Steven O’Connor is the author of EleMental and its sequel, MonuMental. He writes ” Thriller sci-fi/young adult fiction… with a bite of romance,” which to me sounds delicious! He’s also a father, and a social worker (and a pretty nice guy).
So here’s the conversation we had!
1. Let’s start at the beginning. Tell us about your “aha” moment. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I know exactly when. Spring, 1968. I’m not sure how Aha! it was, though. And it’s a bit of a sad story too. I was at Junior school and I was put on the spot by a teacher who asked me in front of the whole class what I would be when I grew up (not even what I wanted to be). I had been successful with some daffodil bulbs I’d found and planted back at home (another story), and I enjoyed gardening with my mum, so I said, ‘A gardener’.
The teacher proceeded to ridicule me, saying that was a woman’s job. Very wrong on so many levels.
At that time, I had also just finished reading my first ‘proper book’. So I decided I would be a writer instead. But I kept that to myself.
2. Your debut novel, EleMental, and its sequel, MonuMental, both seem to have very heavy gaming influences. Are you a gamer? If so, what’s your all-time favorite game and why? Do games influence your work?
I haven’t got time to game as much as I’d like to, and I don’t know if I have the right to call myself ‘a gamer’, because, truth be told, I’m not very good. I need plenty of save points. But I’ve been playing video games since Space Invaders. My all-time favorite has to be any of the Halo games and I can’t wait to get into the latest. I particularly love video games where I can immerse myself in another world. It’s like reading CS Lewis or Tolkien. I also love Bioshock and Skyrim. Games that feature amazing other worlds. They are so imaginative. I have also enjoyed all of the Lego games. The last one on Lord of the Rings was a lot of fun.
If you read either EleMental or MonuMental, I think you’d spot a real appreciation of video games from me, both in content as well as in the way I have structured the stories. I have written some scenes in a way that simulate certain video games, such as Super Mario Bros and the Lego games. It was a lot of fun doing that. I won’t say which scenes. Readers should find them themselves. But there are plenty.
I also like stories with depth as well as action. So in the first book, EleMental, I am exploring the idea of someone who has become so addicted to a video game that it kicks in around them at unexpected moments. In the next book, MonuMental (which can also be read by itself) I explore the idea of confusion about who is real and who is a video game character.
I also had a lot of fun describing how video games of the future start up and shut down. In fact, I am keen to make some audio recordings of myself reading some of those moments – so beware!
By the way, I’m in my 50s – I can quite genuinely say I don’t know anyone else my age who games.
3. So I hear that you’re a social worker, Steven–quite a noble profession. Can you tell us how social work influences your writing and vice versa? Is it difficult to juggle both careers?
Thank you, I feel very committed to my social work. I’ve principally worked in the areas of drug addiction and HIV/AIDS. I now work with schools.
Growing up, I have always loved sci-fi and fantasy stories, but my experience as a social worker is very much present in my writing too. The whole idea of exploring addiction in EleMental comes from my time working with drug users and alcoholics. The complete pattern of addiction right through to recovery is present in EleMental. In my latest book, which is still in draft form, I am writing about a young HIV positive boy who finds himself in a fantasy land. I’m loving writing it.
It certainly is difficult juggling both my writing and social work, and also my family life. They very much blur into each other. I drop into bed at night very late and spring out of bed again before sunrise every day to try and stay on top of it all.
4. Tell us about the main character of EleMental, Willis. How did you come up with him? How do you think readers will relate to Willis?
Thank you for all of these great questions! I think readers will relate to Willis because he is such a regular kid. He’s not especially brilliant and can be easily swept along by other ‘louder’ kids, especially Zeb. But in the end, Willis has strength and abilities he did not know he had. We’re all like Willis, to some degree. I certainly am, and that’s probably how I came up with him. That little story I told you above about the daffodils (above), for example, is about me, but could easily have happened to Willis.
I have some Zeb in me too, as I reckon we all do. And I think we all strive to be like Arizona. She’s pretty wonderful.
5. Bring it home, Steven. Give up-and-coming authors one piece of advice, perhaps something that has helped you through your writing career or something you wish you’d known when you started?
Don’t be shy about your writing. I was, for way too long. Shout about it and live it, integrating it into your life. To hell with those who say they are sick of hearing you talking about it. Your writing is a part of the package that is you. Show others. Ignore those who say silly things, don’t get upset with them. But listen first in case what they say does make sense, and you missed it the first time. Sometimes great writing advice can come from others who don’t know a thing about writing. You have to learn to read between the lines, because they do not always know what they are saying either. They simply know they did not like this or that in your writing. And you need to think through to why and decide if you want to make changes based on what you have concluded.
After a while, you’ll come to know how to learn from others’ responses, and grow as a writer. One should never stop growing as a writer.
And finally, always make sure your writing is your absolute best. Reread, edit. Reread, edit. Reread, edit.
Oh, and (fnally finally) grab a good book on writing and read it thoroughly.
Seriously, some good advice! Thank you for sharing about your work and about your writing process and career! I wish you tons of luck with your upcoming projects and I’m sure we’ll be hearing from you again.