The Bloody-Minded Mr. Tony O'Neill

By Nathan A Thompson 02/12/16

The Fix Q&A with Tony O'Neill on quitting heroin, becoming a father and why he prefers antidepressants over talk therapy.

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Interview with a Bloody-Minded
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The twelve-hour time difference and approaching deadline meant the following interview had to be undertaken in the bedroom of my girlfriend’s single-bedroom apartment while a dinner party descended into drunken wassailing.

It wasn’t ideal. But I was still excited to speak to Tony O’Neill. I first came across the musician-turned-junky-turned-author on Shane Levene’s Memoirs of a Heroinhead blog. I was not long out of rehab and I ordered a copy of Down and Out on Murder Mile, the second of his books detailing his chronic drug addiction. The dried-blood realism and photographic recollection of addiction’s dark side allowed me to experience the rush of drugs again without having to relapse—much needed in the early stages of recovery.

I would go to rehab and I have very well-meaning people tell me I have to stop, and my first reaction was to kick against it.

The British press included O’Neill as part of a literary wave called the Offbeat Generation. As well as his autobiographical works, he has released two novels, a handful of short story collections and co-authored a best-selling memoir with college football star, Jason Peter. I wanted to talk to him about writing, recovery and why he still takes drugs.   

According to The Daily Beast, your agent said that Sick City contained “the most singularly disgusting sex scene I have ever read. Ever.” What is it about the despicable side of humanity that draws you?

It does draw me and I think it draws most people. As for that scene, it had a reason to be there. It was a way of exposing the character’s neurosis and true self. And it’s so dull to write a pretty sex scene.  

Are you still writing novels right now?

After writing Black Neon [his most recent novel] I was really burned out, so I had to step away from the novel writing for a while. I also had health problems. But now there's a book coming out called The Wild Life, which is a collaboration with a really talented artist called David Brülhart. It's a novella, 12 chapters, plus David's illustrations. And I’ve had people approach me about doing screenplays.

So you still have contacts in Hollywood from when you lived in LA?

Haha, the only contacts I had in those days were drug dealers.

So how are you breaking in?

I’m working right now with a director. He optioned Sick City [O’Neill’s first novel—it's his first novel, really, but his first two autobiographical books are still labelled novels] and wrote this amazing screenplay and we’re trying to get it off the ground.

What motivated the move towards the film industry?

I just had the opportunity. As a writer you have to be interested in trying new things, so if someone approached me to do a film, it would be really strange to turn it down.

Do you still use drugs?

I’ve always used drugs. I just try not to use in a destructive way anymore. I don’t smoke crack and don’t take heroin anymore. Nor do I get up and gobble a handful of pills and crank out a novel in a narcotic haze. I haven't used cocaine in almost 10 years. I just don't enjoy the instant paranoia and overwhelming feelings of need. The only drugs I use with any regularity are alcohol and marijuana. I am open to doing hallucinogenics, but not shitty acid. Lab quality DMT, however...

Are you scared of not using drugs?

I still use recreationally but I know there are certain drugs that I have no self-control around, and opiates are that drug, absolutely. I’ve had relapses that terrified me. The problem is that, these days, the only recovered person is someone who follows a spiritual program and doesn’t use drugs, and that’s not true. People do find a way back from addiction to non-problematic drug use. 

Do you think the disease model of addiction is a self-fulfilling prophesy?

In one way, I can see the benefit, but in another way, it has failure hard-written into its DNA. The disease model is a way of abdicating responsibility. That’s how it was for me. I’d eventually slip and find a beer in my hand and I would think, “Well, I’ve slipped now so I might as well go do heroin.” A much harder path was to take responsibility for myself and recognize that heroin is a major problem for me, but that’s not a reason to live my entire life with a mindset of “I have a disease.” People in the rooms said I was an example of “self-will run riot” but, to me, self-will was the only way out.

I agree, for me too—I was like, what’s wrong with the will? The will to power, as Nietzsche says, is inherent to humankind and I couldn’t remove it from myself because it was myself—you know what I mean?

Yes, when the people in AA first explained that I had to give my will and life over to God, I thought they’d lost their fucking minds. It was such a visceral gut response that their approach was always doomed to failure with me.  

You often pinpoint becoming a father as a key turning point in your way out of addiction. How did that help?

When I realized I was going to become a father, I knew I was at a crossroads. I could carry on doing what I was doing—which I’d been doing for years and was, frankly, bored shitless with—or take a new path as a father and husband. The child has to be number one. I didn’t want to be such a selfish asshole as to bring a child into this world and not give it my full undivided love and attention.

What qualities of your decision made you succeed at that point?  

Firstly, I’m a hardheaded contrary fucker. I would go to rehab and I have very well-meaning people tell me I have to stop, and my first reaction was to kick against it. This time it stuck because I was the one saying, “you have to do this,” so I couldn’t resent some outside force pointing a finger at me. Secondly, in my wife and my daughter, I finally had a reason to live. Even if didn’t care about my own survival, I did care enough about them. And finally, it’s a cliché but it’s true—the love you feel as a parent towards your child is such a profound, mind-blowing thing that it got me through the first year. After that, I realized I had a lot of untreated psychological issues, and it wasn’t until I started taking medication for depression that I felt well balanced. 

Has your solution always been chemical, or have you tried other things like talking therapies?

I’ve tried talking therapy. It’s always nice to talk to someone, but it never did much for me. I would say the right combination of antidepressants did more for me than talking therapy or meditation ever did.

What would your worst enemy say about you?

There are people who hate me. Most have never met me. It’s easier to hate someone who doesn't seem like a real human being. And when you don't write like Dave Eggers or Salman Rushdie—when you deal in straight, pared down, simple language—people tend to think, “Oh that’s easy, I could do that,” and begin to resent the fact you've had books published and not them. I think of it as the Bukowski effect. The number of bad Bukowski imitations around should tell you that it’s a fucking hard job to write something that looks so simple. Also, I'm sure there's plenty of people who encountered me in the old days and I was probably a total cunt to them. 

[Tony later emailed me a selection of his worst reviews gleaned from Amazon and other sources. He thought they would serve as a better answer to the question.]

“Tony O'Neill was a session musician and a session junkie, nothing more.”

“A writer who throws sex, drugs and nihilism around like a monkey in a zoo flinging its own shit at the people looking at it.”

“I've read better on the back of cornflake packets.”

What is something about you that people would find surprising?

Some people think that I’m like the person they read about, but that’s just an aspect of my personality at one time in my life. In reality, I’m very disciplined and methodical. I treat writing like a job. I’m at my desk at 8 am every morning [the interview began at 8am, his time]. I always shave and get dressed first because I feel like no great endeavor ever got completed in a pair of pajamas.

Nathan A. Thompson is a journalist and poet. He has written for the Telegraph, the Guardian, Vice and Slate. His debut poetry collection, I Take Nothing Strong, Only Lightning is out soon on Wow Books. Follow @NathanWrites. He last wrote about the Cambodia needle exchange.

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Nathan A. Thompson is the president of the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia, where he has been based since 2013. He has reported for VICE News, the TelegraphGuardianSlateSalonand Christian Science Monitor both in Cambodia and across the region and currently works in editorial at ucanews.com. He writes travel articles, essays and released his first poetry collection, I Take Nothing Strong Only Lightning in 2016. Follow Nathan on Twitter.

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