Interview with Jack O'Donnell, Author of Lily Poole
Posted by Luke Neima on Mon, 15 Dec 2014
Over the past few months ABCtales has helped turn two of its members into published authors. A third member – Jack O’Donnell (also known as Celticman) – is about halfway to publishing his Lily Poole with Unbound.
This novel is a moving portrait of working class life in Scotland. It’s supernatural – but it’s much more than a simple ghost story. It's also about family, the social services, community and the way Scotland is now. If you haven’t seen it already, watch the trailer (and order yourself a copy) here.
This week, Jack sat down with us to talk about how and why he wrote this book, and the impact ABCtales had on it.
'Writing is about slowing down or capturing time, pickling it and putting it in a jar, on display.'
When did you start writing, Jack?
I started writing on a creative writing course with the Open University. It’s something I’d never really thought about, but I enjoyed making things up, writing rubbish.
A writer is always looking for a reader. That connection. That affirmation. ABCtales completed a circuit that started with the Open University – it gave me all that and more.
What is your writing process like?
‘Writing process’ makes it seem something mechanical, like the wheels of cogitation turning. I just write, try to put a spike in the wheels of thought and catch them before they disintegrate. Writing is about slowing down or capturing time, pickling it and putting it in a jar, on display.
How do you structure your work?
I’m aware of the world of structure, the way thriller writers, in particular, map out a storyline with the highs and lows and who does what to whom and the implications that might have. My writing is more organic. I’ve got an idea, a check-gate that might be something simple as: Let’s get John out of the house. See who he meets. But who that is sometimes surprises me.
What was it like working on your novel and serialising it on ABC?
I’ve been writing for about six years on ABC. I’m learning about writing and know a little bit more than when I started. I don’t write novels, I write stories, and sometimes those turn into longer stories that can be bundled together and called a novel.
Did that bundling process, then, shape the way you wrote Lily Poole?
Having other writers look at your work, and seeing the number of reads you get, gives a momentary high. Stop writing and you’re yesterday’s man. But the feedback can turn your thoughts in a particular direction.
For example, one character in the book, Janine, started off as a patient the protagonist John meets at Gartnavel Hospital. She was a bit of a pain in the arse, and I was planning to kill her off. But many of the women writers on ABC loved Janine. I kept writing her, and as a character she grew arms and legs and her own voice. Janine ends up with the best lines in the book.
So, do you write with your readers in mind?
I write for myself – if that makes sense? But I’m not one of those people that are happy to write (or paint) and stick it away in a drawer. I’m childish enough to want to show other people what I’ve written. ABCtales allows me that vice, and also the chance to meet (online) with like-minded people.
Lily Poole is a book that flips through genres, that combines elements of the supernatural with elements of the psychological. How does all that fit together?
It doesn’t. No pictures are ever straight on a wall. We adjust our vision to help us see them as straight.
Does combining those different aspects give us a better perspective of what it is to 'see' something? The answer is yes and no. It’s a bit like quantum physics.
Tell us about your experiences working with people who have mental disorders – how did this influence your writing?
It doesn’t. I’m as daft as them. The people that piss me off are the ones with all the answers. Books are great devices for showing you different worlds – and I hope Lily Poole manages to do a bit of that.
So how would you describe Lily Poole?
I like to describe it as a ghost story without a ghost.
You’ve mentioned that you wanted people to be able to read their own beliefs and prejudices into the story – can you talk a little about that?
I’m not didactic; I just want to tell a story that’s interesting. Every story, however, is a stepping stone into a belief system. Lily Poole can be read as a ghost story. But it can also be read as a thriller, or a murder mystery. It can be read as an anti-psychiatric tract. Readers, myself included, always bring their own beliefs to the way the experience the story of a novel and the characters within it. Some aspects may resonate with their own beliefs and experiences in ways that other aspects don’t.
You also draw heavily on the accents and experiences of the working class in Scotland, and depict this vividly. Do you feel that Lily Poole is, in part, a representation of that culture?
Yes. But, the point of view changes throughout, and at certain points it steps outside the working class life of the main characters. For example, we see Canon Mallon’s view of John when he visits the rectory or parish house – then again, these scenes tend to reaffirm the working class viewpoint.
In a way this is a coming of age story, with a naive, everyman protagonist, and what happens to him feels, in many ways, a direct result of the environment around him. Did you set out with the intention to criticise social institutions?
My intention is to tell a story that resonates with myself and with others that read my story. I don’t overtly criticize any institutions, but all institutions seek to replicate themselves and an individual that doesn’t fit is likely to be given a hard time. Conflict drives most stories. In a way, I just charted the conflict between different characters.
How do these elements come together in the novel?
Well, there’s a beginning, a middle and an end – then there’s another end. I’m always surprised when my stories fit such a classical structure. I’m always surprised when they have a structure.
The world of publishing is changing. What do you think about where writing – and reading – is going?
Monopoly capital. Amazon already has vast warehouses were workers’ every move is monitored and the minimum wage is paid to all but a select few. Their dispute over e-book prices with Hachette shows how they already control access to the market and the terms of trade. Competition is coming from other ‘start-up’ companies such as Google and Microsoft.
Writers (or should I say good writers) tend to be outsiders, but the tendency will be to make them drones, like other workers. But there has also been an explosion in the demand for content – not only for books, but also for gaming, radio, films and television. It should get interesting.
More people seem to be writing, whether it’s on blogs or just on Facebook. Words are being given bells and whistles. One of things I have noticed is writers are now looking at the self-publishing option. Forty years ago no serious actor would appear in an advert on television. But that changed quickly. One day, self-publishing will be king and Amazon will be the king maker.
Unbound works by getting readers to pledge for the books they want to see in print – if you can, please pledge and help get this book made.