factory-family caste, women didn’t go to college to study frivolous stuff like writing. So I took the practical route: I went to a three-year nursing school. It was very inexpensive because they used us students as hospital staff. Those schools don’t exist anymore, probably because they used students as staff—perfect fodder for lawsuits in today’s litigious world.
I scored my first nationally-published article while I was in nursing school—in a student writing contest for RN Magazine—but I spent more time taking temperatures and giving enemas during those three years than sitting at a typewriter.
I joined the Army in nursing school. I was young and dumb, and the recruiter promised that the Army would pay me just for existing during my senior year; when I got out, I’d owe only two years of duty in some exotic, far-off post. The recruiter also promised that exotic, far-off post wouldn’t be Viet Nam.
Good thing recruiters never lied, because I was SO against the Viet Nam War. I marched at protests and sang anti-war songs in coffee houses and campaigned for presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy, whose sole platform was to end the war.
The Army did pay me for existing during my last student year. But when I graduated, they sent me to Viet Nam. I was there in 1969-70.
The war left me amazed at the power of medical teamwork—and stunned by the horrors we humans so cavalierly inflict on each other. I wanted to write about it when I got back, but I was too angry. And I had no clue how to begin.
So I threw myself into life—married a man who’d worked at my last hospital in Viet Nam, birthed our first child, worked in nursing jobs, sang in clubs, joined the Peace Corps Family Program (Venezuela, 1973-74), came back and nibbled away at a Journalism degree. Etc, etc, etc.
I was raising kids, writing humor columns for local newspapers and going to Journalism school at the University of Maine when I wrote an essay about a day in the war for a student contest. It won third place; I collected my prize and stuck the essay in a drawer. And forgot about it.
Some years later, long after I’d left my reporting job on a weekly newspaper in Massachusetts and returned, part-time, to nursing, I rediscovered that essay, and turned it into a short story—The Boy from Montana. I had never considered short stories my specialty—never even read them—but more of the damned things kept demanding that I write them…et voilà: I was writing about Viet Nam in the only way I could. I labored, researched, carved, edited, layered, shaped and polished.
And I had a book.
I cast my book into the great unknown and netted a terrible agent. In time, I dumped him; in more time, I got a terrific agent, Nat Sobel, quite by accident. He helped me re-edit, and sold the collection to Ballantine, who published it in 2001. Late in October, the month after 9/11, when patriotism was running high, and few Americans were buying books about the war we lost.
I never earned out my advance. But the money enabled me to buy a little car and drive across country with my daughter.
SPS: What are your perfect writing conditions, and how often do you write?
SO: Back when I lived in Massachusetts and my husband worked away from home, I went on long bike rides—or, in bad weather, on long walks—and wrote in my head, then came back home to set my ideas on computer. Now we live in Brooklyn; NYC is the most ADD place imaginable, bike rides require hyper-alertness, and Paul is retired and spends a lot of time at home. I’m contending with all this change, still finding my “ideal conditions” six years after arriving.
I work best in cafes, where I won’t be tempted to bake bread or go to the movies with Paul or drop in on our daughter and the grandkids. I have a great writers’ group. I write the odd hour here, two hours there. Life is full; writing isn’t as central as it used to be when I had more time and fewer distractions. Still…I do it. But I’d never recommend my non-method to anybody.
SPS: Can you put your finger on the moment where you decided that you wanted to publish your work?
SO: I can’t remember a time when I didn’t. Seriously.
SPS: Your first work Don’t Mean Nothing, was originally traditionally published back in 2001, what differences have you found, going through the process again with a small independent publisher?
SO: This is the fourth publication of Don’t Mean Nothing. Ballantine, Black Swan (UK), and UMass Press all put it out earlier, and they all shared the same final edited copy. When they gave me my rights back, that publication-ready copy didn’t come with them: Ballantine wanted a couple thousand bucks for it. Which I thought was chintzy, considering they didn’t plan to use it again. So my editor at Serving House Books, Walter Cummins, and I had to pick through my old pre-publishing copy and re-edit it make it as close to the original as possible.
