An Interview with Patrick O’Duffy, Part I: secret origins and self-identification

It can often be a little surprising – counting on your fingers, checking off birthdays, parties and random life events – when you realise just how long you’ve known someone. Like, for example, the inestimable Patrick O’Duffy. Author, blogger, famous-cat owner, I have been following the exploits of POD since the heady days of LiveJournal (everyone here remembers LiveJournal, right?). We have travelled in similar orbits for many years, sharing a degree of communal history via friends and friends-of-friends. We are close enough for me to buy him a drink and ask after his cat’s health without sounding too much like a weird stalker, but not so close that we have a weird intertwined history that involves 4am bonding sessions and anecdotes of activities that are, in the cold light of day, both highly immoral and most likely illegal. (That said, he does owe me a Pogues duet at karaoke from circa 2008, and if you knew how bad I sound after a few Black Russians then you could probably tick both the immoral and illegal checkboxes).

I say all this because when bloggers talk about people they know in real life, it may create expectations of a blinkered viewpoint. But when I say that Patrick is an author, and a very good one at that, it’s because you really do need to check out his work. His prose style is clean, sharp and often darkly humorous. His latest work is The Obituarist, which you can purchase here as an e-book. He also has a fantastic blog, which I have personally found to be an invaluable resource as I’ve progressed along my writing journey. It includes helpful hints on why to avoid adverbs or limit flashbacks, and just what NaNoWriMo actually bloody means.

Suffice to say that when he agreed to be interviewed by me, I must say I was a little stoked. Patrick was exceptionally generous with his time, and as such this will be the first of three installments, with the entire interview running just shy of 5,000 words.

HG: You have such an impressive list of writing credits to your name, it must be hard to think of a time when you weren’t ‘Patrick O’Duffy, Masked Vigilante Author’. What set you down the path of writing as a career?
POD: ‘Impressive list of writing credits’? I think you do me too great a service with your praise, but thank you. I’ve been lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time more than once, and to find a niche where I was able to develop my skills and ideas while still getting paid for it. I still have a long way to go before I can think of myself first (or even second or third) as a writer, or to say it about myself at parties without someone snickering, but I’ve also achieved more than a lot of other writers and I feel happy and grateful for that.

Like a lot of writers – oh shit, I just called myself one and I said I wouldn’t – I can’t really remember a time when I wasn’t writing or wasn’t trying to write. There’s a point in childhood, I think, when you suddenly realise that the story you’re reading is something created, something that another person actually invented and put down on a page. Some kids make that breakthrough and decide that that’s what they want to do, and I’m no different; I started trying to write stories when I was 10-12, I think. The idea of doing that as a career probably came shortly afterwards.

But let’s get out of childhood and more concrete. I started writing in earnest in my early twenties, and my work was by and large terrible, and that’s okay because the point of early writing is to set yourself a bar that you can then work to raise again and again. By about, hmm, 25 I was ready to consider writing as a career; by 30 I was capable of actually getting paid for my work every now and then; by 40 I could, more often than not, write stories that had genuine value to them. I think. Anyway, the point of all this is that there’s rarely one thing that sets you off on that path; it’s that slow progression of desire and development, an inability to stop thinking ‘hey, I could write about that’ and the eventual need to stop thinking and actually do.

I have a fondness for rough drafts and noble failures (hence my weird love for Alien 3 – I can’t quite explain it, I’m a sick man…), so dare I ask, what was the first, bad-but-good story you remember writing?
I believe it was a short story about an mountaineer who discovered a crashed spaceship on Mount Everest, learned that the Yeti were in fact alien survivors trying to get home, and then had the breakthrough discovery that the ship’s desperately needed fuel was in fact dark chocolate, which he had plenty of in his backpack.

I was eleven when I wrote this story for a school English assignment. I handed it in six weeks late – and that, at least, has been my modus operandi ever since with regards to deadlines.

I could go on to list a number of other stories I wrote in school, including my grand epic SF novel where a psychic barbarian hero crosses dimensions from his atomic-wasteland Earth to fight off the secret alien invaders of our future. I didn’t get very far into that one, despite being very, very serious about writing my first novel before I was sixteen. Possibly because I was working in longhand in an exercise book and I suspect I might have lost it – or just not been able to read my own handwriting.

Still. I have a computer now. Maybe I should go back to that story one of these days.

Was there a certain point that you self-identified as an author, or is it something that’s crept up on you?
Sometimes, but not all the time. It depends on how much I feel like I’m achieving, how much I’m writing and how much of my time gets sucked away by my day job or by playing video games. I think that ‘author’ isn’t a title you can wear full-time unless it’s what you do full-time; you actually have to be putting in the work regularly and often to wear the mantle, just as you have to, I dunno, play football a whole lot (and get paid for it at the same time) to call yourself a football player. If it’s been two years since your last game, you’re not a football player anymore; if you haven’t written anything in ages, you’re not an author right now. But when I’m working hard on something, when I finish something, when (most importantly) other people are reading what I’ve written… then yeah, those are the times I actually think of myself as an author. And it’s a pretty cool thing to call yourself.

As work on my own Great Unpublished Novel continues ever-so-slowly, I’ve found myself subconsciously shying away from elements that I don’t consider to be a strength of mine – like writing convincing dialogue that doesn’t sound like raw exposition, for example. Has there been anything you’ve really tried to hone over the years in your writing career, whether it be more/less/different something?
Yes, but before I answer that I’m going to talk about the things I don’t do well. And there are lots of things I don’t do well, and a lot of my writing comes out of trying to be better at those things.

I’m not very good at comedy, so I wrote The Obituarist and tried to bring more humour into my prose. I tend towards a certain voice (a bit snarky, a bit self-aware, a bit emotionally detached), so I’m writing Arcadia as an attempt to get into a completely different voice and write from a POV that is very unlike my own. I tend towards the ornate and overly-clever in my prose style, so I’m writing the YA fantasy Raven’s Blood to push me into writing in a cleaner, more declarative style for at least one book. Hell, I wrote Hotel Flamingo as a weekly serial in an attempt to force myself to write on a regular basis and to a regular target.

For a lot of projects, I don’t start with the stuff I think I’m good at or that I want to hone, I start with my weaknesses and problems. I deliberately set out to write stuff that isn’t easy and is going to cause me problems. Because those are the projects that will force me to make an effort, rather than writing on autopilot, and I think my work will be better if I have to push myself to get it right.

Not that I’ve really done the experiment of just writing something that comes easily. I probably should. But I think I’d feel as if I was cheating.

Self-flagellation aside… If there’s any one element of craft I’ve really tried to develop over the years, it’s the ability to craft an evocative turn of phrase. Let all the plot and characterisation fall to ruin, but if I can lay down three words that bring an image or concept to life in the reader’s mind, then I’m happy with that. Although, to be honest, I’d probably rather the plot and characterisation were good too. But anyway, that’s been my main focus for a while, because it seems to me that the possibility of evocation is something that is unique to prose. Movies and comics have to show you what you see, but prose can simply suggest it, and do it in such a way that you get not just a visual but a emotional, philosophical or visceral dimension to it as well.

I’m not so arrogant as to suggest that I am good at this, mind you. Just that it’s what I really try to be good at. But I try to be good at it in every project, and so it becomes the thing I put as my foundation, rather than the thing I’m trying to perfect or hone. Because if I can’t get this down, then I’m not going to get too far with anything else.

Next time: Hugh asks the incredibly patient Patrick O’Duffy some questions that actually relate to his latest book.

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