Tony O’Neill is the author of a poetry-collection, SONGS FROM THE SHOOTING GALLERY (Burning Shore, 2007), a novel, DIGGING THE VEIN (Contemporary Press, 2006), and a collection of stories and poems, SEIZURE WET DREAMS (Social Disease, 2006). Go to his web site to learn more about him.
Tao Lin: Your writing features young people addicted to drugs, oftentimes in relationships with other young people addicted to drugs. What partly that I like about your writing is the tone. The characters seem very resigned and unworried about their situations in a way that is calming to me, and also in a way that it seems very real in the way that things portrayed without drama or exaggerated emotions seem real. Based on your experience with drugs, in comparison to your life now, due to tolerance, becoming tolerant to a situation, was the frustration of injecting heroin into a vein and repeatedly not getting it right equivalent to like, today, trying to get toilet paper and only one small piece coming off at a time because the roll is too large for the holder?
Tony O’Neill: After becoming ‘tolerated’ to my life as a heroin addict, the re-adjustment to a heroin free existence has been, and remains, extremely painful. Back then, the frustration level of not hitting a vein, although extreme, was cushioned by the drugs. I think of addiction as a kind of freedom from the petty frustrations of everyday life. In my now, ‘heroin free’ existence the toilet paper incident you described above would probably seem life or death to me. I am prone to extreme outbursts of anger, frustration and despair. A ‘normal’ persons reaction to the toilet paper thing might be to say “Id better buy another toilet roll holder”. My reaction is more likely to be (on a bad day at least) to rip the toilet paper holder off the wall, throw it to the ground, try to crush it with my feet, scream abuse at it, sit back on the toilet feeling dejected and empty. Slowly over time I am adjusting, but I am beginning to suspect it will take the same number of years off of heroin as on it to get back to that level of normalcy I had before. Or maybe I never will.
I don’t believe in therapy, psychotherapy, any of that. I believe in the power of free will. But without taking the short cuts of conventional wisdom on drug treatment and recovery, my life and moods frequently feature terrifying peaks and troughs. But I also I believe that kind of emotional uncertainty is where the words come from.
Hubert Selby Jr. once famously said: “It’s once you quit hard drugs, that you realize just how dark you really are.” This quote rings 100% true to me.
TL: What do you search on youtube if you’re bored?
TO: A lot of music. A movie trailers for obscure 70’s B-movies. Stuff like “The Pink Angels” a 70’s flick about an all-homosexual biker gang. But mostly music. I like to look up bands from before the era of music videos and see if they have anything up there, and what they looked like. I’m a big fan of punk, post punk, free jazz, etc and its been a trip to have access to performance footage of say James Chance and the Contortions, or Suicide, or The Dead Boys, or Ornette Coleman at your fingertips. Sometimes I look up music videos by bands from the same scene that my old band, Kenickie, came out of and I wonder what happened to all of them. Who made it, who went insane, who went back to the ‘real world’. I feel sad when I do that sometimes. They were all so young and so crazy and it seems sad to think of them as adults. I’m my mind they are still 18 year olds with the world by the balls.
TL: What’s your experience with online porn? Have you had a period in your life where you looked at online porn every night?
TO: You know, I have not been so obsessed by porn in a long time. My real porno obsession would have probably happened when I was a teenager, full of hormones, and unwillingly celebate. But I was the last I suppose generation who didn’t have easy access to the internet. It wasn’t until I was I think 18 that I got a lap top (it was used, old, black and white) and I never had the time nor the money by then to invest in a dial up. My real obsession with porn happened from the ages of say 14 through 17/18, before I moved to London. And no, in London too. But it was magazines, videos, sex shows, that kind of thing. I liked the sex shops in Soho – there was something more furtive about it. There would be old men leafing through bondage mags, prostitutes, rent boys. I loved it. I almost worked in a porno bookstore. I wrote about that in my new book that hasn’t come out yet.
Living in a small town, to buy a pornographic magazine was an operation of almost military proportions. You would stake out a newsagent who looked like he wouldn’t give a shit about selling porno to an obviously too-young teenager, and one that was far enough from your house that there was no possible way that someone you know would walk into the shop. Then you would spend the whole day putting it off, chickening out, too nervous to eat, until right before the shops were about to close you’d rush in and buy one in an embarrassed flurry. And then sneak it into your house like you had military secrets stashed on your person.
The first pornographic movies I ever saw (hardcore was illegal back then in the UK except in Soho, in London) were 7th generation copies so bad, it would be like you were watching a porno under the influence of some kind of mind altering substance. And they would be passed around the school yard and maybe change hands 20 or 30 times before you ever saw it. But in London I watched a lot of porn, bought from the sex shops. It was a real novelty to actually be able to see what was going on. But the novelty wore off, my band took off, we started touring, and I started getting into coke and all of the other stuff that comes with being in a band and my interest trailed off.
In LA I went to strip clubs a lot, and enjoyed them. Cheetas, jumbos clown room, gold diggers. I only went to semi nude places, because the fully nude places wouldn’t serve booze. Really, I was more interested in the booze and drugs than the girls at that point.
I starred in a porno movie. It’s called ‘snatch adams’. When I was a junkie I was paid 50 dollars to show up to an abandoned hospital in Boyle Heights, east LA, dress up in a doctors outfit with my friend e.j., and walk past a gang bang scene, take notes on our clipboards, and walk on. I was so close I could SMELL the sex. I’ve never been in a gang bang, but I’ve been 30 feet away from one. Isn’t life odd. I’ve never seen the movie though. I wonder if I made the final cut.
With my band, one day we walked into a shared rehearsal room on a day that we were not meant to be there. We hoped that maybe it was empty. We opened the door – and someone was shooting a porno in there. I caught a glimpse of ass and closed the door. Porno was big business in LA, I met a lot of porno actors and actresses on the scene.
