The Italian publication StradaNove has run a lengthy interview with me. Here is the article in Italian. Hop over there if you know Italian or to see some cool old photos, including one of John and me as kids, one of John and Lisa and my parents on the day John and Lisa got married, one of John and Dad and me, and one of John and Mom. As for the text, I'm including the entire interview in English below.
Also, if anyone can translate the introductory paragraph of the Italian article for me, I'd appreciate it. Those auto-translate programs aren't so great.
Interview with Erin O'Brien on John O'Brien
by Leonardo Moro
What is the first thing you remember about your brother?
When I was about 5, my mother made me a beanbag shaped like a frog that I called Froggy. I loved it and carried it everywhere I went. John was 10. For Christmas that year, and with the help of my father, he made a little wooden bed for my companion, complete with "Froggy" carved in the top.
Can you tell us about John’s childhood?
John was at once shy and brooding and very funny and clever. His relationship with our father was difficult and he had his share of troubles with bullies and girls. He loved to read, was compulsive about how his toys were arranged, and was curious about astronomy as well as photography. He once had a glass cutting/finishing machine. He made dozens of pencil pots with it. One fashioned from a green glass Coke bottle sits on my desk. It houses a nail file, some highlighters, a green pen, and a paring knife.
How were John's years at Lakewood High School? What kind of student was he?
John was a good student, excelling at advanced classes in English, physics, and calculus. He did not date much until his senior year. His sharp wit made him a favorite with his teachers. He was not involved in athletics, nor was he one of the popular set. He was a member of the Latin Club, which was unusually popular at LHS. I was also a member and still keep in touch with Emil Sors, who instructed both John and me in Latin in those years. John gave away exactly four signed copies of "Leaving Las Vegas" as gifts, one of which went to Sors. The other recipients were his then-wife Lisa, my parents, and my maternal grandmother.
I’ve read that John got married when he was just nineteen years old. Was it a good marriage?
John began dating Lisa Kirkwood soon after they graduated from Lakewood High School in 1979. They married in August 1979 and divorced in 1992. Lisa often refers to John as the love of her life, which I admire greatly as she tolerated much from John over the years due to his drinking and high-strung ways. I always felt Lisa kept John alive and I feared terribly for him when they divorced, which was per John's wishes and not Lisa's. They had no children.
Are you still in touch with John’s wife?
Absolutely. Lisa is an important part of our family. My husband and I, as well as my mother and daughter, adore her and miss her terribly. She lives 2000 miles away in Los Angeles. She comes to visit once or twice a year. We look forward to seeing her over the 2006 Christmas holiday.
What jobs did John have during his lifetime?
As a teenager, John worked bussing tables at Tony's Restaurant and Don's Lighthouse and as a mail clerk for the Winton Place Apartments, where our mother was the manager. He was also a clerk for the law firm Squires Sanders and Dempsey. All of those jobs were in Cleveland. I'm sure he held any number of jobs during his years in Los Angeles, none of which stick out in my memory save his last job, wherein he worked roasting coffee beans at Graffeo Coffee in Beverly Hills. He loved that job.
Who are the writers he liked most?
John greatly admired Bob Dylan. The three books he gave me were "The Sportswriter" by Richard Ford, "American Psycho" by Bret Easton Ellis and "A Fan's Notes" by Fred Exley. He gave our mother "Bright Lights, Big City" by Jay McInerney. He also read Don Delillo, Gore Vidal, Hunter Thompson, and Faulkner.
Did John ever work as a screenwriter?
John wrote a screenplay called "The Rest of Jackie," which was a rewrite of "Days of Wine and Roses." I do not know what became of it.
John also wrote an episode of the children's television show "Rugrats" under the pen name Carol Mine, which was the name of the main character in Stripper Lessons. Rugrats episode #37 is called "Toys in the Attic."
In 1990 a small publisher issued “Leaving Las Vegas”. Was he happy about that news?
In order to answer that, I will quote John. This is the inscription he wrote in the copy of "Leaving Las Vegas" that he gave to our maternal grandmother.
Saturday I received my first two copies; this is one of them. I want you to know how much I love you and think about you, how I've always felt a special bond between us, and how I wish that we were together right now.
20 May 1991"
Did publishers ever reject his works?
Unlike the film version, the novel "Leaving Las Vegas" opens with the scene wherein Sera is raped and sodomized by three college students. The noir nature of the text garnered rejections from the big houses, which is why it ended up at a smaller press.
Despite the favorable reviews of John's debut novel, it was not a commercial success until after his death and the making of the film. John was unable to place his other efforts, "Stripper Lessons" and an unpublished novel called "Better." The only two publications John had while alive were "Leaving Las Vegas" and the "Rugrats" episode.
John was vain to a fault about his work and took rejection and external editing very hard. The reason he used the pen name "Carol Mine" on the "Rugrats" episode was because he was furious over how the segment was edited and did not want his name associated with the project. He told me he chose the unusual pen name as he could prove it was his "because it's the name of a character in one of my manuscripts." The unpublished manuscript to which he referred was "Stripper Lessons." I have a copy of his original submission to "Rugrats" as well as a copy of the episode as it aired. I consider the edits to be completely appropriate. In my opinion, John overreacted.
