Tony O’Neill’s brutal debut novel Digging The Vein was published in 2005 by Contemporary Press in the USA and Canada and, in the UK, by Wrecking Ball Press in 2006. Tony was born in Blackburn, Lancashire and now resides in New Jersey. Subsequent novels Down and Out on Murder Mile, Sick City and Black Neon were published via Harper Collins and Bluemoose Press, and have been translated into several languages. His debut graphic novel, La Vie Sauvage / The Savage Life, with illustrations by David Brulhart, was published in French via Helice Helas in 2016. An accomplished writer of non-fiction, Tony has co-authored several memoirs, while his journalism has appeared in a number of publications, including The Guardian, Dazed and Confused, The Fix, Black Book Substance and Vice. Digging The Vein is based upon Tony’s own experiences as an addict and sideman to acts as diverse as the Brian Jonestown Massacre, Kenickie and Marc Almond. Through the eyes of his anonymous narrator readers experience a side of Hollywood that few tourists ever see: Digging The Vein is an unsentimental journey through the underbelly of L.A.’s drug subculture. At the height of Coronavirus and the distruption the pandemic is causing worldwide, we caught up with Tony to talk Digging The Vein, writing and coping with life and what the future might hold.
Digging The Vein was your debut novel and a memoir of your passage from rising indie music star to drug user. 15 years have passed since its publication. What do you feel about the book now?
I actually had to go back and re-read it for the first time since I wrote it – or at least, parts of it – because I was working on a screenplay adaptation. It’s hard to read your own stuff. I think as a writer it’s really easy just to focus on the flaws. My instinct is always to try and re-write everything, fix it, change it. So when it’s fixed in print… it can be difficult. But coming back to it, there were some sections I really liked. You read back certain passages and you can tell that was one of those moments when you were just in that zone, you know, where the words are coming through clear as a bell and all you have to do is keep typing – transcribe it really – and try not to get in your own way. Those sections – you can feel it still when you re-read it. I think the strongest feeling of all when looking back at any book you read is a kind of sense of wonder that you managed it at all, followed by a mounting dread that you’ll never be able to do it again. That fear never seems to leave you. Every book feels like a bit of a fluke.
Can you tell us something about where the book came from, why you wrote it, how it developed?
It came from a place of great personal change, and I think of it as a marker of the place where my life diverged totally. It was kind of a purging of my old life, of the years of addiction and desperation, and a kind of ‘hail Mary’ attempt to write myself into a new existence, if that makes any sense. I wrote it just as my now-wife was pregnant with our daughter, and I was coming off methadone after years of heroin use and methadone maintenance. The worst part of all of that isn’t the acute phase – the stuff they show you in the movies, when you’re puking and shitting and dying for a fix… that stuff is just the dramatic part. The worst part is what happens afterwards… the mourning period, when this thing that has been the north star of your entire life – your reason for getting out of bed in the morning, the thing that gives you sustenance, and happiness, and forms the core of your identity – is no longer there. The despair that comes flooding into its place, the fear, is just all-consuming. If I hadn’t been so in love with Vanessa, and so desperate to be a good and present father to my unborn child, then I don’t know how on earth I would have made it. So, the book became a kind of declaration of that intent as it went on. I mean, it started out as something to do to keep myself sane in the early part of it all. Just writing about these vivid and painful memories as a way to distract myself, keep my worst instincts at bay. But as it went on, I became irrationally fixated on the idea that it represented something else for me. A second chance, or another way of living, or… something. I finished the first draft the same week that Vanessa went into labour. Some of the early chapters were taken from things I found in old diaries and on an old laptop, vignettes that were pretty much written as they happened, but the vast majority of the book was written in London in that state of… I don’t know what you’d call it, really. Hopeful desperation, perhaps.
Does your background as a musician inform your work as a writer?
Definitely, I mean I still make sense of things in musical terms, I suppose. When I think of a certain mood I want to evoke, or a voice I want to get down, then very often I think of things in terms of – you know, a Tom Waits kind of feeling, or whatever. I suppose it’s not much different from someone aiming for a Hemingway type of feel to a piece, is it? Except I’d probably think of it more as a Ramones type of thing: short, sharp and to the point.
Who are you writing for?