It was an intense but companionable process. I felt much more in control of the finished product.
Walter also agreed to add back two stories that Ballantine cut from my original book, and subsequently from other two houses’ editions. My first editor had cut them because they weren’t all that good.
Over the years, I worked them over, carving and polishing until I felt they were lean, mean and ready. I had originally intended the first to introduce the pivotal character I called The Lieutenant, so it felt great to put it back in place in its new, sharpened form; once more, the intro worked.
The second story was a riff on Waiting for Godot. I re-editing it to half its original length, made it tight and punchy. So much of war is waiting for something to happen; I was thrilled when Walter green-lighted it as well. So this is how the Serving House version became the Expanded Edition.
SPS: So, tell us about Don’t Mean Nothing?
SO: Don’t Mean Nothing is, I believe, the only published fictional treatment of the medical Viet Nam experience that’s written by a nurse vet. It’s very loosely based on my experience in the three hospitals where I worked. All of it is true, and all of it is a pack of outrageous lies.
It’s debut got great reviews from all the standard outlets but Kirkus, whose anonymous reader dubbed it “M.A.S.H., with lots more sex and cursing.” That crushed me; I felt the book M.A.S.H. was a mess—funny, especially to a nurse vet, but not very well written.
However, it’s the series that most people think of when they hear the title “M.A.S.H.” I loved the series. I have never found a better representation of the Viet Nam hospital experience. True, M.A.S.H. was nominally set in Korea—but it was Viet Nam in its soul.
So thank you, anonymous Kirkus reviewer: maybe you really did nail the essence of Don’t Mean Nothing in your snotty tag-line.
SPS: The stories are fictional, but how closely do they relate to your own experiences?
SO: Eh (shrug). Fiction is taking a situation and asking, What if…? When I say everything in it is true, I mean the spirit of every story is truth as I see it. That’s the beauty of writing fiction: in spirit, it’s often far truer than memoir, which has to strive for a certain neutrality in the service of literal accuracy. When I say all the stories are outrageous lies, well…did what I wrote about truly happen as written? Fiction, as I said, is taking a situation and asking, What if…?
I will say this: The settings are quite real; the characters are not, even when they are. And the situations are as real—and as false—as the monkey.
SPS: You describe it as less-than-patriotic, how so?
SO: Patriotism is a love of one’s Patria—one’s Fatherland. If we could leave it at that, I might believe it to be a virtue—but the concept has become perverted over time to mean a blind love, to embody the conviction that My Country is The Best. The implication of this Patriotism, even now, is that to love one’s country, one must follow its government without question. Even when it demands that we follow its political contract with the oddball government of a small, irrelevant, distant country—right smack into a senseless war that’s almost indistinguishable from the one the French lost when they tried to keep a piece of their empire from drifting off on its own. This sort of Patriotism would claim that to die in such a war would be a noble thing.
Call me crazy—and I’m pretty sure my own late parents used to—but this sort of Patriotism doesn’t seem to fit with our constitution’s mandate for a government of, for and by the People. How can you put the government above its people if they’re supposed to be, profit from, and run that government? How can you control a government that you can’t question?
Few of my characters could be called Patriots, as the concept is now defined—and those who could are not my most likable. Like most of us involved in the war, my characters count down their days until they’re “short,” and they’re too busy navigating the craziness of their situations—or, like my clerk Scully, taking advantage of it—to espouse lofty ideals or even support the US government’s larger picture. They’re just trying to make it through the year. The book is blatantly irreverent, and that isn’t a good fit with what we have come to call Patriotism.
SPS: Do you have a particular favourite story in the collection?