How did John get in touch with the director Mike Figgis before he wrote the screenplay adaptation of John’s novel?
John and Figgis had minimal interaction. Figgis's screenplay, however, closely follows the novel. Had John lived to see the film come to fruition, however, I believe he would have taken exception to the rape scene with Sera and the college students being moved to the end of the movie. John introduced Sera with the rape scene in the front end of the novel in order to dispel accusations that her character was a clichéd "hooker with a heart of gold."
When did John start having problems with alcohol abuse?
John's drinking problem started as soon as his drinking started. By the time he was 20, he was taking a clandestine flask to work. By the time he was 26, he was chugging vodka directly from the bottle at morning's first light in order to stave off the shakes. I know. I saw him do it.
Do you think that there was a reason why he committed suicide?
I imagine John committed suicide because he no longer wanted to live.
Do you remember when he started writing? What were the first stories about?
John started writing in the late 1980's. Like his character Ben, he purged most of his possessions before committing suicide. Hence, his preliminary work is mostly lost. I have one short story he wrote in January of 1988 called "The Tik." It is replete with booze and sex and violence. In the cover letter to our parents and me, John describes it as "atypical" but also as his "personal favorite." Hence, I'm sure there were other short stories, but I don't believe he preferred that format.
In Italy “Stripper Lessons” hasn’t published yet. What is it about? When did he write it?
In Stripper Lessons, a young man named Carol Mine who works as a clerk for a law firm spends his free time worshipping the women who dance at a local strip club. I use the work "worship" very specifically. This novel is all about John O'Brien on religion. He wrote it in 1991.
Are there unpublished novels or short stories?
Just the ones I've mentioned herein.
You gave a valuable contribution to “The Assault on Tony’s”. Do you want to tell us about it?
This is a very difficult topic for me. I am at work on a memoir in which I talk at great length about "Tony's." It is the novel at which John was at work at the time of his death. I contributed one chapter and an afterward to it. The afterward is honest enough, but the chapter I wrote disgusts me at every turn. The book represents the end of John's writing career and the beginning of mine. For years, John would appear in my dreams expressing disappointment over the entire project.
What was the novel about? When did he write it?
John started work on "Tony's" about a year before his death. It tells the story of a group of wealthy alcoholic men who barricade themselves inside a posh bar while race riots rage outside. John uses this fecund premise to explore the difficult relationship between John and our father. "Tony's" is primarily a psychological work.
Did John ever meet someone like Sera from "Leaving Las Vegas?"
The question of whether or not Sera was based on a living person remains forever unanswered. John did make any number of trips to Las Vegas while researching the novel. I don't know if those trips included interviews with prostitutes.
The more I muse on Sera, however, the more I believe her to be purely fictional. She is John's representation of a cleansing angel. She is often described as a fantasy hooker, but very few note that Ben and Sera never consummate their relationship. Sera is a figurative virgin when Ben dies at the end of the work. I love the poetic irony of her character. She is at once pure from sin and sullied with it. Furthermore, both permutations are completely earned and plausible. Kudos, John.
How autobiographical is the character of Ben?
John surely projected his own severe alcohol addiction onto Ben. But Ben's death was much more poetic than John's. John died alone in a barren apartment from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. I suspect John would have liked to be more like his character, whom Cage once described as having a sort of "crumbling elegance." But fictional characters are limited by the two dimensions that define them. John was a whole man with a past and a future. He tried to quit drinking many times. He had more fame ahead of him than most writers ever dream of. As for those of us John left behind, the profound grief we walked through after his death erased the last twisted shred of innocence our family had.
Are John’s works popular in the U.S.? Do American people like them?
I do not track John's sales. As for the American people, I don't understand how any of them could possibly like George Bush. Nonetheless, he is president. Goes to show you what I know.
Have his books been translated in other languages?
I have copies of "Leaving Las Vegas" in Japanese, German, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Norsk. There are likely other editions of which I am unaware. No foreign rights for "The Assault on Tony's" or "Stripper Lessons" were ever sold.
I’ve heard that you released a book of yours not long ago. Do you want to talk about it?
My first novel, "Harvey & Eck," was also published by a small independent house (Zumaya Publications) in 2005. Ironically, my book is about the period of time that precludes life, whereas "Leaving Las Vegas" is about the prelude to death. Whenever I make that assertion, I hear John chortling from his papery grave and calling me a sap under his breath while rolling his eyes.
I also write a bi-weekly column called "Rainy Day Woman" for the Cleveland Free Times (www.freetimes.com) and I maintain a blog of questionable character, "The Erin O'Brien Owner's Manual for Human Beings" (erin-obrien.blogspot.com) as well as an informational website (www.erinobrien.us). I am a writer. I write all the time.
What do you miss most about John?
His breathing and the beating of his heart.