canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Tony O'Neill

"More addicts, cheaper drugs, more guns, and a virtual police state"

by Matthew Firth

Tony OíNeill is a writer you should know. If you donít know him, read this interview, get to know him and then go out and buy and read his new novel Ė then you will know him really well and come to realize that he is one mother-fucking, seriously superb writer.

OíNeillís new book is Down and Out on Murder Mile (Harper Perennial, 2008). The narrative is centred on an unnamed male protagonistís life on heroin and other drugs in the heart of the seedy side of London, England. But the novel is not a confessional or cautionary tale Ė it a wide-eyed gaze into the perilous highs and lows of a life teetering on the brink of collapse, yet surviving and thriving in the throes of the next fix.

OíNeill has written a contemporary gem of a book that looks at what itís like to kick against the war on drugs in these heady days of extremes, zero tolerance and other fascistic schemes. The novel follows rapidly on the heels of his other books: Digging the Vein (Contemporary Press, 2006), Seizure Wet Dreams (Social Disease, 2006) and his excellent poetry collection, Songs From the Shooting Gallery (Burning Shore Press, 2007). OíNeill is a bold young writer in full stride, pumping out brilliant, lively prose Ė best represented in his new novel, Down and Out on Murder Mile.

Now living in Brooklyn, I caught up with OíNeill via email Ö

See O'Neill's website at 

[January 2009]

MF: Okay, letís start with some background. What are the essential Tony OíNeill literary and biographical details Danforth Review readers need to know?

TO: Born into a working class Irish family in the north of England. Joined my first band at 16. The new wave of English bands in the 90s like Suede and Pulp made music my obsession. Deferred a university place to join Marc Almondís touring band, and then joined Kenickie. Saw a lot of the world. Ended up in Los Angeles aged 18 with a wife I had known for 3 weeks, and plans to take over the world. Flash forward 2 years and I was addicted to heroin, and married to my second wife, a heroin addict 10 years my senior. Returned to London, fleeing drug dealers and the police. Joined the methadone program. Met Vanessa, who realized that there was a human being underneath the track marks and missing teeth and fell in love for the first time in my rotten life. When I started my detox, the words started coming, and I havenít been able to stop them since. Had a child, and finally grew up a little before I turned 30.

MF: You write fiction, non-fiction, short stories, poetry and youíre a musician Ė what form of expression are you most comfortable with? How do you decide what form is best to express an idea or tell a particular story?

TO: I donít really play music any more. I devote all of my time to writing in all of its forms. You know, some days (or months) the prose wonít come, and poems are just in my head screaming to be written down. Other times, there will be no poems, but the prose comes. It isnít planned out in the slightest. The best bit of advice I ever got was from Dan Fante. He told me "Keep writing. Donít stop. If the stories wonít come, write a poem. If the poems wonít come, write a play. Just donít stop writing."

MF: Your new novel Ė Down and Out on Murder Mile Ė has just come out with Harper Perennial. So, youíve gone from the small press to the big press in just a few years. Does this surprise you? How do you explain it? Whatís different now?

TO: Yeah, it was a total surprise. Of course when you write your first book, you have the whole fantasy of "One day, Iíll be in a bookstore, on a big press, and Iíll be drinking champagne on a beach somewhere, and lauded as the greatest genius of my generation." But beyond these fantasies, did I realistically expect ANYTHING to happen with my writing? No. I couldnít even think about what might happen because I knew that if I did start indulging in those fantasies, and it didnít work out, then the disappointment could kill me. So I always try not to get involved in what-ifs and just keep writing what interests me. As time has gone on, there have been a lot of people who have come forward who like and support my writing. That is the most important thing to me. Each time something like this happens Ė when a magazine picks up one of my stories, when someone writes about me, when the Harper deal came through Ö I am always quietly amazed. In terms of experience, it has been great. I have an editor that Iím really fond of and who had been very respectful of my work. One of the biggest things that helped my career is finding an agent who I like, and who has been very nurturing towards my stuff. Not in terms of telling me what to write, but in terms of understanding and "getting" what I do and realistically pushing me as a writer.