SO: I have several. The two that top my list are What Dreams May Come, and Monkey On Our Backs. The first was a challenge to research and write, but the lead character was such great fun to inhabit. The monkey tale is wryly funny, but it’s also deeper and more symbolic and straight-up allegorical. Still, on the surface, it’s a simple story, much like a little movie from the 90s called Twenty Bucks that chronicles the life of a $20 bill. And the characters, all of them, are so terribly earnest and short-sighted and human. Also, I have a soft spot for the four characters in Waiting for Charley. Been there; done that, even though I’d never waste my time reading about golf.
SPS: Are there any characters we should be on the lookout for, and are you ever tempted to revisit any of them, to continue their story?
SO: Those stories are done; I’m not tempted to bring any of the characters back. Not that I don’t love them all, even the nasty ones. The book, especially in its “expanded edition,” is more a novel-in-stories than a collection; many of the characters weave in and out of the narrative. One of my favorites is Scully; he invented himself, and brought me along for the ride. And no, The Lieutenant is not me.
SPS: Before we move on to your essay collection, can you tell us about how the current cover to Don’t Mean Nothing came about? Presumably it has gone through several versions?
SO: Ballantine’s first dust jacket suggestion was all wrong—it featured a stock photo of an Air Force nurse with patients in a plane. There are no Air Force nurses in the book, I told them. I put out a call for pictures among other nurse vets and found a photo of a nurse named Nancy Jones Johnson carrying a wounded child, taken by another nurse, Eileen Hotaling. I submitted it to Ballantine, and the committee in charge of cover design didn’t like it. So when, at my insistence, they removed the original Air Force photo, they replaced it with white space. They put a band of helicopters at the top—I suggested that they should at least be medivac choppers, with the red cross—but I guess they couldn’t find one, so… It is what it is.
Black Swan in the UK used the Johnson/Hotaling photo on a background of pinkish gauze with the title in a rather feminine cursive—positioning it for women. UMass Press expanded the photo across the cover, in a dull brown-tone with the title in yellow. I thought it was boring.
Walter at Serving House was kind of new at cover design, so the two of us played with the picture and a letter he had from the era. I like the resulting design but, now that I’ve had my second book’s cover designed by a pro—not coincidentally my older son—I kind of wish I’d employed him with Don’t Mean Nothing. I think he could’ve taught Walter and me a few tricks that might have made it just a bit better. But it’s done, and it works.
SPS: Your second works are a collection of essays, titled Calling New Delhi for Free [and other ephemeral truths of the 21st Century]. Can you tell us about the collection?
SO: I’ve been writing essays for a long time, beginning with humor columns for Maine weeklies. When I got my Journalism degree, we moved to Massachusetts and I worked as a reporter for the weekly Andover Townsman. I had a lot of town boards and news to cover, and I developed a column as comic relief after all the political and PR stuff.
Now, of course, columns have become blog posts—and I do that now and then for a Peace Corps writers website. Maybe because of my newspaper background, my stuff tends to be more polished and closely-edited than the average blog post. Life is busy, so it’s also more infrequently posted.
I’ve been fascinated with the run-amok growth of electronics as a force majeure in life since we got our first Texas Instruments computer in the ‘80s. Many of the pieces I’ve written have touched on technology, some directly and many tangentially. I decided it might be fun to collect some of those bits of non-fiction under one roof, so to speak, and the result was Calling New Delhi for Free.
SPS: Is there a reason you chose that particular title, over others?
SO: The free call we make routinely to New Delhi or Mumbai is a perfect symbol of our love/hate relationship with technology. We make that call whenever something goes wrong with one of our beloved gadgets, and we tend to make it in the rather childlike faith that we’re calling somebody connected with the company that makes our rogue contraption. And we get some guy in India who has to read from the manual himself to help us determine just how screwed up that gadget is—or, worse, how inept we are at using it. If I’d written this scenario as a plot point 25 years ago—or maybe even 15—readers would’ve thought it a preposterous piece of sci-fi.
SPS: It certainly seems a pretty eclectic mix of subject matter. Do you feel it would appeal to a particular reader?
