Commonline Interview: Cult Writer Tony O'Neill

- Interview by Jesper Sydhagen

Tony O'Neill (below)
It's easy to imagine the sick Hollywood motel mornings; crusted vomit on your pants, everything around you is a mess. You look at your arms, dried blood and not a fresh vein in sight. Right as you get a vague idea of your situation- IT hits you… the first physical cramps that tell you to score for another fix. And you know that the pain will grow and it won't cease until you have heroin in your blood stream.

Did I tell you it’s easy to imagine? Well, what do they tell you- you can't really know what sickness is until you’ve had an addiction yourself. Heroin is a very esoteric way of life. I honestly think Tony O'Neill describes this better with a pen than anybody, ever, including Burroughs.

If you’ve never heard the name Tony O'Neill, this is the time to get familiar with it. O'Neill is the writer of the modern underground classic, "Digging the Vein" which was published in 2006. The story is based upon his own experiences as a heavy drug abuser in LA. At the time he lived the stereotypical heroinists’ life to its edge, but it was also cocaine and several other drugs that got him in this shape. With no friends, lack of money and, above that, a seriously derailed drug habit, he wandered the streets of Hollywood in a desperate search for his connections and occasionally trying to kick the heroin. He has also published a collection of short stories called "Seizure Wet Dreams". Though Tony originates from Blackburn, England, he now resides in New York.

When I first read, "Digging the Vein", what got to me most was its sincerity. When dealing with drugs and extreme living to such an extent (which is expected to fuck with your mind intensively) O'Neill keeps his writing as objective as one possibly can. What interests me is how his emotions are nearly left out. He tells of his everyday living from a neutral point of view, allowing you to inject your own feelings into the narration. Without stuffing his opinions down your throat, whether his actions are good or bad, the reader gets drawn into the story. The reader gets a taste of the relief as the syringe enters the vein and shares O’Neill’s agonizing horror on the bed in the detox ward. It's in this area that he beats Burroughs' great drug novel "Junky". Though there exists consistent similarities between the books, O'Neill gives the reader an insight from a nearer point of view. "Junky" was more or less a technical guidebook on how to be a junky. You simply didn't get to taste very much.

Apart from his novel, O'Neill has proven his capability on writing poems and short stories. Many of them can be found in magazines and on the Internet. Commonly his poems share the same writing technique as his novel, highlighted by his immensely shrewd qualities. What summarizes his writing is his brilliant perceptive sense. He puts it on paper the way he experienced it. He lets you in. Give him a chance and O’Neill will give you plenty.

When will your upcoming poetry collection be available and what can we expect?
"Songs From The Shooting Gallery" came out last June, on Burning Shore Pres( It represents the best of my poems spanning 1999-2006. Some of the earliest ones were written while the events described in "Digging the Vein" were going on (the drug induced flame out in LA). In a way, it traces a journey from addict, all the way through to father, with all of the pain, joys and discovery in between. I wanted the collection to read like a novel. It's a poetry book that can be read as a whole. My poetry is like my prose I suppose – I like clean, simple lines. I had a great editor on this book, Rob Woodard, who is a mean writer himself, and he guided me through the process of selecting the poems and putting them in order. I'm exceptionally proud of it. Although, sometimes, reading it back can be painful. A lot of the stuff in there is incredibly raw.

Will you have another novel out in the near future?

I’m writing a follow up to "Digging the Vein" called "Down and Out on Murder Mile" which explains what happened to me next. It is set mostly in London, and talks about my second marriage and the gradual, mental unraveling of my then wife, the extreme poverty of that period of my life, my experiences in the methadone clinics of London, and how I eventually began to reclaim my life. The book is very extreme and it moves like a freight train. It feels like two steps on from the first book. I had to get all of that autobiographical stuff out of my system. Now I feel that I can tackle the other subjects that really interest me. I have a couple of ideas for 'fictional' books which I am pretty excited about.

The storytelling of "Digging the Vein" appeared to be surprisingly sober and objective. Are you interested in presenting more daring methods to your short stories and novel writing?

Definitely. "Digging the Vein" was the product of me teaching myself how to write, with no formal training. To get the book right, it was more a process of unlearning than learning. I had to disregard everything that people told me "should" be in the book. My model was something like "Junky" by Burroughs, which was essentially a piece of pulp fiction with literary ambitions. I am a big fan of pulp fiction, and I wanted the book to have the propulsion and power of a good rock song. Like, say, "Raw Power" by the Stooges. In the time since I completed “Digging”, my writing has been moving in all kinds of different directions. The collection, "Seizure Wet Dreams" has some of my more experimental short stories in it. The real freedom for me was moving away from writing about my own life and into the realms of imagination. I mean all of my old obsessions are there, and my stories are often set in the same "world" as the novels: the world of addicts, crazies, the underclass – but they are darker, more experimental in tone, more allegorical.
Drugs seem to be your most recurrent topic. What have drug experiences meant to your writing?