MF: Did anyone try and convince you to take the "memoir" route with this book? Related Ė I get the sense that it is crucially important to you that your work be presented as a novel. Is this right, and if so, why?

TO: Yes and yes. In America people seemed puzzled as to why I would choose to present the details of my life in a novel form. Here in the U.S. we are hooked on memoirs. My inspirations were writers like Bukowski, Burroughs, Miller and Huncke who used their lives as the building blocks to construct novels. There are a handful of memoirs that I have liked (Jerry Stahlís Permanent Midnight is one of them) but mostly I find it to be a pretty dull genre and one that offers no surprises. There is a tried and tested formula to the memoir and I had no interest of presenting myself that way. When Perennial picked up the book, it was never once suggested that I could repackage the book as a memoir and thatís one of the reasons I knew they were the house for me. They GOT that whole thing. You walk into Carrie Kaniaís (the head of Perennial) office and itís just stacked high with great books. She has a bigger Bukowski collection than I do.

MF: A few decades past writers such as Alexander Trocchi, William S. Burroughs, Herbert Huncke and others wrote about heroin and enjoyed the literary limelight a fair bit because of it. They were not the first by a long shot to write about heroin. But whatís different or has changed with this style of first-person junkie novel 40-50 years later, with, for example, your novels?

TO: Well Trocchi, Burroughs and Huncke are quite interesting examples because they were doing something that a lot of the writers who came afterwards didnít do Ė they wrote about the lifestyle with serious literary goals and not just to write a "shock horror" exposť of the life of an addict. They didnít preach. They didnít sugar coat. I think the big difference is that now we are living in an age where our understanding of what it is to be an addict is different and we are now in a kind of "post-addicted" age where everybody in America it seems feels that they are addicted to something. Now therapy treatment is big business. We are so quick to label people alcoholics or addicts these days when in fact most of the time they are neither. It takes many months and many injections to make an addict. And the therapy that is pushed on us now Ė the 12-step cure, the idea that addiction is a "disease" is more wrong-headed than what we had in the old days. Back when Burroughs and Huncke were addicts, there was still the tail end of the old system where doctors would be willing to prescribe opiates to opiate addicts. Now the situation is much more dire and as a result the life of an addict now if a much more desperate and extreme. As the war on drugs has ground on, the addicts have multiplied, the drugs have changed and the situation has deteriorated terribly. If it wasnít for prohibition, we wouldnít have the crack and methamphetamine problem that we have now. Crack is a creation of prohibition Ė a form of the drug that is smaller, cheaper, and nastier. If those who wanted to use cocaine were able to get it from a pharmacist, then nobody would have had to market this cheaper, smaller version of the drug. So in a way, while Trocchi and Burroughs chronicled the beginning of the war on drugs and its effect on the addict, my books are in many ways a reflection of the conditions that addicts find themselves in after decades of this nonsense. More addicts, cheaper drugs, more guns, and a virtual police state. Well-done prohibition!

MF: Okay, give me some flash feedback Ė one quick sentence/thought Ė on these folks:

Alexander Trocchi Ö TO: My favourite existentialist.

Hank Williams Ö TO: Thinking of how much I like Hank Williamsí stuff just makes me realize how terrible modern country is. You couldnít get me to listen to modern country if you put a gun to my head.

Margaret Thatcher Ö TO: I cannot begin to tell you what a bogeyman Thatcher was growing up in the North of England. From what she did to the miners, to the Hunger Strikers; I mean really she was just a terrible, terrible human being. Sheís still alive, isnít she? Somebody should drive a stake through her heart and get it over with.

Hubert Selby Ö TO: God Ė an amazing, amazing writer. If I had to pick one by him it would be a toss up between Requiem for a Dream, which took the junkie novel to new levels of Shakespearian tragedy, or The Room, which is one of the most underrated and greatest of modern American novels.

