I first met Scott O’Connor when he appeared on a panel I moderated at the West Hollywood Book Fair. At that time, O’Connor’s second novel, Half World, about the CIA’s MKUltra Project, had recently been published. He is also the author of the collection A Perfect Universe: Ten Stories, the novel Untouchable, and the novella Among Wolves. His most recent novel, Zero Zone, was published last fall and is newly out in paperback. The book is a sophisticated thriller that raises necessary—and in many ways unanswerable—questions about the complicity and responsibility involved in making art.
You’ve published four novels and a book of short stories that all take place in California. What is your relationship to California? Do you see California as character or setting?
When I first moved to Los Angeles, I couldn’t wrap my head around the place. I expected something closer to what I knew, an East Coast city with an obvious center, wearing its history on its sleeve. But Southern California was scattered, always shifting, rarely looking back. I tended to live in the areas where neighborhoods overlapped, which gave me a view of different communities but left me feeling apart. I was halfway through writing Untouchable when I realized some of what I was doing with the novel was trying to understand Los Angeles, or at least a small part of it. That’s continued through the other books, and if I don’t understand the city any better than I did 20 years ago—it never stays still long enough—I’ve grown to love it through paying attention. It’s become home.
What’s your favorite writing about California?
There’s so much. I was never a teenager in Los Angeles, but Jaime Hernandez’s Love and Rockets makes me feel as if I had been. I love John McPhee’s geologic excavations into California’s literal formation and Gary Krist’s The Mirage Factory, which highlights how movies and religion and water rights formed Los Angeles. Lynell George’s dispatches from Southern California are always eye-opening and thought-provoking pleasures. Rachel Kushner’s writing about San Francisco is exquisite. I return to Wanda Coleman’s work often. Matthew Specktor’s Always Crashing in the Same Car made Hollywood feel personal. I’m always looking for writers engaging with our beautiful, brutal state.
You’ve spent a lot of time as a teacher. What would you recommend to writers who are trying to get California “right”?
I’d recommend they not try to get it “right.” I think that’s the source of a lot of narrow-minded writing on California, or any place. I’d encourage them to pay attention to the people around them, to listen more than they speak, to widen their circles. Allow for change, ambiguity, contradiction. For me, pinning a place or a person down is the opposite of good writing. It’s like pinning a butterfly to a display board: What can you really tell me about this dead insect?
Your last two novels might both be considered historical fiction—Half World taking place largely in 1950s San Francisco and Zero Zone in 1970s Los Angeles. What made you decide to explore these periods?
Half World is about the CIA’s midcentury drug experimentation and mind-control programs, so it’s the origin story of much of our current distrust of government and institutions, our attraction to conspiracy theories.
I think of the 1970s of Zero Zone as the hangover from the 1960s. There is a feeling of disappointment and disillusionment—the revolutions didn’t quite happen the way some people hoped. There’s this yearning for meaning, for someone to point the way, which leads to the explosion of cults and the religious fringe movements in the 1970s. This is central to the novel.
The protagonist of Zero Zone, Jess Shepard, is an installation artist. The book’s title is also the name of one of her installations, which attracts a group of people who form a sort of cult around the art. Why do you think people are drawn to cults?
While I was researching Zero Zone, one of the stories I heard over and over was about how receptive people were on what they considered their worst day. That desperation and vulnerability, which we’ve all felt, led them to say “yes” to someone they would have said “no” to at any other time. We sometimes find meaning where we least expect it, and that might come by a knock on the door from a proselytizer or a visit to an art installation in the desert. I wanted to write about people desperate for healing. They think they’ve found it in one place, but it’s only by pushing all the way through to the other side that some of them find a measure of peace.
It’s fascinating to me, after living in California for almost 25 years, how much more susceptible I’ve become to new age spirituality, astrology, tarot, all kinds of magical thinking. Do you think cults also play on the fact that we can find meaning where we most expect it?
Oh, absolutely. We’re all looking for a narrative, someone to tell us there’s a story functioning behind all the chaos. Sometimes there’s great comfort in that, and it’s just a matter of someone promising to lift the curtain so we can understand.
Jess works in the tradition of the light and space movement. How did you become interested in that school of art? Do you feel art that incorporates the environment is more important in the face of climate change?
I was drawn to the light and space artists through my experiences with their work. I’m not religious, but I’ve felt something in James Turrell’s Skyspaces, a connection to a moment within the moment, an attention to the mystery. I wanted to write about those kinds of experiences and the different paths they might lead people on.
I think art that helps us to pay attention to the present is crucial. Anyone asking us to take a closer look at where we are right now is doing us a service. We are living in—and contributing to—an existential climate threat, and it’s too easy to deny or kick the can down the road.•