“Then one day, out on the yard, a giant corn-fed thug, his skin covered in swastikas, sided up to me and handed me this book: ‘Yo, ya gotta read this, bro.’” A Q&A between AFLW’s creative non-fiction editor Seth Fischer and Patrick O’Neil, author of GUN, NEEDLE, SPOON, and also a teacher, filmmaker, former roadie, former junkie, former bank robber and current badass. Plus, read an excerpt of the book here.
The first time I saw Patrick, he was giving his graduate lecture at the grad school we both attended. For the lecture, he brought in his entire police record — complete with his mug shots and a very long list of violent and nonviolent crimes. I remember the list being very impressive. This was my first term in school, freshly away from a rather plastic career in mainstream politics, and I was struck by how the man knew how to tell the truth better than anyone I’d yet met in person. He was not just more honest than politicians — he was more honest than all the teachers and lovers and friends I’d ever had. He didn’t want anything from anyone. His storytelling wasn’t coming from a place of grandiosity — as most everyone in the political world seemed to, and let’s be honest, many in the literary world — but rather from a place of wanting to get his story out into the world because it felt like the thing to do. And he felt no compunction to tell people what they should learn from his story, except maybe, I think, he’d prefer if people didn’t commit violent crime. He was simultaneously proud of his storytelling and not proud of his story, and the fact that he could have both of these things simultaneously struck me as earth-shattering at the time.
That’s why I was so excited to ask him some questions about his book, which taught me quite a lot about the nature of honesty and violence and, from a craft perspective, dialogue. I spoke with him last week online, and his answers did not disappoint. –Seth Fischer
Seth Fischer: When I first read this book, I thought, “Christ, with this subject matter, I would’ve had a nervous breakdown writing this book.” How did you not? What was your process like? Did you find the writing process healing, or was it more of a pain in the ass, or both?
Patrick O’Neil: I had the nervous breakdown while living that life and being that person I used to be, so writing about it all was a total breeze (laughs). Well, OK, that’s a huge lie. Truth is all those old memories were hard to open back up, even worse to fully reexamine, and still worse to sit with while I put them into words and edited/revised them into a working manuscript. Nothing about addiction is very pretty. Yet like most former addicts, I have delusional memories of everything being perfect when I was loaded, but if that were truly the case, I’d still be a junkie. Throw in copious amounts of criminal activity, psychotic relationships and years of destructive behaviors, and remembering all that old shit turns into a festival of guilt, shame and self-loathing. I’d remember sticking a gun in some poor bank teller’s face or regaining consciousness from a Narcan-shot-interrupted-overdose, or getting stabbed over a drug deal, and I’d anxiously run to the computer to get it all down. Afterwards, I’d lay awake all night trying to forgive myself. Somewhere in the revision, when I finished the chapter, the memory would have less of a hold. I’ve never been able to totally let those old memories go, but by not keeping them secrets they’re just not as haunting. So, yes, while sometimes painful, the process was cathartic.
SF: Will you tell the story of how you got started writing while in prison? Man, that’s a good story.
PO: I got busted for armed bank robbery in 1997. I was strung-out, physically destroyed and looking at doing 25 years to life in prison. While I was awaiting trial in county jail I was stuck in a cell for 23 hours a day with a serial-killer cellie. He and his girlfriend had been busted for “befriending” old men and then killing them by poisoning them in order to steal their property and wealth. He was constantly offering me cookies and candy and I’d say, “Hell no George, you fucking poison people!” After a few months, I’d do anything to get out of our five-by-10 foot cell. In San Francisco, at least back in the ’90’s, they offered adult education classes, and one of them was creative writing. Now, when you’re incarcerated there’s not a whole lot of options for creative self-expression; I had always been a storyteller as a visual artist and then a musician, so it wasn’t that far-fetched to try my hand at writing. Only I hadn’t read a book or scribbled even a short sentence in many years. I was practically illiterate. Yet boredom and adversity breed creativity, at least for me it did, and I started writing long diatribes against “the man” for keeping me down, and these short stories about the crimes I’d committed and the people I’d run with for the last few years. I was also reading a much as I could get my hands on. I read Edward Bunker’s Education of a Felon, and I knew I could write like that. I’d read George Jackson’s Blood in My Eye or Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice and wish that I could write like that. I’d try and read crap like Dean Koontz and end up throwing it across the cell. But I read a book a day and when I was eventually convicted and sent to the big house I kept writing. When I hit the mainline I joined a creative writing group. Every week I’d share my work with my fellow convicts and get nods of approval. My “stories” started to evolve into longer pieces of work, and I started thinking of myself as a writer. Then one day, out on the yard, a giant corn-fed thug, his skin covered in swastikas, sided up to me and handed me this book: “Yo, ya gotta read this, bro.” At first I was just really stoked he didn’t stab me, but then I realized he was a fellow writer. When I read the book, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, it changed my perspective. It not only made me want to be a better writer, but I knew I was going to be one.
