Friday, 13 January 2012

Interview with David K. O'Hara, Novelist and Playwright

It is with great pleasure that I welcome David K. O'Hara to my blog. David is a versatile, local (to me) writer who has written two novels and several plays. I have seen one of his plays The Upstairs Room which was fabulous, and will be seeing his latest play next week.

I hope you will enjoy this interview as much as I did.

David K. O'Hara
Hello, David, and welcome to Ramblings of a Rusty Writer.

Please could you let us know a little bit about yourself in about 50 words?

Thank you for having me. Yes, I’m an Oxford-based writer. Also an occasional teacher and photographer. I was born in the California Bay Area in 1979 to an English father and an American mother. And I’m sure it would boggle the minds of most of my school teachers to know that I somehow became a writer, let alone made it to university.

How long have you been a writer and what have you written in the past?

I’ve always been writing. It was one of the few things I found I could do, that I wanted to do without being told, though it has certainly taken on different forms over the years. There was the obligatory comic book phase in my teens, followed by a journal crammed with bad poetry. I never really thought it would amount to anything, it was just something I found myself doing privately. Honestly, it wasn’t until I met a great Canadian writer named Greg Hollingshead and joined his writing classes that I focussed and started paying attention (to the craft, to other writers, to the devotional aspects of writing). It was only then, as an undergraduate, that I began to realise that, yes, this is what I actually want do, this is how I want to make my way in the world.

I now consider myself a novelist who also writes plays.   

What made you decide to write plays? Could you tell us a little bit about your process?

Playwriting was pretty accidental: I was doing research. I had a character in a novel I was writing who finds himself accidentally involved in the theatre, and I needed to find out more about the hands-on side of play production. I knew that James Savin, from the Oxford School of Drama, was about to put on a play here and I asked if I could get involved somehow. He said I should read the play first: it was Sartre’s Huis Clos, the Stuart Gilbert translation, and I read it once, read it again, then rang James and pleaded with him not to do the play, listing the various reasons why. I proposed instead that I write something for him, based around this same purgatorial idea (a man and two women locked in a room together) but as a response to what Sartre was grumbling about. James said he could give me two months and, if he liked the script enough, he would swap the one for the other. That was how The Upstairs Room happened: meeting with James one a week at Cafe Rouge in Little Clarendon Street and looking over the next instalment.   

As for my process, I do find playwriting easier than, say, writing a novel. There’s less to think about and therefore it’s easier to hunker down in your subconscious and see what happens. You can concentrate on voice alone. With a novel you have to worry about the prose, you have to describe things interestingly and savour them. The ball just gets rolling much faster when you can simply type a name and, underneath, start typing a line of speech. It’s almost like outwitting yourself, because you don’t have so much time to think about it. 

What is it like seeing something that you’ve written acted out by professional actors?

On a very basic level, the experience of being a playwright is far less lonely than that of the traditional writer. It’s not just you, alone, at your desk tearing your hair out.  You know that there are people, whom you will meet, and who are depending on you, who will bring these characters and emotions to life.

I suppose the experience of seeing your work performed is rather like a traditional writer getting into the head of a reader, and actually experiencing first-hand how much that reader is investing. It gives you an extreme sense of worthiness, a sense that your work is worthy. On the other hand it’s very much about handing over the reins. You’ve laid out the map, and now other people are going on the expedition. You wait to see what unexpected discoveries they come back with.

You have a play showing in Oxford next week, what is it about?

It’s a one-woman show, called Now Until the Hour, starring the wonderful actress Jacquie Crago. The story is very much that of a woman’s life, but it’s not a biographical monologue per se. She’s one of these artist manqué figures. She has an expansive imagination and she could, once upon a time, have been an artist of some kind had she only believed in herself more, had she only been allowed different choices. But she’s been dealt some awfully short straws and existentially-speaking she’s sort of locked-up shop, hidden herself away in daydreams.

I had this daydream of my own while writing it: a painting, an amazingly expressive piece of outsider art, hidden in an attic somewhere, unloved, which—in a kind of protest—decides to erase itself.  It occurs to me, in writing this out, that I'm describing something not unlike Robert Rauschenberg's Mother of God collage-painting that hangs in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, not far from where I grew up. The Virgin Mary in both this work and in my play is invoked to suggest the similar mystery: that sense of self-erasure when one makes room for the unknown. It's what the Greeks called the khora.

Thematically-speaking, the play is very much about how storytelling and fiction, even as lies, can express a kind of poetic truth and offer even the most limited of lives a kind of spiritual freedom.

What are your plans for future writing projects?

I’m working on a new novel, but also continuing to write new plays. One theatrical project I have on the go is an adaptation of one of Ingmar Bergman’s most unloved films. Another is a bigger production, about one of Freud’s most famous case-studies. 

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions, David. I'm really looking forward to Now Until the Hour.

David is represented by Leslie Gardner at Artellus Ltd. His academic website can be found here.

Full information on Now Until the Hour
Savin-O'Hara Productions Present

Now Until the Hour: a new play by David K. O'Hara

Starring Jacquie Crago and Directed by James Savin

At the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building, Jan 17, 18, 19 and 21st (Q&A)

Tickets (£8) available on the door or via Tickets Oxford.
01865 305 305

A woman named Mary. A woman alone. A woman dreaming. A woman who took her degree at Oxford. A woman who never left home. A woman sleeping in the basement of a museum. A woman behind a reception desk. A woman without love. A woman with nothing but love. A woman who used to run to the very edge of town. A woman who is still running. A woman who can barely walk. A woman handing out questionnaires. A woman with a doll’s head in her pocket. A woman on a bus. A woman mystic. A woman who spills her coffee. A woman haunted by the ghosts of her past. A woman who lives only for today. A woman who knows the clock is ticking. A woman who answers phones. A woman too afraid to answer the phone. A woman at the bedside of her dying father. A woman looking after lost schoolchildren. A woman telling stories. A woman telling lies. A woman speaking the truth. A woman speaking to us. A woman named Mary. 



  1. interesting interview, I would also like to branch out into other writing sometime. Glad to see it might not be as difficult as I thought.

    Hopefully one day I will get to see one of David's plays.

    1. Alexander Smotrov25 January 2012 at 23:46

      It was very good and it reminds me of so many personal emotions - from my mother's unrealized potential to a fantasy real world that you want to travel to...

  2. Great interview! I'm a massive fan of the theatre and fascinated by the process of playwriting.

  3. Lovely interview :)--I've always been awed by playwrights :)