The only answer I can give there is ‘myself’ although that’s never quite true is it? There’s always an ideal reader in mind, perhaps someone who likes the same writers and/or musicians that you do. But ultimately thinking too much about who is reading your work can be fatal. I got into a bit of a problem with that after Sick City and Black Neon. It started halfway through Black Neon, I started wondering about what the reader was going to think of this or that, or particularly what the reader who’d liked the last book would think – and it fucking crippled me. For years. Finishing Black Neon was really, really difficult. After that I just had the most horrendous writer’s block, that coincided with some real-life trauma that completely knocked me off the horse for a few years. There was a car accident, a brief relapse, it was just a horrible period in my life. I spent a few years just spinning my wheels, starting books and abandoning them. Constantly re-writing the same material until there was nothing left but mush. I eventually got out of it by collaborating with a great Swiss illustrator on a graphic novel, a guy called David Brulhart. Just having someone else there to bounce ideas off, to be inspired by – I mean, his artwork is just superb, and I wound up writing something that was very different from what came before – kind of dreamlike, and surreal but also with this noir-thriller kind of feel, and that process – where the story was being led as much by the art David was producing, as it was by my own instinct – was super freeing. Following that, I started working on screenplays, and slowly but surely the problem dissipated. But it was terrifying and pretty fucking depressing while it was going on. I mean, a writer who can’t write… is there anything worse than that? I felt like a knackered old horse that needed to be taken out to a back field and put out of its misery.
When you’re embarking on a new piece of work, whether a short story or a novel, what approach do you take?
With the books I think my approach is closest to the one that Stephen King talks about in On Writing – the idea of starting with an image, or a character, or a juxtaposition of ideas and then just chipping away at them, like an archeologist finding evidence of something buried underground and slowly digging around it, never quite being sure what the hell is under there. Even with Sick City, which relied a lot on plotting, and multiple characters, and didn’t work from an outline. You just start with your idea, and start writing, and with a bit of luck the thing will pick up enough speed along the way that you’ll make it to the end. The process for a screenplay is totally different. With that it helps to plot and outline, break the thing into acts. There’s a structure, and very strict length and format constraints that you have to work with. It’s two totally different ways of writing – like free-verse versus haiku.
Tell us a bit about your process? Are you disciplined when you sit down and start writing? Do you set a word count, work at a particular time of day?
Yes, I have to be disciplined. I treat it like a job, even if it often doesn’t pay like one! But I have a routine. I sit down to write at the same time every day, and although I don’t give myself minimum word counts, I don’t have to if things are going well. But I do make sure that I don’t check emails, or go online until later in the day, to kind of avoid just fucking around and not getting anything done. There aren’t days when I don’t want to write. If I didn’t write every day I’d be lost, so the routine is just a reflexive thing at this point, like brushing my teeth or whatever. It’s what keeps me sane, I think. Even when the writing isn’t going well, just the act of sitting down and fiddling with something unfinished, it just gives me a sense of normality and sanity that nothing else really does. The upside of this whole Coronavirus thing is that I have more time at home to work now, and aside from all of the financial scarcity and the fears about loved ones and all the rest of it, just knowing there’s a decent chunk of the day when I can sit down at my computer, close the door, and write… that’s what keeps me going a lot of the time.
Do you have any thoughts about your experience of independent publishers?
I’ve been lucky. I’ve had very positive experiences with the majority of publishers I’ve worked with. Of course, some feel more special to me than others, perhaps because of the people or the impact that particular book had on me – but I have always been fortunate to work with people who I thought really cared, and really wanted to do right by the books (and me). I’ve worked with Wrecking Ball Press of course, and also Bluemoose (who did Black Neon) and also Galley Beggar – three publishers who represent some of the very best in British independent publishing, to my mind. Kind, smart dedicated people who always seemed to be working from a place of love for the books they were putting out, a desire to do right by their authors – it’s the best you could ask for, as a writer. So perhaps I’m an outlier, in that my experiences have been pretty much fantastic. Comparing my experiences with indies as opposed to the books I did with, say, Harper Perennial… of course, there’s a certain reach that the big publishers have – in terms of finances and publicity – but I really believe that in today’s industry the independents can be just as effective, perhaps even more so, than the big guys. That said, Perennial were very good to me, although in many ways that’s because they acted and thought a bit like an independent. So once again, perhaps my experience is not typical. You’ve got to remember that at the time they did my books, they also were putting out stuff by Dan Fante, Dennis Cooper, Mark SaFranko, Sebastian Horsley. I mean, they weren’t a typical stuffy, corporate publisher by any stretch of the imagination. However, I do know people who went with the big guys and just felt like they got lost. Especially if their stuff was a little more edgy, or not as commercial, at least.
You live in New Jersey. Does this have any impact on your writing?
None at all, really. I mean, the place I live in Jersey is basically an adjunct to New York. Like so many families, we got priced out of the city and had to find a place that was affordable, had a decent public-school system, and didn’t leave us too far out of the city. I mean, in impacts my writing in that I have a place to write, and we don’t have to worry about having to pack up and move in a few years if the landlord decides to raise our rent or sell the building out from under us, but in terms of the sensibility of the writing I’m still a city boy, at heart.
