Callum O’Donnell’s first book, The Sturgeon General Recommends Callum O’Donnell, certainly fits the SG’s criterion of writing that is “too strange, too upsettingly odd, and most of all, too funny to live anywhere else.” Including two stories titled ‘The Plight of the Barraya Swamp Hen’ and ‘Plant Life’, O’Donnell’s book offers a unique and cynical view of our present day society and has been called “insightful, hilarious and clever”.
Writer’s Edit was lucky enough to interview Callum about his debut book and his publishing experience with The Sturgeon General.
On the Characters & Sarcasm
“‘Plight of the Barraya Swamp Hen’ was intended as both a sort of farcical political thriller and a satire of petty politics, mainly the way that local councils deal with developers.
While the Mayor of Barraya is absurd, he was inspired by a real Mayor (that I suppose I better not name) who ignored overwhelming local opposition to a land development project; it seemed to me so obvious he was lining his own pockets but there was nothing anyone could do. While I sound like a cynic, this Mayor has since been charged with corruption. I think this sort of thing goes on far more often that people like to think. It’s also a pretty silly story, as grim and serious as that sounds.
‘Plant Life’ is a story about lots of things. I went a bit mad on metaphors because ultimately I’m trying to talk about how people can make a metaphor from just about anything. I tried to build a character who thinks in corporate lingo and legalese, and who pictures happiness as a goal to be achieved rather than a simple, daily emotion. I also really like him, because he’s essentially just lost.”
On the Concept
“I had ‘Plant Life’ already written before I became involved with the Sturgeon General, and I wrote ‘Swamp Hen’ knowing I had a ten thousand word limit, but also that it would be appearing beside the first story, and so I thought about how to follow on.
Basically I like to think of satire as the most potent weapon in a writers proverbial arsenal when it comes to getting a point across. Satire is a way for those without power to laugh at those with power, or a way to belittle something which scares you. Or launch a scathing attack on something which angers you. I tried to get this across in both stories.”
On the Writing Process
“Well, I either have an idea for a story leap into my head, or I have something to say and I stew on making up a story that carries this truth. The stories I wrote for SG were both projects that I spent a lot of time thinking on, but sometimes things happen in life in front of you that make perfectly good stories. I read a good Bukowski quote once:
Writing is a madness, I couldn’t stop if I tried…”
At first this quote discouraged me because I go days and sometimes weeks without writing a single word. But then I realised that being a writer is more about how you see things and think about things, and really you can be a writer in your head all day long. I’d say 80% of my writing happens in my head.”
On Publishing with The Sturgeon General
“It was a great experience for me because I was dealing with a high standard of professional people and it taught me a lot about the industry. There were two editing stages, the first was the conceptual edit. In a conceptual edit, you begin with a first completed draft of your story and an editor reads through and picks holes in your plot. Why would this character say that? Would Steven really have sacrificed Chloe’s dog? Did Isaac Newtown really design vacuum cleaners? You’d have to be particularly ignorant to ignore a conceptual editor, because if one person can find a hole in your story then another can.
Also, you have to remember no one knows the story as well as you so it’s natural that you won’t have explained everything fully. Then comes the copy edit, where grammar, syntax and punctuation are corrected. This is where you are going to bang heads, because these rules are open to interpretation in fiction (to a certain extent). So you are entitled to argue with a copy editor, but at the end of the day you have to remember that they are offering you a valid professional opinion, and they generally know what they’re talking about.”
On Creative Writing at University
“I would have to say that learning the history of art was possibly the best thing I have ever done with myself. People have always represented their vision of the world in story as much as they have in music or visual art, and these stories tell us so much of the lives of their intended audiences. Whether it was the escapism of the romantics which glorified the rich elite or the gritty truths of the realists which gave a voice to the lower classes and their every day struggles, each movement of representation was both influenced by human life and influenced human life. By looking at the context of a work, what influenced and inspired the artist, and how the work was received in its time, we can start to better understand how best to represent the world we live in.
Personally, I should have spent much less time in the bar. I think I did everything right in terms of learning the craft, and almost everything wrong in learning the discipline. Now I wish I had spent more time forcing myself to write than waiting for inspiration to hit, studying a subject that requires you to write fiction is a fantastic opportunity to get solid writing habits, one I didn’t take full advantage of.”
What’s Next for Callum O’Donnell?
“I have another satirical short story I’m working on, it came to me really suddenly the other day. I suppose I’ll start looking at places to send it when I know how long it’s going to be. I’ve started a few big projects, I’d like to start writing a novel soon. Thinking of dipping my toes into some sci-fi or fantasy. I’ll keep you posted.”
Writer’s Edit would like to congratulate Callum on the publication of his first book, as well as thank him for taking the time to speak with us and share his experiences.