In Joe O’Connell‘s debut novel Evacuation Plan: A Novel From the Hospice (Dalton Publishing, 2007), a young screenwriter, Matt, goes to a hospice “in search of a good story.” He finds several poignant stories as he interviews the hospice residents, their families, and the hospice staff. In turn, Matt discovers he has to come to terms with his own father’s death.
Told in a novel-in-stories style, the novel draws on O’Connell’s experiences as a participant in a project by visual artists and writers to tell the stories of the terminally ill at Christopher House in Austin, Texas.
You mention in your Acknowledgments that some of the stories in Evacuation Plan date back to when you were a student in the MFA program at Southwest Texas State University(now Texas State University-San Marcos). The other stories originated from your experience at Hospice Austin‘s Christopher House. How did the individual stories begin to merge into a novel?
When I did the Christopher House project—a group of writers and visual artists chosen to tell the stories of the terminally ill in a residential hospice—I wrote poetry about the experience. But I knew I wasn’t done with it. I was later chosen for a residency that allowed me the time to complete
this work, and in many ways I adapted the poetry into the novel, as odd as that may sound! The larger narrative grew from one story, which is the main narrator Matt’s. I just kind of took it from there, figuring out which stories would work where. It was a bit of a jigsaw puzzle that I solved as I created.
You chose to present multiple narratives, a novel-in-stories form. What led you to chose this form?
I read Tim O’Brien’s novel July July, which is about a 30th college reunion, but digresses into the stories of what has happened to different classmates in the interim. I saw here a novel-in-stories structure that would allow me to tell the full story of the hospice. I wanted to make the place itself a character. O’Brien, by the way, teaches in the MFA program I graduated from, but came on board after my time, and I’ve never met him. I do consider him one of our best writers and a major influence.
I do know that the novel-in-stories format is tough for some readers, the same readers who have a hard time with story collections. We’re indoctrinated as novel readers to follow the same characters along the way, so it can be tough when we dip in and out of lives in this manner. But I urge readers to be open to something a little different.
The dough that holds the collection together is Matt’s narrative. How did Matt’s narrative come about? And why did he become the central figure that pulls the collection together?
Matt’s story is part of a novel I started and got stalled on, a coming-of-age story. The relationship he develops with an older man, Charlie Wright, who is dying in the hospice, gets at a lot of what I was trying dig into. This is really a book about family and how death often signals how we must forgive in order to move on. Matt looks to Charlie as a surrogate father in this area, and Charlie is looking to Matt as a scribe, a means of passing on his story.
Why did you choose to make Matt a screenwriter?
Matt also allows me to write a bit about the creative process and to take a broader look at the hospice. The notion is that he is in search of a story for his next script. I have what I call my Black Hole Theory of Writing. When I’m in the zone, anything that crosses my path can get sucked in. In this case, while working on the book I was also preparing to teach a course in screenwriting. Some of that got sucked in. But, again, I’m really into the notion of each of us having a unique story to tell. I wanted to write of those pivotal moments in our lives.
The subtitle for the book is “A Novel From the Hospice.” What do want readers to learn about hospice care?
The oddest review my book has received is that there’s not enough death in it. Exactly! Hospice workers will tell you that 10 percent of what they do is about death. The rest is about life. Hospice is about empowerment. The dying have the opportunity to be in charge of their own deaths and to say a proper goodbye. What else could we ask?
You work as a journalist and as a teacher. How do these professions affect your fiction writing?
As a newspaper reporter I had Saturday festival duty. The reporters would take turns working Saturdays and writing about the rodeo, the corn festival, the train festival—you name it. I learned some strong lessons in fiction writing from this. You can either tell the macro story—a good time was had by all—or the micro story, which uses individual people to tell the story of an event. Character is king, even in newspapers, and the stories of what makes people tick is where it all starts. I’m a free-lance film writer these days for both the Dallas Morning News and The Austin Chronicle. I had a cover story in the Chronicle a few months back about the film industry’s problem in Texas, and the big compliment was when the former state film commissioner said I’d put a face on the film industry. I’d learned that “character” lesson!
As a creative writing teacher, I learn as my students learn. In a sense I get paid to be a student alongside the other students. It does very much help me to continue honing my own craft. I’m inspired by my students, and that’s a great feeling.
You’ve mentioned that Charles Baxter‘s A Feast of Love and Tim O’Brien’s July, July inspired Evacuation Plan, especially its form. How were those novels inspiring?
O’Brien was primarily about the structure, but he is a master writer. Baxter, whom I’ll go out on a limb and call the best short story writer alive today, is about going deep. Fiction writing is tough work, and we shouldn’t be easily satisfied as writers. I talk often about the search for the “little truths” of what it is to be a human being. O’Brien, Baxter and the late Andre Dubus, who was my long-distance mentor while I was in graduate school, do it better than anybody I can think of.
How important is reading to you as a writer?
It’s essential. You can’t expect to be a good writer without reading. My classes always include a lot of reading, which allows me to constantly uncover writers whom are new to me. See? I’m always also the student.
Who are some of your favorite writers? What are you reading now?
Along with the ones I’ve mentioned, I’m a big fan of John Irving, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, John Updike, ZZ Packer, Edward P. Jones, Jhumpa Lahiri, Flannery O’Connor. Some folks I’ve been reading of late are the essayist Tony Earley and the fiction writer Dan Chaon, who really blows me away. I’m coming late to George Saunders, but his style is a challenge to take chances. Great stuff.
What projects are you working on now?
I’m writing this after a very interesting day. I spent the last couple of days in Jefferson, Texas, talking about my book at the Pulpwood Queen’s Book Club annual convention, Girlfriend Weekend. Today, I traveled to a small town in Louisiana that is home to my mother’s family and their secrets-which supposedly include a couple of murders. She died recently and this morning two of my brothers scattered her ashes in the Pampa River in South India. A few years before her mind faded with Alzheimer’s, she’d asked me to interview her about her life, which was quite remarkable. She wanted me to write her story, and I’m mulling how to do that. The result may be an odd mix of fiction and nonfiction, but the project is very much intriguing me. I’ve also got a completed mystery novel I’m trying to place, and I’m working on a sequel to it that’s set in the “weird” Austin, Texas, that is quickly disappearing.
Joe O’Connell is an award-winning short story writer, who teaches
writing to graduate students at St. Edward’s University and undergrads at Austin Community College. Evacuation Plan is his first published novel, and is both a Violet Crown Book Award finalist and a Pulpwood Queen’s Book Club bonus selection.