They have meant everything to my writing. They have formed my worldview. I see everything through my experiences as an addict. To truly step outside of society, and to be among America's invisible population is a terrifying, yet liberating experience. It's freeing. I do not have any aspirations to be a part of respectable society any more. The great madness of our lives in the west – the lusting for objects, status, whatever - is completely meaningless to me. All I know is that when I was regularly putting heroin into my bloodstream, that nobody – NOBODY – wanted me alive, cared for me, gave a shit. Except for my parents. You never stop loving your child no matter how bad they fuck up. I was breaking the law just by being who I was. It's a crazy feeling to have your very being legislated against; to be the subject of something as vague yet all encompassing as a "war on drugs"! You are basically the subject of a civil war, a culture war. The government wants to wipe you and your kind out. I consider myself, in the books and stories I write, as a kind of war correspondent.

How do you look at drug use after you kicked your addictions?

Drug use is what you make of it. It can be a path to enlightenment, or a path to total destruction. It depends what you want from it. I don't do heroin anymore because I was beaten down by my experiences as an addict. I couldn't devote the time to making money, scoring, keeping well anymore. I had a child on the way. I wanted to actually know who my daughter was, and under the current system I wouldn't have had the time to devote to her what she deserves. In a utopian society, where heroin is legal, I would probably be on it right now as I type this. I don't feel that I have beaten my addictions. I am addicted to many things. Being alive is an addiction. Talking about finites and absolutes in this world makes no sense. I am no better or no worse than the worst, most out-of-control addict. None of us are. I am just at a stage in my life where I am not doing that drug, and I am writing. Life is like that. You have to keep moving.
What is "Brutalism"?

Brutalism is the place where traditional poetry and the poetry of punk rock meet. It's not a private club. It was started by myself, Ben Myers, and Adelle Stripe. But really we just came up with a name and a general concept. It is open to anyone who wants to be involved. We are trying to convey the same kind of enthusiasm for writing as punk rock conveyed for making music. You don't have a traditionally good voice; you can't play 10-minute guitar solos? Well fuck – form a band anyway. Brutalism is all about experimentation and not having boundaries. It's not about being "brutal" and that's a common misconception. You can write about whatever you like. Write about your kids, flowers, I mean anything, just do it free of the constraints of the whims and fashions of the publishing industry. We have access to the means of production now, we have access to readers via the Internet, and we have a platform. Now is not the time to play it safe, we need the next wave. If you stagnate, you die.

The first Brutalist publication is at the moment called "Nowhere Fast". If features five poems each from Ben, Adelle, and myself, that are all based around our respective hometowns. It has really amazing art from a young British artist named Lisa Cradduck. Really beautiful, intense ink drawings. It's going to be really cool. If it does well we want to do more, and discover new, like-minded writers, and publish them in beautiful limited edition chapbooks.
William S. Burroughs & Dan Fante are stated to be your greatest influences. Can you name others?

I have many. I pick things from almost everybody I read. I'm a sponge, it might be an idea, a turn of phrase… I mean in terms of favorite authors – Hemingway, especially the short stories, Beckett, Trocchi, Noah Cicero, Tommy Trantino, Frederick Exeley, Herbert Huncke, Dennis Cooper, Irvine Welsh, I mean there's so many. But Burroughs remains the man whose books I can sit down to again and again and discover something new and fresh every time.

Do you prefer USA to UK?

It's hard to say. Really, I'd like to live somewhere where I wouldn't be around other people. I don't think I'll ever really be happy in a location. I don't feel British, Irish, or American. I don't identify with flags. When you're younger you have this idea; if I just moved somewhere else, everything would be great! And then you move, and after a few years you're still being driven crazy, only by different things. But in terms of repressive laws the US if completely fucked up. I mean, the UK is too, but at least they're polite about it. They'll bust you and apologize afterwards, where as in the US they'll bust you and you'll be lucky to escape a bullet or a beating. You can pick it apart so many ways. I am in the US right now because my wife is here, my child is here, and my career happened to take off here first. I couldn't get "Digging" past the interns at publishing houses in the UK. In the US, I was able to meet people, get the m/s read. Now it has gone back to the UK and found publication. I think in terms of getting ahead, there's less of a glass ceiling in the US. They'll let any crazy pitch an idea, no matter who they are. But goddamn, the politics here are just… sickening. I dunno, maybe I'll end up living on the moon or something. I'd like that.

MEN OF GOOD FORTUNE - a poem by Tony O'Neill

Tony's work is also available through the following links.
Digging The Vein
Songs From The Shooting Gallery
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Visit Tony's website for more links and information: (