It’s funny but I feel akin to every woman named Maureen and often relish in any success they may achieve. This one is no different. At the moment Maureen O’Brien is celebrating the successful publication of her first novel, B-mother, with Harcourt Trade. Over the last 29 years she has written a lot of short stories and poems, some of which have appeared in literary anthologies. Currently, Maureen is teaching writing at the Greater Hartford Academy of Arts with future hopes of some day writing full time. She makes her home in Connecticut with her husband and two children. I hope you enjoy getting to know this fresh author.
Moe: Looking back, did you choose the writing profession or did the profession choose you? When did you ‘know’ you were a writer?
Maureen O’Brien: I believe it chose me. I’ve been very committed to my writing since I was in college. Writing is the way I process the world. I think I knew I was a writer when I realized I was willing to make sacrifices — like no job security and less money — in order to write.
Moe: What inspires you?
Maureen O’Brien: Listening to people talk about the truth of their lives.
Moe: Every writer has a method to their writing. On a typical writing day, how would you spend your time?
Maureen O’Brien: I write every day if possible. I try to set a goal each day I write. Usually that means becoming highly focused on the reality of one particular character within one particular scene. It means sitting very still until I can be right there with them, watching and listening.
Moe: How long does it take for you to complete a book you would allow someone to read? Do you write right through or do you revise as you go along?
Maureen O’Brien: The novel I just published, b-mother, took me four years. I revised chapters as I went along. But my new novel I am approaching differently, writing it all the way through and then I’ll go back. It’s a very energetic piece and I want to keep that energy high from start to finish. I want a full draft before I begin the line-by-line tinkering. The tinkering is my favourite part.
Moe: When you sit down to write is any thought given to the genre or type of readers?
Maureen O’Brien: My allegiance is to the characters, first and foremost. They lead me to the genre and the readers. I write the stories that I would want to read.
Moe: When it comes to plotting, do you write freely or plan everything in advance?
Maureen O’Brien: My new novel is more plotted, but I am of the belief –like so many writers — that plot comes from character. I’ve been putting individual scenes on Index cards and then laying them out to see the possibilities of story structure, to see how I can integrate back stories.
Moe: What kind of research do you do before and during a new book? Do you visit the places you write about?
Maureen O’Brien: I love the research because you search for resonant details from your character’s point of view. I am in love with the Internet, because you so easily find obscure facts and images you need to bring verisimilitude to the story. The first part of b-mother was set in a town I know very well. The last third of the novel was set in a town I discovered while driving up the coast of Maine; scouting locations where it seemed my character Hillary would land. I knew she needed to be near a post office and I found a view that fit her perfectly.
Moe: Where do your characters come from? How much of yourself and the people you know manifest into your characters?
Maureen O’Brien: My characters usually start out as composites of people I know (especially facial features, expressions, gestures, etc.), then morph into their own separate selves. Though in b-mother, Lola is a real person who gave me permission to use her as a character in the book. I am not a birthmother, but Hillary grew from certain aspects of my own personality, a more wounded side. I’ve given my new character Grace a lot of my own quirks, beliefs, struggles, and sensibilities.
Moe: Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? If yes, what measures do you take to get past it?
Maureen O’Brien: When I am resistant to writing I try to go back to the basics of timed free writes. Write as fast as I can, whatever comes to mind, for 12 minutes, that sort of thing. I also put on loud music to drown out my thoughts so I can write.
Moe: What do you hope readers gain, feel or experience when they read your book for the first time?
Maureen O’Brien: The bottom line is I want my readers to enter the story and feel satisfied by the telling of it, to enter the world of my characters, and merge with them while they read. I cried a lot when I wrote b-mother and when readers tell me they cried while reading it, it’s gratifying to know the words can create physical reactions like tears.
Moe: Can you share three things you’ve learned about the business of writing since your first publication?
Maureen O’Brien: Having an agent who loves your work is essential. It’s a hard-hitting competitive business and your agent is your advocate. And even though it’s a business, I have crossed paths with passionate, intelligent women who have enriched my life — editors, my agent and her assistant, my publicist, independent bookstore owners. Also, I’ve learned that there are a lot of writers on-line who are willing to share information of publishing; people are pretty generous.
Moe: What is your latest release about?
Maureen O’Brien: My novel is about a family hit by loss, and how they heal over 25 years. My narrator first came to me ten years ago. I was crossing at a light in a group of pregnant teens from a home for unwed mothers. A man in a car at the light was gawking rudely. One of the girls with a very big belly confronted him, shouting, “You wanna take a picture?” Hillary began to form in my mind right then.
Moe: When you’re not writing what do you do for fun?
Maureen O’Brien: I love yoga; I love to walk.
Moe: New writers are always trying to glean advice from those with more experience. What suggestions do you have for new writers?
Maureen O’Brien: Rejection can be very hard, to the point of being debilitating. You have to be deeply defiant sometimes and just keep writing.
Moe: If you weren’t a writer what would you be?
Maureen O’Brien: Some job where I could be on a lot of land, with animals
Moe: What is your favourite word?
Maureen O’Brien: I’ve always thought “Shenandoah” was a beautiful word, but I’ve never seen the river.
My interview with Maureen O’Brien was originally published 2/23/2007 at Literary Fiction, BellaOnline.