John Lydon Ö TO: I love John Lydon. Even now heís pissing people off. I love that he does stuff that even pisses off of the punks. Heís one of those great British eccentrics and in terms of his music Ė well, shit, put on "Swan Lake" by Public Image Limited and then listen to how safe, boring a dull 90 per cent of modern alternative music sounds compared to it.

MF: Okay, back to Down and Out on Murder Mile with the next few questions. In this passage (and elsewhere in Down and Out on Murder Mile) you portray drugs favourably:

On the train I think that maybe right here, right now, I am the most beautiful man alive, because everyone is beautiful when they are high: I start to realize that the war on drugs is a war on beauty Ė a war on perfection, because everything is perfect on heroin Ė it is a war against the simple human aspiration of complete contentment, and the thought makes me sad Ė that we are waging such a pointless and spiteful war against the noblest part of our own nature.

Iím fine with this but some readers might get snotty and accuse you of being morally irresponsible or some such shit. Whatís your take on this?

TO: I am a realist. If you are going to put needles in your arm multiple times a day, if you are willing to make yourself destitute, homeless, desperate and sick to do this, then you know something? It must feel pretty good. And it does. The problem today is that we have a kind of cultural amnesia when it comes to drugs and that is because we have been on the receiving end of a propaganda and information war on drugs that is totally unprecedented. No politician in America (or most other countries) has ever spoken the truth about drugs. And in lying about it, legislating against it and fighting this totally unwinnable war, they have created a generation of drug users that is much bigger and much more uncontrollable that the original "problem" was. Since politicians are incapable of telling the truth about drugs, then it is up to artists. Because somebody has to do it! Because of the propaganda war we have parents who would be horrified to learn that their kid is smoking weed but theyíre okay with drinking alcohol, which is a pretty screwed up state of events. My job is not to advocate drug use Ė because thatís as stupid as telling people NOT to do it. But my job is to try to cut through the bullshit a little bit. And my God, thereís a lot of bullshit out there.

MF: Likewise, the high might be beautiful, but consider the process, as reflected in this passage from the novel:

And then in the toilet of the Kings Mall, a depressing Stalinist concrete faÁade, holed up in the filthy dark cubicle with one foot wedged against the lockless door listening to the homeless guy in the next stall take a spluttering liquid shit, the smell filling the whole place, Iíd cook up my shot and thread the needle into my gooseflesh, probing for a vein Ö thick black blood dripping down my forearm, spotting my jeans, forming dark pools on the piss-wet tiles.

Whereís the beauty here? Or is it this sort of ugliness that contributes to the beauty of the high when the dope hits?

TO: Life on heroin is a life of extremes Ė extreme peace, extreme joy and extreme horror. And just as I will not shy away from telling the reader how amazing an armful of strong Afghan dope is, I will not shy away from the other aspects of the day-to-day existence of an addict. I suppose my job as a writer is to be able to talk about the joy and the horror with equal compassion.

MF: Is it really our nature to alter our ugly reality through drugs to see true beauty? Is this what art, specifically, a superb novel, can do?

TO: I would hope so. Since quitting heroin over 5 years ago, I have slowly found my way back to that kind of elation in other ways. Writing being one of them. I do feel that drugs are a tool, just like any other. If we were allowed to use drugs in a non-pressurized environment (i.e., without the fear of arrest, the artificial prices, the drug gangs, etc.) our experience with them would be very different. Unfortunately, that is not the way the world is. So instead those who want to know what drugs are about are forced to break the law and they are forced to take their chances. Human beings are a curious bunch and asking people not to do something is a great way to get them interested in doing it. While heroin specifically did inspire me in many ways, it also took a lot away from me and I still live under the shadow of addiction today. And that can be a tough pill to swallow sometimes. A sustained period of addiction awakens something in you that you can never really overcome. It becomes very easy to slip back into the behaviour that almost killed you.