SF: You also were recently formally pardoned by Governor Brown, right? How did that happen?
PO: It’s a long story, but one that would never have happened without the generosity of the amazingly awesome Natashia Deon. Some folks don’t know this, but besides being an incredibly talented writer (if you haven’t already, go buy and read her novel, GRACE) she is also a highly skilled lawyer and law professor. Natashia took on my case pro bono to try and get my criminal record expunged. But because of the nature of my felonies the State of California wouldn’t allow us to outright expunge them. So instead, she sought out a “Certificate of Rehabilitation,” which basically restores my rights and acknowledges that I’m not the same felonious criminal that I used to be. After almost a year of submitting copious amounts of paperwork and a ton of hard work on Natashia’s end, she and I stood before a judge in Department 100 of the Los Angeles Superior Court and I was granted the certificate right on the spot. Which, I came to find out later, is a little unheard of as most judges take it under consideration and then at a later date give their ruling. But this judge just asked the D.A. if he had any objections, and when he said no, he congratulated me. “Good luck, Mr. O’Neil.” Which is the nicest thing a judge has ever said to me. And all that, in itself, would’ve been enough, but with granting me the certificate, my case was automatically submitted for consideration for a Governor’s pardon. A few months later, an investigator for the board of parole hearings contacted me and asked if I wanted to pursue it all further. Fast forward another year, with another mountain of paperwork and forms and letters of recommendation, and my application is on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk. Which is a good thing, as Gov. Brown is the only California governor that actually pardons people. Right before Christmas I get the call, and after the New Year the actual pardon arrived in the mail, gold seal and all. Now, I have no illusions as to the socio-political ramifications of getting a pardon. Even with the present administration there are a ton of folks that will never even be considered due to the nature of their crimes, country of origin and the color of their skin. So I don’t take this pardon lightly. Recently, I’ve gone back into the prison system and facilitated a writing workshop, donated copies of my book to prison literacy programs and facilitated “recovery” meetings. All of these are just small efforts in the larger scheme of things, but giving back to an ignored population that I used to be part of, well, every little bit helps the cause.
SF: Jesus, man. That is one helluva story. On a different note, I’ve always been struck by how you do dialogue. I use your book to teach dialogue in my classes. How do you go about writing dialogue? What’s your trick?
PO: Wow, thank you for using my book in your classes, I’m totally honored. I love dialogue. I love to listen to people talk. I steal sentences from ear-hustled conversations (so be careful what you say around me). When someone speaks I gain insight as to who they are, where they’re from, their values and beliefs, even if they’re just making small talk — although if you’re like me you say stupid shit that others may take the wrong way, but that, too, can make for interesting conversation.
Dialogue is the most descriptive way to develop characters without obviously describing them and for putting a cadence into a story instead of relying on the narrative. There is a natural flow to a good conversation, whether it’s the empty spaces from partners that finish each other’s sentences or a heated argument, emotions predict the rhythm, and that’s what I strive to re-create — and with memoir it really it comes down to not just remember the conversation but to how the people spoke to each other and what feelings were being expressed.
When I first started writing I was never satisfied with my dialogue. In an effort to give it some “authenticity” I reverted to using dialect and slang. The usual suspects — like dropping the “g” and slappin’ an apostrophe at the end — which were really just grammatical gymnastics that didn’t actually express what I want to convey. Frustrated, I decided to concentrate on the actual language. For over a year, I worked on just dialogue, writing an exercise every morning based on conversations I’d have in my neighborhood, going to get coffee or just strolling down Sunset Blvd. and talking to the homeless. When I got back to my apartment I’d write it all down, revise it, editing out the fat, getting down to the minimal basic words that real conversations are built on. Then, I’d read it out loud, doing different voices, mimicking accents, yelling, crying, whispering and laughing. My decrepit little apartment had really thin walls, my neighbors probably thought I was insane, talking to myself — but just focusing on only one aspect of writing for that extended amount of time really helped me get a better ear for the natural rhythm of conversation.
