10 Questions for Caitlin O'Neil
- By Abby MacGregor
We tried everything: ovulation predictors, herbal elixirs, ten cycles of IVF, and one illegal Indian surrogate. I’m telling you this because I want you to know how we got to this dark room on the edge of the Navy yard filled with 3-D printed bio-wombs, among them my soon-to-be daughter.
—from “Gen XX”, Fall 2018 (Vol. 59, Issue 3)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
My first published story was about a sign I’d seen as a graduate student in New York City, “Dainty Dot Hosiery”, one of those painted signs you’ll see on the side of brick buildings. It also included postcards, which I love. It was about a shut-in who was mailing the postcards to the wrong person. It took me a really long time to figure out how to shoehorn a plot into that story. It was all description.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Alice Munroe is my favorite for short stories, and I’m in love with Kate Atkinson who’s been writing these big meaty 19th-century feeling novels about World War II in England. I love fiction that feels immediate and relevant to our lives but also has the sweep of history and significance to it.
What other professions have you worked in?
I’ve worked in media on the early internet because that’s what was happening when I left school. At the time, no one understood it or they felt it was one more thing they had to worry about, so they’d tell me to go make a web site or write a story. I actually had a lot of freedom to do some more interesting work than most entry-level employees before everyone realized The Internet was not going anywhere, which is funny in retrospect.
What did you want to be when you were young?
In fourth grade I was dead set on becoming a marine biologist.
What inspired you to write this piece?
Like the first story I wrote, Gen XX was inspired by a real world object, those popular THE FUTURE IS FEMALE t-shirts. I wanted to incorporate that into a story and when I started writing about the struggle to conceive a child—I was older when I had my kids and it was harder than I thought—the t-shirt popped into the story. I also had the title, which combined some themes of the story: feminism, my generation, and conception. I’ve been writing a lot about choice and family and whether we actually are making choices or waiting until the universe forces our hand.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
My stories are generally grounded in my lived experience but I think I’m generally more focused on character than place, although snow does come up often.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
Sitting myself in a chair. Sometimes I put in headphones to really seal myself off from the world, but I never listen to music.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
Years ago, I did an artist’s residency once and found myself very jealous of the materials of the fabric artists. I’d love to sew clothing or other decorative objects.
What are you working on currently?
I’m writing a novel about race and privilege in an old town full of Yankee liberals. It centers around five women whose lives collide on a morning run and how they continue to live together in the town. It’s very much in progress.
What are you reading right now?
I am reading Rumaan Alam’s That Kind of Mother, which works over some of the same themes I’m contemplating in my novel. I generally read more sparingly and purposefully when I’m deep into a longer work, but it helps to look up now and then and see what other novelists are up to.
CAITLIN O’NEIL’S short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in the Kenyon Review, Indiana Review, Ninth Letter, Masters Review, Calyx, Calliope, Beloit Fiction Journal, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She won the Ninth Letter Prize in Fiction, the Women Who Write International Prize, and a fellowship from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. She currently teaches at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.