Eileen O’Leary introduces us to characters who are striving to build better lives for themselves, often against steep odds. Her collection, “Ancestry,” is the 2020 winner of the John Simmons Short Fiction Award from University of Iowa Press.
O’Leary grew up in public housing in New Jersey and then spent time traveling far and wide across the globe, eventually settling in the Midwest where she still lives. She uses the full range of her experience to inform her writing, telling me, “I’m trying to use what I’ve seen, and how surprising, I keep finding people to make my writing its own thing.”
She has certainly accomplished that. With a knack for the artful and arresting image and a big heart for her characters, O’Leary writes stories that linger in the mind. As John Simmons Short Fiction Award judge Tom Drury puts it, “(C)onfronted with the gulf between dreams and reality, (O’Leary’s characters) bend but for the most part don’t break.”
In this interview, O’Leary, who answered questions via email, talks about her approach to her craft, how playwriting has influenced her prose, her brief stint in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and more.
Q: In addition to this award-winning collection of stories, you are also a playwright and a novelist. What can you tell me about your writing career and how the different forms you work in allow you to accomplish your storytelling goals?
A: I started out wanting to act and wrote comedy skits for backyard shows when I was a kid. All through school I was writing and acting — much more than studying. In my twenties my college roommate died and I wrote 80 pages into a novel in days — obviously therapy. I needed help finishing it and a journalist friend told me to apply to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I was clueless about the place, had no money and thought I could swing a year there. It was a big mistake not to enter into the program fully, something I regretted. And the book never sold.
I married and moved to mid-Michigan and decided to take courses at Michigan State in order to finally finish the degree. By serendipity I ended up in the theater department and it was like coming home. The professor there was a director and staged a reading of a play I wrote. He later commissioned a play. I just kept writing them. There were two directors in town doing wonderful productions and I worked with both of them. One play won awards and made it to New York and to a theatre in Long Beach, California.
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If you write enough plays you learn that dialogue can do anything. It’s a really powerful tool. Playwriting also gives you the habit of showing instead of telling. Novels, however, let you explore the inner thoughts of the characters, which is like a vacation after working on a play — until you realize how long it’s all taking. If you write a novel you avoid being stressed out over the health of the cast and what the weather might be on opening night. But then you miss the cast parties.
Initially I thought the “Ancestry” stories would be connected. “The Expert” and “The Punch” do have characters from the first story, “Tid,” but the connections don’t resonate. Meanwhile the other stories I just needed to write. When I tried to force a connection for them, it wouldn’t work. And “The Wild Hair” was in response to a writer I met who loved fantasy and science fiction, genres in which I have no experience so I thought I’d give it a go. It was really fun to do.
Q: These stories often introduce us to characters who have hopes — hopes that are then dashed (or at least interrupted) by the very people who should be helping them come to fruition. I think of the business partner who runs off with the money in “Michigan Would Get Beautiful” or the husband who takes a unique approach to refilling a punch bowl in the same story. What interests you about this dynamic or about the how people react when their dreams are undermined?
A: My parents were immigrants and I have that aspirational gene. I love characters who are striving. I love Mackenzie in “Ancestry” because she had nothing going for herself and knew it, but found a way forward and held onto it. On the other hand, I hate any kind of stereotyping. Rodge stereotypes the Jordans in “Michigan Would Get Beautiful” and this causes him to ruin his wife’s chances as well as his marriage.
Q: You have a gift for the arresting, original image: “When the whale song of the whale song of the elevator reached him...” or “...the plane like a cocktail shaker...” These moments manage to grab our attention without pulling us out of the story. In fact, they draw us more fully into the stories. Are they something you work on and massage and rewrite or do they tend to come into your prose fully formed?
A: It comes fully formed, but often at 3 in the morning. I like imagery for being a kind of short hand. In “Adam” the character lives on a very high floor of a fairly cheap, new dorm building. The elevators in buildings like that do sound like whale songs (probably from the same physics that make whales sound the way they do: a lot of air pushed through a very long tube). It’s a way of letting the reader understand Adam’s situation on that campus; he’s not in any place that’s exclusive.
With the cocktail shaker I was describing all the things the plane was doing and finally just looked at the plane and saved the reader some time.
Q: What does it mean to you to win the John Simmons Short Fiction Award? What has your experience with University of Iowa Press been like?
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A: You know the Road Runner cartoons when Wile E. Coyote finally loses momentum and falls down into the canyon? Imagine a huge trampoline at the bottom shooting him back up. I don’t know if the University of Iowa Press wants to see itself as a huge trampoline, but here we are. That Tom Drury was the judge made it even better. His novels are so good.
The University of Iowa Press staff is awesome. Everyone I worked with there was so professional, considerate, efficient, delightful — I can’t praise them enough. They really know their stuff.
Q: What are you working on now/next?
A: I’m trying to sell a novel, “The Long Rehearsal,” which I recently finished. It came from working in theater with people who were not at all like the diva stereotype that I keep finding. The John Simmons Prize is helping me interest agents in my work, another reason I’m thrilled to win it. Meantime, I’m drafting out two novels, hoping one will come to life and I can develop it. I’m also in possession of over 300 family letters from the early 20th century that I hope to turn into something useful.