The University of Iowa

5Q Interview: Eileen O’Leary, UI Press Author

December 14, 2020

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the Writing University has continued with our series of interviews - the "5Q Interviews" - with writers that participate in the various University of Iowa writing programs and communities. We sit down with authors to ask about their work, their process and their descriptions of home. The University of Iowa Press, with the Writing University, is reaching out to its authors to gain perspective and connection through these interviews. We want to know how they are doing, first and foremost: we are primarily checking in. We are a family here -- the press, the authors, the university -- and this is what families do: we check in.

Today we are speaking with Eileen O’Leary, author of Ancestry from the University of Iowa Press.


Eileen O’Leary

Eileen O’Leary is a playwright, director, and novelist. Eight of her plays have been produced, and she is a member of Dramatists’ Guild. She lives in University Heights, Ohio.


1. Could you tell us a bit about your new book?

Ancestry is a collection of short stories. They aren’t linked though there’s a general theme of what we inherit that helps us live out our lives. The title story follows a woman whose truly happy life is the result of a dauntless ancestor’s inspiration. But was this past hero, in fact, her ancestor?


2. What does your daily practice look like for your writing? Do you have a certain time when you write? Any specific routine?

I meet my work for lunch. If I can’t get to my desk any earlier I’ll generally be there at noon with a salad. Once I’ve got a draft finished I love rewriting it, but getting the initial work onto the page is very hard and I can’t always write every day. When things are going well I’ll write at night, too. If I’m not at the desk working, I keep turning the story over in my head while I’m doing other things like laundry or dishes. Some repair guys were in my house a while ago and told me working there was like being in a tomb.

I don’t know if other writers have this problem, but when I’m very close to the end of something, I don’t want to get into a car or even walk around the block for fear I’ll be killed before the last words are in place. I wonder if I start new work to convince myself I won’t die for at least as long as it takes to finish.


3. What are you currently reading right now? Are you reading for research or pleasure?

I’m reading Zachary D. Carter’s The Price of Peace. It’s about economics, a subject about which I know too little. I’ll read Evil Geniuses next for the same reason.

For pleasure: James Fenton. And Tom Drury whose novels shouldn’t be missed. Also Leaving Letitia Street by Jacqueline Simon. This is a collection of stories I read when they were published individually. Many won awards. I met her at a writers’ conference and just loved her work.


4. Tell us about where you are from -- what are some favorite details you would like to share about your home?

I was born and grew up in New Jersey. My parents were immigrants and my memories are of visits to New York to see relatives, everyone with a brogue. For college I went to Kansas and had a total culture shock. My Jersey accent was so thick I had to spell full sentences out to be understood. The whole dual-culture, aspirational vibe was absent. So was the ocean. When I came to the end of the town, there wasn’t another town!


5) Do you have a writing prompt you could share to inspire us?

Though I read these out of interest I find great prompts in the history of wars, lately by Max Hastings or Rick Atkinson, because they’re about conflict as dramatic as it gets, and they’re full of larger than life characters. Next to such a huge undertaking and the recording of it, the writing of a novel or short story seems very doable.  

I’m not sure it’s a prompt, but when I feel I’ve written into a dead-end, I go back to where the story (or the dialogue) is still working and recalibrate, let different themes or scenes audition. I learned not to force a story toward where I thought it should go. The more humanity in the characters, the more they’ll lead me along. I’m lazy. If I get the character’s voice and heart I have someone who will do a lot of the work for me.

An outlier prompt: Stella Adler on America’s Master Playwrights, ed. Barry Paris. Brilliant on getting inside a character’s head. These are her lectures to aspiring actors. When I’m struggling with scenes and sentences and realize the characters suffer from inattention, I pick her up.

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Thanks Eileen!