The Profile

Jack O'Connell '81

By Rebecca Smith '99

His entire life, former HCM editor Jack O’Connell ’81 has never wanted to do anything else but write. Growing up in Worcester, he was passionately inspired by the 50-cent paperbacks he purchased at the corner drugstore. Westerns, detective novels, short stories—he devoured them all.

“I had a lot of really great teachers,” O’Connell recalls, “but perhaps one of the best was the anonymous traveling salesman who stocked the paperback rack at the Rexall Drug Store down the street.”

The books were to O’Connell a physical symbol of what he wanted to do with his life. After voraciously reading one, he would flip it over to examine the author’s biography—and inevitably feel dejected. A regular kid from Worcester, O’Connell could not identify with the authors he emulated.

“For an embarrassingly long time, I believed that you couldn’t be a writer and be from Worcester,” he explains. “I had this notion that, to be a writer, you had to go to prep school in New York, fight Fascists in Spain or drive trucks in the Yukon.”

In spite of the belief that he had to leave home to pursue his true identity, O’Connell never did. He did not want to. He was too captivated by his city’s haunted, crumbling red brick mills and gothic barbed wire, which, to him, suggested class warfare, immigration and a bygone culture that built this country.

As a student at Holy Cross, O’Connell found a mentor in poet and English professor Robert K. Cording. Throughout O’Connell’s four years on the Hill and afterward, Cording was deeply influential  to the young writer, encouraging his craft and teaching him the pragmatic and poetic sides of writing.

But, perhaps most importantly, Cording’s presence on campus showed O’Connell that you can indeed be a “normal, functioning human being” and a writer—in fact, you have to be to know the experiences of day-to-day life. Ultimately, O’Connell became a successful novelist in spite of—and, in good part, because of—the city he calls home. All five of his published books are set in the town of Quinsigamond, Worcester’s fictitious doppelganger.

The Resurrectionist (Algonquin Books, www.enterlimbo.com), O’Connell’s latest novel, debuted last year to wide acclaim. It was named one of amazon.com’s Top 10 Science Fiction & Fantasy Books of 2008 and is currently optioned as a feature film. The Resurrectionist is a hard-boiled, noir suspense story infused with O’Connell’s notions about balance and connection between living in the real world and living in a world of the imagination. It is due out in paperback this fall; look for it on a drugstore rack near you.


Q & A

Who is your favorite author?
It probably changes week-to-week, if not day-to-day. But I do tend to go back regularly to my favorites. Kafka made a big impact, as did Joyce. Melville is kind of an obsession. As for contemporary writers—Pynchon, DeLillo, Robert Stone.

Where and when do you write?
5:30-9:30 a.m. every morning, in an office at the top of my house. But I once wrote a novel in Dinand Library, entirely on lunch hours, over the course of 18 months.

What are you working on now?
I’m contracted for a novel about a cult of South American “train surfers”—street kids who “surf” atop high-speed train cars. I’ve had this story waiting on deck for over 10 years.

What’s your advice to the struggling novelist who has a manuscript stowed away in a sock drawer?
Persist. Start the next book. If the process of writing brings you some degree of meaning and satisfaction, why would you stop? Writing and publication are two different experiences. From my POV, it’s important to understand which one is most valuable to you.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I’d like to be sipping a coffee with my wife in a Worcester diner, babbling about our kids and the plot of the next book.