An Interview with Dorene O’Brien

April 24th, 2008 by Diane

Yesterday I posted my review of the book Voices of the Lost and Found by Dorene O’Brien. (If you haven’t entered to win the book yet, make sure you do!) Today I have the interview with Dorene, as promised. If you’re a writer, reading these interviews with the authors can really give you a good inside look on what writing takes.

(e): Dorene, your character voices are very realistic and different from one another. It’s as if you “borrowed” a real person and recorded all their speech nuances. How do you go about developing them?

DO: When a character begins to take shape in my head I allow him or her to take up residence there for a while, and before long that character will speak to me. What is said is not as important as how it’s said–the sound of the voice, the dialect, the inflection. Once I can hear the voice in my mind’s ear everything else is easy; then I can have “conversations” with the character. I have a standing joke that on the first day of creative writing workshops I ask students if they hear voices in their heads. Half the class eagerly nods and the other half drops. But I stand by that: Hearing voices is a good thing.

(e): I sure heard voices in my head while I was reading your book! Where do you get inspiration for your stories?

DO: I’m curious about everything–graffiti art, string theory, weathervanes–and my research usually turns up some fascinating information that I can use as “background” material. My favorite stories are those that both entertain and educate, so I try to “quietly” do that in mine. “Way Past Taggin’” is a story about a young urban graffiti artist who is being harassed to join a gang–that’s the story’s central conflict. But while wondering what he will do and worrying about his sick grandmother, readers are being shown how piecing and tagging work and learning about pecking order on the street. Reading also inspires me to write.

(e): “Way Past Taggin’” was actually one of my favorites, and that one had a very unexpected ending. I’m always curious as to whether or not an author knows, when heading into a story, how it will turn out. Are you a writer who plans ahead, or do you like to let the protagonist show you the way?

DO: Once in a while I know how a story will end even before I start, but typically I allow the characters and the plot to evolve as I write. If I experience no moments of surprise in the writing I don’t know that my readers can experience them in the reading. At any rate, those unexpected events are always the most perfect–I’ve never excised one. In fact, I’ve rewritten stories just to accommodate them. I have several unpublished stories, and I think they remain unpublished because they’re too “controlled.” I think I’ve plotted the spontaneity right out of them

(e): Any plans for a full novel? Another short story collection?

DO: I’m currently writing a novel about fossil hunters in Ethiopia which asks and explores some pretty big questions about evolution, religion, hubris in scientific professions and gender bias. The protagonist, a female paleoanthropologist on extended excavations in Africa, becomes estranged from her husband and her runaway son, so she seeks not only the oldest human fossil but her son as well as some sort of redemption. Are all-encompassing careers worth the sacrifice they impose? How do scientists who have not fallen prey to the type of evidence-twisting that garners large grants compete in a field rife with graft, collusion and dishonesty? Can a fossil hunter reconcile the creationist view of her mother and the evolutionist view of her father to explore human origins through an original perspective? Will her family ultimately reunite or become torn apart by her discovery? My inspiration for the book was my curiosity about our origins. This is a fundamental question about which people–or at least people who are not religious zealots–seem largely unconcerned. My challenge has been to simplify and translate the utterly fascinating scientific and philosophical perspectives into an accessible and compelling story.

(e): Thanks so much for the interview, Dorene. Please let us know when your novel is out, and all the best to you!

Posted in Interviews

2 Responses

  1. Joe Borri

    Great interview Diane. I’m really glad that you were able to turn your subscribers onto Dorene’s work. Her stories are absolutely compelling. You’re right on the money when you say you’re hearing voices. She has an innate ability to craft the scene, plot and dialogue in such a way that the characters truly seem real, not cardboard cut-outs. I love her stuff and can’t wait to read what she does next.

  2. Diane

    Thanks Joe! I got a real lesson in writing from this interview. I just love hearing what you published authors have to say, and it was great to be able to add her to the group here.

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