The Lady Writers Interview Series: A.J. O’Connell

I’m so excited to continue my new blog series in which I’ll be interviewing some incredible lady writers. Every woman I interview is someone I know and admire, and I can’t wait for you to get to know them as well. 

The fourth incredible lady I interviewed is A.J. O’Connell. She and I went to the same graduate school, and were both chapter editors on an amazing book – Now What?: The Creative Writer’s Guide to Success After the MFA. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I enjoyed the process.

aj.oconnell.photocreditErin Ollila: Let’s start with something easy. I’ve always admired your writing. In fact, I interviewed you when one of your previous novellas came out. What are you currently working on?

A.J. O’Connell: Oh man. So I’m working on.. hang on, I’m counting them.. three projects? No. Four novel projects actually. I like the pain.

EO: Sounds like it! Are they all novels?

AO: Yes, three are novels. One is the last novella in the Beware the Hawk trilogy.

EO: How do you feel about rounding out the Beware the Hawk trilogy? Do you feel as if it’s found a natural end, or are you worried these characters will live with you forever?

AO: I have a lot of feelings about the Beware the Hawk trilogy. On the one hand, I am very ready to wrap it up and move on to my other projects, but on the other hand, I struggle with giving the story an ending. The whole trilogy is the a story about the death of an organization, really, and the evolution of our country’s post 9/11 mindset, and that’s been a hard thing to capture, especially since I feel like our country’s mindset is changing very quickly. So it’s taking me forever to write this last piece of the story.

That’s my excuse.

EO: It actually sounds like a pretty reasonable “excuse.” Are you willing to share any details about the three novels you’re working on, or is that still under wraps for the time being?

AO: I can definitely share! One is DinoLand, a serial fiction piece I was working on with artist Max Farinato. That was being published at Geek Eccentric every month, but is on hold, since Geek Eccentric is on hiatus. About one third of that book is published now.

Another is literary fiction, the piece you probably heard me read from at grad school. That book is about a drag queen who leaves the clubs when her mom gets cancer, and comes home to star in a local production of Macbeth. I’m more than halfway through draft two with that.

The third novel is something I started for fun. It’s a high fantasy book about a kingdom with a succession problem. (All kingdoms in high fantasy seem to have those.) It features a middle-aged female mercenary (she’s a working mom). I had meant for it to be a fun project, but I ended up breaking out pieces as short stories and sending them out. One almost got published by a major fantasy anthology last month, which was pretty exciting.

EO: Congratulations. That’s great, and it moves us to another topic. How often do you send out your work, and how do you decide where to send it?

AO: I’m sending out a lot of work lately, although a lot of those pieces are essays for my freelance business, so I don’t know if they count. I do send out short stories as frequently as possible. When a story is done, I research two or three markets for it, send it out immediately, and mark it down on a spreadsheet. When it gets rejected, I turn it around and send it out again.

EO: I’d love to know a little more about how you manage time. You’re working on three novels, one novella, and you have a thriving freelance business. Care to share with us how you find the time for all this writing? (I should just say – spill your secrets!)

AO: Well, I don’t know how thriving my freelance business is! I’m still learning how to pitch and where to pitch! But I do have a time management system in place. Basically, I work five-day weeks. I get up, help my husband with our one-year-old son, and then I go to work from 11 to 4. To make sure that I do complete the tasks that are hard for me as a freelancer, I’ve gamified my job. I earn points for things I hate doing, and then I can use those points for say, 15 guilt-free minutes of social media or a trip to the store.

EO: A point system! I love it. I could definitely use one of those. How long have you been doing that, and do you think it’s working? I’d be afraid I’d cheat.

AO: It does work! I’ve been doing it since March, and I’m not sure it’s possible for me to cheat (unless I spend 15 minutes online without subtracting points.) It’s about finding ways to reward myself for things that are difficult for me. So, for example, I get nervous about following up with editors. Now, if I follow up with someone, I get 2 points. I mean, I know getting a job is its own reward, but the little tasks that lead up to it can feel like torture sometimes.

EO: I completely understand what you mean. Keeping on the same topic though straying slightly, I’d love to hear how motherhood has affected your writing. By the time this post goes live, I’ll either be about to have a baby or a brand new mother. Do you have any tips for writers with young children?

AO: I thought you might be due pretty soon! That is so exciting. I guess my biggest tip is this: be kind to yourself if you don’t get everything you want done. I don’t even remember if I wrote in the first months of my son’s life. I must have, but I barely remember anything from the first two or three months. So forgive yourself if you can’t write or if the baby needs you 24-7 and doesn’t sleep or whatever happens. And also, know that your time to write will come back. For me, having time to write was like a branch I had to prune back when my son arrived. It felt like it was gone forever, but it grew back. It grew back slowly and in a different shape, but it did grow back.

EO: That is such great advice. How about now that he’s one – do you think that you’ve established a better routine where mommyhood and the writing world coexist, or is it always a work in progress?

AO: It’s always a work in progress. My husband and I try to keep a set schedule of who takes care of him during the week, but there are days when the schedule doesn’t work and then I just have to be flexible and work when I can. So I guess its a work-in-progress.

EO: As I suspect it always will be! Okay, let’s have a little fun. If you had to invite five characters over to your house for a potluck dinner, who would you invite, what would they bring, and what would you make?

AO: Oh, man. This is a hard one.

Okay, I’m not going to invite all my favorites because I don’t want any murders during dinner, and I also want to have a house left after the party.

So… Tyrion Lannister would bring the wine. Gandalf would probably not bring anything because, let’s be honest, he’s kind of a freeloader. Clarice Starling would bring jerk chicken appetizers. I’d ask Oscar Wao to bring some chips. Lady Jessica from Dune can bring spice coffee for after dinner. I’d have to make something they could all recognize, so maybe steak with a couple of sides. Everyone, in every genre, seems to recognize beef for some reason.

EO: That’s a great answer to a difficult question (that I hope no one ever asks me). What are you currently reading?

AO: I am reading N.K. Jemisin’s The Inheritance Trilogy. The first book, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, is so, so good.

EO: Are there any books you’ve enjoyed so much that you have read and reread them over and over?

AO: Yes! So many! For most of my life I’ve been reading and re-reading A Wrinkle in Time (Time Quintet), and The Lord of the Rings  trilogy. I’ve re-read Grendel, The Handmaid’s Tale, and East of Eden. I also visit parts of books I like, like favorite chapters in Dune
and The Silence of the Lambs. My family also reads The Hobbit aloud every Christmas.

EO: Okay, so with all you’ve read and all you’ve written: what is the best advice you could share with new writers?

AO: I feel like this advice is given ALL the time, but it really is the best advice I can give: Just sit down and make yourself write. Don’t worry about whether it’s good. Don’t worry about what anyone will think. Don’t worry about whether your dialogue is authentic or anything. Just sit and write. Get your draft out. You can revise later.

EO: Before we finish this interview, tell me any recommendations you have for other lady writers: favorite authors, favorite essays, favorite food, favorite tv shows…whatever comes to your mind.

AO: I recommend The Mary Sue to other lady writers, especially if their interests are geeky, like mine are. I love the site, I love that they focus on on inclusion and feminism, and I like that the comments section is as safe a place as you can find on the Internet. I also recommend the A Little Bird Told Me writing podcast. It’s mainly for freelance copywriters, but there are also segments for fiction writers and the two hosts are funny and charming and have the best British accents ever.

EO: How can my readers find you? 

AO: Readers can Tweet me at @ann_oconnell. They can find me at @aj_oconnell too if they really want, but that’s my journalism account, and I am very boring over there. They can also check my website or find me on Facebook.

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