MF: In Down and Out you come down hard on the recovery industry:

The lie at the heart of treatment centres, the recovery industry, and self-help groups is that life off drugs is any better than life on them. A preposterous idea. The two states coexist in a parallel sense Ė to say that one is preferable to the other is to miss the point entirely.

Whatís your beef with NA and other similar agencies?

TO: Well, my beef isnít really with NA or the 12 steps. Itís with the fact that for most addicts it is the only option they have. I met many, many great people when I tried it that way, but it simply didnít work for me. My problem with that way of doing it was the idea that addiction is a disease, which I frankly think is nonsense. Tell someone who is dying of cancer that a person who has used a lot of heroin has a "disease". Addiction does not just fall from the sky and land on top of you one day. You have to work at becoming an addict. You know the risks and you do it anyway and one day your body, your brain, your metabolism changes, and you become dependent on a substance. And it doesnít happen with every substance. It is impossible to be "addicted" to marijuana, despite everything your government has told you. Addiction is a matter of exposure, which is a different thing.

My other problem with the 12 steps is that it preaches total abstinence for the rest of your life. I believe that it IS possible for say a hardcore heroin addict to be able to drink normally, to be able to smoke weed, even to be able to indulge in the odd line or pill if they so choose. In fact I think that in some cases marijuana is helpful to the heroin addict looking to quit for good. To tell a heroin addict that a glass of lager constitutes a "relapse" is self-defeating and wrong.

My problem is that there are NO alternatives. I find the whole commercialization of the recovery industry to be sickening. TV shows like "Intervention" and the like talk about AA and NA as if they have a proven track record. Failure rates in the 12-step program are as high as among people why try to quit on their own. Yet we are sold recovery snake oil by people like Doctor Drew (who is fast becoming the Goebbels of the recovery industry; its number one mouthpiece and propagandist). Why? Because "recovery" is big business now. And the best kind of cures are the kind that require lengthy stays in rehab at 3 thousand a month and that require return visits because the failure rates are so high. I find Doctor Drew to be more of a ghoul than the drug dealers. He has gotten rich off of the backs of addicts and he doesnít even have the decency to sell them something that is any use to them. If you want to cure peopleís addiction, give them legal access to their drugs until they decide that they want to quit. And if they donít, give them legal access to their drugs until they die. Everything else is just pissing in the wind.

MF: Again, as a change of pace, give me some flash feedback Ė one quick sentence/thought Ė on these folks:

Stewart Home Ö TO: Love Stewart Home. Read Slow Death when I was 16 and it affected me so deeply that everything I wrote for a while sounded like him. We need more literary anarchists like him.

Nick Cave Ö TO: I dig Cave a lot. I love the Birthday Party, too. And Jesus, he is a pretty good writer as well. Nice moustache.

Herbert Huncke Ö TO: Huncke has a mythic importance to my writing. The Herbert Huncke Reader was a revelation to me. I have no idea why he wasnít one of the most famous beats. Heís definitely someone that I wished Iíd gotten the chance to meet.

Amy Winehouse Ö TO: Poor Amy Winehouse. You know what she needs? She needs to be left alone. Although Iím not crazy about the music, I do dig her influences and find her to be more interesting than most pop singers out there. In the old days sheíd have come through her drug phase and nobody would have known the difference. Now with all of the tabloid attention who knows if sheíll even make it? You canít use drugs normally under those circumstances. Also, I feel itís a bit sexist, the way that the press has targeted her. When I was in bands plenty of people were doing crack, heroin and anything else they could get their hands on. But that was considered "boys being boys". But the press seemingly wonít give a female that kind of leeway Ö

Charles Bukowski Ö TO: Love his poetry, love his prose. I even liked Pulp the book that his fans seemed to hate. That said, some of the posthumous stuff has been a bit crappy, but what can you expect? Iíd be mortified if people started putting out my unpublished shit. Iíve got some stinkers in there myself.

