Author Gene O'Neill is a man with a plan. That plan is to write and get paid. He hopes that readers begin to recognize his work and seek him out. He certainly has the skill set having graduated from Clarion in a class filled with, what are now, successful writers. But he was sidetracked along the way because the one thing more important to him than writing is family. But now he is back on track and I was able to sit down with him in late 2012 at Dark Delicacies and have an extensive conversation.
One of the first things you wrote that sticks in my head was the Burden of Indigo short story in Twilight Zone Magazine in 1981. What had you done prior to that that made you think "Hey, I can write short stories"?
About a year before that I won a Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Association writing award – which is a competition with documentaries and stuff – and I'd written and sold, for a special education magazine, a piece on a Muscular Dystrophy boy whom I'd taken to the state wheelchair games and he'd won two years in a row. It was a journalist article called Big John. I was a jock growing up and I taught PE in those days and adapted PE for handicapped kids. Now they're called, not handicapped, disabled. It's a different deal now. This was before the Clarion Workshop. Then I decided that maybe I did have something to say so I went to Clarion. After Clarion, Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm invited me, when I came back home, to come up to their house on the West Coast and meet with a small group. The group included people I rode up with. Kim Stanley Robinson had talked about the entire outline of The Mars trilogy that he'd eventually write. I learned a lot from him and he learned something from me. Because I had real life experiences by that time. Damon and Kate's writing group included John Shirley, William Gibson...
Some big names. Were they names then?
No. William Gibson hadn't even published anything yet. Well, maybe he'd published something in a thing called Earth something (editor's note: the short-lived magazine Unearth 3). Like about the eighth or ninth time, I went up there with Kim Stanley Robinson, who was just being discovered then by Terry Carr. They were called the New Age Specials. There was about six writers picked and Kim was one of them. He was just starting to get published. So on the way up I took The Burden of Indigo. We would not talk about the stuff we were taking up to the workshop but we talked about that story because he liked it so well. By then he was a PhD English professor and he knew what he was talking about as far as writing. He was just starting to get published himself. We kind of rose together except he went full-time because he didn't have any kids. I had two kids.
That makes it kind of hard to be a full-timer.
In fact it's hard now. I'm still not getting paid anything.
Do you think the difference was that they, Kim Stanley Robinson, William Gibson, etc …, could write and get published by major publishers and you, with your family responsibility could only get short stories and small press things written because you needed to work full time because you had a family to raise and they didn't?
That would be easy to say yes to that but the alternative to that is that they were just better writers.
Do you really think so?
No, of course not. Del, you and I both won an Italian Award and then the guy went out of business. For a while there he became my Italian agent. But he couldn't sell anything. He had a hard time.
So why do you believe the authors from your group rose differently in the book world?
The reason that I could persevere was I knew I was publishing short stories in major markets - Fantasy and Science Fiction, Twilight Zone, later on Science Fiction Age.
I noticed a lot of those magazines that published you went out of business.
As soon as they published me they were gone. Horace Gold was a famous publisher of Galaxy Magazine. He tried to make a comeback. He got a story from me and was going to publish it in a new magazine called Quest Star. He died. The magazine died and I never got any money.
Did you ever have a plan for your writing career as far as direction?
No, I was the same as Damon Knight. I wanted to get published, period. A short story. Then, after you get published … you want to get published more often. Then pretty soon you want to start writing novelettes and novellas. That is the old way. Now everybody thinks they can put in on Amazon.com and that's going to do them some good. Which it doesn't. The path that I took was the same as Damon and he was advising all of us. So then before I could afford to spend the time on a novel, I couldn't afford to spend the time on that, you know invest a whole year and a half on one piece, and quit my job. I just couldn't do that. But at this time the short stories were gaining some reputation and I was being bombarded, honest to God, by New York agents to represent any long stuff I had. Now I can't even send a thousand dollar check back there and get somebody to look at it. I was going to quit twenty years ago and write full time. No benefits or anything but quit. Then my daughter qualified a year out of college, she's pre-med, she qualified for medical school. I worked another ten years. She got out of medical school and I've been writing full time now.
I quit. I never retired because I never got any money. So I write full time now.
Gene O'Neill can be found on Linkedin.
Del Howison is a journalist, writer and Bram Stoker Award-winning editor. He is also the co-founder and owner of Dark Delicacies “The Home of Horror” in Burbank, CA. He can be reached at Del@darkdel.com.