But I find the computer to be a very unsexual thing. It’s too detached. It’s too – I dunno, its too easy. There’s no challenge. You type in Philipino transsexuals with 34DD breasts, hair lips, dressed up as batman, and someone will have a website dedicated to it. It kind of takes the fun out of it for me.
TL: What kind of novel would you write if your brain was perfect and you had 100 years to do it? Tell me how many pages, what the sentences are like, what the plot and tone are.
TO: This is very difficult to say, because when I try to plan things out like this they never seem to happen. So if I even say this in an interview its like I’m damning this book never to happen. I am somebody who just has to start writing, I never write in order, I write the last chapter first, and then the middle chapters, often I’ll go back and fill in the beginning right at the end. If I try to plan it, it all goes to shit. Digging the Vein was written like this – the 2nd third of the book, written in the late 90’s in LA as diary entries, on a cocktail of meth and booze, and then forgotten about on an old laptop. The last 3rd of the book, written in 2003, coming off of methadone. I was then trying to back track to write what happened before I became a junkie, and my memory was all fucked up because of the drugs I was on and coming off of. But then I opened up my old computer, and there were my diaries. So I rewrote them, but essentially saved the action, and changed the names. Then I filled in the rest – opening chapters, very final chapter as I started the rewrites process. Seizure Wet Dreams started out as a non-linear novel, which ended up so fragmented that I broke it up onto just lots of short stories. My new book started off as something else altogether. It started off as a work of fiction. But then I realized that over ½ of this fictional book was actually stuff that had happened to me. So I took out the fictional characters name, got rid of the fictional elements, rewrote it all in the 1st person, and then filled in the blanks. Boom, I had “Down and Out On Murder Mile”
So it’s hard for me to plan an ideal situation like that. Maybe I’d write a kids book that would stay in print forever and fund all of my future artistic endeavors.
TL: In literature what is the most realistically fucked character you have read about? By realistically fucked I mean like it’s still a real person, not like in Kafka where the people are fucked because they woke up as a bug or something.
TO: They are the best kinds of characters. My favorites are Joe Nechhi, the main character in Alexander Trocchi’s “Cain’s Book”. He is a junkie, living on a barge in New York in the 1950’s. What I love about Nechhi is that he has all of these very deep, dark, existential thoughts, yet he articulates them in a very simple basic way. And in the book – nothing really happens to Nechhi, which is about the most realistic depiction of junkie life I have come across. He has sex occasionally. He injects a lot of drugs. He shaves. He does work, and it bores him. He tries to write in his journal. He worries about people discovering he is doing heroin. He scores from sketchy people, but nothing “dramatic” happens. The drama is in the fact that you are becoming sucked into his world so completely that by the time you are finished up, you ARE Joe Nechhi.
My other favorite is Bruno Dante, who is the 3 of Dan Fante’s books – Chump Change, Mooch and Spitting Off Tall Buildings. I relate to Dante a lot. He can’t stop fucking up. He tries to hold down jobs, but his seething hatred for everybody around him – and himself – makes sure they never last too long. He’ll get drunk, lock himself in a motel room and masturbate. He’ll jerk off into a napkin on a plane to his fathers funeral, and wipe the cum on his ex wife’s mouth as she is knocked out on Xanax. He’ll steal her credit card and blow the money on Mad Dog 20/20 and Oreo cookies. And he never once has a moment of insight. Or rather he does, but they happen in really small-unexpected ways, rather than in the big Hollywood ways (he never weeps, and pours his liquor down the sink. He never makes a deal with God, etc) I mean I’ve re-read those books so many times. I’m always amazed Dan Fante isn’t more famous. I always think that people are gonna think I’m his fucking agent or something because I always go on about him, but shit, why isn’t he selling more that Jonathan Safron Whoever? Why? Why am I not, for that matter?
TL: You take a legal drug thing called Kratom. How did you find out about Kratom? How do you like to feel when you are writing? I like to feel very fucked and depressed but also physically good with fast brain powers (I can get the second part by caffeine and the first part by being disappointed by humans or just thinking really hard about the universe).
TO: I take drugs so I don’t have to feel anything. That’s why I was a heroin addict for so long. Because I liked not feeling anything. Kratom does that in a little way. I mean, being frank, Kratom is a pretty mild, harmless little drug. Its nothing compared to street drugs. I’d rate it as stronger than coffee but way weaker than like eating 20 caffeine pills or something. It gives me a boost, and it doesn’t give me the jitters. Thai peasant farmers used if for years. But it carries like 20 years for possession there. The Thai government are nuts though. I mean, the war on drugs in the USA is immoral and out of control, but at least they haven’t gone to the extreme of shooting dealers and users on sight like the Thai’s have. But I blame America for this too. They started this whole fucking thing. They exported the idea that legally manufactured pharmaceuticals are GOOD and drugs that grow naturally are BAD. So now, in Thailand (and in another country under quiz Nazi control – Australia) kratom is illegal.
Put it this way – I don’t get the urge to do heroin when I’m on kratom. So just for that, its legality should be enshrined, because that seems to be a pretty common story. I find out about it on the internet like everything else. There are forums were drug aficionados all share information. Check Google. It’s all there…
When I am writing, I like to feel – I like to be just operating on pure function. I don’t like to be thinking too hard. Because then the writing is going to be shit. I have to get to that point where it doesn’t feel like work.
About the author: Tao Lin is the author of a novel, EEEEE EEE EEEE (Melville House, 2007), a story-collection, BED (Melville House, 2007), and a poetry-collection, YOU ARE A LITTLE BIT HAPPIER THAN I AM (Action Books, 2006). His blog is called READER OF DEPRESSING BOOKS.