with Dave O’Leary
Q1: When did you start writing and first influences?
Dave: I made some attempts at writing poems and stories in elementary school and high school and on into college but at one point I realized I needed more life experience. I needed to read more so I largely paused. I kept writing in notebooks and always had one with me but never tried to publish anything until I started a blog at 39. At that point, I was basically living without meaning or direction, but I did have by that time more life experience so I decided finally to start writing things down in a way that others could see them. The idea was to use the blog to develop a few short stories and eventually a collection, but it instead turned in my first book, Horse Bite.
As for influences at that time, the main one was Haruki Murakami. I first came across his writing when I was living in South Korea. I read an English translation of Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, and it just blew me away with the removal of sound and splitting the shadow from the self and all these fantastical things while also mixing in music and pop culture references. It just made sense to me, and music has been since then a huge part of my writing as well, so much so the my second book was actually called The Music Book. I love too how Murakami has kept with short stories over the years. That’s where my own focus is at the moment.
Q2: Who are your biggest influences today?
One writer I’ve long admired is Graham Swift. Last Orders is one of my favorite books, one of those I’ve read multiple times. His writing is so effortless. I’ve read things where it’s obvious the writer is trying too hard, but never with Swift. It’s something I aspire to. For poetry these days, I’ve been reading Kim Addonizio. I’d never heard of her until a few years ago, which I suppose is because I was in Korea, but I so wish I’d found her work earlier. Tell Me and What is This Thing Called Love are fantastic. Some other poetry books I’ve read recently are Homie by Danez Smith, every love story is an apocalypse story by donna vorreyer, and Torn Up by C. Cimmone. All wonderful stuff.
Q3: Where did you grow up and how did that influence your writing? Have any travels away from home influence your work/describe?
Dave: I grew up in parts of the Midwest with one brief stint in the South. We moved around a bit and at one point were moving every two years. It probably helped my writing in that I read more since being a new kid in school meant going times with no or few friends. My time in South Korea helped too with perspective. People should spend some time living in another country if they can rather than just traveling through places on vacation. I was teaching English there and not making much money, struggling with the day to day of life much as I would have if I’d stayed in America and waited tables while trying to make it in a band. Sometimes I’d go a week or so without seeing anyone who looked like me or who spoke English, and that really helped give me a sense of scale on my place in the world, the smallness of the individual, and it’s really where the writing bug began to seriously creep back into my soul. I stayed there for eight years and might have stayed longer but for a horrible relationship I was in.
Q4: What do you consider the most meaningful work you’ve done creatively so far?
Dave: For me, it’s always the most recent thing so it has to be my new collection (poetry, short prose) I Hear Your Music Playing Night and Day, Cajun Mutt Press. Each book has gotten closer to the heart of it all, the heart of what I’m trying to say anyway. That’s the goal. I wouldn’t put a book out if I felt it was somehow less meaningful than what came before it.
Q5: Any pivotal moment when you knew you wanted to be a writer?
I’ll give you two. When I was in third grade I started playing violin and soon got pretty good at it and my teacher once said, “If you get good enough at violin, you’ll be able to teach yourself how to play the guitar.” It didn’t mean anything when he first said it, but then one day I heard Cheap Trick on the radio, the Live at Budokan album, and I was blown away and realized I wanted to do that. I don’t make a living as a musician but I’ve had a lot of wonderful musical moments of the years. My book release party recently turned into more of a live music show since it just felt so good to be playing again in front of people.
For writing, the moment was around the same time. We read the book Rascal in class and it was the first time a story just stuck with me and deeply moved me. The ending of that book got under my skin and I thought I wanted to do that. I wanted to write stories that affected people in that same way. Perhaps it was because I’d never experienced and real loss at that point of my life so it opened up for me a whole new set of emotions. None of my three books have been best sellers, but with each one I’ve been contacted by people who told me how the book as a whole or some piece of it really meant something to them either because it opened something up or reflected something of their own experience. It that sense then they’ve all been successful.
Q6: Favorite activities to relax?
Dave: Music. There are certainly people who are way better musicians than I am, but I’ve always enjoyed playing either with others or on my own in the basement. Sometimes my only friend was whichever acoustic guitar I happened to own at the time. And music is certainly one thing that helped me get through the pandemic. A couple friends would come over and we’d have socially distant drinks out back and eventually we’d break out the guitars and have socially distant, masked jam sessions, and it turned into a kind of pandemic band so I had the same group of people (three of us) play at my book release party in mid-June.
Q7: Any recent or forthcoming projects you’d like to promote?
My third book, I Hear Your Music Playing Night and Day, came out at the end of May from Cajun Mutt Press, and to quote the promo copy, it’s a collection of “poetry and short prose about the musical life and the lost words of youth, about the places where love might be found or misplaced and dreams not quite made and celebrity encounters and being short on funds and the necessity of bus rides and bus stops and homes and the small moments that resonate and, of course, cats.”
The wonderful folks at Line Rider Press gave it a nice review.
Q8: What is one of your favorite lines/stanza from a poem or song of yours or others?
Funny you mention poem or song. I wrote a poem called “Pause” years ago in college that became a song for my then band and I included an acoustic version of it on the CD that accompanied The Music Book back in 2014. Last summer though, I got the idea to take that song and condense it to its essence and the editors at Versification were kind enough to include it in their inaugural issue last summer, and it made it into the new book too. The line about the mosquitoes was what stuck with me all these years because it’s so much of what life is and it’s what prompted me to rework it last summer.
“Swarms of mosquitoes swirl and buzz
in my living room. They dive bomb me
and I swat, miss, hit myself in the face…”
In the old song it was this. It’s more rock and roll for sure but less poetic:
through the swarms
in my living room.”
“Pause” the poem. Scrolling required. It’s just 5 lines so it’s easy to miss:
“Pause” the Song:
Q9: Who has helped you most with writing?
Over the last ten years it’s been mainly two people. First, there’s my writer friend Clint Brownlee (His book: https://www.amazon.com/Pearl-Jams-Vs-33-154/dp/1501355309). He’s read early drafts of all my books and really helped me cut what wasn’t working and prompted me to delve more deeply where needed. And especially with the first book, I needed a lot of that. It’s been invaluable to have that critical voice shared over beers. Any music fans should check out his book about the recording of Pearl Jam’s Vs. album. Second, there’s my wife, Allison Severinghaus. She supports my writing, of course, but she’s also brutally honest when she thinks the writing is subpar, which sadly it sometimes is. She keeps me on my writing toes and pushes me to be a better writer and a better person.