Smoking With Mark O’Neil

by Ashley Inguanta Read the Story December 17, 2012

What inspired this piece? Tell me about the very beginnings of writing this story.

I actually don’t remember how I originally started it. I found an earlier version of it in a folder full of unfinished writings. That version had a very ironic tone and it appeared that I was trying to be funny. When I started rewriting it I found that it wasn’t going to be a funny story. There is a quote from Suzuki Roshi’s in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind that has become my approach to just about everything I try to do—In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s there are few. My approach to this story was to consciously not apply craft, not in the sense that we normally approach a story. That in itself is an approach to craft, I know, and I did write three drafts, but any way the words came tumbling out or however the characters said things each go-around, I respected it and I just tried to allow it and not force anything. The conversation then naturally turned to the squid in the last draft and the story found its way from there.

As this story was taking shape, what character surprised you the most? Why?

It’s not a character, but the squid—mention of the giant squid and the turn the narrative takes there actually changes the direction of the story and seems to be the doorway to the “real” material. There is a Pinter quote that I think might apply to this story pretty well: Language, under these conditions, is a highly ambiguous business. So often, below what is being spoken is the thing that is known and unspoken. My characters only tell me so much and no more. (From Writing For The Theatre) I think the characters were all very busy not saying things, talking around things, but then the squid emerges as if from below and takes us down with it.

How important do you think loneliness is when it comes to creating a compelling character?

There’s a pretty famous Thoreau quote that applies here: I love to be alone. I have never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. I’m not sure so much about creating compelling characters, but I think that being alone solves just about everything, every problem we have. We live in such a noisy time that we all need time and space to just think and allow the mind to come to rest.

Do you laugh when you are alone? Because laughter is a social response, who are you laughing with? Tell me about this person/these people.

I laugh all the time. I’ve made friends with my mind to the extent that I am able. In this story we have people who have not done that. They see the things in their minds as very real things that can hurt them and so they are scared to think and say certain things. But I think this narrator in this story is beginning to open his heart to other possibilities and he is beginning to see things from other perspectives. When we open to those other possible views it is as though we are communicating with someone. When this all first breaks through it might seem unwelcome, but then you see it for what it really is and it’s okay.

About the Author:

Mark O'Neil lives in Gansevoort, NY, with his wife and kids, working as a freelance writer. His stories and essays have appeared in 5_Trope, The Cortland Review, Pindeldyboz, Eyeshot, Tarpaulin Sky, Thoughtsmith, Exquisite Corpse, Elimae and other publications.

About the Interviewer:

Ashley Inguanta is a Florida-based writer and photographer whose work has appeared in Redivider, PANK, and The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review. She is also the Art Director of SmokeLong Quarterly. In 2010, Ashley’s story “The Heart of America” earned an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train for their Very Short Fiction Award. She is a former art director of SmokeLong Quarterly and author of three poetry collections: The Way Home (Dancing Girl Press, 2013), For the Woman Alone (Ampersand Books, 2014), and Bomb (Ampersand Books, 2016). In 2019 Ampersand Books will publish her newest collection, The Flower, about how death shapes us.