You also write non-fiction and journalism. Does this work require a different approach? How do these two worlds intersect?
The only real point of intersection is that the journalism tends to pay, and money helps give me time to focus on my writing. I find journalism hard, and I’m not someone who can just write about something I’m not interested in… so if you look at all of the non-fiction I’ve done, there are themes running through it that run through the books too. I did a little bit of stuff at the beginning – real ‘gun for hire’ stuff, but I found it so difficult to do it that it ended up not being worth it to me. Writing 1,000 words on something I’ve got no interest in takes me forever because I find it so painfully difficult. So it becomes almost not worth it, financially. But on the flipside, when I’ve found an editor who I like and who lets me write about subjects I’m interested in, then I’ll stick with them. They cant shake me! There’s one fellow called Will, who I’ve followed to at least three different online journals, because I know that he won’t edit me to death, and he’ll let me write about things that I find interesting, and I just LIKE him. It’s that simple. I wish I could turn it off a bit more, write to order, but to be honest I probably couldn’t make money that way. I find that it’s a bit of a slippery slope, that kind of thing. Writing crap for money. We all have to live, but I find it easier to do manual work, or do courier work, or something totally separate from my writing to pay the bills and give myself space to write, than to try and write commercially. Not only are the well-paid gigs hard to find, but I think you just end up resenting it and the worst thing you could do – in my eyes – is to start associating the act writing with that kind of negative feeling. I know that some people can turn it on and off, but until the day that my books and the screenplays are enough to keep the family afloat on their own, I prefer to make up the difference away from the keyboard.
You’re a founding member of the Brutalists, a literary collective including authors Adelle Stripe and Ben Myers. Care to tell us more about that?
Both Ben and Adelle were really important friends in the beginning, when we were all just starting out. Finding like-minded souls, people whose work you really loved and who were just so full of ideas and inspiring, that’s the kind of thing that keeps you pushing on throughout all of the self-doubt and other bad stuff that can derail you in the beginning. It’s been amazing to see how brilliantly both Ben and Adelle’s careers have taken off in recent years. I remember when Adelle was first talking about the book that turned into Black teeth and a Brilliant Smile. To see her take it all the way to the finish line like that, and then to see the reaction it got? Fucking brilliant. And then, Ben’s fucking wild – he keeps writing these amazing books that just seem to get bigger and better every time, and watching both of their profile’s rise over the years from my vantage point over here in the States, I can honestly say that the prevailing emotion has been one of overwhelming pride. And also a kind of validation. It’s so good to see lots of people seeing the same brilliance that I saw in those early essays, in long-out-of-business fanzines and since-defunct webzines. I love it when I think that there was a time we were all issuing manifestos and dreaming about stuff like this, and now the world seems to have caught up with it! How cool is that? As for the future, you know I’m a big ‘never say never’ person. I think it would be really, really fun to do something again. Why not?
What are you working on now?
The last few years have been mostly about screenplays. I’d had some interest from Hollywood in the books, and its kind of led me onto this journey of both working with and also meeting some amazingly talented screenwriters… guys like Jayson Rothwell, and Bret Easton Ellis, or Jim Uhls. And throughout it all I started looking at the screenplays they were doing, and getting more and more interested in that side of writing and started making some clumsy forays into it until I basically taught myself the form. It was difficult at first. Amazing how being able to write a decent novel does NOT automatically translate into being able to turn out a solid script! I wrote some terrible shit at the beginning, I cringe to think about it. It’s a very different kind of writing, but I figured that while this door was open even just a crack, why not try my hand at it? The producers who approached me about turning Sick City into a series have been very supportive of the process. They really guided me through it and in the last 12 months I’ve turned one of my (unfinished) books into a pilot, finished a movie adaptation of the first two novels (Digging the Vein and Down and Out on Murder Mile), and had a few other interesting projects on the table (this all before the world fucking ended and everything came to a grinding halt, of course!). Now with the Coronavirus thing going on, a lot of those projects are on hold, so I have turned my attention to something that’s been on my mind for the last few years – finishing the next novel. So… that’s what I’m doing. It’s still early days, so I don’t want to say too much about it, but I will say it’s a case of “so far, so good.”
So what’s the future hold for Tony O’Neill?
Who the hell knows? If all of this madness has shown us anything, it’s that none of us know what the future holds. Every day that I wake up breathing and relatively healthy is okay by me. I’ll just keep doing the stuff I can control – writing, being the best husband and father and I can be, trying to keep the old demons at bay – and hopefully the future will work itself out.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Um… wash your hands x
Tony O’Neill’s Digging The Vein can be purchased online at https://wreckingballpress.com/product/digging-the-vein/
For more information about Tony O’Neill visit tonyoneill.net