SO: It’s eclectic, and the “technology” heading is quite loose. I’d like to think it has a universal appeal. It’s not one of those I’m-so-old-I-think-this-new-fangled-stuff-is-weird books; rather, it’s about the random tech-related craziness that we accept as business as usual in our lives.
SPS: Are there any essays in the collection you have ever been tempted to expand on, to novella or even novel length?
SO: Nah. Not really. Although I probably could’ve written a full book about Eric the exterminator.
SPS: What sort of responses have you received so far from readers?
SO: The best—and most typical—response is from readers who tell me that the book made them laugh aloud. A friend referred to it as a “bathroom book.” I gave him the eye-roll and he said, “I mean that in a good way: the pieces are short—you can read one all the way through while you’re, you know, in the bathroom.” I prefer to think of it as a Subway Book, full of tasty literary bits that are the perfect length to enjoy during your ride. Or on a bus, if you don’t have subways.
By the way, yes, Dave Barry actually did give me that “blurb” at my request. So did the others.
SPS: What can we expect next from the pen/keyboard of Susan O’Neill?
SO: I’m now re-editing a novel that I finished back in 2003. My agent couldn’t sell it—possibly because of my failure to earn out my Ballantine advance the first time, which used to be okay but has now become the kiss of doom. I always lard my fiction with its moment’s pop culture; by now, given the up-tempo pace of the world, the book’s become a period piece. An 11-year-old historical novel. Who’da thunk?
SPS: For future works, would you prefer to continue in the indie-published world or a return to traditional publishing?
SO: I’m not sure. Traditional publishing is a pain, in that an editor’s idea of what a writer’s work should be is always subjective, and sometimes downright counter to the author’s own vision. However, traditional houses pass their books to real reviewers, and they pay to gather publicity and put their books in bookstores. Try getting a self-published book into a library that’s not in your hometown.
On the other hand, indie-published books, if well-designed and well-edited, are the author’s work as she means it to be, which is important to me. The downside is, I’m old and tired and sick of having to shill my stuff and convince people it’s actually good, which is necessary because those standardized reviewers are not there to vet the product. So…it’s a conundrum.
SPS: Has the experience so far been all that you thought it would be?
SO: Hah. Well, I didn’t think either book would be a best-seller, and neither is, so there’s that.
I didn’t have many illusions about the process. With Don’t Mean Nothing, my main desire was to keep the book alive because it’s a one-of-a-kind, even if few people know it exists, and also because it’s used in some Pop Culture and Viet Nam War Literature classes, which would be difficult if it were out of print. I also wanted it out in E-book form, and now it is.
With Calling New Delhi, I wanted to try something different, and get another book out there in the process. I was curious if humor essays by a little-known writer would sell, in spite of my agent’s “blurb.” And…the jury’s still out. It was great fun collaborating on design with my son, who’s a splendid photographer and a very picky designer, and I think the end product is excellent all around. But I do wish more people would buy it.
SPS: If you could give one piece of advice for someone looking to get into writing, what would it be?
SO: Don’t quit your day job.
SPS: Before we bring this interview to a close, it’s your chance to name-drop. Anyone who you feel is deserving of more recognition at present or someone whose writing you have recently enjoyed? Now is your chance to spread the word…
SO: If you enjoy futuristic novels and novellas with heart, buy D.A. Boulter’s Kindle publications—they’re excellent, and they’re also well-written and -edited. If you want an fine piece of non-fiction, written by a natural storyteller (who also happens to be a rocket scientist) and edited by Yours Truly, read Marina Villa’s memoir Leaving Castro’s Cuba: the Story of an Immigrant Family. If that piques your interest in Cuba—a frustratingly complex and interesting place—augment Villa’s book with Yoani Sanchez’s Havana Real. Villa’s is an excellent middle-class depiction of the country’s revolutionary-era past; Sanchez’s, a recent snapshot of life in Cuba by a current underground blogger.
SPS: Thank you for joining us today Susan, and all the best for the future.
SO: Thank you for the opportunity to get my books out there.
SPS: For more information on Susan and her work, please do visit her Author page here.