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By Rob Cline, correspondent

Eileen O’Leary introduces us to characters who’re striving to construct higher lives for themselves, usually towards steep odds. Her assortment, “Ancestry,” is the 2020 winner of the John Simmons Brief Fiction Award from College of Iowa Press.

O’Leary grew up in public housing in New Jersey after which hung out touring far and vast throughout the globe, ultimately settling within the Midwest the place she nonetheless lives. She makes use of the total vary of her expertise to tell her writing, telling me, “I’m making an attempt to make use of what I’ve seen, and the way shocking, I hold discovering folks to make my writing its personal factor.”

She has definitely completed that. With a knack for the clever and arresting picture and an enormous coronary heart for her characters, O’Leary writes tales that linger within the thoughts. As John Simmons Brief Fiction Award decide Tom Drury places it, “(C)onfronted with the gulf between desires and actuality, (O’Leary’s characters) bend however for essentially the most half don’t break.”

On this interview, O’Leary, who answered questions by way of electronic mail, talks about her method to her craft, how playwriting has influenced her prose, her transient stint within the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and extra.

Q: Along with this award-winning assortment of tales, you might be additionally a playwright and a novelist. What are you able to inform me about your writing profession and the way the totally different kinds you’re employed in will let you accomplish your storytelling targets?

A: I began out eager to act and wrote comedy skits for yard exhibits after I was a child. All by faculty I used to be writing and appearing — way more than finding out. In my twenties my school roommate died and I wrote 80 pages right into a novel in days — clearly remedy. I wanted assist ending it and a journalist good friend informed me to use to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I used to be clueless concerning the place, had no cash and thought I might swing a yr there. It was an enormous mistake to not enter into this system totally, one thing I regretted. And the e book by no means bought.

I married and moved to mid-Michigan and determined to take programs at Michigan State as a way to lastly end the diploma. By serendipity I ended up within the theater division and it was like coming dwelling. The professor there was a director and staged a studying of a play I wrote. He later commissioned a play. I simply stored writing them. There have been two administrators on the town doing great productions and I labored with each of them. One play gained awards and made it to New York and to a theatre in Lengthy Seaside, California.


In the event you write sufficient performs you be taught that dialogue can do something. It’s a extremely highly effective device. Playwriting additionally provides you the behavior of exhibiting as an alternative of telling. Novels, nevertheless, allow you to discover the inside ideas of the characters, which is sort of a trip after engaged on a play — till you understand how lengthy it’s all taking. In the event you write a novel you keep away from being stressed over the well being of the solid and what the climate is perhaps on opening night time. However then you definately miss the solid events.

Initially I believed the “Ancestry” tales could be related. “The Knowledgeable” and “The Punch” do have characters from the primary story, “Tid,” however the connections don’t resonate. In the meantime the opposite tales I simply wanted to put in writing. Once I tried to pressure a connection for them, it wouldn’t work. And “The Wild Hair” was in response to a author I met who beloved fantasy and science fiction, genres wherein I’ve no expertise so I believed I’d give it a go. It was actually enjoyable to do.

Q: These tales usually introduce us to characters who’ve hopes — hopes which are then dashed (or at the very least interrupted) by the very individuals who ought to be serving to them come to fruition. I consider the enterprise companion who runs off with the cash in “Michigan Would Get Lovely” or the husband who takes a novel method to refilling a punch bowl in the identical story. What pursuits you about this dynamic or concerning the how folks react when their desires are undermined?

A: My mother and father have been immigrants and I’ve that aspirational gene. I really like characters who’re striving. I really like Mackenzie in “Ancestry” as a result of she had nothing going for herself and knew it, however discovered a method ahead and held onto it. Alternatively, I hate any form of stereotyping. Rodge stereotypes the Jordans in “Michigan Would Get Lovely” and this causes him to damage his spouse’s possibilities in addition to his marriage.

Q: You’ve got a present for the arresting, authentic picture: “When the whale music of the whale music of the elevator reached him…” or “…the aircraft like a cocktail shaker…” These moments handle to seize our consideration with out pulling us out of the story. In actual fact, they draw us extra totally into the tales. Are they one thing you’re employed on and therapeutic massage and rewrite or do they have an inclination to return into your prose totally fashioned?

A: It comes totally fashioned, however usually at three within the morning. I like imagery for being a form of brief hand. In “Adam” the character lives on a really excessive flooring of a reasonably low-cost, new dorm constructing. The elevators in buildings like that do sound like whale songs (most likely from the identical physics that make whales sound the way in which they do: a variety of air pushed by a really lengthy tube). It’s a method of letting the reader perceive Adam’s state of affairs on that campus; he’s not in anywhere that’s unique.

With the cocktail shaker I used to be describing all of the issues the aircraft was doing and at last simply seemed on the aircraft and saved the reader a while.

Q: What does it imply to you to win the John Simmons Brief Fiction Award? What has your expertise with College of Iowa Press been like?


A: You understand the Highway Runner cartoons when Wile E. Coyote lastly loses momentum and falls down into the canyon? Think about an enormous trampoline on the backside taking pictures him again up. I don’t know if the College of Iowa Press needs to see itself as an enormous trampoline, however right here we’re. That Tom Drury was the decide made it even higher. His novels are so good.

The College of Iowa Press employees is superior. Everybody I labored with there was so skilled, thoughtful, environment friendly, pleasant — I can’t reward them sufficient. They actually know their stuff.

Q: What are you engaged on now/subsequent?

A: I’m making an attempt to promote a novel, “The Lengthy Rehearsal,” which I lately completed. It got here from working in theater with individuals who have been by no means just like the diva stereotype that I hold discovering. The John Simmons Prize helps me curiosity brokers in my work, another excuse 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 additionally in possession of over 300 household letters from the early 20th century that I hope to show into one thing helpful.

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