MF: Okay, I hear Dan Fante Ė a major influence for you (I love the guyís work too) Ė is also stepping into the centre ring, with his next novel due to come out with Harper Perennial. Whatís going on here? Is this the start of some sort of trend? Is the literary underground being brought into the mainstream or are the big presses getting more daring? Whatís up?

TO: I think this is all down to Harper Perennial to be honest. I think that the situation there is pretty unique Ė thereís a great bunch of people there who are putting out all kinds of exciting writers Ė Fante, Dennis Cooperís new book is coming out on Perennial, they just put out Sebastian Horsleyís memoir Dandy in the Underworld Ė it seems that it is really their aim to give Perennial a distinct identity in the way that Grove Press had in the 60s, or Olympia had, and yet they are a part of the HarperCollins family that puts out stuff like Dr Drewís nonsense and Bill O fucking Reilly. Somehow the Perennial imprint seems to be some kind of breakaway kamikaze squad of editors who can do what they want and they all seem to have good taste.

MF: Youíve been identified as part of a new breed of writers. Iíve read about "Brutalism". Whatís it all about? What writers characterize this sort of writing? How? What other underground writers or scenes do you think are significant?

TO: You know, I feel that all of these new writers coming up who have been tagged as brutalists writers, or "offbeat generation" writers have a shared "outsider" status. You know when I started writing I was publishing online, when that was considered to be somehow not "real" publishing. But it was democratic and you didnít have to wait for 6 months to get rejected by some mainstream magazine. If you were getting rejected it would take a week tops, ha-ha. But a lot of these young writers for whom the magazines were just too inaccessible started publishing there and critiquing each other and corresponding and it was very healthy. And then a lot of these same writers made the jump to print but on their own terms Ė self-publishing, indie presses and a few on mainstream houses. But in terms of an overall aesthetic, there really isnít one. Iím off doing my thing, over in Ohio Noah Cicero is washing dishes and writing these angry novels that come across like a mix of Samuel Beckett and The Clash. Ben Myers is writing somewhere in between Lester Bangs and Richard Brautigan. Tom McCarthy is deconstructing the novel altogether with "remainder"Ö I mean itís a pretty broad church.

MF: Youíre what, 32 years old? I read in another interview that you feel youíve amassed experiences beyond your years; that youíve got a stock of past experiences to draw on for your writing. Have you written all that you can on heroin and drug culture? Or is there more to come?

TO: Iím 30 Ö And for the moment Iím taking a break from writing directly about my own experiences. However, the world of drugs and prohibition is just such fertile ground for me that the next one will still be set in Hollywood and will be about the recovery industry and the drug scene. Itís a novel that Iíve had in my head for a long time and something I really need to do before I return to the overall narrative that spawned Digging and Down and Out.

MF: Letís end with a quote from Bukowski for you to consider: "The language of a manís writing comes from where he lives and how." This perfectly describes Down and Out on Murder Mile and Digging the Vein. But is the language of your writing set to change, as I understand where and how you live has changed (e.g., youíre a father, living and working in New York, rather than London or LA)? If so, how will your writing change? Or is Bukowski full of shit here?

TO: I think Bukowski hit it on the head. And thatís why most mainstream writing is so unbearably fucking dull. People go to school, get into a great MFA program and then sit down to write a great novel without ever having actually gotten their hands dirty in the real world. Thatís why their writing is so constipated and dull. My writing is changing and evolving all of the time. And itís not so say that after heroin life suddenly became a bed of roses. It doesnít work like that. In a way it becomes harder, because you donít have the insulation of hard drugs and the focus of having to score them. So in a way, my horizons have grown rather than shrunk. Iím not sure exactly how it will change in the future but however it changes Iím excited to see it Ö because if you ainít moving forward youíre dead, you know?

Matthew Firthís latest book is the short story collection Suburban Pornography and Other Stories (Anvil Press, 2006). He is also editor and publisher of the lit-mag Front&Centre and Black Bile Press chapbooks. A tardy, unshaven office worker by day, he lives in Ottawa with his dear wife Andrea and two sons: Sam and Willem.




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