SF: At the end of your excerpt, the narrator says that you needed to get the fuck out of Los Angeles. Clearly, that didn’t take. Now ,you live near downtown. What’s your take on L.A.? How did you get back here? Why have you stayed so long?
PO: I fuckin’ love L.A. Ha! No seriously, I have always had this connection with Los Angeles. Back in the ‘80s when I worked with bands as a tour manager I’d come through town and be in awe of the decadence, depravity, creative community, palm trees, umbrella drinks and warm weather. There has always been a brash sense of decay here that I identify with. Although the era depicted in the aforementioned excerpt was one of the worst times of my life, and living here then almost killed me. Well, I almost killed myself. But I didn’t leave L.A. because I wanted to; my departure was due to self-preservation. Hollywood was a much different animal in the ‘90s, and I was mainlining every decrepit morsel she was dishing out, until I couldn’t do it any more. Of course, you’d think that when I left I would have gone off and gotten my life together. But if that had happened, there wouldn’t have been a memoir — not that that was even remotely in the plan. I’m not even sure there was a “plan” other than the typical “live fast, die young, leave a good looking corpse,” and that didn’t quite pan out. … So segue to 2006 and I’m back down here going to grad school and trudging back and forth with a burgeoning sense of displacement to my hometown San Francisco, as it got more and more gentrified, turning into something I could no longer afford and didn’t want to be a part of. And, really, I could never quite find the literary community in S.F. that I so readily found here in Los Angeles — and everyone always talks about New York being literary mecca, and, yeah, it is especially for publishers — but L.A.’s lit scene is incredible and diverse, and I immediately felt at home. Ten months after I graduated, I packed all my stuff into the back of a friend’s pickup and moved to a tiny studio in the same Hollywood neighborhood that I used to sell drugs in 18 years earlier. Only things had changed. I had changed. And it was all for the better. After seven years I moved over by MacArthur Park/downtown — new neighborhood, new life, new adventures. L.A. is where I teach, live, eat, play and write — and I don’t see myself leaving anytime soon.
SF: You do film, too. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
PO: My BFA was in film. I studied under the king of “low-fi” underground movies, filmmaker George Kuchar, at the San Francisco Art Institute. I made insufferable 16mm black-and-white art films like everyone else was doing in the early ‘70s, or at least that’s what I would tell people. Really, I did a lot of heroin and talked a mean game about all the films I was going to make. It wasn’t until over 25 years later that I actually started to make films. By then digital cameras and computerized editing software had made it all so much more accessible. But not to be outdone by all this new-fangled technology, I went back to my low-fi roots using small, handheld cameras and even worse sound equipment and shot two documentaries. The first, Girls On Girls, chronicled four generations of San Francisco women musicians, beginning with the mid-‘70’s punk rock and meandering through until 2010. And The YAA Girlz and the Deadly Sparks is the story of “two all female skateboard ‘crews’ from the punk-rock days of the early 1980s, formed in reaction to the all male skate ‘crews’… whose skateboarders didn’t allow women as members.” Both films were stories that weren’t being told or, at the very least, weren’t that well known. Both were focused on women kicking ass in “male-dominated” arenas. I have some other film projects in the works. But sadly, I haven’t had the time needed to complete them. I’ve been saying that for a while now and I’m starting to sound like I did when I was in art school.
SF: What are you working on now?
PO: I just finished writing a novel, tentatively titled Los Angeles. It’s my first attempt at writing book-length fiction. It may be the worst piece of crap or the best thing I’ve ever written. I don’t really know. On a good day, I think it works, so I’m about to go through that unholy dance of getting published again. I only say that as there is nothing more unnerving than the process of getting your book out to your readers. It took me years to get “Gun, Needle, Spoon” published, so I only have that to go by. But it is the worst part of being a writer.
Patrick O’Neil is the author of the memoir GUN, NEEDLE, SPOON (Dzanc Books). His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Juxtapoz, Salon, The Nervous Breakdown, After Party Magazine and Razorcake. O’Neil is a contributing editor for Sensitive Skin Magazine, a Pushcart nominee, a two-time nominee for Best Of The Net and a PEN Center USA professional and former mentor. He holds an MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles where he is an instructor for the inspiration2publication program. Most days, you can find him teaching some form of creative writing at various rehabs, correctional facilities, institutions and workshops, and he is the co-coordinator for the Why There Are Words, Los Angeles reading series. O’Neil currently lives in L.A.’s monument to broken dreams, the über-hip downtown district, with his fiancé and two giant Maine Coons. For more information, please visit: patrick-oneil.com.
Feature image of Patrick O’Neil by Sasha Stone