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Talking with Gene O'Neill: On the Edge of Success (Interview Part III)


Gene O'Neill and Del HowisonWhat is a professional writer? Is it somebody who consistently turns out a certain quality level of writing? Is it somebody who is paid for their work? Is it a storyteller who keeps the reader enthralled as they weave their way through the imaginary scenarios and images they create on the page? Is it somebody who is a household name? If you answered yes to the above questions then you are talking about Gene O'Neill. Well, yes to all of the questions except the last one. But after 30 years he stands ready to make that one happen also. Here is part three of our interview with author Gene O'Neill.

So after 30 years in the writing world would you do something different if you were to do it again?

I don't think so. I think a lot of people look back on their lives and would like to redo them. I can think about some ladies I probably shouldn't have gotten tangled up with and they probably wish they hadn't gotten tangled up with me. Maybe I wouldn't have done some of those things. But the way that this mixed genre stuff is bigger nowadays and acceptable I wouldn't change things.

I'll give you an example of some of the fun stuff. I won't tell you the names of the two editors. I wrote a story once and sent it to a major science fiction magazine. They said this is really a great story but it's not for us. Send it over to so and so at Asimov's science fiction magazine. I did the same thing and they told me to send it back to the one I'd just sent it from. Both of them loved the story but said it wasn't for them. What I eventually found out was that neither one of them thought it was science fiction but that it was kind of a mix between science fiction and horror. The audience for those things in those days were two different audiences.

Nowadays how do you label yourself?

I don't care what they call me as long as they say he's a good writer. I know it has to do with sales so I want them to label mine as, "That guy writes a Gene O'Neill story." The few people who know me, they recognize voice and character and place in the story and they say that's a Gene O'Neill story. You can call me a mixed genre writer if you want. That's acceptable. I don't care as long as they preface it with that adjective "Good," because I do have some literary pretensions. I'm a pretentious asshole.

This is a real story about a gal that I influenced in writing. Before she became a writer she was the gal you called into when you called for dirty phone calls. That's who you talked to. What she first did was that she wanted to check your credit card. Then you said I want a grandma who has one leg and false teeth. Then she'd say, "We've got one of those."  Whatever you asked for they had. Now if the mass market comes to me and says can you do this or that? Of course I can do that.

Do you have a genre preference?

My degrees are in psychology and I was always interested in the darker side of people. So probably whatever I write, if it is anything, it's toward the darker side. That's what interests me about people. I'm convinced that people aren't good and evil. They are a little bit of both. But if I'm fooling around with you, particularly if you're a lady, I'm more interested in your evil side. It's more complex and interesting.

Do you prefer psychological horror to supernatural horror?

I do. I write a little bit of supernatural horror, very little. A good horror runs the line between supernatural and psychological. If he's really good he lets the reader make a decision at the end of his story on whether it's both.

You pull a lot of your military service into your work. Why do you think that carries so strongly?

Because I was in a special unit. Everybody hears about the SEALS but few people know about the Marine Corps Force Recon. Some of those principles haven't changed since the early days on what you do and how you conduct yourself and what a good mission is and what a poor mission is. A good mission is a mission where nobody cranks off a round, nobody gets shot, you don't bring back anybody in a body bag or missing an arm or anything and whatever your mission was you accomplish it. Those things still apply. I was attached as an ordinance specialist, the first part of Vietnam before Kennedy even said we had Special Forces. The French were still there. Those French had been there for a hundred years. That was their home, those French.

So that all stayed with you very strongly and it permeates your writing.

Oh yeah. Some of the discipline I learned in the Marine Corps has translated and fared well for me in my writing. I'm on a couple of things with Author Lisa Morton where we're going to be under a gun, timing-wise. We have to finish in six to eight weeks and we are carrying along a young writer. They have to be finished and we have to, because their name is going to be associated with ours, and it has to be good. Those are the type of things where you're disciplined. I get up and do my exercises, my weights, all my stuff that I do and I work six days a week, seven when I'm on a deadline. Even today, when I'm with you, my beloved 49ers are playing and I love to watch those guys.

But this military thing didn't turn you, as a private citizen, into a hard ass as I've seen happen before.

Hell no. It never became "us and them" with me. In fact, I lived with natives for four months over there and I learned that we don't have all the answers nor is the American way always the right way to do things. I learned a valuable lesson there. I was a stupid 18 year old kid talking about communism and democracy.

From the bumper stickers you had read.

Yes. One of my guys who could speak the best English showed me his rice bowl and he said "You fill that up and I'll endorse whatever you want me to believe in." So I learned a simple lesson then. If you want virtue from a person you have to feed him first. A starving man doesn't necessarily have any virtue and a starving woman either. They can't be condemned for what they do to eat or survive. So some of the people that we left behind in Viet Nam, deserving honorable people, weren't all Americans some of them were also Vietnamese. There's over a million of them poor suckers over there that we left behind.

When I came back we were getting spit on but I understood some of the stuff and some of that went overboard.
But the guy that's a hard nose ... I had a chance to be a mercenary when I came back. These guys with short haircuts were recruiting my draft coming back from overseas. They said, "Look. All you'll have to do is drive some pipelines down in South America. Only we had to be able to field strip a fifty caliber machine gun, a Thompson sub-machine gun. We're gonna be shooting somebody's ass down there. We'd just gotten out, me and all my boys. I said "Naw, we ain't joining up. I don't care what they're paying." This was the end of '62 when it was a recession in this country. They were going to pay us big bucks, non-taxable, of about twelve bucks an hour. That don't sound like nothin' now. But it would be back in an American bank and we could draw against this. They would send us to Brazilia, I think that was the artificial city, for R&R. We knew a lot about R&R by the time we'd gotten back and that part of it was great. Getting shot at is no good. The R&R is wonderful.

If you could pass along one thought to writers trying to get published, in this day and age what would it be?

I'll give you a military metaphor. Get at your typewriter and write. As the rejections come flying over just duck them and ignore them just like somebody was shooting at you and keep writing.

How do you know if you have the talent or if you're spinning your wheels?

As soon as somebody starts paying you something to read what you've written then you know you're good. Because in our society nobody will give you two cents unless they think you can write really well. In our society real artists aren't paid what they are worth. But if anybody will pay you anything for your art that's the highest accolade that you can get. When they start paying you upfront – forget that being paid on publication – that's the real deal.

Read Part II here.

Gene 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