We’re pleased to welcome Daniel O’Shea as our guest today. His debut novel, Penance, came out in spring 2013, and he’s written a number of short stories featuring the same character.
WN: Short stories or novels? Which form do you like best?
O’SHEA: My style tends to be a bit discursive, so I’m better suited to novels. Novels give me the room to wander around some. And, frankly, while there is a lot of great short fiction out there and a wide variety of platforms for it, there’s not much of a future in it in terms of sales. All that said, short stories are a great way to experiment a little, to play with a character or voice or idea, without the investment a novel requires. So, for me, they’re a kind of R&D facility.
WN: The tagline for your website is “Where thriller author Dan O’Shea throws things downrange” What is your favorite thing to throw downrange?
O’SHEA: Now that I’ve been shooting with Josh Stallings, I’d say .45 ACP rounds. Thumbs were mangled, of course, that’s a given with Josh. On the blog, which I’ve neglected badly of late, almost anything. I do tend to delve into politics a bit. My day job for the past three decades has been financial writing, often about taxes or other regulatory matters that I see either badly represented or misrepresented, so I’ll put my policy wonk hat on and spout of on that stuff for the three or four people who are likely to tune in.
WN: Your debut novel PENANCE was released in April 2013. Leading up to the novel’s release were several short stories. Tell us more about what compelled you to write the shorts and the characters behind them.
O’SHEA: I’m a bit of a history nut, Chicago history in particular. Some of that history informed PENANCE directly, and a lot more of it has formed the spirit of my fictional version of Chicago. The stories were a way to introduce readers not only to the characters from the novel, but to some of the historical forces that helped to shape them. It was also a way for me to really dive in to the back stories for my characters – to get a better handle on them myself.
WN: What is it like to set a novel in Chicago? It’s a town with a steamy history and more than one dark alley to explore.
O’SHEA: Maybe the best way to illustrate why Chicago is such a great setting for me is to tell the story behind the cover of PENANCE. It was my first novel, so I was worried about the cover – and I’d heard horror stories from writers about getting covers they hated and not being able to do anything about it. So, when I got an email from Emlyn Reese, my editor at Exhibit A, with their first shot at a cover, I clicked on the attachment with a bit of trepidation. And I was blown away.
It’s a high-angle shot of a Chicago intersection – Wacker and Dearborn, right on the river. Has to be late at night, because the traffic is pretty thin. I knew the spot right off. The Leo Burnett building is on the right, used to have a freelance client in there. And there’s so much history within spitting distance of that spot. The Iroquois Theater burned down just about a block south of there – more fatalities than any other single-structure fire in US history and a fire with a story of paid-off inspectors, ignored warnings, cover-ups and political ass-covering galore. The Eastland went turtle in the Chicago River close enough to that spot that you would have heard the screams of the hundreds that drown in the stinking water. Lincoln was nominated at the Wigwam, just up Wacker a bit. And the way the designer had incorporated the title of the book into the street, almost like the word penance was projected by the streetlights themselves, made the book feel like it was not only set in the city, but that it was of the city.
The cover was perfect. What’s so strange is that Exhibit A is a UK publisher, the designer was a UK guy. I don’ t know where or how he found that picture, but I was blown away by the concept.
WN: What’s the best part about being a writer?
O’SHEA: I’d wanted to write fiction all my life, but put it off for years for no good reason. Told myself that I was too busy, that I had a family to support, that I couldn’t take time off from chasing paying work (I worked freelance most of my life) to write stories on spec. Which was all bullshit, of course. I’ve got no more time now than I had then. So there’s the fulfillment of finally changing a dream into a reality. But the really great part of it is the other writers. I had no idea these people were out there. When I finally finished a novel and signed with an agent (Stacia Decker, who’s gotta be the reigning empress of crime fiction agents at this point), she told me I should get on Facebook and Twitter and go to Bouchercon and such. My first Bouchercon was only a few months after I signed with her. I was pretty nervous heading down there, felt like a poser, some guy with one book out on submission who didn’t know nobody or nothin’. I’d been there for maybe an hour and Stacia drags me to this bar, introduces me to Scott Phillips. Now, I still think The Ice Harvest is one of the best books ever written, so I’m thinking “Jesus, Scott Fucking Phillips,” probably standing there slack-jawed like some fan boy, and Scott just shakes my hand, kicks out a chair and says “Have a seat. We’re talking about necrophilia.” I’d finally found my people.
WN: Tell us about your writing space. What do you consider essential for starting out your session?
O’SHEA: I don’t have a specific space or nearly as much time to write as I’d like. Some caffeine, my laptop and enough light to see the keyboard and I’m good.
WN: The Word Nerds are a mix of plotter and pantser. What is your writing style like?
O’SHEA: I’m very much in the pantser camp. Whenever I try to outline anything in advance, my characters rebel against it. I love the idea of an outline. I truly wish I could scope out a story, know where it was going, and be able to sit down each day with a clear destination in mind. But it just doesn’t work for me. The story’s gonna go where it goes, and the characters are gonna do what they do. I just try to keep up with them and take notes. There always comes that point where I’ve got to funnel that chaos down, force it toward some kind of conclusion, and that’s always that hardest part for me, the part when I go back and read it that feels most forced, usually the only part of the book that I actually had a conscious plan for. But even then my characters tend to bail me out. They find some way to riff on the idea that makes it a little more palatable.
WN: Do you have a favorite quote or piece of advice you’d like to share?
O’SHEA: Something I heard in Professor David Stocking’s creative writing class at Beloit College back in 1978. He’d given us some kind of prompt, gave us 15 minutes to write something on it. One guy’s just sitting there staring at the paper. Stocking asks him what the problem is. The guy says “I can’t think of anything good to write.” Stocking tells him “So write some crap.” (BTW, out of the ten kids in that class, three of us are now published novelists. That’s not a bad track record.)
DO’S: There ain’t no muse, nothing you have to wait for. I mean there’s talent, I suppose, you have to have some kind of aptitude for the work, but whatever you have, you have. It doesn’t wax and wane. Sure, there are good days and bad days, but you just have to sit down and do the work.
WN: What are you looking forward to most at Murder & Mayhem in Muskego?
O’SHEA: Never been there. I’ve heard stories, legends even. I’m just thrilled to have been invited. I mean in Chicago, it’s always Michael Jordan this, Michael Jordan that. Fuck that shit. I know which Jordans I want to hang with.
WN: What question did WN not ask, that you really would love to be asked?
O’SHEA: People often ask about The Jacket. If you don’t know what that means, you’ll just have to show up in Muskego and find out. You’ll know it when you see it.
Yes, yes we did. It was quite the conversation starter! Thanks, Daniel!