September 05, 2014
Interview with Dan O’Brien
About Dan O’Brien
Dan O'Brien's play The Body of an American recently concluded an acclaimed run at the Gate Theatre in London, and the Royal & Derngate Theatre in Northampton, England. The play has been nominated for an Off West End Theatre Award for Best New Play. The Body of an American premiered at Portland Center Stage in 2012, and in 2013 received the inaugural Edward M. Kennedy Prize, as well as the PEN Center USA Award for Drama. O'Brien's debut poetry collection, War Reporter, was published last year by Hanging Loose Press in Brooklyn and CB Editions in London. War Reporter was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, and received the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize from the UK's Poetry Trust. O'Brien will serve on the playwriting faculty at the 2014 Sewanee Writers' Conference. Website: www.danobrien.org
1. What inspired these pieces, ”The War Reporter Paul Watson's Cold Open“ and ”The War Reporter Paul Watson Waits in Line”?
DO: These poems are from a kind of ongoing project about Canadian Pulitzer Prize-winning war reporter Paul Watson, which includes poems, a play, and a libretto. These two poems are included in my debut poetry collection, War Reporter, which came out last summer with Hanging Loose Press in Brooklyn and CB Editions in London. “The War Reporter Paul Watson Waits in Line” is derived from what Paul’s written about his experience in Kosovo in 1999, as well as interviews, recordings, transcripts he’s shared with me, and our conversations. “The War Reporter Paul Watson's Cold Open” comes from our daydreaming together a TV drama based on his experiences, most recently in Kandahar, and this poem is, in many ways, a poetic rendering of our imagined “cold open” (a term of art in TV production of the moments of action before opening credits). With a few exceptions, Paul doesn’t read what I write about him, but he does share his material with me generously, and then I try to re-imagine and re-work as if I were Paul, as if these were my experiences, too. In many ways this extreme identification is at the heart of our work together, such as it is.
2. What is your preferred medium? Why?
DO: I suppose it would be equally playwriting and poetry. As a fan, I’d say it’s comedy (my wife is a sketch and improv comedienne, who now does mostly TV and film). I'm newer to poetry, in terms of publishing, and seeking to publish, whereas I've been a playwright for about fifteen years. I’ve also written fiction on and off over the years, and the occasional essay. I don’t really think of myself in terms of genre, having written plays in verse, plays with music, librettos for ”experimental” operas recently, and poetry that veers close to prose poems and dramatic monologue. There are of course enormous differences between genres, but difficult-to-categorize writing is what excites me the most, and what often feels most truthful.
3. What was the greatest thing you learned in school?
DO: Not to listen to opinions of your work.
4. Name a place you’ve written about but never been to.
DO: I suppose my answer would have to do more with time than place, as I’ve written a lot of historical plays. Usually I go to the places where these histories occurred— the Muséum national d'histoire naturelle in Paris for a play on pre-Darwinian biologist JB Lamarck; Hydesville in Western New York for a play on the Fox sisters, founders of Modern Spiritualism. Regarding my poems about Paul, I haven’t been to any of the war zones that Paul’s been to. Though, weirdly, because we’’ve worked so closely together for almost seven years now, I do feel a certain kind of familiarity with these places, however erroneous or ridiculous that is. But if it’s not too dangerous, I always try to go to the places I’m writing about. Just a few weeks ago I was in Chiapas in Mexico with the subject of my next play, Chicano anarchist Roberto Flores, celebrating the new year—and the twentieth anniversary of their uprising—with Zapatistas near San Cristobal de las Casas.
5. What is the hardest part of writing?
DO: For me the hardest—or the least rewarding—aspect of writing is the so-called business of it, all of the things you can’t control in terms of who reads your book or sees your play, or doesn’t. But as TS Eliot wrote, ”The rest is not our business.”
6. Do you have any writer’s block advice?
DO: Jay Parini, one of my mentors, has often said and written that writers should ”cultivate leisure,” as a way to find inspiration. If you like to work hard, as I do, often compulsively, it can be difficult to accept that a lot of writing happens when you're not writing. So like most advice it’s probably useless, but I’d suggest going for a run, taking a trip, getting a Thai massage.
7. What are you currently working on?
DO: I just came home to Los Angeles from London where I was working on the European premiere of my play about Paul Watson, The Body of an American, at the Gate Theatre. So there have been rehearsals to attend, some revisions to try. My opera about Paul, The War Reporter, premiered with another opera I wrote the libretto for, Theotokia, at the Prototype Festival in New York City two weeks ago. I’m writing that new play about Roberto Flores that I mentioned above, a commission for Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles—written with Flores’ son, gifted musician Quetzal Flores, so it will likely be a musical or play-with-music. My short play (a “folk ballad” actually, with music by Quetzal Flores) in response to the Trayvon Martin killing is one of six in Facing Our Truth: Short Plays on Trayvon, Race & Privilege, which is being presented at theaters across the country—upcoming at National Black Theatre in Harlem in February, and Woolly Mammoth in Washington DC. And I’m still writing poems about and with Paul Watson, publishing a few of these news ones here and there, recently in the UK in the Warwick Review and an exciting new magazine, Bare Fiction.